The Black Panther Party for Self Defense

Black Panther rally
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).

Submitted by Steven. on September 17, 2006

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

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