Black doctors, neurosurgeons, psychiatrists, and concerned citizens, where are you? Please come forth to prevent this dangerous form of pacification! In the meantime, black brothers and sisters, shelter your cingulum, amygdalas and thalamuses from assault by a neurosurgeon who wants to make you a “better person.”
—Gloria Evans-Young, “Letter to the Editor,” Ebony
In 1973 the Black Panthers became involved in a challenge to the formation of the Center for the Study and Reduction of Violence, a research center at the University of California at Los Angeles that would be dedicated partly to investigating the biological etiology of violence. In this instance, the Party tilted emphasis from providing healthcare to underserved communities, with attention to medical mistreatment that characterized its ongoing clinic work and sickle cell activism, to focusing on the dismantling of both the biologization of social issues and repressive medical surveillance. In other words, with this campaign, the Panthers sought to protect those who were at risk of overexposure to the power of the healthcare state. To this end, the Party’s tactics also shifted as was required by the matter at hand, from the creation of alternative medical care services and institutions to a “politics of knowledge,” via legal advocacy, lobbying, and the “recontextualization” of biomedical theories.1
Heralded by California governor Ronald Reagan in his January 1973 State of the State address, the proposed “violence center” would support research into the origins and causes of violence. The center’s conceptual architect and foremost proponent was Dr. Louis Jolyon “Jolly” West, director of the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute that was to house it, and a psychiatrist whose colorful and controversial professional history included studies of brainwashing, hypnosis, and sleep deprivation; early clinical experiments with LSD; and research correlating the era’s student activism with antisocial behavior.2 In keeping with this trajectory, West proposed a slate of biomedical studies to address what he deemed the “veritable plague” of violence.3
Huey P. Newton was alarmed when he became aware of plans to establish the center. In particular, the Panther chairman objected to the fact that some of the proposed research programs specifically targeted minority groups and vulnerable populations for participation in experimental psychiatric studies—including invasive brain surgery. The Black Panthers joined forces with civil rights, feminist, prisoners’ rights, and students’ organizations—made up of the western region chapter of the NAACP, the National Organization for Women (NOW), the Mexican-American Political Association (MAPA), Committee Opposing Psychiatric Abuse of Prisoners (COPAP), United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFOC), and the California Prisoners’ Union (CPU)—to attempt to block public funding to the violence center and thereby impede its formation. This Party-led coalition was allied with Fred J. Hiestand, an activist–attorney who represented its interests with regard to the center in negotiations with politicians and before state legislative bodies.4 In April 1973 Hiestand testified before the California Senate Health and Welfare Committee on behalf of this coalition; reading from a prepared “administrative complaint”—a document more tactical than legal, but one that nonetheless bore the authoritative imprimatur of the law to the journalists and politicians among whom it was circulated—the lawyer detailed the activists’ opposition to the violence center.
A centerpiece of Hiestand’s presentation was a counterargument about the causes of violence that was in stark contrast with the medical and biological behavioral models advanced by the center’s backers and constituent researchers and that furthermore highlighted the consequences of this research for marginalized communities. Before the California legislature, Hiestand delineated a social etiology of violence that drew on the ideological commitments of the attorney’s lead client, the Black Panthers, and reflected Party leader Newton’s stewardship and active participation in its crafting. Hiestand’s critical assessment of the research center therefore reflected the Party’s opposition to state-sanctioned police violence, exercised through its neighborhood self-defense activities as well as the group’s adherence to the philosophies of Frantz Fanon, who postulated that subaltern aggression was a legitimate response to oppression. For the Party, in keeping with its social health perspective, violence was a symptom of societal dis-ease; it was, in the famous words of Party minister of justice H. Rap Brown, “as American as cherry pie.”5
At stake for the activists was the biologization of violence, the reduction and attribution of what they deemed a deeply political and social phenomenon to a manifestation of the inherent pathology of individuals (black men, in particular). For the Party and its allies, the biologization of violence augured two related and worrisome outcomes. On the one hand, the Party’s challenge to the violence center evidenced resistance to a process that Peter Conrad and others define as “medicalization.” While health activists often seek medicalization as an outcome—for example, in the case of contemporary “contested illnesses” such as chronic fatigue syndrome or Gulf War syndrome—Newton and his allies sought to prevent the transformation of violence into a medical phenomenon.6 Mindful perhaps of Irving Zola’s suggestion that medicalization “depoliticizes” an issue by “locating both the source and treatment of social problems in an individual,” thus closing off other explanations or solutions, the Party defended a social health perspective on violence that, in this instance, identified biomedical rationales as antithetical to the larger cause of black well-being.7 On the other hand, the racial, gendered, and institutional facets of this particular course of biologization suggested that it would be carried out in such a fashion as to make already marginalized populations more vulnerable to medicine as an instrument of social control. That is, given the specific historical and institutional context in which this biologization would take place and the populations that would be subject to it, it was very unlikely that medicalization would lead to reduced culpability or greater social understanding for violence. Rather, this medicalization would effect the further criminalization of social groups—black males, the incarcerated—and in turn justify calls for increased surveillance and social control.
After months of political negotiation and two days of hearings, and in response to vehement protest from a wide spectrum of activists, the state of California denied funding to the center. Other potential backers followed suit. The center was defeated. This was somewhat of a Pyrrhic victory for Newton and his allies, as blocking resources to the center as an entity would not prevent individual researchers from pursuing other sources of support for their investigations. However, given the history of abusive biomedical experimentation to which vulnerable and marginalized groups had been subject historically because their social status constituted them as “accessible” to researchers, the defeat of the violence center was a significant expression of the Party’s promotion of black well-being, in the forms of both corporeal and social healthfulness, and indeed a notable triumph.
The Panthers’ sickle cell anemia campaign had stressed that disease could emerge from the convergence of the history of racism, biology, and neglect. In its violence center activism, on the other hand, the party ceded no ground to medicalization, biological determinism, or essentialist notions of racial identity. The Party and its allies also challenged the motivations, political and otherwise, of the center’s planners in selecting the types of violent behavior to be studied and asked what was at stake in choosing to focus on some expressions of violence while ignoring state-sanctioned forms like imperialist warfare and repressive policing. Though the Panther-led coalition would not be solely responsible for quashing the planned center, the breadth of this coalition and Hiestand’s efforts on its behalf afforded the Party and its allies a central role in shaping the terms of the contest.
