Wayne Pharr, former Black Panther who fought the Los Angeles Police in a historic gun battle in 1969, passed away on September 6, 2014 at age 64. After Pharr and his fellow Panthers defended themselves from the long vio…lent attack by the newly formed LAPD SWAT unit, he became a political prisoner who was exonerated of attempted murder and all other serious offenses. Pharr eventually became a successful realtor in Southern California, a subject of the documentary, “41st and Central”, and most recently authored the well received autobiography, Nine Lives of A Black Panther: A Story of Survival.
In the infamous battle on December 8, 1969, a handful of young members of the Southern California Chapter of the Black Panther Party held off the Los Angeles Police Department’s new Special Weapons and Tactics squad and hundreds of other officers in a five hour firefight. Pharr was 19 years old at the time and played a pivotal role in the battle as one of the first to repel the invasion into the Panther office by shooting the heavily armored SWAT team members with a shotgun as they entered the Black Panther office at Central Avenue and 41st Street. No one was killed or seriously injured in the battle during which thousands of rounds of ammunition were exchanged and bombs used by both sides. Observed by hundreds of members of the community, the Black Panther Party and their supporters considered the defense of the office and the people inside a victory while the Los Angeles Police Department considered this very first use of SWAT a tactical failure. Pharr and the other Panthers were tried for attempted murder and other charges but were acquitted of all of the most serious offenses after the longest jury trial in Los Angeles history up to that time.
The battle at the Panther Party Central Avenue office was significant for several reasons. The attack came days after another police assault in Chicago left Illinois Panther leaders Fred Hampton shot dead while sleeping in his bed and Mark Clark killed at the front door attempting to fend off the attack. These attacks occurred during a nationwide war against the Black Panther Party by local police agencies in cooperation with the Federal Bureau of Investigation through the FBI’s illegal Counter Intelligence Program, also known as “Cointelpro”. This was also the debut of the paramilitary SWAT team concept which used military style training, weapons and tactics to crush Black resistance during a time of revolutionary fervor and anti-war activity by activists across the country. Historically, this battle can be seen as the birth of the movement to militarize law enforcement that has swept the country.
In the documentary, “41st & Central”, Pharr describes his feelings about the 1969 battle with the LAPD SWAT team:
“So for those five hours, I was in control of my destiny… I was my own power at that particular point and time. And I relished that, and I enjoyed that and I think about that constantly. I was free! I was a free negro… yes sir!”
Recently, Pharr wrote the following reaction to the police response to community protests against the killing of unarmed 17 year old Black youth Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri:
“Are we Americans, or are we not? If we are, then the police need to stand down, like they did in 1968 with the SDS, Students for a Democratic Society–an activist group made up of white students. With that group, instead of coming in with guns blazing, they attempted to have a dialogue with the student-activists… If we are not Americans, then we need to go to war. The continuing militarization of police forces is a reminder of my encounter in 1969, the 5-hour battle we had with the newly-formed L.A. SWAT team at 41st and Central. It becomes a matter of principle, our right to self-defense.”