A Review of American Justice on Trial: People v. Newton
by Assena Fairuz
Author and Film Co-Producer/Co-Director Lise Pearlman’s book American
Justice on Trial: People v. Newton is a welcome exposition of the key
components in the 20th century’s Civil Rights movement. It’s also a
much needed examination of how the U.S. judicial system destabilized
freedom movements and failed its citizens– events which burn a clear
line leading to the present. The methods of planning used by Civil
Rights leaders bear a great deal of responsibility towards informing
the way we deal with the social ills continuing to plague this new
Objective and factual, American Justice On Trial gives a detailed
account of the movements and motivations of the well-known activist
group The Black Panther Party For Self Defense, while also being an
account of reactions from the public and from other Civil Rights
leaders. Voter suppression in the 1960’s, the Watts riots in 1965, and
the FBI’s involvement with attempts to destabilize movements from
within are all touched on, their connections to the larger picture of
the Civil Rights movement made plain.
The piece focuses largely upon the trial of Huey P. Newton, one of the
founders of the Black Panther Party, who in 1967 was accused of the
murder of a police officer.
The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. just before the trial
increased the strain on the populace. The trial ended up being watched
around the world due to the public’s recognition of its potential
change the course of the U.S.
Prisoner’s rights activist and lawyer to the BPP Fay Stender, and
political essayist and one time leader of the BPP Eldridge Cleaver are
also given center stage in some areas of this book, their motives and
actions spotlighted and scrutinized with the author’s keen historical
Reporters and writers alike who supported the causes of the Black
Panthers were forced by their consciences to weigh involvement with
the movement with the possible loss of their careers. In Stender and
Cleaver we see that tenuous line between personal and professional
collapse in regards to the BPP, ultimately leading to individual ruin.
Far from glorifying the violent acts committed by the Party, American
Justice On Trial also refuses to shy away from humanizing them along
with the other major players in this chapter of history. The book
focuses on the gains won by their much-needed fierce activism, but it
also touches–in parts–on the misogyny and non-activism-related
violence of some of the Party’s leaders.
The book’s sections are arranged in a fashion that is chronologically
loose using highlights regarding events which occur before or after
the era of the trial in comparisons with modern day events. I found
this style of arrangement made the book a bit difficult to follow in
some parts, but many other readers may have no trouble with this.
With its unflinching exposition of the U.S penal system’s treatment of
Black freedom fighters, American Justice on Trial: People v. Newton is
critical reading for activists and anyone wishing to become involved
with activism in our current, turbulent political climate.
V. Fairuz is a writer at The Dog-Eared Dragon blog: dogeareddragon.blogspot.com
Lise Pearlman’s American Justice on Trial: People v. Newton is available at: