A Haunted Huey P. Newton
The story of Huey P. Newton is a sad one. He was a brilliant thinker who was one of the two founding members of the Black Panther Party in 1966. While he was seen as the face of the party and seemed to become a myth during the” Free Huey” campaign, he was a troubled soul. He was very sought out by the police and the American government because of his radical politics and the party’s revolutionary programs. Even though he was seen as this strong indestructible manifestation of Black manhood, he was haunted by his demons during his time in prison from 1967 to 1970.
Newton was sent to San Quentin Prison after allegedly shooting Oakland Patrolman John Frey after the two got into an altercation. Newton was also shot during the fight and following the medical recovery, he was sent to San Quentin after being found guilty of voluntary manslaughter. While serving his time in prison, he spent much time in solitary confinement. He states that he has spent 38 months overall in solitary confinement from his stints in jail. He also had very limited interaction with other prisoners and this contributed heavily to his mental decline when he was released. Once he was transferred to California State Prison, he spent most of his time in solitary confinement in a hot, low ventilated room without any social interaction.
At San Quentin, Newton spent most of his time alone and did not participate in labor unless he was paid the minimum wage amount. These times for him became very oppressive and stressful, but he maintained his resilient spirit and vowed that it would not be broken. He would pass psychiatrist exams and claim that solitary confinement only confined the body and not the mind or the spirit. However, Newton would later state in his autobiography that solitary confinement was “If you are not disciplined, a strange thing happens. The pleasant thought comes, and then another and another, like quick cuts flashing vividly across a movie screen. First, they are organized. Then they start to pick up speed. … The pleasant thoughts are not so pleasant now; they are horrible and grotesque caricatures, whirling around in your head. Stop! I heard myself say, stop, stop stop” (Newton, 1973). These harmful psychological effects from solitary confinement would later follow him once he was released.
When Newton was released, he still experienced issues with readjusting back to society. Newton states in his autobiography “I had to develop all over again my old reflex actions to avoid being startled. … All the sounds, movements, and colors coming on simultaneously—television, telephone, radio, people talking, coming and going, doorbells and phones, ringing—were dizzying at first. Ordinary life seemed hectic and chaotic, and quite overwhelming” (Newton, 1973). Newton also had problems living up to the “myth” that was created of him in the Black Panther Party, but he was also a human being trying to cope with society. After moving to his penthouse in Oakland in 1970, he became increasingly paranoid and would later describe himself as “lonely”. His friends also noticed that became more violent, isolated, and more involved with drugs such as cocaine and Ritalin. Once he ingested these substances into his body, they could heighten his ego, offer energy, and escape from his image in the Black Panther Party.
During the remainder of the 1970s, he spent much time in his penthouse dealing with paranoia and fear of the outside world. However, from 1974 to 1977, he went to Cuba and personal sources stated that he felt a sense of security and safety. Things took a bad turn in the 1980s as Newton became more addicted to cocaine. He would later state to a friend “I’m tapped out, guys, ‘‘I have no more energy. I just want to get high”(Pearson, 1994). This addiction would later follow him to the end of his life and result in his murder in a drug-related drug dispute in 1989.
In conclusion, this piece is not to discredit the legacy of Huey P. Newton. Instead, it is meant to examine how the prison system and the use of solitary confinement led to the mental downfall of this brilliant Black man. It is to show how Black militant figures were targeted for their ideas and desire for liberation for people and the price that they had to pay for it. I have conducted much research on the harmful effects of solitary confinement and how it should be abolished because it destroys human beings. It seeks to break down the souls and spirits of the strongest and the bravest, and that was our beloved Brother Huey P. Newton. May he rest in power.
In power and community,
Street, J. (2015). The Shadow of the Soul Breaker: Solitary Confinement, Cocaine, and the Decline of Huey P. Newton. Pacific Historical Review, 84(3), 333–363. https://doi.org/10.1525/phr.2015.84.3.333
Pearson, Hugh. (1994). The shadow of the panther: Huey Newton and the price of Black power in America. Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co