The Black Panthers were the 60’s vanguard

The group shook the United States with its confrontational attitude against racism and state power

"They are the greatest threat to the country’s internal security", stated John Edgar Hoover, the powerful head of the FBI, during a meeting in which he declared open war on the young African-American political party, which, in the late 1960s, dared to encourage riots and confront the police.

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The Black Panthers sprouted like mushrooms in major US cities. They quickly became the symbol of and inspiration for those who were no longer willing to turn the other cheek to the aggression of racist police forces.

Segregation laws had been abolished in 1964, but the repressive brutality against black neighborhoods, as well as their poverty, had not changed.

Washington State Archives

Black Panthers in front of State Assembly in Olympia, Washington, protesting against a project that wanted to ban the possession of guns

The major cities in the north and on the west coast, destinations where those who were fleeing the southern apartheid migrated, had become pressure cookers. Frequent uprisings set fire to the cities and to the imagination.  

When residents of Watts, a district on the outskirts of Los Angeles, manifested against the arbitrary arrest of a neighborhood resident, in August,1965, a new historical cycle opened. Between August 11th and 15th, the floor was painted red when 34 people were killed and over a thousand injured. Almost 3,500 people were arrested and property damages totaled more than 40 million dollars.

Over the next three years, the scene was repeated in many other locations. The United States seemed to be moving towards an insurrection.

Those in charge of maintaining the law and order lost sleep. The system they had sworn to defend was apparently in danger. Besides the crowds marching against the Vietnam War, the mobilization of the black ghettos shook a world marked by rules and habits built when imperialism met slavery.

This was the country’s climate, on October 15, 1966, when two students at Merritt College in Oakland, a town near San Francisco, in sunny California, founded the Black Panther Party for Self Defense.

Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale recruited four employees and formed the initial core of the organization. They also decided to establish a uniform: blue shirts, black pants, black berets, and leather coats.

They had more sympathy for Malcolm X’s ideas, assassinated in May of the previous year, than for Martin Luther King’s thoughts, who was shot dead two years later.

They felt attracted to nationalist and self-determination goals, because of the realization that black people had been under a colonial rule since African slaves were captured and transported against their will.

They flirted with separatist possibilities, turning up their noses at the integrationist narrative that prevailed in the dominant groups’ campaigns against segregation.

Above all, they considered the nonviolent passive resistance strategy unacceptable, which was proclaimed by the supreme leader of the civil rights, with whom they sewed specific agreements, but who they tended to see as an attachment to the system that they dreamed of tearing down.

During the 1968 Olympics, in Mexico, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise their fists during the USA national anthemThey believed that the lack of reaction would eventually affect peoples’ moods and their mobilization ability. The active resistance, on the other hand, could raise the self-esteem and intimidate their cause’s enemies.

 

They saw themselves, to some extent, as Malcolm X’s heirs, although they did not share his strong leanings towards Islamism. What definitely excited them was their intention of becoming the spearhead of the black communities. [They pictured] their organizers and armed guards reacting to state abuse and racist associations like the Ku Klux Klan.

They had in their favor a California law that allowed all citizens to carry their own weapons. Carrying rifles on their shoulders and revolvers in their hands, they acted as a riot police against the police itself, protecting demonstrations and protests.

Growth after a bold action

Their national fame came with a spectacular happening in May 1967.

The California State Assembly, based in Sacramento, had scheduled the discussion of a project that would prohibit the carrying of weapons. Under the command of Bobby Seale, thirty armed militants occupied the facilities of the legislative body, protesting against the project that would weaken the Black Panthers against the police.

The images of such audacity traveled the country.

Their prestige grew rapidly, attracting young activists everywhere, who opened party offices, adhered to their program and armed themselves for war.

They had big ambitions: employment, education, housing, the end of police brutality, the concept that black people should be judged only by black judges and juries, the revocation of the compulsory military service, freedom for the African-Americans to decide whether they wanted to continue incorporated into the United States or start their own nation.

They also expressed their rejection to the US intervention in Vietnam. Not only did they want peace and the withdrawal of troops, they also fought for the victory of Ho Chi Minh (the leader of the independence in the Asian country) and his communists troops against the armies led by the White House.

They soon became the most relevant stream of the so-called Black Power. Under this umbrella, between 1960 and 1970, there was a constellation of movements and groups inclined to insurgency against a model that, in their eyes, was contaminated by a mixture of white supremacy, dominance of the rich and neocolonialism.

