Review of "The Rise and Fall of California's Radical Prison Movement" and "The Black Panther Party Reconsidered" from Collective Action Notes 16, 1998.
"The Rise and Fall of California's Radical Prison Movement" by Eric Cummins (Stanford University Press, 1994) 312 pps.
“The Black Panther Party Reconsidered.” Edited by Charles Jones (Black Classics Press, 1998) 517 pps.
Both of these books address aspects of the 1960s Black Liberation movement in the United States, a movement whose history remains relatively hidden in the U.S. even though the events described in these two books took place a mere twenty years ago. While the prison movement and the Black Panthers were different phenomenon, both movements substantially overlapped and significantly, when one fell so did the other.
Perhaps nowhere in the United States was the prison movement as strong as it was in California. The Rise and Fall Of California's Radical Prison Movement examines how the post-WWII prison system unintentionally created a prisoner intelligentsia and-the impact this layer of prisoner-intellectuals had on the state's prison system for the next several decades.
Up until the early 1950s, prisoners in most US states were covered under statutes of "civil death." For inmates, this meant that there was no right to communication with the outside world nor guarantees of freedom of speech. As a result of a major wave of riots that broke out in several prisons in ! 951-1952. over the next several years, the concept of "civil death" was gradually replaced with the language of therapy and treatment with an ultimate goal of reforming' the offender for successful re-integration into society. In San Quentin. due to the missionary zeal of the prison librarian, the concept of “ bibliotherapy” became fashionable. Under a therapeutic regime of bibliotherapy. the prison library would function as a sort of "hospital of the mind”, where inmates, under the ever-watchful eye of the librarian, would rehabilitate themselves through a process of directed reading and self-reflection. Increased knowledge would ultimately lead to "adjustment" to society. The content of the readings would be strictly controlled: no "godless", "subversive" or "unpatriotic" materials were allowed. But the cat was already out of the bag. Within a few years, inmates subverted bibliotherapy into a critique of prisons and the repressive structures of the larger society which had imprisoned them.
Beginning in the late 1950s with Caryl Chessman, who was the first inmate to smuggle manuscripts to outside publishers, more and more inmates began writing highly personalized but sustained attacks on the prison system. Although much of this inmate writing was very self-focused and devoted toward creating an individualistic aura of an "outlaw-hero", by the late 60s with Eldridge Cleaver's Soul On Ice, prisoner's writings found a growing audience in the outside world, where the civil rights and anti-war movements created a fertile ground for critiques of American society. Dissent was brewing in the prison system as we!! and the seeds of a prisoner movement were sown, particularly after the riots in 1967 and 1968, where Black nationalist sentiments were growing among young ghetto Blacks.
By 1971, so widespread was self-proclaimed "revolutionary" ideology among California inmates that the prison administration had been forced on the defensive. Several eye-witness accounts quoted in the book bear this out: Outside visitors were astonished to see entire cell blocks covered with posters of Che Guevara. Mao Tse-Tung and Malcolm X and semi-military drills being conducted in the prison yard. The Communist Manifesto was rewritten by hand into simple English and used for basic literacy groups as well as for political education among inmates. For several years, a radical prisoner newspaper was published by inmates who devised an elaborate system of smuggling material out: material which would be type-set and printed by outside sympathizers and then smuggled back inside the prisons and circulated among inmates, despite a formal ban on the newspaper by the authorities. At one point, prison officials at San Quentin were so alarmed that outside demonstrations might attempt to storm the prison that secret blueprints were drawn up raising the possibility of using gunfire as a last resort to stop an assault.
Yet by 1977, California's radical prison movement was essentially dead and the administration able to seize control of the prisons again. To a great extent, this was due to the receding of the protest movements of the late 60s and the related increase in conservative views which followed in its wake. But there were also serious limits present in the perspectives of prison movement itself . The movement was dominated by a hyper-Leninism and para-military vanguardism that was adapted wholesale by both inmates and outside supporters. In these perspectives, revolution was narrowed to a series of tactical guerilla moves carried out by a politically conscious elite on behalf of the masses. The underlying analysis was simplistic, viewing the larger society merely as a reflection of the prison, with a "fascist" state a prison administration writ large.