A Coalition Coalesces
After two years’ incarceration, Newton was released from prison in the fall of 1970, when a conviction for the murder of an Oakland police officer was overturned on appeal. He resumed day-to-day leadership of the Party, ordering the closing of several chapters and centralizing Party cadre at the group’s Oakland headquarters. Newton also shifted the organization’s focus, de-emphasizing its more militant tactics. Instead he directed the Party’s attention and energies toward its many “serve the people” programs, by redoubling efforts on some initiatives and developing new ones. An opportunity for the Party to extend further its health politics arose in 1972 when Newton met Hiestand.
After completing his legal studies in 1968, Hiestand began work with the Senior Citizens Project of California Rural Legal Assistance. Hiestand had several legal successes there, including one in which he won increased medical benefits on behalf of California welfare recipients and “a precedent-setting case” that mandated the accurate dating of dairy products in poor communities.8 Hiestand joined the staff of a San Francisco public interest law firm, Public Advocates, Inc., supported by the Ford Foundation and other private funders in 1972, at the invitation of the firm’s founders: J. Anthony Kline, Sidney M. Wolinsky, and Robert L. Gnaizda.9 Hiestand’s work at the firm allowed him the freedom to embark on collaborative initiatives with civil rights groups and activist organizations.10
The occasion for Newton and Hiestand’s first meeting was the latter’s interview of the Party leader for a special issue of the Guild Practitioner—a publication of the progressive National Lawyers Guild—on the topic of incarceration and political prisoners.11 “I went to interview him . . . the interview took about two or three hours . . . and we hit it off sort of right away,” Hiestand recalled.12 At the conclusion of their interview, Newton announced that he had more to say on the subject. During subsequent discussions it became evident to Hiestand that this “was no longer an interview, but a dialogue . . . about how we might work together.”13 Hiestand began to represent the Party in late 1972.
For Newton, working with Hiestand and Public Advocates afforded the Party the opportunity to expand its repertoire of social change programs and its protest tactics to include “civil law suits” through which the Party sought “relief for its members and Black and poor people generally, from various injustices.”14 For his part, Hiestand, who was inspired by the charismatic Newton, viewed his representation of the Party as a chance to bolster his legal activism and to “help to rehabilitate the BPP’s . . . undeserved reputation as unreasonable and violent.”15 Newton and Hiestand’s collaboration resulted in the expansion of the Party’s health politics on two fronts. First, there were a series of public interest lawsuits. In Black Panther Party v. Granny Goose (1972), they worked together to get several large Oakland employers to obey California’s employment laws. Hiestand “discovered the pay-while voting” law on the books that required that employees of mid-sized or larger companies receive two hours’ pay on election days so that they would not have to choose between missing work and voting. “The Panthers sent notices, signed by Huey, to all the big employers in Oakland, telling them this was the law . . . [and] that they should post this notice or an equivalent one prominently, so employees [were aware of] their rights,” recounts Hiestand.16 In another suit, Black Panther Party v. Kehoe (1974), the organization, represented by Hiestand, successfully sued Oakland area nursing homes and convalescent hospitals to compel them to make public certain information about health code violations.17 This suit was consistent with the Black Panthers’ outreach to black senior citizens in Oakland and its health politics.
Another initiative involving senior citizens was the formation of the Party’s Seniors Against a Fearful Environment, or S.A.F.E., program. Some elderly complained to the Panther leadership that they were often the victims of petty theft at the hands of Oakland area young people and wanted to know what the Party intended to do about the problem. Newton and Seale responded with the creation of S.A.F.E., through which the Party became the guardians of Oakland’s elderly: Party members served as escorts, providing safe passage for senior citizens to financial institutions, medical and other appointments, and on shopping errands.18
Second, Hiestand represented the Party in its challenge to the plans to establish the project at UCLA, serving as the mouthpiece for a coalition of activist organizations that included the Party, NOW, the western region of the NAACP, UFOC, MAPA, and the CPU.19 This coalition, most of which had worked with Hiestand or Public Advocates in the past, coalesced around the shared goal of thwarting an attempt by scientists at UCLA to establish the violence center.20 The coalition also reflected Newton’s network and the Panthers’ tradition of building alliances with other activist groups. In its early days, the Party forged coalitions with several other organizations, including the Peace and Freedom Party, on whose platform Eldridge Cleaver ran for president of the United States in 1968. The evolution of its health politics owed a great deal to its collaborations with SHO, MCHR, and other radical health activists. The Party also fostered associations with other civil rights groups, forming a “rainbow coalition” with the Young Lords Party, the Young Patriots, and Students for a Democratic Society.21
The “Violence Center”
West drafted plans for the violence center in September 1972 after several months of discussion with Dr. Earl W. Brian, secretary of human resources for Governor Reagan; Dr. J. M. Stubblebine, director of the California Department of Mental Hygiene (later the Department of Health); and other medical advisers and state officials.22 The center was to be funded partly by the state of California. It was anticipated that state funds would be matched by public agencies, including the federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), which allocated money locally through the California Council for Criminal Justice (CCCJ). The LEAA was a new federal program that in subsequent years through its funding power and priorities shaped incarceration policy in the United States.23 Thus the “violence center” represented not merely an effort to biologize (and medicalize) violence but to do so through resources dedicated to expanding the carceral state.24
From its beginnings, the violence center was explicitly linked with crime prevention and with the political and ideological aims of Governor Reagan, who was elected on a “law and order” platform.25 This observation was echoed in the local press: in the words of a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Harry Nelson, criticisms of the violence center focused a good deal on “the motives of the two principal financial backers—a state administration that is politically conservative and a federal agency whose goal is to reduce crime.” This association was solidified when Reagan made the first public announcement of the center on January 11, 1973, during his annual State of the State message. In this speech, the governor praised the planned center and its mission, which he broadly described as the study of the causes of “all types of violent behavior, what causes it, how it may be detected, prevented, controlled and treated.”26 Reagan’s advocacy of the center, however, was more narrowly focused than his general definition of its aims. The governor expected that the center would become a central component of his plan to “overhaul” the criminal justice system in California.27 Reagan’s support of the center included a promise of financial backing. To establish the center, the governor proposed to “redirect” funds allocated to existing planned research projects in the 1973–74 state budget to the center.28
Although West was elated to have the governor’s support, which he had carefully cultivated in the months preceding the announcement of the center, he was dissatisfied about the possibility of the center’s research findings being used for crime prevention and social control. However, securing funding would require such compromises of his vision for the center.
