There Can Be No Peace:
Notes from a 1968 Interview with Eldridge Cleaver
In the late summer of 1968, I had the opportunity to interview Eldridge Cleaver, Minister of Information for the Black Panther Party and presidential candidate for the Peace and Freedom Party. I had joined the Peace and Freedom Party in the spring of 1968 and somehow got appointed (or more likely, appointed myself) to write about Cleaver for the Party’s Southern California newsletter.
Most of my interview was concerned with Cleaver’s position as the presidential candidate of the Party in the November 1968 election. A few days before we talked, he had been nominated at the national convention in Ann Arbor where he bested activist Dick Gregory for the nomination.
My article has gone missing, and while it was not listed in my FBI file that I obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, I suspect it is carefully archived somewhere in the Cointelpro vaults. I did discover recently that I still had some of my notes, and upon rereading, I was struck by how Cleaver’s analysis of the state of our union unfortunately still rings startlingly true. To be sure, his remarks contain a fair amount of rhetorical flourishes, common in radical speech in the late 60’s. I haven’t felt any need to rework his phrasing, even when occasionally repetitive or even somewhat crude. It is, as far as I can tell from this remove of more than a half century, an authentic reproduction of what he said and how he said it. When I read over my notes, I could actually hear Cleaver’s voice. He was formidable and I was young and impressionable. I had no disagreement with anything Cleaver was expressing then, nor do I now, with the exception of his belief, and that of the Panthers, in the necessity of armed resistance.
What strikes me as being immensely sad is that so many of the positions Cleaver was advocating 50 years ago have yet to be realized. Some progress has been made, of course, but systemic racism is not at all in the rearview mirror. The police are still murdering young black and brown folks; the criminal justice system continues to be biased against those with dark skins; adequate health care remains elusive for many; homelessness has only increased as urban rents and house prices have gone sky high. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
My interview notes describe Cleaver as “imposing, with dark black eyes on fire.” At the time of the interview he was 33, recently free on bail following a shootout in West Oakland on April 6, 1968 in which 12 police bullets killed unarmed 18-year-old Black Panther treasurer Bobby Hutton as he was surrendering. On Christmas Eve, 1968, Cleaver would skip bail and flee to Cuba, then Algeria and France, not returning to the U.S. for seven years.
At the time of our conversation, Huey Newton’s trial for allegedly shooting a policeman was about to begin, and the hall where I met Cleaver was festooned with “Free Huey” signs. My recollection is that my interview was interrupted on several occasions by various Panthers who needed a word with Cleaver. The notes on Huey are nowhere to be found but I reproduce below my remaining jottings.
“For hundreds of years brothers and sisters in this country have been systematically murdered by white people in power. Little Bobby [Hutton] is just another victim of the pigs. Since they murdered him, four other unarmed bothers have been executed on the streets by the Oakland pigs. The politicians and the pigs are uneasy these days. They’re scared of us because we’ve started to rise up. We’ve got guns, too. And they can’t deal with that.
“We’re supposed to just say ‘yes mastuh’ and let them shoot us. But it’s not working that way anymore. Brothers are now willing to defend themselves against the power, even if they die….What we’ve done is put the pigs on notice, put the establishment on notice, put America on notice that we aren’t going to sit back and be murdered anymore….
“The pigs act under the orders of police chiefs and mayors and [J. Edgar] Hoover. They know they can murder us and get away with it. Nobody’s going to investigate the pig murder of a brother or sister in America. The pigs are told to stop brothers from acting up and acting out however they can. They’re told to terrorize the people’s communities to keep us in our places. I’ve got news: we’re living in a new place now.
“As you know, part of the platform [of the Peace and Freedom Party] is disarming the police. We say replace them with public safety guardians, living in the communities where they work, serving the people, not the power structure. We demand immediately community police control boards to observe the pigs and collectively protest abuses. It is clear that these kinds of changes cannot be achieved until a unified mass people's movement has been forged. This is the importance of the alliance of Peace and Freedom and the Panthers—an alliance founded on uncompromised, radical principles. The State is trying desperately to divide and conquer the people's movement in America. Our alliance is the only hope of changing that.
“We can do so much. The people know that. They know the system keeps poor brothers and sisters continually oppressed. And that’s the plan. For instance, if you’re sick, you die. Our platform guarantees free medical care for every man, woman and child, fights to end the imperialist complicity with the drug companies, which results in price fixing, inflated drug prices the people can’t afford….We are fighting for a National Health Program.
We are also fighting for tenants’ rights. We want to protect tenants and the folks who struggle to own the little house in the community. Those brothers and sisters are victimized by exorbitant rents and taxes while the Bank of America gets a $2.5 million tax break on its San Francisco headquarters. We need to build decent low-cost housing, and demand community control of all projects, tenant control of public housing. We need good jobs in the community by and for people in the community with the bread staying in the community.
“Our liberation will require a root change in the political and economic structures of this country, taking power from the hands of the ruling elite and placing it in the hands of the people. While this is our ultimate goal, our immediate aim is community control --control of local schools, local pig forces, local housing. We have to dismantle the war machine, and put the enormous numbers of dollars saved from ending our imperialist wars and bloated military machine to work to meet the needs of the people, of our brothers and sisters, the poor.
“Without justice, there can be no peace. Without radical change, real radical change for the people, there can be no justice. All power to the people.”
Cleaver returned to the United States in 1975, became a born-again Christian, a fashion designer, then a Mormon, and eventually a member of the Republican Party. He died in 1998.