The consequences were disastrous, as this book documents. The exclusive focus on armed struggle, with the implicit necessity for a hierarchical and unaccountable leadership frequently allowed shrewd opportunists to exploit the movement for personal gain. Dissenting voices, such as James Carr. who had read Korsch and the Situationists and were outspoken in their criticisms of the movement ended up mysteriously murdered, along with outside movement lawyers such as Fay Stender, who was shot and paralyzed for being a counter-revolutionary'. While the hand of the State can't be discounted in sewing secretly sowing the suspicions and rumors that led up to the attacks, much of it was internal retribution by prison movement collectives' and openly acknowledged as such.
Riding on a tide of sentiment that "things had gone too far" in the prisons, and supported by a more conservative California legislature, the prison administration regained the upper hand by the late 1970s and sharply curtailed inmate organizing. In the main, this involved a "hard" strategy of increased repression such as hiring additional guards, lock-downs and use of isolation cells for disruptive' inmates. Ironically, one of the most effective "soft" strategies used to undermine organizing was the introduction of private televisions into cells, with the administration shrewdly assessing that this would discourage reading among inmates.
Today, California spends several times the amount of money on incarceration as it does on education; prison construction in the state has expanded dramatically, as it has across the rest of the country, and more people are locked up than at any point in American history, with an incarceration rate surpassing China and even South Africa at the height of apartheid. By one estimate, the unemployment rate in the United States would rise anywhere from 2-3% if inmates currently imprisoned were counted as among the "unemployed". Yet as the conclusion of this book demonstrates, prison organizing, if much reduced, has not been entirely eliminated, with secret study groups forming even in the maximum security facilities where internal contact between inmates is the most closely monitored.
From its formation in 1966 to its collapse in 1982, the Black Panther party was critical in radicalizing a whole generation of young ghetto Blacks who came of age in the late 1960s. But despite the high visibility of the Panthers for nearly two decades, surprisingly little has been written in the way of a serious analysis of the Party's work since. The Black Panther Party Reconsidered, a collection of essays by former members and sympathetic scholars, is the first major attempt to assess the party's legacy.
An accurate assessment of the Panthers needs to begin with the social context from which the Party came out of. By the late 1960s, the traditional civil rights movement, which had come out of the struggles against desegregation in the rural South was exhausted. This exhaustion was shown in the response of the mainstream civil rights organization towards the wave of urban rebellions that broke out in scores of US cities beginning in 1967 with a major series of riots taking place after the assassination of Martin Luther King, which prompted then Vice President Hubert Humphrey to declare that" the biggest battle we're fighting today is not in South Vietnam but in our own cities." King's assassination signaled the death knell for the old civil rights reform strategies of passive resistance and civildisobedience. The spontaneous and unplanned actions of younger urban Blacks who were at the forefront of the riots, had moved beyond these tactics, leaving the traditional organizations behind. It was this void that the Panthers filled. As one observer put it. "The 67 revolts marked the entry of the tough ghetto youths into the race battle and the existing organizations, led by intellectuals or the middle class, could not cope with them - the Panthers had to be born." In other words, it was not the role , as usually emphasized in accounts of the Panthers, of undeniably charismatic, talented and well-known individual leaders like Huey Newton, Bobby Scale and Eldridge Cleaver but the pressure of real social events which impelled the Party's founding.
Starting as a local organization based in Oakland. California, the Panthers quickly grew into a national movement as it tapped into widespread Black frustration and anger. Much of this growth was spontaneous too; several accounts in this book describe how the national headquarters was surprised to receive calls from cities where the party had no sustained presence announcing that a branch had been organized. Calling themselves. "Marxist-Leninists", the Party also distinguished itself from both the traditional civil rights organizations as well as existing Black nationalist and separatist groups like the Nation of Islam, with the Party's emphasis on armed self-defense against police brutality, its calls for "revolution" and "socialism1, and a willingness to work in coalition with anti-war, leftist, women's and gay liberation organizations. Although at its height, the Panthers never had a formal membership that went beyond five to seven thousand members, the Party exercised an influence all out of proportion to its actual numbers, with, for example, the Black Panther paper selling over 100.000 copies per week. Moreover in many inner city communities local Panther branches set up "community survival programs", popular services like free health clinics, schools, transportation to prisons and anti-crime escort services for the elderly.