The center was imagined as a cutting-edge neuropsychiatric outpost to investigate violence. According to West’s proposal, the center (initially dubbed the Center for Prevention of Violence) was intended to help society “gain a greater understanding of causative and contributing factors involved in all forms of pathologically violent behavior.”29 Arguing for the necessity of the center, West lamented—but did not empirically demonstrate—increases in violent incidents in the United States, including suicides, homicides, and domestic abuse, and asserted that “violence is becoming a veritable plague in this country.”30 Here West tapped into a growing collective sense in the 1970s, in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., John Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy, that violence was becoming a significant problem of American society. During this period, for instance, popular magazines and network television frequently ran stories depicting and decrying violence. The ongoing Vietnam War and instances of urban unrest also led to an impression among some that violence was becoming a serious American social problem.31
Pitching the center’s rationale to the interests of middle-class property owners, West promised that under his tutelage the center would offer an alternative to white flight and implied that the investigations under consideration could make urban areas like Los Angeles safe again. Continuing in this vein, in the introduction to the center proposal, West justified the urgent need for the violence center by referring to “the spectre of unprovoked attack [that] haunts city-dwellers alone outdoors after dark”—those so afraid of the urban environment that they “triplelock” their doors or, instead, “flee the cities . . . [to] avoid potentially dangerous situations.”32 In the context of the “white flight” that followed the 1960s urban uprising, the “spectre” invoked by West was clearly that of the blacks and Latinos who lived in Los Angeles and similar cities—though he would repeatedly claim that the center was to focus on varied forms of social violence, broadly defined.
According to the proposal, the study of violence would be multidisciplinary and undertaken from various perspectives, including genetic, endocrinal, psychological, neurophysical, epidemiological, and psychosocial research.33 Among the genetic research proposals was a plan to study male adults and children with the XYY chromosome syndrome that was then believed to cause aggressive conduct. A study of the endocrine system would explore female propensity to violence at stages of the menstrual cycle, while psychological studies were to include clinical treatment of patients. The neurophysical paradigm proposed the use of psychiatric surgery.
On its surface, the proposal did not appear to contain much that was controversial. What captured the attention of Hiestand, Newton, and the Party’s allies were the ideological underpinnings and theoretical assumptions of several of the research programs that would be part of the center, and the scant but worrisome particulars provided about specific research projects. The devil was in the details.
Some of the center’s interdisciplinary research programs combined claims of medical pathology and biological determinism by way of explanation for the causes of violence. On the one hand, research programs hypothesized that violence was a manifestation of physiological disease or mental illness. On the other hand, these two aspects worked together to craft a narrative of black and Latino violent pathology.
In particular, one planned center project, called “Violence and the Brain,” captured the dystopic imagination of the activists who made up the Party-led coalition. The study, which called for the use of psycho-surgery (the removal or alteration of an area of diseased brain tissue thought to cause aggressive behavior), provoked the most vehement outrage from the Party and its allies, the UCLA community, and others. This program was to be carried out by a team of researchers that included Dr. Frank R. Ervin, a psychiatrist recently hired by the Neuropsychiatric Institute from the controversial Boston Neuro-Research Center.34 According to Hiestand, it had been “critically evaluated by its own funding sources, the Federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), for being scientifically unsound and for misusing federal monies.” “The proposal submitted to LEAA by the Boston project,” Hiestand explained, was “practically identical in terms of its individual research components to the UCLA” proposal submitted to the California State Health and Welfare committee for funding approval.35
Ervin was coauthor, with the neurosurgeon Dr. Vernon H. Mark, of Violence and the Brain, a provocative book published in 1970 in which the authors complained that social and environmental explanations of violent behavior mistakenly “take for granted that every individual has a normally functioning, entirely healthy brain.”36 To the contrary, they maintained that “past environment, once it is past, is no longer a sociological phenomenon. It is embedded in our brain and its use is dependent on the function or malfunction of the cerebral tissue.”37
The book delineated the researchers’ hypothesis about the etiology of violence that would inform their research at the UCLA center. The authors offered what they termed “a new and biologically oriented approach to the problem of human violence.”38 They posited that upward of fifteen million persons in the United States had some kind of brain disease and further argued that “an appreciable percentage” of repeatedly violent individuals could “be found in this 5 to 10% of the population whose brains do not function in a perfectly normal way.”39 Ervin and Mark recommended “surgical intervention” as a way for psychiatrists and neuroscientists to do their part to reduce violence by repeat offenders; specifically, they promoted a psychosurgery procedure in which “tiny electrodes are implanted in the brain and used to destroy a very small number of cells in a precisely determined area.”40 Once inserted, the electrodes could be left in the patient’s brain, if necessary, “until the surgeon is sure which brain cells are firing abnormally and causing the symptoms of seizures and violence.”41
Three years prior to the publication of Violence and the Brain, Ervin and Mark, with their colleague William Sweet, entered the national debate about urban violence with a September 1967 editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association. They speculated that biological dysfunction might be partly to blame for incidents of violence in America’s cities, writing:
The urgent needs of underprivileged urban centers for jobs, education and better housing should not be minimized, but to believe that these factors are solely responsible for the present urban riots is to overlook some of the newer medical evidence about the personal aspects of violent behavior. . . . The lesson on urban rioting is that, besides the need to study the social fabric that creates a riot atmosphere, we need intensive research and critical studies of the individuals committing the violence. The goal of such studies would be to pinpoint, diagnose, and treat these people with low violence thresholds before they contribute to further tragedies.42
While this editorial by Ervin and his coauthors paid lip service to the social and economic factors that might contribute to social aggression, its central argument was that pathological individuals were the cause of urban violence.