"We were born as a community organization, but soon we had become a revolutionary party," recalls Kathleen Neal Cleaver, the first woman to join the Black Panthers’ central committee. "Under the influence of the Cuban Revolution and the war for the Vietnamese freedom, and also the impact of Mao Tse Tung’s ideas, we assumed a Marxist identity, but in the specific context of the black Americans anti-colonial struggle."

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Emory Douglas/'Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas'

At age 71, Kathleen is currently a professor at Yale University, one of the most prestigious in the world. As a law professor, she is dedicated to the study of African-American issues.

Married for twenty years to one of the historic leaders of the Black Panthers, Eldridge Cleaver, the third man of the troika which also included Newton and Seale, she was the party’s communication secretary between 1967 and 1969, before she exiled herself in Algeria, with her husband, who was then convicted for attempted murder during a shooting against policemen in Oakland.

"The United States are different from other capitalist countries,” she says, summarizing the analysis in which her organization was based. "The [country’s] economic and social structure have a component of colonial domination within the territory itself, to which other people were brought to by force. It is not just racial prejudice, but supremacy as a form of state and society."

This logic led the Black Panthers to only accept African-Americans associates. They believed that common interests would be defended by coalitions between different associations, each with its own national or ethnic identity.

The State vs. the Black Panthers

Part of the press took advantage of this criterion to frame the group as racist, advocating some kind of black supremacy. The other part of the deconstruction campaign was to paint the movement as a fan of violence and terror.

“We were at war and had the right to defend ourselves," says Elaine Brown, the last president of the party before its dissolution. "But we resorted to violence only when attacked. Our main job was the educational and social organization. "

WikiCommons e Mikhail Frunze/Opera Mundi

Kathleen Cleaver (on the left) and Elaine Brown (right), in photos from the 70's and nowadays

Born in 1943 in a Philadelphia ghetto, currently 73 years old, the activist also became a singer and a writer. When the Black Panthers were already in declining, divided and under severe repression, Elaine was named by Newton, who had escaped to Cuba, the new commander of the movement, a position she would occupy between 1974 and 1977.

"No one had a recipe to face the repressive pattern that was being adopted by the government," recalls Elaine. "We tried to apply one of Mao's maxims, which stated that the guerrilla must move among people like a fish swimming in the sea. But the walls were closing in on us."

Besides self-defense, the party became known for implementing assistance programs in the poorer neighborhoods, the most famous program might've been to provide breakfast for children from very poor families. It was a smart strategy to expand their influence and attract new members, also allowing the construction of a significant financial network between artists, intellectuals and even executives.

The Black Panthers were also able to maintain a weekly magazine, which circulated nationally, and to build political training schools, in which thousands of men and women were educated.

They also took part of elections with the Peace and Freedom Party, a left wing party still active today, foi which Eldridge Cleaver ran for president in 1968. He had less than 50,000 votes: few were the African-Americans registered to vote.

They didn’t draw, during their heydays, more than 10,000 militants, according to calculations made by various leaders. Their potential for social, political and even military growth, however, attracted the attention and the wrath of security authorities.

Hoover ordered the FBI to perform all sorts of operation to demoralize, divide and destroy the Black Panthers. The toolbox against the rebel organization was complete: infiltrations, forged accusations, murders, mass arrests, planted evidences.

The Los Angeles police, followed by other cities', gave a movie-like contribution to the announced hunt, with the creation of the SWAT, a special troop forged to combat Newton, Seale and Cleaver’s party. Its baptism of fire was a battle to storm the headquarters of the association in the city of angels

The end of the group in the 80s

The U.S. Senate, in 1975, officially recognized the illegalities committed by the police, but no compensation was determined. Many of those who had survived and were rotting behind bars never received any type of amnesty or pardon. The police officers responsible were never to be punished.

At this point, moreover, the burden of arrests, deaths and divisions was already unbearable. The party practically ceased to exist, despite the efforts to survive that continued until 1982.

Many of its members incorporated themselves into other groups, especially the Black Liberation Army, active until the mid-80s. The Black Panthers’ mobilization and representation power had, however, been crushed the by the world’s most powerful state.

The head of the US federal police fulfilled the threat predicted in an official FBI document, "Young black people and moderate activists need to understand that, in case they decide to become revolutionaries, they will be dead revolutionaries."

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