Interview with Charles O'Brien
Interview with Charles O'Brien

Interviewer: Louis Massiah
Production Team: C

Interview Date: May 24, 1989

Camera Rolls: 3112-3113
Sound Rolls: 351

Interview gathered as part of Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985,
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Editorial Notes:

Preferred citation:
Interview with Charles O'Brien , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on May 24, 1989, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.

INTERVIEW

QUESTION 1
LOUIS MASSIAH:

Again, what was the policy of this State, in particular Governor Reagan, about the Panthers? And what was your position on it?

CHARLES O'BRIEN:

Well, Governor Reagan was more confrontational. Ah, I think he felt he had to be and he was extremely supportive of District Attorney Cokely and the Alameda County authorities. You must understand, at this time, we had the student body in taking to the streets from the Berkeley Campus in, into Oakland on marches against the war. There were demonstrations of all kinds back and forth on this, at this time. But as the State Department of Justice, because we had some law enforcement supervisory authority, we were attempting to calm things down, to get the dialogue, the public picture of the dialogue, down to a lower decibel rating. And so, we found ourselves pragmatically following a course, sometimes that was somewhat different than the Governor's.

QUESTION 2
LOUIS MASSIAH:

OK, um, in that early period, '67, '68, did you see the Panthers as being dangerous?

CHARLES O'BRIEN:

Oh, I think in '67, '68 there was no question that we thought that the Panthers were, were, had the capacity to be extremely dangerous. They were confrontational. They were armed. They, their programs seemed to consist of, of having angry dialogues and sometimes violent dialogues with the police.

QUESTION 3
LOUIS MASSIAH:

How do you feel about using guns for, for social change? How did you feel at that time?

CHARLES O'BRIEN:

Well I felt every man is shaped by his experience, and I served as a 19 year-old in the infantry in World War II. I didn't think that guns solved an awful lot. I mean we beat Hitler but I didn't think that we needed to take World War II to the streets of California. And I thought that the use of guns, even if they weren't fired, by these people, was extremely dangerous, ah, and could lead to, to real problems.

LOUIS MASSIAH:

OK, cut.





QUESTION 4
LOUIS MASSIAH:

When did you first hear about the Black Panther Party and sort of describe that what you thought about them when you heard about them?

CHARLES O'BRIEN:

Well, it was in the middle of 1960s, '66, around there. Ah, and we heard about some individuals who were, ah, having confrontation and, with the police in, ah, parts of Oakland. And I thought they were another nut group, which California had then a fair quota on.



LOUIS MASSIAH:

When did you first hear about the Black Panther Party and talk about that.

CHARLES O'BRIEN:

Well, I think they came to our attention in the middle of the 1960s. We heard about, ah, a group identified as the Black Panthers who were having confrontational encounters with the police departments in, in Oakland. And they're style of operation, ah, was very angry, very confrontational and we thought we had another, ah, nut group, ah, seeking violent solutions to society's problems, loose in Oakland.

QUESTION 5
LOUIS MASSIAH:

What did you hear that they were doing?

CHARLES O'BRIEN:

Having strong and aggressive dialogues with the police. That they, on the occasion of arrests, that--

LOUIS MASSIAH:

And if you could rephrase. What did you hear that the Black Panthers were doing?

CHARLES O'BRIEN:

We heard that the Black Panthers were having strong confrontations with the police departments, were interfering in arrests, were interposing themselves as a militant group, ah, in the process of, ah, police operations in East Oakland. And it looked to us like a very bad and very close up situation.

QUESTION 6
LOUIS MASSIAH:

What was the reputation of the Oakland Police in terms of--

LOUIS MASSIAH:

--police department in 1967, '66, '67?

CHARLES O'BRIEN:

Well I think it's, it's difficult to say what the reputation of the Oakland Police Department was at that time. I think there were individual officers who might have been, ah, somewhat aggressive, ah, because of their experience in the, ah, in the streets of Oakland. But I don't think the Department for the Bay Area, for the San Francisco Bay Area had a particularly racist reputation. It had a reputation as being a pretty tough police department and perhaps a physical one. But it was difficult, from our point of view, in, in law enforcement in the Department of Justice, the State of California, to say that a police department should always go, should always be legal but should always go with kid glove rules in a very rough environment. I don't think they had a bad reputation.

QUESTION 7
LOUIS MASSIAH:

Could you describe the Sacramento visit, the Panther visit to the Sacramento State Capital as you heard about it. And just talk us through it.

