Leaderless Cells

With the Panther split in February 1971, Cleaver’s dreams seemed to be coming true. After years of calling for guerrilla warfare in the United States, militant Panthers began flocking to New York to take arms. Policemen were murdered. Communiqués were issued. Given his role as a beacon of revolutionary violence, one might have expected Cleaver to anoint himself chairman of the BLA. He didn’t. In fact, Cleaver ordained that the BLA would have no leader. Not him. Not anyone. Under guidelines set by Cleaver and Don Cox, the BLA’s structure would be the exact opposite of the Weather Underground’s. Where Weather cadres did nothing without direction from leadership, Cleaver and Cox wanted BLA units to operate independently, with no central coordination whatsoever. A system of autonomous cells, Cox reasoned, would be much harder for the government to subdue; a single leader could be defeated with a single arrest. This sounded fine in theory; in practice it led to anarchy. “I never understood the concept of an organization without leadership,” recalls Brooklyn BLA member Blood McCreary. “I always thought that was going to be difficult, and it was. When we got into the field, we were supposed to be autonomous, and you’d be two or three cells trying to do their own thing. I remember once two cells showed up to rob the same bank. It happened outside the Bronx Zoo, at a Manufacturers Hanover. So not having leadership, that was a problem.”

A decentralized structure, however, had the added virtue of distancing Cleaver from BLA violence. The Algerian government, while happy to host revolutionary groups, made clear to all of them it would not condone acts of violence initiated on its own soil; worse, from Cleaver’s point of view, were hints that the government might be warming to a U.S. government more than a little interested in Algerian energy reserves. In practice this meant that while Cleaver spent day and night proselytizing bloody revolution, he seldom if ever mentioned the Black Liberation Army by name, much less publicly condoned its acts. His position in Algiers was too insecure. Rather than speak over an international phone line he suspected—correctly—that the FBI had tapped, Cleaver laid out his initial plans for the BLA in a set of “voodoo” tapes, which his favorite courier—a striking young Puerto Rican radical named Denise Oliver—brought to New York.