If these researchers were still hedging their bets in the JAMA editorial, the thinking of at least one of them was already drawing closer to the theories that would be put forth in Violence and the Brain. In 1967 Mark submitted his hypothesis that brain dysfunction caused urban violence for consideration by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, also known as the Kerner Commission—a body convened at the behest of President Lyndon Johnson to study the origins of the numerous urban uprisings that occurred in the second half of the 1960s. Mark theorized that uprisings like those that occurred in the Los Angeles community of Watts in 1965 were carried out by unruly African Americans with diseased brains.43
With these arguments, Ervin and his colleagues were attempting to both biologize and medicalize violence. As defined by the sociologists Peter Conrad and Joseph W. Schneider, medicalization is the process by which social conditions or phenomena are defined or redefined as medical problems requiring medical solutions. They posit that forms of socially abnormal behavior have changed from being understood as morally deficient behavior (sin) to being perceived through the lens of law (crime) or of medicine (madness, illness). Medicalization is both organic and atomizing; a social condition is transformed into a biological pathology—in this case, violence—and is understood to be isolated within the boundaries of an individual body, rather than as emerging from the social body.44 The damaged brain thesis amounted to an attempt by some researchers to classify violent behavior as a form of mental illness or brain dysfunction that could be controlled and monitored by psychiatrists and neuroscientists.45
In the years preceding the center controversy, Ervin, Mark, and Sweet had moved increasingly toward a biological determinist model of social aggression. Mark and Ervin, for example, devoted considerable space in the introductory pages of Violence and the Brain to arguing that societal influences alone were insufficient for explaining violence. Though West’s proposal was more artful than Ervin and Mark’s treatises on the biological seat of violence, it recapitulated many of the arguments they put forth. For example, West mused, “A violent act stems from the mind of a human being. What is the state of such a mind?”46 West allowed that not “all violent persons have abnormally functioning brains,” but anticipated that placing electrodes “deep within the brain” would provide a way to determine how the brain, which he referred to as the “organ of behavior,” was linked to violent actions.47 Ervin’s participation in the center and West’s ostensible acceptance of his theories fanned rumors that the researchers would perform psychosurgery on members of vulnerable communities. As this speculation heated up, Ervin’s name that was included in early versions of the center proposal was removed from later drafts, presumably because the violence center’s backers were attempting to assuage their critics and potential funders.
The Black Panthers’ protestations over the center derived partly from its members’ appreciation that jails and prisons were “total institutions” at which incarcerated persons had little agency and at which biomedical research could therefore be especially oppressive.48 The Panthers’ perspective also demonstrated the activists’ understanding, growing out of the ideas of Fanon and “Che” Guevara, that violence was a deeply political phenomenon. For the Party, violence was neither irrational nor evidence of biological pathology; rather, it was a manifestation of social dis-ease. At the same time, the Party’s response to the violence center did reflect its engagement with 1970s debates and controversies about race and biology.
In its newspaper, the Party directly addressed the biologically essentialist theories of the University of California at Berkeley psychologist Arthur Jensen. A specialist in education, Jensen came to public attention in 1969 when he published the first of many papers that claimed to link intelligence to genes.49 In 1972, in his book Genetics and Education, he declared that “Negroes” were up to eight times more likely to have “mental retardation” than whites.50 More broadly, Jensen’s opus supported “genetic inferiority theory,” that is, the dubious notion that some human groups are biologically inferior to others (with blacks at the bottom of the genetic hierarchy). These differences, Jensen contended, were manifest in intelligence and behavior. In September 1973 the Party “announced an unprecedented challenge” to Jensen’s “theories of Black inferiority” that was timed to coincide with a meeting of the International Genetic Foundation on the Berkeley campus.51
As sociomedical racialism was making new inroads,52 the Party challenged scientific claims about race as a facet of its fight against medical discrimination—and as African Americans had done previously (see chapter 1). Its first line of attack against Jensen was to expose the racial essentialism underlying the psychologist’s research hypotheses. It worked to abrade the scientific patina that legitimized the conjectural linking together of “natural abilities” and “political, intellectual and moral status,” to borrow W. E. B. Du Bois’s words.53
The activists also highlighted the analytic tautology of research that proceeded from the assumption of innate, unequivocal racial differences and that consequently yielded outcomes overdetermined by race; within such a milieu of circular logic, blacks were always classed as biological “lack” or “excess” relative to some sociotechnically constructed norm. As with its framing of sickle cell anemia that combined insights from population genetics with racial health disparities discourse, the Party did not object to scientific research or to the comparative analysis of social groups per se. Rather, the activists denounced studies like Jensen’s that compared only blacks and whites. Making this point, Seale mused that “few scientists seem interested in comparing, say Northern Italians with Southern Italians . . . . Appalachian Whites with Social Register Whites.”54 These examples drew attention to the simultaneous ideological potency and arbitrariness of classification and comparison in research on human variation. Continuing, Seale suggested that the intrinsic “racism” of studies like Jensen’s that focused “only on Blacks[’]” supposed biological inadequacies might be “eliminated” through the use of different categories of analysis.55
Seale surmised that such an approach would be not only antiracist but also “more scientific.”56 This latter assertion pointed to the activists’ second major criticism of Jensen’s research—its lack of scientific merit. The Party fashioned itself as a concerned stakeholder—united with many others—in the pursuit of better biomedicine and bioscience. To this end, the Black Panthers critically assessed Jensen’s research with the same confidence that they encouraged in the “lay experts” at their clinics, who critically engaged medical authority and practice.57 Seale and Brown established the Party’s credibility through their adjudication of Jensen’s assumptions, as above; their performance of its command of genetics discourse; and, related to this, their articulation of a “scientific counterdiscourse.”58
The Party affirmed its acceptance of evolutionary theory, stating that because “groups perpetuate each other through marriage, it is reasonable to expect that over generations they have produced clearly defined genetic strengths and weakness that can be compared with other groups.”59 This claim that, with its invocation of “marriage,” was surprisingly conservative coming from a group that lived communally and often took in children at its Oakland school, who were not being well cared for by their biological families, evinced some possible common ground between the Party and Jensen. Having established this point, however, the activists then sharply diverged from the spurious associations the psychologist made between inheritance and intelligence: “The Black Panther Party, the Black community, and the vast majority of geneticists and educators,” its statement read, “believe that the greatest intellectual differentials are among individuals rather than races.”60 Here the activists echoed a soon-to-be-landmark assessment of human variation published one year earlier by the geneticist Richard Lewontin that established the now-axiomatic assertion that there is more genetic variation within “races” than between them.61 Invoking its intellectual solidarity with a “vast majority” of researchers, activists, and black citizens, the Party cast Jensen as an outlier and, in doing so, endeavored to also cast doubt on his scientific bona fides.
