Black History Month: The Black Panther Party — Vanguard of a Revolution

I never learned about the Black Panther Party in school, but whenever it was I did first hear about them, I remember thinking only, “They sound dangerous.” As I was a white girl from the suburbs, I suppose that’s not so surprising. After watching Stanley Nelson’s The Black Panther Party: Vanguard of a Revolution, I might even say I was half right. The Panthers were dangerous — dangerous to the system that made black urban life so hard, dangerous to the racist law enforcement officials who brutally kept the system in place, dangerous to the idea that the way things were was the way things had to be.

“We don’t hate nobody because of their color. We hate oppression. We hate murder of black people in our communities.”Bobby Seale, in an early speech

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The documentary follows the story of the Black Panther Party in these moments:

  • the early days, when The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense started as Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and friends patrolled the streets of Oakland armed with loaded guns, in order to stand witness when police made arrests, to ensure against police brutality;
  • the meteoric rise in popularity of the party after they were televised at the capitol in Sacramento;
  • the huge attraction and influence of the Black Panther style and Black Is Beautiful;
  • the inclusion of a Ten Point Program of the party’s beliefs about what was wrong with society and demands for how to make it better;
  • the party’s issue with an equitable gender divide, and some attempts to correct it by having women carry guns and men cook breakfasts for kids in one of the Survival Programs the party ran to support the community;
  • the Free Huey momentum after Newton was arrested for murder;
  • J. Edgar Hoover’s intense hatred of “black nationalists” and subsequent installation of the COINTELPRO program, which aimed to infiltrate, discredit, disrupt, and cause rifts in the party;
  • the difficulty for the rank and file members in keeping their families intact with the intense FBI harassment program against them, and subsequent set-up of “Panther Pads,” where members of the party lived together in apartments in the city to take care of one another;
  • the beautiful art of Emory Douglas, prominently displayed in every edition of the party’s newspaper;
  • the essential part the sales of the newspaper played in providing funds for the party;
  • Eldridge Cleaver’s insistence on an ambush of the police to provoke them into a shootout, during which the police killed founding party member Bobby Hutton;
  • Cleaver and his wife Kathleen’s departure for Algeria, where they started an international branch of the party (she was also a prominent party member), and later met with officials in North Korea as well;
  • Hoover identifying the party as the number one threat to the security of the United States, under Nixon;
  • the arrest of the New York 21 on conspiracy charges to bomb civilian areas and the bizarre melding of worlds as celebrities like Jane Fonda held fundraisers for their legal defense fund;
  • the arrest of Bobby Seale as part of the Chicago Eight and his horrible mistreatment during his trial — he was gagged and bound to his chair under orders from the judge;
  • the rise of Fred Hampton in Chicago, his success at forging connections across demographics, his mantra “I am a revolutionary,” and his brutal murder by police after his bodyguard informed on him to the FBI;
  • the shootout at the LA branch headquarters, as the police attempted a raid but were unable to gain access to the building — a lot of time is spent on this, as some of those who were in the building describe the shootout step-by-step;
  • Huey Newton’s release from prison and the immediate conflict he came into with Eldridge Cleaver as Newton wanted to focus on the Survival Programs and Cleaver insisted the party should be focused on overthrowing the US government, and also Newton expelled the New York branch for criticizing him concerning funds for the legal defense fund of the New York 21 and Cleaver defended of the New York branch;
  • the FBI’s stepping back at this point from as much hands-on interference in the BPP, citing the widening rift as proof that their work had succeeded;
  • Bobby Seale’s run for mayor, which surprised everyone involved by being close enough to force a run-off vote, and which registered black voters en masse;
  • the winding down of most party activity after the failed mayoral run;
  • the violent and drug-addled decline of Huey Newton, who is described as committing physical and sexual assault and forming connections to the criminal underworld, getting involved in drug trades;
  • the end of the party as people left it to resume their personal lives.

“Justice is merely incidental to law and order.” — J. Edgar Hoover, which is perhaps the most revealing and chilling quote I’ve ever heard about how many people view the absolute importance of law enforcement over actual justice

“I felt absolutely free… I was making my own rules. You couldn’t get in, I couldn’t get out. But in my space, I was the king. In that little space I had, I was the king. And that’s what I felt. You understand?” — Wayne Pharr, talking about his time as a Panther in the LA branch during the shootout with the police

Half the interviewees for this film didn’t make it into the final cut, which is a shame. The timeline of the film is hazy, which matters when the three leaders of the group are in and out of jail at various times, affecting how the party is operating at any given moment. Elaine Brown, one of the participants, has disavowed the film for smearing Huey Newton’s name and siding with the “Cleaverites,” so there’s more complexity there that we’re not seeing. Basically, I think the film could have been an hour longer and not made some of the huge omissions it did, while still keeping Nelson’s vision of how to talk about the Panthers. Several things the documentary misrepresents or leaves out that I think are worth mentioning:

  • Open carry became illegal mostly because of the Black Panthers — white gun rights activists sure didn’t have a problem with the need for permits when the alternative was black gun owners.
  • The COINTELPRO program was started in 1956 and was directed against many political organizations and leaders (mostly but not all black), including Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and the presentation of it here as a reaction to the BPP is disingenuous.
  • The film makes it sound like Eldridge Cleaver went to Algeria because he was escaping the law after Bobby Hutton’s death, when really he was supposed to go back to prison to serve the remainder of a sentence for rape.
  • The torture and murder of suspected FBI informant Alex Rackley is never once mentioned, perhaps because some of the people who were tried for it (although not convicted) were in the film — but surely this is a part of the history that can’t be ignored, in addition to other intra-party fighting that ended in deaths. There’s also no talk about the many expulsions of members over the years.

In fact, this last point is something I wish the film had spent more time on in general; the Black Panther Party started from a place of community protection and self-defense, a willingness to be violent if necessary but no desire to be so, by all accounts. Even the  name comes from the idea that the black panther bothers no one unless provoked — at which point it protects itself ferociously. So I’m really interested to hear more from BPP members about how they saw that philosophy working with or against the beating, torture, and sometimes killing among party members and against suspected informants. Obviously the FBI’s relentless, ruthless sabotage and violence created and contributed to much of it, but how did these young people — early 20s in most cases — feel about what was done in the name of the party? Did they consider it part of the protection of themselves and the people? Other small, revolutionary groups have found themselves similarly ensnared in internecine struggles, so maybe there’s nothing too unusual about this happening in the Panthers, but I’d like to hear what the Panthers think regardless.

“The great strength of the Black Panther Party was its ideals and its youthful vigor and enthusiasm. The great weakness of the party was its ideals and its youthful vigor and its enthusiasm. That sometimes can be very dangerous, especially when you’re up against the United States government.” — William Calhoun, Black Panther

I keep returning to the Ten Point Program, which is as relevant today as it was then. It demands an end to police brutality and murder of black people; decent housing, education, and health care; an end of prison abuse; an end of wars of aggression; the guarantee of reparations for slavery; and freedom for self-determination, among others. Nelson’s film elides some important points but it does a good job of showing how members of the Black Panther Party who weren’t Newton, Seale, or Cleaver saw their role in the organization, and even more, the film emphasizes the rightness of purpose of the group in its purest form. Dangerous, indeed.

 

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