The Black Panthers – Vanguard of the Revolution

Black Panther Party

Black Panther Party

Considering it’s almost 50 years since they were formed (and almost 40 years since they all but disappeared off the scene) it was about time that someone made a documentary of an organisation, and the mass mobilisation it encouraged, that was such a dominant force in national politics in the United States for the latter half of the 60s. Whether the Black Panthers were actually the vanguard of the revolution is another matter but, at least, for a short time it shock the American establishment (and a lot of white people) to the core for a short time. This mobilisation of significant numbers of young black men and women coming at the same time as the anti-Vietnam War movement would have caused some to think that the revolution was just around the corner.

In some ways the two struggles had close connections. American imperialism was attempting to maintain oppression of the poor in South East Asia whilst in the home of the beast the black population were suffering an oppression little different from antebellum days and violence against black citizens was an everyday occurrence and deeply ‘institutionalised’ – to use a term that became current in the 21st century.

Watching (after so many years) the images of indiscriminate beatings by the police against black people, of all ages but predominantly of the young – beat them whilst young to frighten them for the rest of their lives – it’s no wonder that the beginnings of what became the Black Panther Party was predicated upon self-defence. A loophole in local ordinances in Oakland, California, meant that – as long as the weapons were carried openly – young black men could attend and ‘observe’ those incidences when their brothers and sisters were being abused by the police. One of the pertinent comments in the film here was how the whites felt intimidated (even thought the forces of the state were on ‘their’ side) – how much more must the black population must have felt when this was a situation they lived through everyday, everywhere, all of their lives.

It was no surprise that such a movement attracted many who had previously considered themselves marginalised. And the movement grew, fast, perhaps too fast. And this was accepted by those in the ‘leadership’ at the time and still around today. There was no control, no selection process, no vetting, no monitoring of those who wanted to join the movement, so no one really knew what their motives were. (As I write this I’m reminded of another, recent documentary, this time about efforts to fight against the drug cartels in Mexico (‘Cartel Land’) which also had a problem of being able to identify ‘which side were some of the members really on’?)

But if the honest people in the Black Panther Party (BPP) didn’t know what they were doing the state, especially in the form of J Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), knew exactly what was on the cards. This new, mass movement potentially had the ability to shake the racist state to its foundations.

Hoover sent out instructions that this organisation had to be destroyed and that any tactics could be employed. Infiltration and the use of informers and traitors (easily recruited when false charges – or even real but minor charges – could incur long, long times inside) was considered to be the best means to achieve this and the tactic became so successful that at times the BPP members didn’t know who to trust. A (white) defence lawyer in the case of the New York 21 – framed for dozens of charges, all of which were thrown out after months of incarceration and a trail lasting weeks – even asked, in court, if the FBI hadn’t actually created the BPP in the first place.

And no one should be surprised about that. If movements against the capitalist state don’t have a clear view of where they are going the capitalist state always does – it will do anything whatsoever to maintain that social system, and in the process will lie, misinform, create confusion, use intimidation, spend whatever it might cost (the money of the people being used against the people!), kill if needs be.

The problem is that social movements such as the Black Panthers have never realised and accepted this truth, a truth established centuries ago, and thus continue to make the same mistakes of those in the past, never seeming to learn from past mistakes and ending up either being ground down or totally destroyed. If this film has anything to offer, other than a reminder to those of us around at the time and as an educational tool for the young, it’s the reinforcement of the idea that we must learn from, and understand, history.

Hoover did the job he was paid to do. Contemptible as he was as a human being he knew where his interests lay. There’s no point in arguing that it wasn’t fair, that the FBI was doing something illegal, it’s the winners of the war who decide on the justice or legality of actions taken during that war.

The lack of a real programme (as opposed to a list of ‘demands’) from the start meant that the BPP moved from self-defence to social welfare (in the provision of breakfast clubs for school children, free health clinics, food banks, etc., those basic welfare measures that any decent state would provide for its least well off) to eventually getting involved in the electoral system that perpetuates the system of oppression in the first place – the argument being if you can’t challenge the state then try to ‘reform’ it from within. How many have been bought off by that idea in the past and how many to be bought off in the future?