The Party’s appraisal of Jensen’s claims included an alternative vision of how antiracist, socially responsible research should be conducted. Cognizant of the burden of biomedical scrutiny historically born by marginalized and vulnerable groups, the activists advised that “all ethnic and racial groups” should be studied equally.62 They furthermore recommended that such studies should be “assessed” by a national committee of scientists who could determine the “significance and consequences” of research on human genetic variation.63
The Party then related this issue of research design to the issue of citizens’ oversight of state funding: “The decision as to whether Americans wish to financially support . . . studies [such as Jensen’s],” it pronounced, “should be left to the democratic process.”64 Channeling Mao, Brown proclaimed, “Let 1000 such studies bloom if that is how the nation wishes to use its scientific resources.”65 The implication of Brown’s statement was that citizens should have a say in the allocation of collective resources. The Party’s concurrent challenge to the UCLA violence center proceeded from this perspective of robust citizenship; indeed, its opposition to the planned research facility centrally involved an engagement with legislative deliberation.
In West’s initial center proposal—the proposal underwent several revisions in response to public criticism—he was preoccupied by the violence allegedly perpetrated by members of minority and marginalized groups; the disproportionate risk that accordingly would be borne by these communities alarmed members of the coalition seeking to block funding to the center. More alarmingly, West’s proposal made mention of a plan to enlist California prisoners as subjects in the center’s experimental research projects: among the possible settings was the California Medical Facility at Vacaville, a prison north of the Bay Area where both Cleaver and David Hilliard had spent time. Researchers from the University of California system commonly used inmates at this state prison for experiments.66 Indeed, it was revealed in February 1972—just months prior to the announcement of plans for the violence center—that three prisoners at Vacaville had been subjected to psychosurgery.67 Thus, if implemented, the center could have potentially had a direct and deleterious impact on members of the Party.
Party members’ brushes with the law stoked prisoners’ rights activism within the Party, which took the form of political writing, community outreach, and assistance to the incarcerated. Much of Cleaver’s notorious best seller Soul on Ice comprises reflections on the structural forces and personal choices that landed him in prison before joining the Party.68 Party bard George Jackson, who was murdered while doing time at San Quentin prison, wrote eloquently before his assassination about the inhumanity of prison conditions, specifically Soledad State Prison, in the popular book Soledad Brother.69 The Southern California chapter regularly ran pieces in its newsletter about the callous treatment of jailed Party members. Many of these writings focused on the paucity of adequate medical treatment for the incarcerated and the often-coercive nature of what treatment was available.70
Therefore, Party members, many of whom had encountered abominable prison conditions firsthand, recognized that it was extremely difficult for the incarcerated to grant true “informed consent.” Drawing on personal experience, Newton knew that a prisoner would submit to almost anything, including risky medical procedures, when financial incentives or other inducements that marginally enhanced prison life were offered;71 under such conditions, biomedical research among prisoners was inherently coercive. Newton’s concerns were confirmed by a Vacaville prison official who observed that “the main benefit [of experiments on human subjects at the facility was] . . . that research programs cut down on disciplinary problems. A man had to have a relatively infraction-free record to qualify as a volunteer subject. And the Department figures if he has thirty dollars a month to spend on canteen, he’ll be a lot cooler.”72 Newton’s recent experience of incarceration, of being a member of a “vulnerable population” into today’s bioethics parlance, conditioned his reaction to some of the studies proposed by violence center researchers. He would draw on these experiences to help shape the arguments presented by Hiestand on behalf of the Party and its allies.73
The vulnerability of prisoners to programs such as that proposed at the violence center also captured the attention of the larger black community. The controversy over the center occurred just a few months after an article by the New York Times reporter Jean Heller disclosed to the public the four-decades-long Tuskegee syphilis study. In the climate of heightened suspicion of the medical establishment that followed this revelation, psychosurgery became a hot-button issue for African Americans.74 Black physicians and neuroscientists spoke up about the dangers of experimental procedures like psychosurgery, as did members of the nascent Congressional Black Caucus.75
In the February 1973 issue of Ebony magazine, a news organ of black Middle America, one article detailed the emergence of this most recent effort to conjure biomedical answers to deeply social dilemmas. Authored by B. J. Mason, “New Threat to Blacks: Brain Surgery to Control Behavior” described efforts by Ervin, Mark, and Sweet to develop a research program to investigate the neurological basis of what Sweet termed “senseless” violence.76 Taking a calm but cautionary tone, the article discussed the researchers’ theory that violence could be caused by unidentified brain pathology and featured a series of diagrams detailing the surgical manipulation of the brain. Brain surgery advocates quoted in the article maintained that patients became more manageable after psychosurgery. But critics quoted in the same piece complained that the procedure left patients in a “blunted” and zombie-like state.77 Mason’s article also drew attention to the fact that African Americans, who increasingly made up a lopsided percentage of the incarcerated population, would be unduly subjected to prison experimentation.
The Panthers were but one of many groups involved in protesting the violence center and its proposed research. When the Party and its allies took up the cause of defeating the center, the coalition in effect amplified the scope of already vehement student opposition to it. Student protest erupted on the UCLA campus in the winter of 1973, after the discovery that a university-based research facility, the Neuropsychiatric Institute, was establishing the center. UCLA student groups, including the Coalition Against Campus Racism and the Violence Center, and the local chapters of Students for a Democratic Society and the Progressive Labor Party, protested in outrage.
