Originally published by Jon Jeter.
Six months afer Chicago police assassinated Fred Hampton, New York magazine published a remarkable cover story written by Tom Wolfe. Entitled Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s, Wolfe’s account of a lavish fundraiser for 21 jailed Black Panthers held at the composer Leonard Bernstein’s tony Upper East Side townhouse was simply unlike anything ever seen in the annals of American journalism.
For starters, there was the cover photo of three glamorous white women in evening gowns raising their gloved fists in a Black power salute, More shocking, though, was Wolfe’s novelistic treatment of the event, which made no pretense of objectivity and deployed an Oscar Wilde-like sensibility in its rendering of what unfurled as seamlessly as a finely-wrought fever dream.
Its poetry notwithstanding, however, Radical Chic was a hissing broadside that took aim at Black radicalism and the white limousine liberals who would support it, representing a sharp departure for journalists who had reported in a mostly matter-of-fact tone on the Black Panthers since the organization’s inception in 1966, if they bothered to mention the organization at all. For example, when dozens of pistol-packing Panthers marched on the California state assembly in 1967 to protest gun-control laws, the incident earned but a single sentence in Newsweek and no mention in Time.
Wolfe, however, abandoned the standard “who, what, when, how” journalistic framework to vilify the left-leaning sympathies articulated by Bernstein and his guests, mocking the Panthers for everything from their afros to the manner in which they spoke to their apocryphal shakedowns of Jewish merchants. He referenced one Panther as “huge,” ridiculed the Bernsteins’ hiring of white servants rather than Black or brown ones, repeatedly reminded his readers of the Bernstein’s Jewishness (“stein not steen”) and the couple’s ostentatious wealth, dropping hints about the composer’s then-closeted homosexuality, and generally lamenting the tendency of the rich to romanticize the more “primitive” elements of society, invoking the French phrase for “nostalgia for mud,” or nostalgie de la boue.
God, what a flood of taboo thoughts runs through one’s head at these Radical Chic events … But it’s delicious. It is as if one’s nerve-endings were on red alert to the most intimate nuances of status. Deny it if you want to! Nevertheless, it runs through every soul here. It is the matter of the marvelous contradictions on all sides. It is like the delicious shudder you get when you try to force the prongs of two horseshoe magnets together … them and us . . .
Yet if Wolfe’s reportage trafficked glibly in shopworn tribal tropes and sexual innuendo suggesting ulterior motives for the pairing of Black revolutionaries and white socialites, then Gail Sheehy’s two-part series that appeared in New York magazine five months later was about as subtle as the unreleased sequel to The Birth of a Nation. Centered on the trial of 12 Black Panthers for murdering one of their own in New Haven, Connecticut, Sheehy’s article, entitled The Agony of Panthermania, was offered as an interrogation of the relationship between New Haven’s middle-class– or good Blacks– against the “bad niggers” who joined the local Panthers’ chapter. It was, in effect, “a compendium of every ugly cliche about (B)lacks one could imagine,” according to Michael E. Staub, an English professor at the City University of New York.
According to Sheehy, not only were militant blacks addicted to heroin "chipping a little . . . under the skin of [the] knee...“ they were overly sexual, had low IQs, and were overly concerned with cool headgear and fancy cars. Sheehy even mobilized the motif of the emasculated Black man "desperate to claim his manhood" fixated entirely on "ego and sex."
While arguably well done, the dispatches of Wolfe and to a lesser extent Sheehy were nonetheless a rather obvious counterrevolutionary strategy to cover up, or alibi, the white settler state’s heightened campaign of terror against the Black Panthers whose growing appeal to white liberals triggered what Staub described as a “moral panic” among the nation’s plutocrats and their vassals in the media. Four days after the assassinations of Hampton and Mark Clark, 350 Los Angeles police officers fired 5,000 rounds of ammunition in conducting another early morning raid, this time on the Panthers’ headquarters at 41st Street and Central Avenue, bringing to a merciful close Richard M. Nixon’s first year in the White House, which had begun with the killings of two Black Panthers at UCLA, Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter, and John Huggins, in a shootout with a rival group just three days before Nixon was even sworn in.
