Meet Herbert Hawkins, a Vietnam veteran, master plumber, and former Black Panther.
• Sowing seeds: “I think the Panthers had their rise and fall … but I think we had an impact on society and planted some seeds.”
• On his 1970 arrest: “One thing you figure, when they strip you naked they’re not going to kill you.”
When Frank Rizzo was elected mayor of Philadelphia in 1971, Herbert Hawkins — a former Black Panther who was arrested and publicly stripped at Rizzo’s command during Rizzo’s prior tenure as police commissioner — was ready to pack his bags and get out of town.
But he couldn’t.
“I’m Philadelphia to the bone,” Hawkins, now 71, said.
And so is his story.
Born and raised in West Philly, Hawkins joined the Army at 17, right after graduating from West Philadelphia High School. He served three years in the Vietnam War, where he was introduced to progressive ideas by some of his fellow soldiers.
“I was pretty naive and ignorant of politics, and I’d say life,” he said.
Hawkins credits his discipline to the military, but he can’t forget the institutional racism he was subjected to during his service either.
“I think the Army can be a leg up for a young man, but it’s just the same system they’re talking about now is used in the Army in negative ways,” he said. “The Army puts a hell of an indoctrination on you to get you to go and fight for, a lot of times, causes you don’t know the meaning of.”
So when he was honorably discharged at 20 and came back to Philly, Hawkins wanted to be a part of something he could believe in. He found it in the Black Panther Party.
“The Black Panthers wasn’t a cause to fight for, it was more of a tool to educate people to a system that exploits people and uses racism to disguise its real meaning,” he said.
In those days in Philly, Hawkins said, “police harassment was a normal thing.”
“If you think, ‘Here’s a man on video shooting somebody down in cold blood and he can still be acquitted,' what do you think it was like when all you had was the police’s word?” he said. “You could forget it.”
Rizzo used white people’s fear and ignorance of Black people to promote his platform, Hawkins said, something he sees President Trump doing today.
“They get white people to blame Blacks for their problems when it’s really the system,” he said. “It really is geared to keep the money going the way it’s been going.”
On Aug. 31, 1970, at then-Police Commissioner Rizzo’s direction, police raided three Black Panther offices across the city.
Hawkins, who was stationed at the Panthers’ Mantua site, said they knew the raids were coming.
But the Panthers didn’t leave.
“Our purpose was to carry on our daily work, and if police came, to hold off long enough until the news media got there so we wasn’t killed in our sleep,” he said. “It was so that we could live to carry on our duties.”
Hawkins remembers police banging on the office and then throwing tear gas inside. When the members came out, they were forced to strip completely naked with guns to their heads as media cameras filmed the degrading scene.
“They were more concerned with embarrassing us than killing us at the time because the news media was there,” Hawkins said.
But when officers brought Hawkins up the ramp into police headquarters, “That’s where they beat me,” he said.
“They didn’t say nothing,” he recalled. “I could look in their faces and I think it was just something they thought they was supposed to do.”
Hawkins was in custody for two weeks before being released; the charges against him were eventually thrown out. In 1971, he and others split from the Black Panthers and formed the Black United Liberation Front, a Philly grassroots organization. Five years later, he left that group to focus on raising his six kids.
Hawkins became a master plumber and worked for the Philadelphia Housing Authority for 22 years. One of his children is now a teacher and has invited him to speak at her school about his experiences as a Black Panther.
“Sometimes I feel that I failed and sometimes it makes me feel that we had some kind of success,” he said of his activism.
Fifty years and several generations later, Hawkins — whose Brewerytown home is decorated with photos of his 11 grandchildren, a fish tank, and a framed poster of Malcolm X — said he can see some of the seeds the Black Panthers planted in this year’s Black Lives Matter protests.
“It gives me some hope, but there’s so many ills that plague the Black community that police brutality is only one aspect,” he said, adding that guns, drugs, education, and socio-economic disparities must be addressed by people of all races, too.
As for the removal of the Rizzo statue from Center City last month, Hawkins said he “forgot it was even down there.”
“I feel like taking down the Rizzo statue is such a small step,” he said. “I see Trump as the new national Rizzo. They both bring the racism out … but he’s here now.”