Last night’s “feature” was a fascinating documentary on the Black Panthers, originally made by director Stanley Nelson for theatrical release in 2015 and shown last night on the Independent Lens series on PBS. Rather awkwardly titled The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, Nelson’s two-hour documentary manages to make the Panthers’ story relevant to 2016 precisely by not pushing the historical parallels in our face, but allowing us to make the connections for ourselves. The famous Black Panthers — the movement that started in Oakland, California in 1966 and quickly spread nationwide — weren’t the first African-American civil rights organization to use the black panther as a symbol (that was the Lowndes County Freedom Organization in Lowndes County, Alabama in 1965; they were a group that thought the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party had failed because they hadn’t mounted an aggressive enough challenge to the racist Democratic Party establishment in the South, and though they did many of the same things — including registering African-Americans to vote in defiance of the intimidation and sometimes outright violence unleashed upon them by white law enforcement — they did them with an attitude and swagger that the later, more famous Black Panthers learned from and copied), but the Oakland Black Panthers of Huey Newton and Bobby Seale were the ones who became a nationwide sensation and attracted both huge support from the Black community and the full-scale wrath of the white establishment in general and FBI head J. Edgar Hoover in particular. Like the current Black Lives Matter movement, the Panthers formed in direct response to police violence aimed at African-Americans, who in major cities like Oakland and Los Angeles routinely stopped Blacks for minor violations — sometimes for no reason at all in a sort of informal version of the “stop-and-frisk” policy actually enacted as official police practice in New York during former Mayor Bloomberg’s administration. What’s more, the cops in these cities (belying California’s largely unearned reputation as a bastion of racial tolerance) were frequently whites who had relocated from the South and brought their good-ol’-boy racial prejudices with them, and of course those prejudices directly affected how they did their jobs.
The Black Panthers were also the product of a ferment in the African-American community over the slow pace of change; they were rebels not only against the white establishment but against the Black establishment, the network of church-based organizations that had founded the civil rights movement of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s and had won pro forma legal equality with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. What the civil rights activists hadn’t been able to do was make much of a dent in the overall oppression of African-Americans, particularly their relegation to low-paying jobs (or no jobs at all) and slum neighborhoods. Nor had they been able to do much about the constant persecution of African-Americans by white police officers, fully supported by the people who ran police departments — including the notoriously open racist William Parker of L.A., a hero in the white community for having rooted out the open corruption that had plagued the LAPD for decades and a villain in the Black community for policing it as if his forces were an occupying army. (Surviving documents in the FBI archives show that even J. Edgar Hoover — who emerges early on as the principal villain in The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution — thought Parker was crazy.) The Black Panthers organized in Oakland in 1966 after having researched the gun laws in California and found out that it was perfectly legal to carry weapons in public places as long as they were in plain sight (i.e., not concealed), and their first project was to send out their members in cars to patrol the streets and watch for police that looked like they might be abusing African-American civilians. If they saw an incident in progress, they would pull up, park, watch the alleged abuse in process and be close enough to witness it but not so close that they could be accused of being in the way in case what was going on was legitimate law enforcement. Indeed, the group’s original name was “Black Panther Party for Self-Defense,” though they quickly dropped the last three words because they wanted to emphasize that they were a full-fledged political party with a program and a vision for how to achieve it. The Black Panthers eventually adopted the following 10-point program:
- We Want Freedom. We Want Power To Determine The Destiny Of Our Black Community.
We believe that Black people will not be free until we are able to determine our destiny.
- We Want Full Employment For Our People.
We believe that the federal government is responsible and obligated to give every man employment or a guaranteed income. We believe that if the White American businessmen will not give full employment, then the means of production should be taken from the businessmen and placed in the community so that the people of the community can organize and employ all of its people and give a high standard of living.
- We Want An End To The Robbery By The Capitalists Of Our Black Community.