The primary source for Wolfe and Sheehy seemed to be FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover who warned of the emergence of a “messianic” figure in his infamous 1967 memo creating a counter-intelligence program known by its uninspired acronym, COINTELPRO, to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize the activities of black-nationalist, hate-type organizations . . ."
Following King’s assassination and the season of rebellions that it inspired, white elites worried that they had finally gone too far after murdering the charismatic Hampton, who was popular with a rainbow coalition of working class and professional Blacks and Latinos, blue-collar whites and college kids. Working with local media and a forensic expert, Black activists in Chicago showed that the confrontation at the Panthers’ westside Chicago walkup was not the “shootout” that the police described but a “shoot-in” with law enforcement responsible for all but one of the nearly 100 shots fired in the wee hours of the morning on December 4, 1969.
Three weeks after the slayings at 2337 Monroe, nearly 300 white radicals attended an emergency meeting of the militant group that had splintered from the Students for a Democratic Society, the Weather Underground. Held at a Flint, Michigan dance hall in a Black neighborhood where walls were still bloodstained from an earlier confrontation between police and dissidents, organizers met for three days, culminating with a decision by the Weathermen to go underground to elude the FBI’s widening dragnet and to turn up the heat with guerilla attacks targeting the state.
In May of 1970, just a month before the publication of Wolfe’s Radical Chic, the Weathermen released this communique to the press:
“Hello. This is Bernadine Dohrn. I'm going to read a DECLARATION OF A STATE OF WAR . . . Ever since SDS became revolutionary, we've been trying to show how it is possible to overcome the frustration and impotence that comes from trying to reform this system. Kids know the lines are drawn; revolution is touching all of our lives. Tens of thousands have learned that protest and marches don't do it. Revolutionary violence is the only way. . . . Within the next fourteen days we will attack a symbol or institution of Amerikán injustice. This is the way we celebrate the example of Eldrige Cleaver and H. Rap Brown and all black revolutionaries who first inspired us by their fight behind enemy lines for the liberation of their people. Never again will they fight alone.”
Just as Wolfe and Sheehy pioneered what would come to be known as “New Journalism,” to quarantine an outbreak of racial solidarity in the aftermath of Hampton’s killing, today’s Western news media has used mass communications to defend mass murder in Gaza, where the Israeli occupation has slain at least 15,500 Palestinians– the majority of them children and civilians–by indiscriminately bombing this sliver of land at the sea’s edge, along with its hospitals, refugee camps and mosques.
By stringing together baseless rumors of burned and beheaded Israeli babies, questioning the number of Palestinian casualties, and describing critics of genocide as anti-Semitic, legacy Western news outlets are duplicating Wolfe and Sheehy’s efforts to discourage others–whites especially–from rushing to the aid of the Palestinians and Hamas, which, like the Panthers, is a legitimate resistance movement engaged in liberating their people from settler colonialism by any means necessary.
While there have been exceptions, journalism in the U.S. has, on the whole, never been particularly good, and New Journalism isn’t entirely new; losing at the polls to a coalition party of white populists and Black Republicans, North Carolina Democrats in 1898 concocted a scheme to violently overthrow elected officials by publishing wild-eyed tales and demagogic cartoons in the Raleigh News and Observer of imaginary African American rapists.
Similarly, the millions of demonstrators who have poured into the streets worldwide to protest Israel’s ethnic cleansing represent an existential threat to Western imperialism that relies on racism to divide and conquer the masses. Much as Wolfe and Sheehy tried to discourage expressions of racial solidarity such as those articulated by Bernstein, Dohrn, the Weather Underground, and on college campuses nationwide, journalists today are attempting the same by doubling down on their pathologization of Palestinians who are being murdered in their beds just as Fred Hampton was.
