black panthers & black against empire
Last week, we watched the PBS cut of The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, the new documentary by Stanley Nelson.
Which reminded me I had checked out a copy of Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin Jr.’s Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party. As riveting as footage is, there’s nothing like a book to give the contexts and histories that converge into the Black Panthers. The name? Inspired by a campaign in Lowndes County, Alabama to register black voters and run black candidates, using the panther as a logo for the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. The monitoring of the cops? Inspired by the Community Alert Patrol in Watts who followed police with notepads and pens to take down any incidents of brutality.
The echoes with the present day are also palpable. The fantastic work of community bond funds today? Bobby Seale was arrested at Telegraph and Haste near UC Berkeley for reciting a black anti-war poem and got bailed out with organizational funds from the black radical organization he was involved with prior to founding the Panthers.
Bloom and Martin share stories from the founding of chapters across the U.S. that make it clear that the injustices of today – disproportionate eviction of black and brown tenants and the physical abuse of black students by school personnel – were also some of the injustices that the Black Panthers sought to address, often in a fantastically straightforward fashion. (Previous post on the Panthers’ getting a stoplight installed near an Oakland elementary school.)
“Since the death of Martin Luther King,” Aaron Dixon later recalled, “my life and the life of many other black youth throughout America had taken on an overwhelming sense of urgency. Suddenly it seemed that the movement had accelerated. We were now almost totally consumed with the fight for justice and the right to determine our own destiny. For me school had now taken a back seat to the emerging struggle.” The Seattle Black Panther office became a community headquarters, and the phone was constantly ringing with people asking for help.
The Panthers frequently helped people with problems with landlords, spousal abuse, or the police. In one incident, a landlord had removed the front door when a family was late in paying the rent. The Panthers went to the landlord’s house, took back the tenants’ door, and hung it back on the hinges. In another case, parents reported frequent beatings of black children at the predominantly white Rainier Beach High School. Three cars of armed Panthers drove to the school, patrolled the hallways, and told the principal that if he did not provide security for the black students, they would. The principal quickly complied. (pg 147-8)
I think where the narrative drive of the documentary and the film overlap the most is when demonstrating how the most radical acts of the Black Panthers were not to carry loaded guns, but to prepare breakfast, or provide renters with assistance, or to drive ambulances. Fred Hampton put it, “First you have free breakfasts, then you have free medical care, then you have free bus rides, and soon you have FREEDOM!”
At the national headquarters from August 1969 through August 1970, David Hilliard took on the role “as the senior ranking Panther not in prison or exile” and in that year:
the Black Panther Party developed an impressive array of community programs in Panther chapters throughout the country. These programs eventually included the Free Breakfast for Children Program, liberation schools, free health clinics, the Free Food Distribution Program, the Free Clothing Program, child development centers, the Free Shoe Program, the Free Busing to Prison Program, the Sickle Cell Anemia Research Foundation, free housing cooperatives, the Free Pest Control Program, the Free Plumbing and Maintenance Program, renter’s assistance, legal aid, the Seniors Escorts Program, and the Free Ambulance Program. Larger and more established chapters tended to run the most diverse range of programs. The histories of specific programs in local chapters were often episodic, at times short-lived, depending upon the strength and viability of a given chapter at a particular moment. Virtually all chapters ran at least a Free Breakfast for Children Program at some point. (p 184)
J. Edgar Hoover found these programs terrifying. In a May 27, 1969 missive to the FBI Special Agent in Charge in San Francisco, Hoover wrote:
One of our primary aims in counterintelligence as it concerns the [Black Panther Party] is to keep this group isolated from the moderate black and white community which may support it. This is most emphatically pointed out in their Breakfast for Children Program, where they are actively soliciting and receiving support from uninformed whites and moderate blacks… . You state that the Bureau under the [Counterintelligence Program] should not attack programs of community interest such as the [Black Panther Party] “Breakfast for Children.” You state that this is because many prominent “humanitarians,” both white and black, are interested in the program as well as churches which are actively supporting it. You have obviously missed the point.