All along, Newton had provided me with clues to his dark side, but I had ignored them. I recalled an evening at the penthouse, where I had asked fora private meeting to tell him my concerns about the school. When I had said my piece, he went over to the quadraphonic stereo that Schneider had given him, and turned up the volume. It was a self-dramatizing gesture to indicate that he was about to tell me something he didn’t want the FBI to hear, since he was sure they had bugged the room. When the music was loud enough, he launched into an analysis of Dillinger, a recent film about the famous gangster. He called my attention to a scene in which a kid asks Dillinger for his autograph, and then one in which Dillinger looks across the Mexican border to certain freedom – but instead turns around and goes back to his doom. Escape, Newton observed, would have meant obscurity, giving up the important life he had created for himself. And then he drew the parallel to himself: “When I was young, I wanted o be a revolutionary or a bank robber,” he said. “If I can’t be revolutionary, I’ll be a robber.”
Not yet understanding, I protested that we could raise the necessary money for the Learning Center legally. Oakland had a new black superintendent of schools, and public attitudes then current would support an effort to do something to educate the inner city. I was certain we could raise significant money from government sources. (My intuition would soon prove correct when Elaine began securing city and state grants for the Learning Center.) But Newton wasn’t interested in what I was saying. He wanted to be a criminal. He had a constituency on the streets, which he had never left, whose respect he craved as much as he did ours, and which he could achieve only by excelling as a gangster - only if he proved himself bad.
Previously I had looked on Huey as a victim of circumstance, destined by fate for a criminal life but able, by force of intellect, to transmute his rage into political rebellion. It was a triumph of consciousness over social destiny. Radical politics brought him again into collision with the law, but this time – in the Left’s Hegelian formula – with socially constructive potential. Now I saw that every step of his criminal way was an act of will. Being did not determine consciousness; there were always choices. He had made his circumstance, even as it had made him. His brother Melvin, raised in the same household, had become a college professor. His revolutionary alter ego, George Jackson, had been a criminal since the age of twelve, but Jackson’s father had been a hardworking postman all his life. It wasn’t about race or class. It was about who they were as individuals, and how they defined themselves in their own right.