To put it another way, the Fourth Estate in the U.S. typically responds to crises of legitimacy with the repertorial equivalent of the Jedi mind trick, recalling Eddie Murphy’s monologue depicting a husband caught in flagrante delicto with a woman other than his wife yet defends his reputation by insisting that “it wasn’t me.”
Still, Western reactionaries would do well to acquaint themselves with the Marxist theory of dialectical materialism which posits that you can’t dip your toe in the same river twice, meaning that they may have gone to the well once too often. First, there is the matter of technology, which allows Palestinians to livestream a genocide for the first time in history, countering the corporate media’s propaganda, and helping to rally international public opinion to their cause. Had Fred Hampton been assassinated today, we might well have access to video of the police bursting into the apartment, sound of the final, fatal gunshots to Hampton’s head, and interviews with his fiance, Akua Njeri (nee Deborah Johnson) that go viral on the world wide web only hours after the encounter.
Moreover, the social and economic realities on the ground in 2023 are not the same as they were in 1970. The neoliberal consensus foisted upon the world beginning with the 1973 overthrow of President Salvador Allende’s socialist government in Chile has only worsened the living conditions of workers worldwide, and especially the darker-skinned people of the global South. Particularly since the Great Recession that began in 2008, people are fed up with Western imperialism’s kleptocracy. John Mearsheimer, a professor of political science and international relations at the University of Chicago said in a recent interview:
People all over the planet are turning against Israel. An Israeli think tank that has been tracking protests around the world gave some figures for what it looked like between October 7th and October 13th in terms of the number of protests around the world that were pro-Israel versus pro-Palestine and then it looked at the numbers from October 13th up til the present.
And I think the numbers were 69 percent were pro-Palestinian in the first six days after October 7th, 31 percent were pro-Israel. Since October 13th, if you look at the number of protests around the world, 95 percent have been pro-Palestinian and 5 percent have been pro-Israel.Public opinion around the world has shifted against Israel.
Wolfe and Sheehy’s New Journalism augured a new phase in America’s class war, with the elites redoubling their efforts to convince whites to abandon the Black radical polity that was the sine qua non of social and economic justice in the postwar era. While it may be difficult to fathom today, there are historians and intellectuals who believe that the U.S. might well have become the most robust social democracy in history had it not been for the plutocrat’s aggressive strategy to sever lines of communication between the nation’s tribes. Proof of this is the monumental energy exerted by every White House since Reagan to parrot Wolfe and Sheehy’s narrative and pit whites against Blacks.
And still, a lie cannot live forever, and while there are already signs indicating that the West will turn to fascism in a desperate attempt to maintain power, it seems inevitable that 400 years of misrule will eventually collapse under the weight of its contradictions, and the growing acknowledgment by dissidents protesting Israel’s illegal occupation that the class struggle is at base merely a numbers game.
We are many.
They are few.
What the Palestinians are experiencing in this moment is the worst hurt anyone could ever know. None of us can fully recover from this soul-aching trauma which indelibly stains our humanity every bit as much as slavery in the New World, Belgium’s transformation of the Congo into an abattoir, the European Holocaust, or South African apartheid. But on this day, the 54th commemoration of the martyrdom of this man-child, Fred Hampton’s prophetic clarity can lift our spirits, if only a little, by reminding us that our cause is a righteous one, that we were born to die, and that we are only fully formed human beings through our love for one another.
Black people need some peace. White people need some peace. And we are going to have to fight. We're going to have to struggle. We're going to have to struggle relentlessly to bring about some peace, because the people that we're asking for peace, they are a bunch of megalomaniac warmongers, and they don't even understand what peace means..
A former foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, Jon Jeter is the author of Flat Broke in the Free Market: How Globalization Fleeced Working People and the co-author of A Day Late and a Dollar Short: Dark Days and Bright Nights in Obama's Postracial America. His work can be found on Patreon as well as Black Republic Media.