Aaron Dixon's Radical Past

Seattle's original Black Panther, now running for U.S. Senate, conducts a tour of the streets where he and his brothers held forth against cops.

In front of the Sally Goldmark Library in tony Madrona sits a statue of a pig and a panther, nuzzling one another in a show of mutual affection. Thirty-eight years ago, those two animals wouldn't have been nearly so cuddly. "We used to call this Pork Chop Hill because police would not come up here unless they were three cars deep and armed with shotguns," says Seattle Black Panther Party founder Aaron Dixon. He's talking about a time when Madrona was predominantly black. "It was my father's hope that, someday, the Panthers and the pigs could get along. Hasn't happened yet."

Now 57 and dressed in a white-collared shirt, polka-dot tie, and slacks, Dixon, pushing a blue stroller down Union Street bearing his 11-month-old son, looks more the part of reverend than radical. But back in 1968, the Green Party's current candidate for U.S. Senate, then fresh out of Garfield High School, was the baddest motherfucker on the block.

"We were the protectors of the community," says the lanky, mustachioed Dixon, who wears his hair in a tight ponytail, walks at a slug's pace, and possesses a softness in his eyes that belies his hard-ass rep. "At the time, it was legal to carry a weapon, and we felt we had a right to defend ourselves. We started carrying our rifles and shotguns right down the street. People would call us when the Man was on the line; and we would go there and put the Man in check."

On balmy Thursday, July 27, Dixon stands near the pig and panther statue, in front of a group of some 40 high-school and college–age youngsters who are enrolled in Freedom School, a youth offshoot of the New Orleans–based People's Institute. Now in its seventh year, the weeklong civil-rights leadership camp is sponsored locally by the American Friends Service Committee's Community Justice Program, whose director, Dustin Washington, is a Dixon protégé—albeit of decidedly nonviolent stripes.

Since his Panther days ended in the early 1970s, Dixon, too, has worked for disarmament as a counselor assisting distressed and often barbaric youth. His quixotic bid for Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell's seat is grounded in opposition to war. And, as he reminds the multiethnic assemblage of Freedom School onlookers, "the Panther is the animal that never attacks anyone until they're cornered."

In 1968, the Panthers felt cornered, which compelled Dixon and his minions to firebomb businesses and institutions that they considered racist. Where the library and statue are now, there was a fire station, which the Panthers would often hail with bullets in an attempt to "stop the fire trucks from coming out," says Dixon.

Such animosity between the Panthers and the Man helped spark three days' worth of racially charged rioting in Madrona in July of that inaugural year for the Seattle Panthers, the second chapter in the nation, preceded only by that in Oakland, Calif. "It ignited a war between the Black Panther Party and Seattle Police Department," says Dixon, revealing an orchid-shaped scar in front of the old Black Panther headquarters, which is now a travel agency, near the chic St. Cloud's restaurant on 34th Avenue. "They were trying to kill us. They had a contract out on my head." Although Dixon was incarcerated briefly in 1968 after being arrested for staging a sit-in at Franklin High School, his conviction was soon overturned—and he has never been convicted of any other crime related to his Panther activities.

As a blond woman with a tall, white coffee cup politely tries to wade through the crowd, Dixon regales his charges with a story about how he hid in a neighbor's backyard after being set up by a group of police informants posing as Panthers.

"I figured I was dead," says Dixon, who drew his handgun in anticipation of a shoot-out. But just as the police were about to converge on him, the owner of the house let Dixon in the back door.

His next anecdote involves the tale of an area mother who begged the Panthers to go to Rainier Beach High School (then predominantly white), where her son was getting pummeled daily by a group of bigoted classmates. "We got out with our rifles and shotguns and walked into the school," says Dixon, who considers the bayonet to be "a beautiful weapon."

"The principal started running, but we got him and told him, 'If you don't protect this kid, we will.'" The beatings ceased.

As he reminisces, the antiwar candidate is careful to intersperse his war stories with examples of the Panthers' charitable work, which included setting up food banks and subsidized breakfast programs, as well as free medical and legal clinics.

"The Black Panthers were painted as being criminals and thugs," says Dixon. "If the Black Panther Party were around today, we'd probably be labeled as terrorists."

The last stop of the tour is a park kitty-corner to the Madrona house where Dixon hid from the cops. He spots the home's longtime matron and her dog on the porch and shouts a greeting in their direction.

As Dixon starts talking about plans to tour the state for his Senate campaign, the woman on the porch hollers, with a tinge of sarcasm: "Be nice!" Dixon simply smiles and nods back, his soft eyes obscured by a pair of black sunglasses.


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