We believe that this racist government has robbed us, and now we are demanding the overdue debt of forty acres and two mules. Forty acres and two mules were promised 100 years ago as restitution for slave labor and mass murder of Black people. We will accept the payment in currency which will be distributed to our many communities. The Germans are now aiding the Jews in Israel for the genocide of the Jewish people. The Germans murdered six million Jews. The American racist has taken part in the slaughter of over fifty million Black people; therefore, we feel that this is a modest demand that we make.
- We Want Decent Housing Fit For The Shelter Of Human Beings.
We believe that if the White Landlords will not give decent housing to our Black community, then the housing and the land should be made into cooperatives so that our community, with government aid, can build and make decent housing for its people.
- We Want Education For Our People That Exposes The True Nature Of This Decadent American Society. We Want Education That Teaches Us Our True History And Our Role In The Present-Day Society.
We believe in an educational system that will give to our people a knowledge of self. If a man does not have knowledge of himself and his position in society and the world, then he has little chance to relate to anything else.
- We Want All Black Men To Be Exempt From Military Service.
We believe that Black people should not be forced to fight in the military service to defend a racist government that does not protect us. We will not fight and kill other people of color in the world who, like Black people, are being victimized by the White racist government of America. We will protect ourselves from the force and violence of the racist police and the racist military, by whatever means necessary.
- We Want An Immediate End To Police Brutality And Murder Of Black People.
We believe we can end police brutality in our Black community by organizing Black self-defense groups that are dedicated to defending our Black community from racist police oppression and brutality. The Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States gives a right to bear arms. We therefore believe that all Black people should arm themselves for self- defense.
- We Want Freedom For All Black Men Held In Federal, State, County And City Prisons And Jails.
We believe that all Black people should be released from the many jails and prisons because they have not received a fair and impartial trial.
- We Want All Black People When Brought To Trial To Be Tried In Court By A Jury Of Their Peer Group Or People From Their Black Communities, As Defined By The Constitution Of The United States.
We believe that the courts should follow the United States Constitution so that Black people will receive fair trials. The Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives a man a right to be tried by his peer group. A peer is a person from a similar economic, social, religious, geographical, environmental, historical and racial background. To do this the court will be forced to select a jury from the Black community from which the Black defendant came. We have been, and are being, tried by all-White juries that have no understanding of the “average reasoning man” of the Black community.
- We Want Land, Bread, Housing, Education, Clothing, Justice And Peace.
When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume, among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect of the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and, accordingly, all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But, when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.
If you know much about American history you’ll recognize the last two paragraphs as coming from the Declaration of Independence; one fascinating difference between the American Left in the 1960’s and the American Left (or what’s left of it) today is that the 1960’s Left was willing to identify itself with the American Revolution and the trappings of that struggle — the Boston Tea Party before the actual Revolution and the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that came after it. The irony that the Black Panther Party would end its 10-point program with a quote from a document whose principal author was a slaveowner was less important to the Panthers than the opportunity quoting Thomas Jefferson gave them to tie their struggle in with the broader American struggle for equality and self-determination — just as Dr. Martin Luther King had said in his famous March on Washington speech that his “dream” was “deeply rooted in the American dream,” and the first modern movement that used the name “Tea Party” was not a Right-wing movement (like the current Tea Party) but a Left-wing one organized in 1970 to encourage people to refuse to pay that portion of their taxes that would go to fund the Viet Nam war. Today there’d be a lot of pissy objections from Leftists who obsess about the faults of the Founders and fail to realize that, for all their failings, they did create a vision of liberation that was seized on and extended by later generations of activists; instead of seizing the tradition of resistance to oppression that’s a valid part of American history, we’ve become a tendency of scolds telling anyone in the U.S. who bothers to listen to us that the history of their country is one of which they should be deeply ashamed — whereas the Right tells them that America is the greatest country on earth and its history is something of which Americans should be proud. The Panthers not only did police patrols, they also offered what they called “survival programs” — meaning programs that would help African-American people survive and even (sort of) prosper while the party was building its resources to fight the revolution. Among these were not only the famous free breakfasts for children, but free schools to teach Black people their true history and free clinics to supply them health care.