From the beginning, the Panthers attracted the attention of the State. In 1969, FBI director J, Edgar Hoover declared them the number one menace to American society and over the next decade, a systematic attempt was made to destroy the Panthers through a combination of open repression and covert tactics such as infiltration and use of informers and agent provocateurs. In this counter-intelligence campaign, known as COINTELPRO and exposed years later, dozens of Panthers were killed in shoot-outs provoked by the police, hundreds of members and supporters jailed, some on serious charges. Many former local branch leaders still languish in jail today 25 years later. Undeniably, this sustained government attempt to destroy the Panthers took its toll on the organization and played a significant role in its end.
In the early 70s, a major split took place. One the one side was Huey Newton who argued for a redirected emphasis on the Party community survival programs and bids for local political power and on the other side, Eldridge Cleaver in exile, who argued for emphasis on "armed struggle". By one estimate, between 30 and 40% of the membership quit in this period. Cleaver's minority wing of the Panthers soon collapsed into small, shadowy underground armed struggle groups such as the Black Liberation Army and disappeared from public view, at least in terms of pretending to maintain an open political presence. In a disastrous 1972 move, Newton suddenly ordered all local Panther branches disbanded and the remaining members to move to Oakland in an attempt to concentrate Party work towards capturing local political power by running Panther Elaine Brown for Mayor of Oakland. This attempt failed miserably and in the new few years, as Newton had more run-ins with the law and increasingly concentrated power into his own hands, long time Panther leaders such as Brown and Seale also broke ranks. By the time the Black Panther Party officially disbanded in 1980. membership had been reduced to 50. A couple years later, Newton was shot to death on the streets in a bungled cocaine deal.
The essays collected in The Black Panther Party Reconsidered set out to challenge the tendency to "demonize" or "romanticize uncritically the Panthers as error free revolutionaries" but instead give a "balanced" and "critical" account of Party's strength and weaknesses.
This choice of focus is not accidental. Since the early 90s, several books have been issued in the U.S. claiming that the Panthers were nothing but a criminal gang masquerading as revolutionary activists. Although most of these books are hatchet jobs by repentant ex-radicals make sweeping and unsubstantiated generalizations based on hearsay and anonymous third party informants, recent memoirs by unrepentant former leading Panthers like Elaine Brown and David Hilliard also suggest that throughout the history of the Panthers, there was a fine line between revolutionary politics directed towards the 'brothers off the block" and market-driven criminal activities that was frequently crossed.
The question of whether the Panthers were a lumpen organization is addressed several times in this book, most explicitly in an essay titled "Lumpenization: A Critical Error of the Black Panther Party." The author of this text argues that even if the Panthers were not strictly lumpen in composition, the Panthers were in practice lumpen in orientation. This orientation created "a milieu inimical to a stable political organization" that "contributed to a persistent problem of the inflammatory and exaggerated rhetoric of the Panthers" and "also made the organization susceptible to government repression." While this is true, it is not the whole picture. A weakness in this argument is that it treats being "lumpen" as if it were a static identity with consistent and unchanging characteristics and not subject to influences of overall levels of struggle.
Another essay discusses the role of internal factors in the party's eventual downfall, relating the growth of authoritarianism and the cult of personality to the lack of internal democracy in a top-down, hierarchical structure of command which supported a consistent abuse of power and a tendency towards bureaucratization on the part of the Panther leadership. While also true, this bureaucratization was not an organizational process divorced from its political basis. The Panther's vanguardism, derived as it was from a Leninist framework placing primacy on the role of a revolutionary minority to "lead" the masses, contributed in no small part to the undeniable concentration of power in a few individual's hands. Although local branches were sometimes able to exercise considerable autonomy, this was more often a result of the frequent power vacuumns created by the sudden arrest of entrenched national leaders rather than any principled commitment to an internal process of decision making by the base. And while bureaucratization was present from the beginning, it became more pronounced as the level of open militancy in the Black community began to ebb.
As the concluding chapter in The Black Panther Party Reconsidered shows, despite several years of alleged economic prosperity, conditions in Black America continued to worsen through the nineties, with several cities reporting inner city life expectancy rates rivaling those found in Third World countries, unemployment levels still remaining in the double-digits among younger Black men and the effects of welfare reform adding up to a sweeping reversal in the social gains won during the sixties. Although no new movement has yet come forth to challenge these conditions, coming to grips with the mixed legacy of the Panthers will be a critical part of any such movement should it arise.