The Black Panther Party for Self Defense

Black Panther rally

A short history of and comment on the revolutionary black American socialist organisation, the BPP, which at its height reached around 5,000 members, before disintegrating due to a campaign of state terror and internal problems.

(For a more critical look at the Panthers and their times see James Carr, The Black Panthers, & All That).

In October 1966, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale organised the Black Panther Party in Oakland, USA, in response to police violence, and inspired by Malcolm X's call to "freedom, by any means necessary." Newton and Seale were disillusioned with middle class nationalism and decided to try and respond to the lessons they'd learned from Malcolm X's formation of the Organisation of Afro-American Unity. Huey Newton wrote that Malcolm "knew what the street brothers were like, and he knew what had to be done to reach them."

In determining the aims and objectives of the new party they knocked on people’s doors in the Oakland ghettos and asked them what they wanted. “We’re going to draw up a basic platform,” Newton explained, “that the mothers who struggled hard to raise us, that the fathers who worked hard to feed us, that the young brothers in school who come out of school semi-illiterate, saying and reading broken words, and all of these can read...”

The Panthers’ 10 Point Platform and Program was straightforward, and, for poor blacks in the US ghettos, inspirational:

1. We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our black community.
2. We want full employment for our people
3. We want an end to the robbery by the white man of our black community.
4. We want decent housing, fit for the shelter of human beings.
5. We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present day society.
6. We want all black men to be exempt from military service.
7. We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people.
8. We want freedom for all black men held in Federal, State, County and City prisons and jails.
9. We want all black people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury of their peer group, or people from the black communities, as defined by the constitution of the United States.
10. We want bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace. And as our major political objective, a United Nations-supervised plebiscite to be held throughout the black colony in which ant black colonial subjects will be allowed to participate, for the purpose of determining the will of black people as to their national destiny.

The Panther program was about black control of the black community of every aspect of its politics and economy. The Panthers in the 1960s tried to pull off what Lorenzo Komboa Ervin, in ‘Anarchism and the Black Revolution’ described as turning “our communities into dual power communes, from which we can wage a protracted struggle with capitalism and it’s agents.” The Panthers were hit with all the force of the US state machine. Their Leninist political baggage meant that when their leadership were targeted, they did not have structures in place to manoeuvre. Their aims though, should be the aims of all of us, in our own communities. Their means of struggle should be ones we should learn from and adopt.

Before his death, Malcolm X stated: “the time has come to fight back in self-defence whenever and wherever the black man is being unjustly and unlawfully attacked.” It was the Black Panther Party’s emphasis on self-defence, leading to armed confrontations with the state that made it headline news and an inspiration to a generation of militants. One US sociologist observed: “The cop’s trigger finger is the gavel of justice in blacktown.” The BPP met this head on with armed patrols. Whenever black people were stripped by the police, armed Panthers would be on the scene, making sure their constitutional rights were not violated. Why the BPP counts, though, is not just for it’s stand against police brutality. A Wall Street Journal article noted in 1970: “...a sizeable number of blacks support the Panthers because they admire other, less well publicised activities of the Party such as it’s free-breakfast programme for ghetto youngsters, it’s free medical care program and it’s war on narcotics use among black youth.” “The news media never say how strong the Panthers are against narcotics,” says Mr. Conner of the Yonkers anti poverty centre. “You take the kids, in Harlem, they sort of envy hustlers - guys who take numbers, push dope. But the Panthers are telling kids from grade school level: Don’t mess with dope. It works.” The labour historian Philip S. Foner describes the Panthers as “deeply involve din a wide variety of other work. The party was protesting rent eviction, informing welfare recipients of their legal rights, teaching classes in black history, and demanding and winning school traffic lights. The installation of a street light in South and Market Streets is an important event in the Party’s early history. Several black children had been killed coming home from school, and the community was enraged at the indifference of the authorities. Newton and Seale told Oakland’s power structure that if the light was not installed, the party would come down with guns and block traffic so the children could cross in safety. The traffic light was installed.”

Crucially, the BPP was part of the community it claimed to serve. Newton and Seale were working class black men who felt at ease with street kids. They didn’t share either the middle class assumptions of the nationalists, or the liberalism of the white left. When the California Assembly at Sacramento moved to pass a gun control bill designed as an attack on the BPP, 30-armed Panthers went to the Capitol building to protest. Bobby Seale said afterwards: I’m going to show you how smart brother Huey was when he planned Sacramento. He said “Now the papers are going to call us thugs and hoodlums... But the brothers on the block, who the man’s calling thugs and hoodlums for 100 years, they’re going to say: “Them’s some out of sight thugs and hoodlums up there! Who is these thugs and hoodlums?” Huey was smart enough to know that the black people were going to say: “Well, they’ve been calling us niggers, thugs and hoodlums for 400 years, that ain’t gon’ hurt me. I’m going to check out what these brothers is doin’.””