To demonstrate their opposition to the center, UCLA student groups held rallies; wrote editorials in the university newspaper, the Daily Bruin; distributed flyers, pamphlets, and tracts; and performed guerrilla theater—public skits during which they compared the proponents of the center to mad scientists.78 On- and off-campus press accounts likened the planned surgeries of the proposed violence center to the atrocities of mad scientists in contemporary science fiction films like Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange.79 Revelations that West proposed to the U.S. Department of Defense that the center assume ownership of an abandoned Nike missile base in the nearby Santa Monica Mountains as a site where “comparative studies” for the “alteration of undesirable behavior” could be conducted in a “securely fenced” and “isolated but convenient location” only served to heighten activists’ Faustian suspicions.80 While these suspicions may have been deemed far-fetched, they also found expression in the popular culture of the day; the novelist Michael Crichton, who had at one time been a student of Ervin’s, extrapolated on the fine line between medical human experimentation and scientific abuse in his book The Terminal Man, which was described by a New York Times reporter as “the best-selling Frankensteinian novel . . . in which the brain of a violent epileptic is tied into and controlled by a computer.”81
Student protests lasted for several months. At their height, a dozen protestors stormed West’s office in an attempt to seize the violence center. Three members of this group of students were arrested for barricading themselves in West’s office and chaining themselves to his desk.82 The planned center aroused such concern among students that even the typically apolitical UCLA basketball star Bill Walton expressed his opposition to it during a local television appearance.83
The students did not stand alone on the UCLA campus in challenging the planned center; faculty were also vocal in their disapproval of it, including the UCLA Faculty Committee Against Racism and Neuropsychiatric Institute researchers Dr. Fred Abrams and Dr. Isidore Ziferstein. Abrams was a common fixture at anticenter rallies and protests and a leading faculty opponent. He was eventually terminated by the institute, supposedly for reasons not involving his activism. Ziferstein expressed his opposition to the violence center with editorials in the Los Angeles Times and the Daily Bruin. Among his complaints about the center, the issue of democratic access to scientific knowledge loomed large: Ziferstein pointed out that the center’s proponents aimed to discredit the student opposition by framing the debate as one of rational experts versus uninformed extremists, rather than responding directly to criticism. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Ziferstein charged that violence center supporters “attempted to minimize the opposition to the center by creating the impression that the critics are not scientists or mature citizens but a ‘leftist opposition’ comprised largely of students.”84 Ziferstein also directly supported the Party’s campaign against the center by passing along internal information about is progress to Hiestand.85 Ever since its founding in the shadow of the University of California at Berkeley, the Black Panther organization enjoyed significant campus support for its politics and programs. In this instance, campus cooperation took the form of allied students and faculty.
While plans for the violence center aligned the political and professional aspirations of the Reagan administration, local and federal law enforcement agencies, and biomedical researchers at UCLA, its realization depended on a fiscal partnership among these interests as well. For 1973 the proposed budget for the center was $1.5 million. Two-thirds of the funding was to come from the CCCJ, via the LEAA. The remaining money was slated to come from the California Department of Health, in cooperation with the Department of Corrections and the California Youth Authority, after approval from the state legislature.86 The projected funds required from government agencies for the following fiscal year decreased by a third, to $1 million, in anticipation of funding from private foundations and philanthropists. Yet, even with private backers waiting in the wings, the center would initially be heavily dependent on funds controlled by elected officials. West knew that his ability to shape public perception of the center was crucial to securing this public funding.87
Public scrutiny of the UCLA violence center took the form of two legislative hearings sponsored by the California Senate Committee on Health and Welfare. What was at stake at the hearings was not simply state money but the public profile of the violence center—its legitimacy—on which it was to rely for future funding.88 These hearings were organized to gather information about the planned center before the state legislature decided whether to allocate funds to it. If the lobbying efforts of the Party and its allies were successful, they could place the formation of the center in jeopardy.
In holding this series of hearings, California legislators took their lead from their counterparts in Washington, D.C., where the issue of human experimental research—with psychosurgery as the most dramatic and draconian example—was embroiled in controversy on the floor of the Senate. Psychosurgery became a national subject of debate after a psychiatrist in Washington, D.C., Peter Breggin, published an article about the danger of the increasing frequency of the procedure, titled “The Return of Psychosurgery and Lobotomy,” in the February 24, 1972, issue of Congressional Record.89 Soon after, articles began to appear in the national press, including an exposé in the New York Times Magazine, which examined, and for the most part confirmed, Breggin’s claims that the use of brain surgery was increasing among some psychiatrists and neurosurgeons.90 Democratic senator Edward Kennedy, who as the chairman of the Senate Committee on Health had played an important role in securing federal funding for sickle cell anemia research and screening months prior, spearheaded the series of hearings on psychosurgery beginning in early 1973.91 Thus, by entering the debate over the violence center, the Party also became a part of a national dialogue about health rights, human subjects, and informed consent.
The California Senate Committee on Health and Welfare held the first of two day-long hearings on the violence center in April 1973. The committee listened to three supporters of the center: Robert E. Litman, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Southern California, who would serve as the center’s first director; Stubblebine, the head of the state Department of Health and Welfare; and West. Because public outcry about the center had reached a fever pitch, Litman, Stubblebine, and West faced tough questions and skepticism about the center’s mission and its funding model, psychosurgery, and safeguards to protect the rights of experimental subjects.92
West’s testimony was primarily diplomatic; he attempted to deflect critique and correct what he saw as misperceptions about the center. To this end, he emphatically denied that psychosurgery would be carried out at the center. Stubblebine’s testimony was less politic; his statements aimed to legitimize the biologization of violence by persuading the legislators that aggression is a medical issue rather than a social problem. Stubblebine employed metaphors that likened violent behavior to medical epidemics. He stated that violence was on par with “other life threatening communicable disease[s].” Continuing the analogy, he elaborated:
The person who is a carrier of an infectious agent is sometimes isolated or quarantined, is sometimes required to go under treatment and is, in more cases than not, cured and returned to useful life in the general society. It is entirely possible that this is the same kind of situation that will prevail when we have greater knowledge about the violent person or the potentially violent person.93
At the hearings’ close, violence center opponents in attendance, including Hiestand, demanded that the committee chairman Anthony Beilenson give them equal time to express their opinions about the center.94 This second unplanned hearing took place the following month. At this meeting, the Party would have the opportunity to respond to West, Stubblebine, and Litman.
