United States Politics and the Economy

Bobby Hutton’s Hands Were Up

By Michelle Renee Matisons

The death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, has catalyzed intense U.S. anti-policing/ police demilitarization movement activity, with Ferguson serving as an urgent training ground and meeting point for anti-policing thinkers, writers, artists and activists. One important movement focus is memorializing past victims of police/or vigilante murder, as the t-shirt reads: “Emmet and Amadou and Sean and Oscar and Trayvon and Jordan and Eric and Mike and Ezell…” This listing of past victims isn’t intended as a mere respectful exercise for the dead; it educates about the violent racist continuum that marks the U.S.’s past and present. As for the future, the t-shirt’s informed ellipsis “…” suggests that the problem is so large it will no doubt continue until racist policing is abolished. (It didn’t take long after Brown’s murder for St. Louis to see its next murder-by-cop victim, 18-year-old Vonderrit Myers, Jr.) What complicates the inexhaustible list of those murdered by police is that with every new generation the evidence against policing mounts. As each generation resists racist police practices, this resistance incites police to further entirely unjustified—and now disturbingly “preemptive”—violence. We are witnessing this dynamic in the police/military build-up before the impending announcement of Ferguson officer Darren Wilson’s likely acquittal for Michael Brown’s murder. We have already seen the state’s severe repression/murders of past militant anti-racist organizers, especially the Black Panthers, including the Party’s first victim by cop, Bobby Hutton, Jr.— or “Lil’ Bobby.”

On July 1, 2005, in Sacramento, California, I was part of a small group who interviewed Eugene Jennings, one of only two Black police officers who witnessed Hutton’s murder in Oakland, California on April 6, 1968. Many are already quite familiar, not only with Hutton’s story, but with the surveillance and violence used to repress the Panthers. In “Justice Undelivered: Open Letter to the Grand Jury,” we summarize the events leading up to Hutton’s execution based on Jennings’ description in our interview. At the time his deposition was suppressed, it never made it to the Grand Jury, and he was called a liar, harassed—even at gunpoint—by fellow officers. Here we describe Jennings’ version of events:

“On the night of April 6, 1968, police officer Eugene R. Jennings witnessed the murder of Bobby Hutton by Oakland and Emeryville police officers. Eldridge Cleaver and Bobby Hutton were engaged in a gun battle with the police. Jennings states in his deposition to the police department briefing that he arrived at the scene at 1218 28th Street in Oakland and took position across the street on top of a brick building (building is still standing). He did not see who was actually shooting, but saw “flashes coming from the basement” from the house across the street. From his observation the house had caught on fire. Jennings further states that Cleaver and Hutton had surrendered to the police and were surrounded. The police brutalized both Cleaver and Hutton. According to Jennings’ testimony, Hutton stumbled after being pushed from behind, not trying to escape. (During the deposition, the police investigation attempted to coerce Jennings to state that Hutton was trying to escape or run). At this point an officer stepped forward and shot Hutton in the head, and other officers followed suit. Jennings’ description of Hutton’s murder mirrors the version told by Eldridge Cleaver.” Michael Brown was shot in the head, and other parts of his body, just like Bobby Hutton—and they both had their hands up. The fact that Hutton was a Panther in a shoot out with police before his execution should not exclude his name from the long list of murder-by-cop victims we memorialize at anti-policing demonstrations. In fact, one would hope to see more, not less, references to the lessons Hutton’s life (and death) teaches. The disgusting corporate media character assassinations that murder-by-cop victims have to endure (Trayvon Martin was a dope smoking, school skipping delinquent, and Michael Brown was a thief) has the movement on edge to prove these young men did not deserve to be murdered. It’s absurd to even have to say something like, “Even if Michael Brown did steal those cigars, his hands were up, he shouldn’t have been murdered.” If we have to utter these words today, this doesn’t bode well for those of us who say, “Bobby Hutton was surrendering, his hands were up, and he shouldn’t have been murdered.”

Sure, there is a world of difference in the events leading to Hutton’s and Brown’s deaths. But the racist policing apparatus perceives all Black and brown lives the same: worthless. The establishment that supports the Black mass incarceration state and its counterinsurgency police militarization practices knows well the lesson of Bobby Hutton’s life and death. Setting aside details about how Hutton came to be placed in harms way on the day of his murder, he was young, militant, and educating himself about his rights. He was fighting back. That is what all the police weaponry is about in Ferguson, Missouri right now. They are warning the next generation of Bobby Huttons to stay home and be afraid. But this warning has never worked and it never will. People can see with their own eyes the cold blooded murders of Black and brown people, the subsequent police/political cover-ups, the colluding media re-assassinations of the victims, their families, and supporters, and the intimidation and repression of those seeking justice for victims and their families.

My point here is not to catalyze a debate about controversial anti-police resistance tactics of the past. As Ferguson’s daunting militarized police presence makes clear, we are in the preemptive strike era of police weaponry and tactics, so it has to be a new era for resistance strategy and tactics. This is simply to acknowledge that Lil’ Bobby Hutton’s name is on the same justice seeking continuum as Emmett and Amadou and Sean and Oscar and Trayvon and Jordan and Eric and Mike and Ezell… Justice for Michael Brown will be justice for Lil’ Bobby Hutton too.

Michelle Renee Matisons, Ph.D. can be reached at

Black Agenda Report, November 19, 2014