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Former hijacker, Black Panther Brent dies at 75

Former hijacker, Black Panther Brent dies at 75
Article Launched:11/16/2006 02:47:54 AM PST

William Lee Brent, former bodyguard to Black Panther Party leader
Eldridge Cleaver, died last week in Havana, Cuba. He would have been 76
last Friday.

The cause was bronchial pneumonia, said Steve Wasserman, a close friend
and editor of Mr. Brent’s 1996 autobiography, “Long Time Gone.”

Mr. Brent was still a fugitive when he died, sought by U.S. law
enforcement officials for his June 1969 hijacking of TWA flight No. 154
to Cuba. The plane, with 76 passengers aboard, was bound for New York
from San Francisco. No one was hurt.

He arrived in Havana expecting to be hailed as a hero, but was surprised
to be promptly taken into custody by Cuban authorities, Wasserman said.

Mr. Brent spent the next 22 months in prison, an experience he found far
worse than the eight years of incarceration he had endured in San
Quentin and Tehachapi for a variety of crimes, including armed robbery,
Wasserman said. When asked by a New York Times reporter in 1996 to
compare the two prison systems, Mr. Brent said that in Cuba, “They don’t
allow you to do anything but hard time.”

Eventually, Mr. Brent was released and held a variety of jobs: working
construction, raising pigs, cutting sugar cane, laboring in a soap factory.

He later returned to school and graduated from the University of Havana
in November 1981. He went on to teach English at Havana’s best high
school and was working on a book about the history of blacks in Cuba
when he died.

He lived for many years with his wife, Jane McManus, a fellow American
radical, who died last year of natural causes.

At the time of the hijacking, Mr. Brent was facing charges for his role
in a 1968 Panther shoot-out with San Francisco police. One police
officer was severely wounded but later recovered. Mr. Brent had sworn
never to return to San Quentin, where he feared he would be killed.

In his memoir, Mr. Brent wrote: “My actions in San Francisco on Nov. 19,
1968, were a direct result of my awareness that I was a black soldier at
war in a white-dominated society where, in most cases, my people and I
were denied our basic civil and human rights.”

Mr. Brent considered himself a revolutionary to the end, though he had
grown increasingly disenchanted with the Cuban revolution, telling a
reporter that “people have discovered that not all Cubans are in
agreement with the revolution, that they want some things the revolution
taught them were bad, like Big Macs and Nikes.”

His own faith for a better world remained firm, though he had long ago
given up the dream of returning to the United States. “I’ve been running
all my life, fleeing one thing or another,” he said. “I’ve been on a
flight from depression, oppression, racism, injustice, inhumanity,
cruelty. The flight is not over, but I’m not just running from it. I’m
fighting it.”

As for the hijacking, Mr. Brent was unrepentant. “That plane (a Boeing
707),” he once joked to his editor, “was the biggest thing I ever stole.
And the Cubans made me give it back.”

He is survived by his sister, Elouise Rawlins, of Oakland.


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