On May 9, 1973, Hiestand, at Beilenson’s invitation, testified before the California Senate Health and Welfare Committee on behalf of the Party-led coalition, along with Dr. Lee Coleman, a child psychiatrist and representative of the Committee Opposing Psychiatric Abuse of Prisoners, and Terry Kupers.95 During his testimony, Hiestand read from an “administrative complaint” that he and Newton had prepared. The document had no legal authority, and as this was a legislative hearing and not a trial, it had no legal purpose. However, the document had the imprimatur of legal authority and was, according to Hiestand, therefore compelling to the lobbyists, politicians, activists—not to mention the general public—with whom the document was shared. In this way, the Black Panthers, through their attorney, employed legal discourse and symbolism as part of its rejoinder to the biologization of violence.
During his testimony, Hiestand challenged the intentions of the center and the assumptions that undergirded several planned projects. He testified that his clients “feared [that the center] was a public relations boondoggle for the [Reagan] Administration” or perhaps “a covert attempt to usher in a ‘Clockwork Orange.’”96 Hiestand expressed “grave concern about the role the Center might play in encouraging or performing future behavior modification experiments on political protestors, prisoners, inmates of mental institutions, minorities, and women,” populations that were represented by the Party and his other client organizations and that were mentioned in the violence center proposal.97 Hiestand directed the senators’ attention to several research programs that his clients found particularly troubling: one project that aimed to associate violence in women with their menstrual cycles, and a second project that planned experiments into violence at predominantly black and Chicano high schools in Los Angeles. These proposals, Hiestand contended, amounted to the targeting of presumably violent individuals based on the social categories of race and gender, rather than an objective attempt to seek out violence in the many contexts in which it could be found.
Hiestand articulated the Party’s positions and those of its allies on another occasion when he filed a second administrative complaint on their behalf at a hearing about the center in July 1973. The administrative complaint was also submitted to the CCCJ in an effort by Hiestand to lobby the agency against approving funding for the violence center. The complaint specifically aimed “to prevent the allocation of approximately $1,000,000 of taxpayers’ monies to the UCLA CSRV until adequate safeguards to protect human subjects were put in place” and “the nature and scope of each and every Violence Center project is [established as] both scientifically sound and potentially beneficial to the public interest.”98 The violence center, California Secretary of Health Brian, West, and Stubblebine were named as “defendants”; the plaintiffs included the BPP, NOW, NAACP, UFOC, MAPA, and COPAP, as well as a new coalition member, the California Mental Health Coordinating Council. As with his state Senate testimony, Hiestand complained that the center’s plans did not offer “sufficient evidence to indicate that the true nature and scope of the Violence Center’s proposed work is not in fact injurious to the welfare of racial and ethnic minorities, women, involuntarily incarcerated persons, and the general public” who were being “excluded from participation in the development, control, review and ultimate utilization of the so-called research results.”99
The coalitions’ concerns as expressed by Hiestand were manifold, but focused most intently on theories about the causes of violence that were the opposite of those that underpinned many of the center’s projects. Indeed, in the administrative complaint, Hiestand characterized “the experimental subjects” and “the experimenters” as being of “two different worlds.” The coalition challenged the contention of the center’s researchers that brain dysfunction was the source of individual violent behavior. For example, the administrative complaint highlighted the fact that the proposal for the center listed “the major known correlates” of violence as “sex (male), age (youthful), ethnicity (black), and urbanicity.”100 The document also quoted a passage from the same proposal that linked violent behavior “to participation in subcultures with particular attitudes toward the value of human life, and with attitudes equating violent physical expression with ‘manliness.’”101 The intersection of these characteristics (youthfulness, “manliness,” etc.) in a single individual was suggested to predict the likelihood of violent behavior. Such claims took up the charged, political language of black family and black male pathology that circulated during this time in such narratives as “The Moynihan Report,” and unwittingly revealed the social embeddedness of some center researchers’ biological claims. If these discourses defined the black male individual as the locus of violence—a man who was, effectively, criminal-minded—the activist’s definition of black male identity was “group-minded” and socially, rather than biologically, oriented.
Hiestand’s testimony and the coalition’s complaint repeatedly criticized the “vagueness” of the center proposal drafts. According to Hiestand, each new center proposal grew progressively more obfuscatory; rather than respond to public demand for clarification of the details of the center’s intentions, revised proposals simply removed problematic research projects, with little assurance that the omitted programs were actually off the table. In particular, activists requested that more information be released about the precise form that the center’s cooperation with the criminal justice system would take, and what drugs and techniques might be used in experiments to quell violence, before the state Senate agreed to back the center.102
Hiestand also discussed a seemingly strategic omission made in later center draft proposals—the deletion of Ervin’s name from the list of center researchers. Quoting at length from the Ebony article on psychosurgery, Hiestand raised the issue of Ervin’s participation in the center and employment at UCLA, and thus the possibility that psycho-surgery might lie in the center’s future, despite what he referred to as the “sanitizing” of the center’s plans. Hiestand concluded his testimony with the demand that the center receive no state funding. Should plans for the center move forward, Hiestand advised that a series of procedural safeguards be put in place, including consultation with the communities to be affected by the proposed center’s research projects.
On the subject of psychosurgery, Hiestand argued that “the earlier proposals and representations made by the Defendants cannot but make the Plaintiffs and the public skeptical about the original intentions of [the] Defendants and the consequent thoughtlessness of a proposal that fluctuates in content according to public criticism.” The Party coalition pointed out several other inconsistencies: though West repeatedly insisted that the center would not undertake such procedures, Stubblebine had recently mentioned in the local press that brain surgery had not been ruled out completely. In addition, the Party noted that West let slip in testimony before the state Senate that psychosurgery would not take place on the premises of the center but at other facilities; patients would then be returned to the violence center for follow-up treatment and observation. Lastly, the complaint emphasized the fact that, although many of the proposals made mention of the complex set of factors that contribute to violence, there was little “appreciation” of this in the research design.
“Our backs are getting closer to the wall.”
Many events and actors precipitated the center’s undoing, but its downfall finally came about when financial backing was withdrawn. The first domino fell in mid-1973, when the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare for the state of California voted to withhold funding for the center, a decision that owed much to Hiestand’s testimony.103 Although there was little public support for the violence center, the influence of the activists’ interpretation of the origins of violence and their contention that the center would be used as a tool of social control was reflected in the state Senate’s decision.