CHARLES O'BRIEN:

Well, its, it, it was a little upsetting at the time and then almost immediately afterwards, it, it was a source of, of, ah, great amusement in law enforcement circles because the Panthers, principally Huey Newton had learned that, ah, waving guns in public, ah, was not in itself a violation of California statute. What he didn't realize of course was that carrying guns into the, into the legislative halls of Sacramento was specifically against State law. And so they went up there to make an impact. They had men, the background was that they had been surrounding police officers who were making arrests in the Black community, in a circle, waving the weapons and yelling about Miranda rights. And so an assemblyman named Don Mulford from Berkeley, introduced a bill to change the law on carrying weapons publicly, in open display. And the Panthers decided to make their point by visiting the State legislator and brandishing their weapons. The force that was up there was California State Police which are not a state police in the sense of some of the Eastern states but are basically guards on State buildings. And sometimes, unfortunately pejoratively referred to as door shakers. And the door-shakers, all of a sudden, had a, a number of, of armed Black, ah, rather militant and strident types, brandishing weapons and pouring in. And the Sacramento Police thought this was a very serious problem. And it was. I mean we didn't know what they were up to and when the calls came in to the State Department of Justice, we said, "What the Sam Hill is this all about?" And, ah, these crazy characters have escalated their actions again. Of course they guaranteed passage of the Mulford Act which changed the laws so they could no longer brandish their weapons, which may or may not have been one of the things they intended.

QUESTION 8
LOUIS MASSIAH:

Could you talk about the language of the Black Panther Party, you know, pig and whatever, how that affected you and especially in your position, when you heard that, what response you had.

CHARLES O'BRIEN:

Well, I mean the language that the Panthers used was aggressive, confrontational and provocative. It was designed to evoke a response from the police. From the State Department of Justice point of view, we wanted tranquility. We did not want confrontation between police departments and, and any citizen group. And we found them extremely provocative and, ah, and very irritating. Their language was confrontational, deliberately confrontational and we thought it was very unfortunate.

QUESTION 9
LOUIS MASSIAH:

OK, as Chief Deputy Attorney General, what did it mean to you that citizens were taking up guns and walking on the streets with them?

CHARLES O'BRIEN:

Well, as Chief Deputy Attorney General, we had, I had experience in the Department of Justice in the State of California, had had experience in the 1960s, prior to this time, with a variety of nut groups, both extreme left and extreme right who were running around with guns thinking that they could solve the problems of California and the world through direct militant action. And we were and had been well informed and in some cases had surveillance upon, ah, extreme groups that carried weapons. When these characters came along we thought they were another irritating part of the bouillabaisse that was starting to bubble all over California. We needed them like a, a severe case of a bad disease**.

LOUIS MASSIAH:

OK, um, what was--



QUESTION 10
LOUIS MASSIAH:

What was the difference between the Panthers and the rest of sort of California gun culture? I mean there was a large, a number of groups, people carry guns in California. What was the difference with the Panthers.

CHARLES O'BRIEN:

Well, one, they were, the difference between the Panthers and the other groups that we regretted the presence of, was that the Panthers were in an urban environment, whereas the others tended to hold their maneuvers in the high desert, ah, with larger weapons. God help us. And, but the Panthers seemed to be in deliberate, open provocative confrontation with the police departments, in their early periods. They used revolutionary language, provocative language and seemed to be deliberately seeking to confront established authority, particularly police authority. But then we observed that they seemed to have a social side, a concept of doing something beyond these angry confrontation**, to the point where they were going in as some of us derisively said, into the grocery business. But this was a good thing. They were starting to, I think, put certain pressures on the grocers to bring in food for the needy and to attempt to perform a variety of services that they thought weren't being done in this community. This distinguished them, on our perception, over a period of time, remarkably from other groups.

QUESTION 11
LOUIS MASSIAH:

Great. Very good. What were some of the legislative changes that you worked on, trying to curb the Panthers use of arms and the use of arms in public?

CHARLES O'BRIEN:

Well, over a period of time, in the 1960s, we were constantly going to the legislature to try and restrict the use of weapons by citizens in an urban, in, environment. We did not feel that hunting rifles or any kind of weapon belonged on city streets. And we pressed the legislature, with some success over a period of time, and sometimes the NRA was stronger than we were, quite frankly, to get these hands out, to get the guns out of the hands of the people who were waving them around. And the Panthers were particularly provocative. Ah, we didn't, from the State point of view, regard them as, as serious a threat as some of the others like the Revolutionary Armed Movement and the, ah, right wing groups, the, ah, State's rights groups and the para-military on the right. But they were particularly provocative in their public confrontations. And we regarded them as a, as a pain.

LOUIS MASSIAH:

OK, I'm interested in your role as a--



QUESTION 12
LOUIS MASSIAH:

What was the media perception or presentation of the Panthers and how did it feed on itself and then what was the information that you were getting?

CHARLES O'BRIEN:

Well for the media, particularly for television, the Panthers were good copy. And the more they con- had angry confrontations and the angrier their rhetoric was, the better news they were. And the Panthers quickly realized this and they fed to each other. And it was, from our point of view, in attempting to modulate the dialogue and to decrease tension, they were terrible. The media didn't help a damn bit.

LOUIS MASSIAH:

OK. Cut.



LOUIS MASSIAH:

The media presentation of the Panthers and how it fed on itself.

CHARLES O'BRIEN:

Well the media, particularly television, liked confrontation. They liked the angry rhetoric of the Panthers. They liked people waving around rifles. This made great news copy. The Panthers quickly discovered this. From our point of view in seeking to modulate the dialogue, to reduce tensions, they were terrible. They were absolutely terrible. They fed on each other and the media was a pain in the butt.