The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense exploded on the U.S. scene in Oakland, California, in 1966, in the midst of a long social upsurge sparked by the southern Civil Rights movement and stoked by massive opposition to the Vietnam war. Armed Panthers patrolled Black neighborhoods to defend them against cops and took guns to the state capital to oppose a gun control bill targeting them. The party expanded to Los Angeles, then Seattle and across the country.
Their revolutionary Marxist analysis, multi-racial organizing, and positions supporting women and gays set them apart from liberals. Their survival programs forced the government to provide social services to the poor on an unprecedented scale.
The Seattle Black Panther Party celebrated its 50th anniversary at the end of April with a three-day conference whose theme was “Power to the People … Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow.” Potent words that raise the question — how?
Yesterday. The conference commemorated the Party’s history with presentations by some of the great names of the national party; Elaine Brown, Ericka Huggins, and artist Emory Douglas. It also hosted organizers of groups who worked with the Panthers, such as the Young Lords, the American Indian Movement and the Young Patriot Party.
The event featured dynamic hip-hop and blues-funk music, and a reading from the play “Party People.” The crowd was majority Black, diverse and multi-generational.
The opening speaker was actor Danny Glover, a Panther ally while a college student. He described the Party as part of U.S. radical history and emphasized the importance of reclaiming the radicalism of the Black freedom movement. He stressed the need for intersectionality, internationalism, anti-militarism and the necessity to look at the capitalist system itself.
Ericka Huggins focused on her personal story, being torn from her three-month-old daughter when she went to prison, and the torment of 14 months in solitary confinement before her attorney won a ruling that this was cruel and unusual punishment.
A political prisoners workshop featured the remaining members of the Angola three, Alfred Woodfox and Robert King, as well as Mark Cook, a founder of the Walla Walla prison chapter of the Party. All were tortured with long term solitary confinement and physical brutality and spoke eloquently of how their political awakening through the Party and its 10-point program helped them survive.
Reform, or revolution? A panel of Seattle chapter members focused on the many survival programs as the most important party activities. These were the free breakfast programs for children, summer liberation schools, transportation for families to prisons, and medical clinics. Brief mention was made of how they were inspired to try to change the world, how important selling and studying the newspaper was, the wonderful camaraderie and sharing of work, and how young they were.
Elaine Brown talked on the genius of Huey P. Newton. She highlighted the significance of the Panthers’ call for victory to the Vietcong in the Vietnam war. She praised Fred Hampton’s original multi-racial Rainbow Coalition, and Newton’s 1970 call for solidarity with the gay and women’s liberation movements.
But Brown conveyed a mixed message at best toward revolutionary socialism. She described Newton as a Marxist-Leninist, but then claimed that Marx was a racist (an assertion this writer would vehemently dispute). She maintained the 10-point program was not revolutionary, but rather for “survival pending revolution.” Her only reference to the Party’s lack of democracy was to quote Newton that “information goes up and down, but orders come from the top down.” She talked about winning 37 percent of the vote when she ran for mayor of Oakland, without mentioning she ran as a Democrat. She said they showed their power by electing the first Black mayor of Oakland (a Democrat), then mentioned without irony that a few years later the party died a natural death.
Today and tomorrow. Before each day’s program, a slide show thanking “our sponsors,” showed that the conference was funded by Seattle city departments, major corporations, non-profits, and Black businesses. Accordingly, when asked about solutions to today’s intractable social problems, speakers stressed mild reforms, like cooperative farms and building co-op housing for the homeless — efforts that can never raise hundreds of millions of working class people out of poverty. Being free was reduced to a matter of believing you are free.
Elaine Brown spoke of the FBI-inspired murders of Fred Hampton in Chicago and John Huggins and Bunchy Carter in L.A. But neither she nor anyone else mentioned the militant mass movements that led to stunning Panther victories like the freeing of Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins — even when asked directly.
There was limited mention of the work of Panther women, or appreciation of their vital organizational skills in running the survival programs. When Elaine Brown was asked about violence against Black women by Black men, she said several contradictory things. That Black people can’t afford divisions on gender lines, that the Panthers didn’t accept bad behavior (even though she described some of it in her own book), that Black men don’t have the power to oppress Black women, and that calling the feminist movement “white” is wrong.
Repeatedly, audience members asked questions about what lessons today’s activists should learn from the Panthers, what mistakes were made, what people would do differently if they could, or what they thought about how to build today’s movements. But there was no dialogue on these questions. And, in the name of focusing on the positive, there was no analysis of the party’s history, or its strengths and weaknesses.
The Black Panther Party, as a mass, primarily Black, revolutionary socialist party that commanded the allegiance of millions, was a pivotal development to the entire U.S. working class. Its actual story shows the way forward. But treating it as an icon and reducing it to just a service organization turns its revolutionary message into a distant — and presumably unattainable — goal.