Within a few weeks of Hiestand’s testimony, the California Senate Committee on Health and Welfare, chaired by Beilenson, voted to withhold funding for the center.104 Furthermore, the California legislature specifically prohibited the use of state money to fund the center at UCLA or a similar research project at another state agency or university without its express permission.105 Echoing concerns raised by the Party, Beilenson stated the committee’s decision was based on five factors: the absence of a comprehensive oversight system for the center’s various research programs; the vague descriptions of the specific projects in which center researchers might engage; the lack of adequate safeguards to ensure the informed and uncoerced consent of research subjects; the fact that the funds requested for the center had not been previously budgeted and therefore would require that money be shifted from other places in the state Department of Health’s budget; and the lack of planned “periodic on site inspections and reports of Center activities and research” by peers and citizens.106 This decision had an immediate impact on the center’s work. In the summer of 1973, for example, West canceled all orders for lab equipment for fear that there would not be enough money in the center’s budget to purchase them.107
The center’s future was placed in further jeopardy in February 1974 when the LEAA banned the funding of any crime prevention programs that used behavioral modification or medical research.108 The LEAA’s administrator, Donald E. Santarelli, said that he found many of the proposed behavior modification programs to be “fraught with peril.”109 Santarelli explained that although “the use of experimental medical procedures on human subjects for purposes of modification and alteration of criminal and other anti-social behavior” had “come into prominence” in some research communities, the “LEAA personnel generally do not possess the technical and professional skills required to evaluate and monitor projects employing such procedures.”110
West tried to retain financial support for the center by lobbying the CCCJ director Anthony Palumbo. West’s correspondence to Palumbo contained personal assurances that none of the banned procedures would be performed at the center and pleas for the Neuropsychiatric Institute’s grant application to be kept in contention for funding. In this letter, West also tried to distinguish what he termed “behavioral science” from the medical human experimentation behavior modification research that had been banned from funding by the LEAA.111 He received a blunt response from the LEAA. Palumbo then encouraged West to withdraw the center grant application or risk having it rejected in a public and potentially embarrassing manner. In an internal memo West despaired, “Our backs are getting closer to the wall every day.”112
In a last-ditch effort to save the center, it was placed under the umbrella of the existing Laboratory for the Study of Life Threatening Behavior, directed by Dr. Edwin Shneidman.113 In an article about the transfer, Shneidman said that “the very concept of a ‘Center for the Study and Reduction of Violence’ at UCLA has been so badly damaged that it has lost its usefulness. We have decided to discard it. . . . the entire enterprise is now being revised. Some proposals are being eliminated or modified; others are being added.”114
Not only did the Party contribute to the demise of the violence center, it also managed to repurpose some LEAA resources. In 1974 the Party’s Intercommunal Youth Institute (Oakland Community School) received funding from the LEAA, one of the state criminal justice agencies that planned to underwrite the violence center initiative—to develop and support a “comprehensive juvenile crime prevention program” in East Oakland.115 Such funds were typically allocated to municipal police and sheriff departments; the activists would use the monies to support youth programs.116 One of the Party’s primary grant writers, Norma Armour applied for LEAA funding with help from Elaine Brown and Joan Kelly. She recounted that this grant was solicited under the auspices of its not-for-profit entity, the Education Opportunities Service Corporation. “The clinic and all the survival programs, the school came under that umbrella,” she explained. “That’s how we got law enforcement money.”117 The youth programs that the Party developed with this money was based at its Oakland school and included educational and community service activities. The activists, in this way, modeled an alternative to the violence center in practice that complemented its intellectual and philosophical critiques.
The refusal of the California Senate and, consequently, also the LEAA and the CCCJ, to fund the violence center arguably manifested broader discomfort with the bio-medicalization of violence—or, at least the clumsy and draconian presentation of this process by the initiative’s backers.118 In parallel with a simultaneous national dialogue about experimental research with human subjects, state legislators’ discomfort with the conversion of social problems into medical ones was conveyed in the regulatory and bureaucratic language of ethical safeguards and research protocols. The criminal justice agencies’ denial of funding was inevitable given their interdependent relationship with legislators; as one administrator observed, by way of justification, these agencies furthermore lacked the infrastructure necessary for evaluating the validity of the planned courses of research.
The Party, via Hiestand, had broached these same issues during the hearings at which funding for the center was debated. As Hiestand was one of but three witnesses speaking in opposition to the research scheme (alongside the Black Panthers’ PFMC clinic collaborator and MCHR member Kupers), the successful campaign against the violence center was owed in no small part to the efforts of the Party and its allies (coalition partners, student activists, and others). This important victory impeded the formation of the violence center and negative medicalization (medicalization as punitive social control), if not deeply entrenched racial biologization. Here was the rub: although a good deal of the Party’s perspective was taken up by legislators, its revolutionary ideology, class critique, and antiracist politics were not. The Party’s bid to hinder the transformation of anger, reaction, anguish, and desperation into disease was forestalled—but only for a time.
The imagined center was partly a gambit to bundle present projects at UCLA with new initiatives and, by doing so, to create a major national research institute. Although the center failed, some of this prior research persisted, supported independently through both state and federal funds. Also, as Conrad and Schneider briefly note in their seminal work on medicalization, Ervin (with his collaborator Mark) had received more than one million dollars in funding from prestigious bodies to pursue research on violence and brain pathology before the publication of their provocative book and before the UCLA debate got under way.119 The support that Ervin would have received as a violence center researcher, therefore, amounted to a fraction of the resources already at his disposal. This record of support indicates that the medicalization of violence—and psychosurgery as an intervention—was well on its way to becoming accepted practice.
In the early 1970s, in the shadow of both nationwide urban revolts against racial oppression and the disclosure of human experimental abuse at Tuskegee and elsewhere, researchers at UCLA proposed biologically oriented studies into the causes of violence. Recognizing this proposition as one juncture in an established trajectory of scientific allegations about the innate pathology and inferiority of marginalized groups, the Party staged a challenge to the planned center that took up established tactics employed against medical discrimination; with this campaign, the activists also exploited the exercise of newly affirmed (if not fully realized) black citizenship as a vehicle of protest. The activists had successfully extended its health politics from the provision of health education and healthcare services to protection from overexposure to biomedical surveillance. Some communities in Los Angeles were given safe haven from a different kind of violence—biologization as an exercise of state power.