The foremost representatives of the BPP in the early years were Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver. These became the public voice of the organisation and the black jacketed, black beret wearing, pump-shotgun toting young black men, wearing dark glasses, became the poster boys of the ‘revolution’ – images that anyone old enough at the time will remember. However, one of the surprising pieces of information (for me) that came out in the film was that by the end of the 1970s the majority of its membership were young women. A few spoke for the party but the majority, if in the media at all, were depicted due to their hair and dress choices rather than for anything they might have to say. It seems to have been accepted that if the BPP wanted to change certain aspects of the society in which they lived misogyny was not one of them – the Black Panthers were not in the forefront of female liberation.

Black Panther Women

Black Panther Women

As one of the survivors said in the documentary they were young, idealist and enthusiastic. Those attributes were at the same time positive and negative and had an impact on what they did and how the organisation developed – or not.

Having no uniting idea of what to do the party went from dealing with one crisis to another, surviving one attack to the next one, going from setback to setback. For most of its existence it appeared to be like a rudderless ship, just going where the forces of nature took it, without direction, without destination, without a goal. It’s all very well for people to stand up against the oppression and exploitation under which they live but unless they know what they are fighting for (rather than merely knowing what they are fighting against) any movement will eventually run out of steam.

(We have seen examples of this in recent years, e.g., the anti-City of London/Wall Street, anti-austerity movements throughout the capitalist countries and the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ in many of the countries of Northern Africa. If you have no viable alternative to offer to the people then the old state will re-take the positions of power that might have been under threat for a very short period of time – is austerity less austere in countries such as the UK? In which Arab country are the vast majority of people better off now than they were prior to the mass mobilisations of 2011?)

Because the party had no organisation what developed was a cult of leadership. As the state stepped up its efforts to destroy the party first Newton and then Seale were imprisoned. Cleaver ran away to Algeria where he set up the international section of the party. Although the arrests of the leaders, and the campaigns for their release were beneficial in gaining publicity for the BPP, and also an increase in its membership, this only exacerbated the lack of unity rather than strengthening the group. People joined but they didn’t really know what they were joining.

Before Newton was imprisoned he posed as some modern-day African tribal leader, an image which appeared everywhere at the time, and the campaign to release him almost certainly had the effect of reinforcing his own individual importance in the movement on his release. He later expelled all and sundry, seemingly on a personal whim and basing his decision on nothing other than his own criteria and without reference to any others still in the dwindling organisation. Drugs fuelled his paranoia and megalomania and to those around him just before his death he was considered clinically insane.

Huey Newton

Huey Newton

Cleaver took the opportunity to get out of the country when a warrant for his arrest was issued and subsequently led the international section of the party, first in Cuba and then, on a more permanent basis in Algeria. He was then invited to countries that were attempting to construct socialism (such as China, North Vietnam and North Korea) giving him a lot of personal credibility but it’s uncertain what he really had to offer. When the existence of the People’s Republic of China wasn’t officially recognised and whilst B52s were blanket bombing Hanoi from miles up in the sky there was a PR reason for those two countries to align themselves with a movement that could possibly destabilise the United States – but surely they must have known that they were dealing with dilettantes? (Cleaver was to become a born again Christian in the 1980s and even supported Ronald Reagan for President – when Reagan had been governor of California when the BPP was started there in reaction to the violence of the state’s law enforcement against the black population.)

Seale seemed less of a loose cannon but wasn’t able to take the organisation any further despite this. In 1969 he came to world-wide fame when, because he refused to stop interrupting proceedings in the trial of the Chicago 8 (following massive demonstrations around the Democratic Party Convention of the previous year) he was ordered to be tied to his chair and gagged by Judge Julius Hoffman. He was later sentenced to 4 years imprisonment for 16 charges of contempt of court (3 months each) after the same judge ordered that he be ‘severed’ (i.e., no further proceedings to be taken against him on the charge of conspiracy) from the original charge – so he was found in contempt of a court where he shouldn’t have been in the first place. The American judicial system not considering that there was something fundamentally wrong with the way it was being used against the people of the country. On release from prison Seale ran for mayor of Oakland (really the home base and place of origin of the Black Panthers). He got close to victory, but not close enough, and demonstrated the basic flaw within the organisation. You can use the word ‘revolution’ but if you don’t know what it means, and what it entails, you will become nothing more than a reformist.

