January 17, 2019

THE 1969 GUNFIGHT AT UCLA: Fifty years ago today, rival gangs, made up in part of “High Potential Program” students, fought it out on campus, leaving two dead.

The tiny “High Potential Program” was UCLA’s early, experimental form of affirmative action. Unlike today’s affirmative action programs, which primarily benefit middle- and upper-middle-class students, this was a real effort to benefit young people born on the wrong side of the tracks. As one might expect, UCLA relaxed the academic qualifications for this project. One of the founders of the program put it this way:   “A high school diploma was not a requisite. We recruited people who were active in their community and who had the ability to lead.”

Here’s the crazy part: In practice, the leadership requirement meant that UCLA wanted—and actively recruited–leaders of street gangs, especially those involved in black nationalism. A history of violence was no barrier to admission.

Not a lot of learning went on in the special classes conducted for the program. Linda Chavez, a UCLA grad student at the time, wrote about her experiences in teaching classes for Chicano High Potential students in An Unlikely Conservative: The Transformation of an Ex-Liberal. I won’t spoil her story here. Suffice it to say it wasn’t pretty.

Among the students recruited for the program was Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter. Carter was the former leader of the Slauson gang, a mega-gang in South Central Los Angeles, and was known as “Mayor of the Ghetto.” Shortly before registering at UCLA he had spent four years in Soledad prison for armed robbery, where he had become a disciple of Malcolm X. In 1967, after meeting Black Panther Minister of Defense Huey Newton, he formed the Southern California chapter of the Black Panther Party, mostly out of members of the Slauson gang.

John Jerome Huggins was Carter’s right-hand man; it was only natural that they would attend UCLA together. Huggins’ apartment was a meeting place for Black Panthers. A cache of weapons, including rifles, shotguns, handguns and homemade bombs, was kept there.

Carter and Huggins never made it thorough their freshman year. They were gunned down in UCLA’s Campbell Hall in the course of a feud between the Panthers and a rival Black Nationalist group, the US Organization (also known as United Slaves), several of whose members were also UCLA High Potential Program students. These broad daylight murders sent shock waves through colleges and universities across the country.

The US Organization bore some similarity to the Black Panthers in that its membership was derived in large part from ordinary L.A. street gangs of the early 1960s. And like the Panthers, its veneer of Black Nationalism was thin. But the two groups despised each other (as rival gangs tend to do).

UCLA administrators never understood what hit them. They thought they were introducing young street toughs to a whole new world. And, of course, they were right. But the reverse was also true. Just as UCLA wanted to turn gang members into college students, gang members wanted to turn UCLA into a part of their protection racket.

Shortly before the gun battle, student activists pressured UCLA Chancellor Charles Young to create a Center for African American Studies—complete with an executive director and staff, office space and a generous budget. The Panthers and US were simply vying to control those resources, knowing that whoever controlled the executive director’s position would control the center. The Panthers backed one candidate for director and US another. The situation got out of hand. Two brothers, George and Larry Stiner, members of US, were convicted of murder.

The High Potential Program experiment was quietly terminated (though it is still celebrated in some quarters). After that, affirmative action programs took more conventional forms.

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