Alas, the Panthers’ very existence riled government in general and the long-standing head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, in particular — though the first attempt by government to put them out of business was a bill introduced in the California state legislature by a Republican legislator who wanted to abolish the right of California citizens to carry open weapons. The Panthers mobilized a lobbying trip to Sacramento to protest against this legislation — and, in a dazzling theatrical coup, they brought their guns with them and took them right onto the floor of the legislature. (They were only planning to sit in the public gallery but some of them got lost and ended up on the floor.) The only Panthers who weren’t carrying weapons that day were the ones who were on parole for criminal convictions, for whom it would have been illegal. Today the idea of a Left-wing organization proudly parading its armed members in protest against a gun-control bill being pushed by the Right to control them seems like the stuff of science fiction, but in the highly charged atmosphere of the late 1960’s just about anything was possible. The repression of the Black Panthers spread from local law enforcement and state legislators to the court system and ultimately the FBI — the documentary shows an excerpt from a memo by J. Edgar Hoover (who’d been ferociously anti-Left ever since his days as assistant to Woodrow Wilson’s attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, when he carried out the infamous “Palmer Raids” in 1920 to exile all foreign-born U.S. Leftists, citizens or not, out of the country) saying that among his goals in fighting the Panthers were preventing the group from building coalition with other organizations representing oppressed communities and preventing the emergence of a so-called “Black Messiah” who could galvanize the African-American community and unite them. The police and the Panthers eventually got into shooting wars, including one in which 17-year-old Robert Hutton was killed and another that took the life of Oakland police officer James Frey. The movement’s founder, Huey P. Newton, was jailed in 1967, convicted of murder and then acquitted after he won a retrial in 1970 — in the meantime “Free Huey!” became an international war cry for the Left much the way “Free Mumia!” would a generation or two later — and in the meantime the FBI’s war against the Panthers, sometimes abetted by local law enforcement and sometimes not, escalated and resulted in outright murders of Black Panthers in nighttime or early morning raids on their headquarters.
The most infamous such incident was the attack on the Chicago Panther headquarters (many of the Panthers’ offices were live-work spaces, the Panthers living apart from their wives and children in the belief that there was safety in numbers and also because being a Panther, especially one in a leadership role, was so time-consuming it left almost no time for a normal family life) that killed Fred Hampton and Mark Clark — Hampton was a particularly inviting target for the FBI because he’d been bringing groups like the Latino Young Lords (a former street gang that had acquired political consciousness and was attempting to reinvent itself as a sort of Brown Panthers) and a group of Appalachian-descended people who’d emigrated to Chicago in search of economic opportunities that never arose. Apparently Hoover thought of Hampton as the sort of potential “Black Messiah” he was so afraid of, so he sent what amounted to a death squad into Panther headquarters (aided from information from Hampton’s bodyguard, an apolitical Black man who’d been arrested and offered leniency if he agreed to infiltrate the Panthers) and knocked off Hampton and Clark. Of course, the murders of Hampton and Clark, and all the other Panther-involved shootings, were accompanied by huge propaganda campaigns that blamed the Panthers and invariably said the Panthers had fired the first shots. The Black Panthers had several weaknesses, too, which Nelson’s film unsparingly points out. First, when they had their initial successes and the movement stretched nationwide, so many young Black men wanted to join that they didn’t vet anyone — so not only could police informants join, so could crazies and thugs, some of whom did stupid things with their guns that got blamed on the entire movement. Then the party’s founders, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, recruited Eldridge Cleaver, author of a popular book called Soul on Ice detailing his 15 years in San Quentin prison (he had got sent there in the first place for raping white women, and in another aspect of the Panthers’ story that would be inconceivable in the Left of today a lot of Leftists actually bought his insane claim that by raping white women — including, eventually, Beverly Axelrod, the lawyer who got him out of prison at last — he had been striking a blow for the Revolution). Newton and Seale obviously thought Cleaver was a “catch,” but he blew up in their faces, always wanting to do more radical and more dangerous things than they, and when Cleaver was arrested, instead of going through the legal process he escaped to Algeria, set up shop as the head of the Panthers’ “International Section,” and hob-nobbed with diplomats from North Viet Nam, North Korea and other countries on the U.S. government’s shit list.