Community organisation and community control were the basis of everything the BPP tried to do. In 1969 alone, 28 of its members were killed by the police. The state’s strategy was to push the BPP into an armed confrontation it could not win. Members were jailed, harassed, set up and gunned down. FBI agents, under the COINTELPRO program, were sent in to destabilise the Panthers. In consequence, much of the BPP’s energies were sucked into defence campaigns, and chapters across the US were set against each other. Yet the Panthers’ community-based work remain models of how revolutionary organisations should work with non-revolutionary groups to meet the needs of the communities they are part of.

The breakfast for children programme involved the BPP working with community volunteers to distribute food to the black community. “Hunger is one of the means of oppression and it must be halted.” The BPP set up liberation schools, teaching everything from basic literacy to black history. “We recognise that education is only relevant when it teaches the art of survival.”

An article in the ‘Daily World’ (16/5/70) reported on the BPP’s establishment of a People’s Medical Centre in Chicago, regularly treating 100 people every week:

“We have 10 doctors, 12 nurses and two registered technicians who officially serve in the free Medical Centre. We also have a large number of interns who come and help regularly, from medical schools around the city. Part of the centre’s work includes training community people to perform services wherever possible. Foe example, we are training some of the young people to do laboratory analysis and blood tests, and teams of people from the community are organised to canvas the neighbourhood and bring the Centre to the people. Most of the people in Lawndale are so poor they never go to a doctor unless they are practically dying. Our teams take their blood pressure, medical histories and in general determine if there are people suffering from illness. If illness is discovered, whether chronic or just simple ailments, the person is urged to visit the centre, where an examination, treatment and prescription are all free.”

The BPP cracked under the force of jailings, assassinations and infiltration. Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver and David Hilliard were all jailed at various points and played off against each other by the state, so as to cripple their ability to lead the party. Their Leninism was a fetter on their chance of survival. As Lorenzo Komboa Ervin had it: “because of the over-importance of central leadership, the national organisation was ultimately liquidated entirely... Of course, many errors were made because the BPP was a young organisation and was under intense attack by the state. I do not want to imply that these internal errors were the primary contradiction which destroyed the BPP, the police attacks did that, but if it were better and more democratically organised, it may have weathered the storm.”

The BPP were unlike most political organisations of their time, and no organisation has been as focused, nor embraced any of the best aspects of the Panthers’ method with any consistency. The Panthers’ starting point was: “What does our community need?” They were drawn from the class they claimed to represent, and saw themselves (for all Huey Newton’s proclamations of the BPP as “the vanguard”) as a means to facilitate the needs of their communities, by revolutionary means- by contesting the state’s right to control our food, clothing, shelter or justice. In their demise the BPP were also an illustration of how not to operate politically within a working class community. At the end, Newton, isolated, with the BPP split and feuding decided to push to make US blacks a political force in the way that Italians, Irish, etc. were. David Hilliard recalls coming out of jail to find BPP members being told to read “The Godfather” as a guide to strategy. At the end, Newton saw “community politics” as being about organising the black community to compete effectively against other ethnic groups for resources. Given the violence the BPP was subjected to, none of this should surprise us.

The BPP succeeded because they saw that it was necessary to have something practical to offer to those communities they worked in. They succeeded because they put working class communities actual needs above theory. At the time, some of the left denounced this as armed reformism. As a lesson for today, I’d rather see an anarchist group responsible for stopping one eviction or feeding one child than dribbling on about hunter-gatherer societies, primitivism, etc. It’s time to stop the bullshit. The BPP succeeded; they were judged on what they did by the audience we say matter to us. How many of us now would be judged the same way?

Today, in the US, the Black Autonomy group has raised the call for building a “Socio-political infrastructure to intervene in every area of black life: food and housing co-operatives, Black Liberation schools, people’s banks and community mutual aid funds, medical clinics and hospitals... Building consciousness and revolutionary culture means taking on realistic day-to-day issues, like hunger, the need for clothing and housing, joblessness, transportation and other issues. It means that the commune must fill in the vacuum where people are not being properly fed, clothed, provided with adequate medical treatment, or otherwise deprived of basic needs.” Black Autonomy’s call for a Survival Programme based around community control of food, education, health, housing is as relevant to the estates of the UK as to the ghettos of the US.

We can learn more from the history of the BPP, their actions, their methods, and the critique of their history from groups like Black Autonomy, than we can from the mindless student drivel of the likes of Green Anarchist or Hakim Bey.

Taken and adapted from issue 215 of Black Flag