Slingshot: A Former Black Panther's Return to Sasscer Park in Santa Ana on Juneteenth
Updated: Jun 23
Lynem: From panther to pastor / Photo by Steady Jenny
Fifty-one years ago, Daniel Michael Lynem sported an afro and a horseshoe mustache, exuding a certain youthful swagger while leading the Santa Ana branch of the Black Panther Party. The "Huey P" of OC, he supervised a small group that monitored the streets in Black neighborhoods to ensure police behaved and organized a breakfast program for children.
The branch's mere existence drew the interest of the FBI and local law enforcement. Then, the party suddenly ended on the night of June 4, 1969 when a gunshot rang out in Southwest Santa Ana. Nelson Sasscer, a Santa Ana policeman, had been shot to death near the intersection of Third and Raitt streets.
The police quickly laid responsibility for the slaying on the party and its leader.
Harlen Lambert and Tom Parrott, the only two Black policemen on Santa Ana's force, arrived to the Lynem family home the following morning. Lynem decided against putting up a fight and got hauled away in handcuffs. Black and Brown youth rioted in Santa Ana following the police department's otherwise heavy-handed response to the murder in the Black community.
A month later, on Independence Day, the front page of the Santa Ana Register delivered the news that Lynem had been freed and was no longer a suspect in the Sasscer murder. But a dubious trial continued against fellow panther Arthur League; a jury convicted him of second-degree murder.
Lynem, now in his early 70's, brought that history with him to the steps of Sasscer Park in downtown Santa Ana on Juneteenth to address a Black Lives Matter march and rally organized by the Black OC. In the decade since Gustavo Arellano and I published an OC Weekly cover story revisiting the city's tumultuous past, activists have dubbed the grounds "Black Panther Park."
"I have mixed feelings about it because I don't regret my days as a Black Panther," said Lynem about the nickname in a story I wrote a year ago. "But at the same time, as a Christian, knowing that man lost his life is not something I can rejoice in. That grieves me."
Lynem, indeed, arrived to the park a changed man in many regards but being Black in America remained a constant in his journey from panther to pastor. And, if anything, things are only getting worse in this nation.
"In my life, I've seen racism," said Lynem to the crowd. "But I think the racial divide that we're experiencing in this country today is unprecedented."
And that's saying something. Lynem summed up Orange County's anti-Blackness of old in one singular, snarly attitude:
"We don't want you here and we're going to let you know it."
The former panther recalled Santa Ana policemen referring to Black men as "boys" no matter their age. As an 18-year-old youth, Lynem had been racially profiled by Santa Ana police when an officer planted a weapon on him before tightening a pair of handcuffs around his wrists. "The brutality that I witnessed by the police against Black and Brown people," he said, "was absolutely horrendous."
Was it any wonder why Lynem turned to the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense?
But his lesser known history in Santa Ana also had him turning to drug dealing and addiction after life in the party. During a lengthy prison sentence, Lynem found redemption in Christ.
That's why, these days, when assessing the question of Black life, Lynem favors the pages of the Bible. During his 25-minute speech at Sasscer Park, he shared the theology of Imago Dei, meaning life is created in the image of God.
"Every Black life is valuable," said Lynem, "and has a right to be respected."
He stressed the value of practicing proximity with those who disagree with you and the power of forgiveness, admittedly no easy task for Black America given centuries of ongoing oppression.
In this, Lynem offered a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that was met by applause.
"Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that."
- Gabriel San Román
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Long before Quaker Oats retired "Aunt Jemima" last week, Disneyland closed a restaurant by her name in 1970. It's an unsavory history that only found itself mentioned in oneNew York Timesarticle about the brand's removal amid a wider anti-racist revolt in the nation.
Going back in time, just two days before Disneyland's grand opening on July 17, 1955, theSanta Ana Register ran an ad inviting all to enjoy breakfast at Aunt Jemima's Pancake House in Frontierland. Quaker Oates sponsored the restaurant that proved such a success among the Mouse House's early parkgoers that it expanded its menu beyond breakfast once renamed Aunt Jemima's Kitchen in 1962.
At a time when most of its guests were suburban whites, the restaurant featured an actress playing the part of Aunt Jemima. Aylene Lewis donned a red-and-white plaid dress, a yellow scarf around her neck, and, of course, a headscarf as she attended to patrons before departing with a "you all come back." According to the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, Aunt Jemima's Kitchen branched out to 21 locations across the United States.
But what did Disneyland's distinct restaurant say about racism and the theme park's early history?
There's precious little written about Aunt Jemima's Kitchen, save for Mouse House trivia. Duchess Harris, a Black feminist who teaches American Studies at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota had some interesting insights. In a 1996 article, "Reclaiming Culture or Commodifying Contempt?" the academic briefly revisits the restaurant in ascribing broader meanings to its existence.
"Aunt Jemima’s juxtaposition to Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty at Disneyland can be deconstructed in a number of ways," Harris wrote. "The message of these displays is that if you have pure white skin you are the fairest of them all, and some day your prince will come. On the other hand, if you are a large dark-skinned black woman, you belong in the kitchen making pancakes for Cinderella."
River Belle Terrace now stands where Aunt Jemima's Kitchen used to be. It still serves pancakes, just without the syrupy stereotypes of old. For that, head over to Splash Mountain in Critter Country.
Your Mouse Muckraker / Photo by Federico Medina
By the Byline
A few years ago, I attended the OC Zine Fest co-founded by my former colleague Aimee Murillo at the Anaheim Public Library. Outside, people lined up for lunch at a pop-up tent named "Chicana Vegana." I ordered loaded nachos with jackfruit substituting for carnitas. It was my first foray into vegan Mexican food--and it was delicious! The following year, I attended the OC Zine Fest again to discover Chicana Vegana turned into a lonchera. This time, I ordered taquitos and a California Burrito.
Now, Chicana Vegana continues its culinary revolution in downtown Fullerton! That's where I recently visited to order a Cali baerito, tacos and a dairy-free tres leches cake. All was excellent as expected and provided the last bit of research I needed to profile the brick-and-mortar business and its daring, young owner Jasmine Hernandez for the Los Angeles Times.
The grub is so good, it just might turn me into a plant-based pocho one day!