Meanwhile, Bobby Seale was arrested as an alleged conspirator in the demonstrations around the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, and the film dramatizes the way he was treated at the hands of the Right-wing crazy, Julius Hoffman, who was the judge in the case, shackled and bound when he tried to represent himself at trial. (He’d wanted his own attorney, who was ill when the trial began, and the judge refused to postpone it or sever his case from the others.) The state government of New York decided that instead of massacring the Panthers they’d try to put them out of business legally, so they indicted 21 top Panther leaders (including Afeni Shakur, rapper Tupac Shakur’s mother) and put them on trial on 142 separate counts. The trial lasted eight months and ended with the jury acquitting the Panthers on all counts, but the whole incident not only soaked a lot of the Panthers’ resources (both financial and volunteer), it led to a fatal break between the 21 and Huey P. Newton. Newton had come out of prison in 1970 into a world very different than the one he’d left, and he had the laudable aim of pulling back from the Panthers’ incendiary rhetoric and concentrating on the social-service “survival” programs. Alas, the Panther 21 in New York accused the central leadership of Newton and David Hilliard of embezzling some of the funds that had been raised for the 21’s defense, and instead of settling the matter amicably Newton expelled all 21 from the organization and declared them “Enemies of the People.” Newton also had to contend with Cleaver, who from his redoubt in Algeria was declaring that instead of pulling back from the revolutionary rhetoric, the Panthers ought to get more confrontational and fight the police directly. The faction fight got so bad that — a point not mentioned in the film — both Newton and Cleaver ordered their members not to offer alibi testimony for Panthers from the other faction who were arrested and put on trial. So the closing credit that at least 20 Black Panthers remain in prison to this day reflects a reality that is at least partly the fault of the Panthers themselves, and in particular the ban on members of one faction from offering truthful alibi testimony that could have led to their acquittals.
The end of the Black Panthers’ story is a sad one — Bobby Seale ran for mayor of Oakland in 1973 and lost, and the Panthers had made the mistake of closing down what was left of their national organization to help his campaign in Oakland, and as the film’s narrator rather ruefully points out, they didn’t have a Plan B. (That’s so typical of radical Leftists who take flyers into electoral politics; they don’t realize you have to have an ongoing organization to keep people interested in turning out to the polls until you have built enough support you can actually start winning elections. Apparently the Panthers and the non-Panther supporters of Seale hadn’t heard the old adage, “You run the first time to get noticed. You run the second time to get elected.”) Huey P. Newton descended into drug use and paranoia, running what was left of his wing of the Panthers from a penthouse apartment (a bizarre image indeed) and leaving people who visited him not knowing what to expect — the intelligent organizer or the paranoid crazy. Eldridge Cleaver did a political 180°, becoming a born-again Christian, endorsing Ronald Reagan and writing a book called Soul on Fire that proclaimed his new beliefs. The legacy of the Panthers lives on not only in Black Lives Matter (the obvious modern parallel since that movement also started as a response to police misconduct and brutality aimed at the African-American community — though arguably things have got even worse for Black Americans in their relations with the police, since in the 1960’s and 1970’s they got hassled and today the cops just shoot them down, secure in the knowledge that white prosecutors, white courts and, most importantly, white juries will acquit them) but in movements like the Bundys and their recently completed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon — a struggle on the opposite ideological side from the Panthers but which also presented itself as an armed resistance and made the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms a centerpiece of their activism.