Bobby Seale in court

Bobby Seale in court

Those involved at the time state the lack of proper leadership that could hold the organisation together as being a problem but none of them, in the film, were able to come up with a solution or even, in the 1970s, give any indication what the party was doing to overcome these perceived weaknesses. All they could see as a solution was the slotting into the vacant space left by the previous leadership of Fred Hampton. However, instead of looking at past failings and trying to follow a more ideological and structured development of the party he just carried on with what had become a culture of the ‘cult of the personality’. Hoover feared the rise of a ‘messiah’, a charismatic leader that could overcome the schisms within the BPP, for many at the time Hampton was that ‘messiah’ – but only for a short period of time, the state were going to see to that.

Hampton is shown where he got an audience to repeat, time and time again, the phrase, ‘I am …. a revolutionary’. That’s all very well and good and it must have created a good atmosphere in meetings of people who considered themselves alienated and disenfranchised within the general society of the United States – but it did nothing other than that. Through all the problems the BPP had gone through in its relatively short existence there was never a consideration that, perhaps, what they had been doing had faults and instead of looking at those mistakes and trying not to repeat them they just went on along the same road.

They also, despite innumerable lessons to the contrary, never understood to what extent the State would go to ensure that they wouldn’t even achieve a modicum of success. In the early hours of the 4th December, 1969, in a flat in Chicago, the US State carried out what can only be described as an assassination of Fred Hampton.

William O’Neal, a FBI stooge and informer, had achieved the position of being Hampton’s bodyguard. He was so close to the leadership and had such freedom to move around that he was able to gather information so accurate that the FBI were able to recreate a life-size mock-up of the flat so they were as familiar with the layout of the apartment as those staying there. O’Neal also spiked a drink that Hampton took late the night before so that when the place was raided in a pre-dawn raid he wasn’t aware of anything.

As is not unusual in these circumstances the FBI stated they were only defending themselves but all indicators are that only one shot was fired by any of the Black Panthers – and that was an impulse shot by the Panther on security duty in his death throes. The apartment was riddled with bullet holes and two bullets were put into Hampton’s head at close range. Arresting all the others that survived the attack under spurious charges (later dropped) meant that the FBI was in total control of the situation.

Lie, stonewall and generally create a confused situation was the tactic. What the truth was, and whether it came out or not is not important as long as it happens at some time in the indeterminate future. It wasn’t until 1982 that compensation was paid out by the state, an implied admission of guilt, but by that time the heyday of the Black Panther Movement was long a thing of the past.

Soon after this there was a shoot out in the Oakland, where the Panthers started and always had their largest support. One of the best parts of the film was when one of those Panthers trapped in the building, running out of ammunition and totally surrounded with no way of escape, felt for the first time in his life, totally free, ‘truly alive’. All those that had survived the shoot out were convinced they would be summarily executed if they went outside (they weren’t, almost certainly due to the large media presence and with everything being broadcast live throughout the country). So they had nothing to lose, they had arrived at a time when they had nothing to lose but their chains, a situation which took all the years of oppression off their shoulders.

The BPP existed after this but everything was to go downhill from then on. Those who joined drifted away, either because of fear or the realisation that as they were organised at that time the BPP couldn’t really offer any alternative to the traditional, system orientated parties and organisations.

The Black Panthers as an organisation never accepted, or even realised, the importance of Lenin’s statement in ‘What is to be Done?‘, possible his most important work on party building that ‘Without revolutionary ideology there is no revolutionary movement’. Many wore Mao badges on their berets but didn’t take on board any of Mao’s thinking, any of Mao’s philosophy, strategy and tactics, any of Mao’s experiences of fighting a revolutionary war.

The spur that caused the formation of the Black Panthers was the treatment of black people at the hands of the state, the beatings and the killings, is still endemic within American society to this day. Together with any sense of justice. The list gets bigger all the time, whatever a (black) President promises. From the killing of Taryvon Martin by a so-called security guard, to the recent killings and the resultant demonstrations and mini-riots in Ferguson, St Louis, following the shooting of Michael Brown, to the murder of Oscar Grant (later made into a feature film, ‘Fruitvale Station‘), and other abuses by police officers throughout the United States – often captured on video at the time – all these incidents all go to show that nothing has really changed in the last 50 years.

Not a time for the revival of the Black Panthers but perhaps a time to reassess both the positive and negative experience of those heady days of the 60s and this film can be part of that discussion.