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Originally published May 11, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 1, 2005 at 11:02 AM

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Danny Westneat

Reunion of Black Panthers stirs memories of aggression, activism

Over here, says Aaron Dixon, is where he used to hide to shoot his rifle at the fire station. "I wanted to scare the firemen, to keep them...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Over here, says Aaron Dixon, is where he used to hide to shoot his rifle at the fire station.

"I wanted to scare the firemen, to keep them inside so they couldn't fight the fires we were setting around the city," he says matter-of-factly. We are standing in Madrona, formerly a working-class black neighborhood in central Seattle. It's many shades whiter today, and the average home sells for north of half a million.

Dixon looks at me. He sees I'm incredulous at his story, so he just stands there silently, letting it sink in.

He gestures at a storefront on 34th Avenue, an Ethiopian restaurant with a French name.

Thirty-seven years ago, it was a real-estate office, and he firebombed it with a Molotov cocktail.

Seattle Black Panther Party reunion


Film festival

Friday from 1 to 7 p.m. Wyckoff Auditorium, Seattle University, 900 Broadway.

Q&A

Black Panther Party national founder Bobby Seale will hold a question-and-answer session at 7 p.m. in the auditorium.

"Forum and Reunion"

Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Garfield Community Center, 2323 E. Cherry St., Seattle. Photo displays, music, speeches and workshops on Black Panther Party history, ideology and programs.

Then he points down the same block, at what is now a chic, appointment-only furniture store.

"That's where we started a free health clinic for the poor."

Shootings. Firebombings. Free health clinics. It's all part of the complex legacy of the Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party.

"We had a split personality," says Dixon, 56, recalling the black-power revolutionary chapter he helped found in 1968. "You could see us patrolling here with rifles and shotguns. And then later you'd see us over there serving free breakfasts to schoolkids."

This weekend, local Black Panthers will gather for their first reunion. The Seattle chapter, which disbanded in 1978, is believed to have had roughly 300 members at its peak around 1970.

The reunion starts with a festival of Panther-related films on Friday at Seattle University. On Saturday, a "Forum and Reunion" event, at Garfield Community Center, features speeches by ex-Panthers and other political leaders from the era, as well as workshops and a hip-hop tribute.

Most everyone has heard the guerrilla-warfare side of the Black Panther story. How young blacks, fed up with police brutality, used Marxist principles to form armed patrols to watchdog the "pigs." How they bombed or burned businesses and institutions they felt were racist.

How, dressed in berets and black leather jackets, they vowed to use any means necessary to protect the people.

Not so many are aware of how the Panthers ministered to the poor.

In Seattle alone, the Panthers served meals to thousands of poor kids. Started a legal-aid clinic. Tested blacks for sickle-cell anemia. Launched a free pest-control service.


GREG GILBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES, 1968

Aaron Dixon serves breakfast to schoolchildren in 1968, one of several community services sponsored by the Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party.

The health clinic that Dixon and the Panthers started in Madrona later moved to 21st Avenue South and Yesler Way. It is still there today, run by a nonprofit and giving free health care to the indigent as the Carolyn Downs Family Medical Center.

For Dixon, the Panthers' defining legacy is that "a bunch of angry kids" simply rose up and did something. They took action. There were no government grants, no blue-ribbon advisory panels. For better or worse, they just did it.

"Our saying was: 'Practice is the criteria for truth,' " Dixon says. "It means anybody can talk, but the truth comes out through action, not rhetoric."

This message is resonating with more than just '60s radicals.

Such as Sylva Jones, 23. The Panthers were long gone when she was born, yet she volunteered to help organize their reunion.

"They have a powerful story of coming together to solve their own problems," Jones said. "That's what we need. Young people of color need to see that this is something that's plausible now."

For Dixon — a father of five who started Seattle's Harder House, a transitional shelter for the homeless — recalling the Panther days is bittersweet.


VIC CONDIOTTY / THE SEATTLE TIMES, 1968

Aaron Dixon, right, stands with other members of the Black Panthers in Seattle in 1968.

Inevitably someone asks: Are things better for blacks today?

"No way is it better," he says bluntly. "We may have been oppressed back then, but we had community. We had family. We had protective cultural values that kept us from totally falling apart.

"Yes, we achieved access for blacks to mainstream America, but for the past 20 years it's been all 'me, me, me.' It's all been about chasing material wealth. I don't call that progress."

In Madrona, we walk past new townhouses selling for $700,000. Dixon grew up here, but he says it's hard to visit because the old working-class feel is gone forever.

We stand in front of a travel agency on 34th Avenue, the Panthers' office in 1968. Police raided it, arresting Dixon in the theft of a typewriter. He was acquitted by an all-white jury.

A young black man who runs a nearby barbershop walks by and recognizes Dixon. He shakes Dixon's hand vigorously, beaming, and asks for a Black Panthers reunion poster to put up in his shop.

Dixon brightens.

"There is something stirring among young people today," he says.

Globalization, the false pretenses of the Iraq war — it all has faint echoes of the Vietnam era, when people of all races came together to fight the controlling interests of business and government, Dixon says.

"The Black Panthers were never about fighting the white man, we were about fighting 'The Man.' "

On Saturday, Dixon will teach a workshop on how modern groups can try to mimic the Panthers' legendary organizational energy. Without the guns or Molotov cocktails, of course.

"That's why we're having this reunion — because we never properly passed the baton to the next generation.

"It's a new time now, but us old guys still have a few things to say about how to fight the power."

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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