The Panther Insurgency
"Decolonization never takes place unnoticed for it transforms
individuals and modifies them fundamentally. It transforms
spectators crushed with their inessentiality into privileged
actors with the grandiose glare of history's floodlights
Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth
February 2003, Vol. 2, No. 1
The Panther Insurgency
Review by Paul Glavin
Liberation, Imagination, and the Black Panther Party: A New Look at the Panthers and their Legacy
by Kathleen Cleaver and George Katsiaficas (editors)
All Power to the People!: The Black Panther Party and Beyond
directed by Lee Lew-Lee
Electronic Film Group, 1996
The movement against capitalist globalization has revived a spirit of resistance not experienced since the 1960s. Anarchists have played a central role in this movement, not only by forming Black Blocs for actions but also by advocating direct democracy, propagating the use of affinity groups, and emphasizing a movement from below, not dependent on vanguard parties or established liberal groups. Anarchists also qualify the globalization process as a dynamic of capital, while contributing a broad critique of hierarchy and domination.(1) The integral role played by anarchists has not been lost on those in power. Recently departed FBI Chief Louis Freeh testified that "Anarchists ... have an international presence and, at times, also represent a potential threat in the United States."(2)
With this new movement—in many ways a revival of the movements of the 1960s and 70s—it is crucial to look at historical predecessors. One of the most prominent, well organized, and controversial organizations of that period was The Black Panther Party (BPP). In the 1960s, Freeh's predecessor, J. Edgar Hoover, identified the BPP as "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country."(3)
Continuing the Spirit of the Panthers
Kathleen Cleaver and George Katsiaficas's book, Imagination, Liberation, and the Black Panther Party, widens the information available with great detail and analysis, while continuing the spirit of the Panthers. It is a collection of essays, organized into four sections, plus an introduction and appendix of documents.
The first section, "Revisiting the Liberation Struggle," contains a very good essay on the Black Liberation Army (BLA) by Akinyele Omowale Umoja; one concerning the Panthers in the international arena; a look at life in the Party from Mumia Abu-Jamal; and an essay on organizing for Mumia in France by Cleaver. The second section, "Understanding the Fight for Freedom," goes into depth with several contributions on the daily activities and politics of the Panthers and an assessment of "Black Fighting Formations," by Russell Shoats, a captured member of the BLA. "Envisioning the Imagination of the Movement" contains an essay by Katsiaficas on the little known but essential story of the Revolutionary People's Constitutional Convention of 1970; Ruth Reitan on the relation of the Black Liberation struggle in the United States to Cuba; as well as articles on Panther influences in the Bahamas; Emory Douglas's artwork for the Panther newspaper; and relations between white radicals and Panthers, plus others. The final section, "Continuing the Resistance," includes a critique of Hugh Pearson's reactionary Shadow of a Panther; a short essay called "Remembering King's Assassination," plus, among others, an excellent piece on the Angola 3 who have spent twenty-nine years in solitary confinement due to their political work in prison.
The book also addresses the role of women in the BPP, Panther theory, and the FBI war against the Panthers. This book supplements the recent outpouring of Panther literature, mostly autobiographical, filling a niche similar to The Black Panther Party: Reconsidered, edited by Charles E. Jones.
The BPP survived severe government repression to become a player in municipal politics and community development, but whereas recent books such as Elaine Brown's A Taste of Power and David Hilliard's This Side of Glory concentrate on this aspect of the BPP, Imagination, Liberation, and The Black Panther Party deals more with the post-BPP activity of the Black Liberation Army (Both the Party and the Army lasted into the early 1980s). Unfortunately information on the BLA is still rare, but essays by Umoja and Shoats help fill the gap.
Authoritarian or Communitarian?
Anarchists seem to have one of two responses to the Panthers: they will either denounce them for their authoritarianism or celebrate them for their insurgency. In fact the Panthers were a mix of both communitarian and authoritarian elements, which need untangling, and this book can help us here.
As this book makes clear, the Panthers emerged organically out of the North American social context and developed a distinct form of radicalism in response to it. Today's anti-authoritarians should study the Panther's militancy and organizational cohesion, and learn how they grew from a handful of folks to a mass-based group with tremendous social influence.
Certainly the Panthers emphasis on organization is preferable to tendencies within contemporary anarchism which disdain any kind of structure. For the majority of revolutionary anarchists involved in social movements today this is not an issue, nor was it amongst social anarchists in the 1960s. The question is: what kind of organization?
As communalist Murray Bookchin argued in a 1969 open letter to Huey Newton: "If a revolutionary organization('s) ... forms are not similar to the libertarian society it seeks to create ... then the organization becomes a vehicle for carrying the forms of the past into the revolution. It becomes a self-perpetuating organism, a state machine that, far from 'withering away,' perpetuates all the archaic conditions for its own existence."(4)
The authoritarian, top-down structure of the Panthers, combined with their reliance on Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, is objectionable from an anti-authoritarian perspective. The Panthers saw themselves as a vanguard Marxist-Leninist style Party with hierarchical ranks and they were influenced by Mao. For example, Michael L. Clemons and Charles E. Jones's essay, "Global Solidarity," points out that fifty percent of BPP political education classes were devoted to Mao's Little Red Book. Key members were given State titles, such as Minister of Information and Minister of Defense.
In this collection, Mumia argues it is hard to generalize about the BPP because it had many offices and a diverse membership reflecting regional and cultural differences. Yet by the 1970s the BPP did become increasingly authoritarian and centralized. It has been argued that the move toward centralization in Oakland, and the top-down command structure originating with Newton, ultimately led to the Panther's demise, after the destruction caused by government repression and the split in the Party.(5) This makes sense: increased internal democracy would have produced a stronger, more resilient base within the party. This would have made it harder for the government to stop the Panthers by taking out key leaders and would have helped morale and the strength of the Party as Newton became isolated and erratic.
Yet the authoritarianism of the Panthers was combined with communal elements, such as the free breakfast programs and community health clinics, as well as an uncompromising emphasis on freedom. They were as influenced by Malcolm X—although X's revolutionary nationalism might be objectionable to some anarchists—and by the daily conditions in the Black community, as they were by Marxism.
The Panthers were not strictly Marxist-Leninists. Beyond classic Marxist-Leninist literature, the Panthers were also influenced by Bakunin's The Catechism of the Revolutionary(6) and Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth. The Panthers, and later the BLA, also produced anarchists such as Kuwasi Balagoon.(7)
In addition to Panther ideas, the Panthers developed mass community participation and mobilization largely on a liberatory, communal level. For example, the Panther's free breakfast program fed between 10,000 and 50,000 kids daily, their street patrols are the antecedent to today's Copwatch (monitoring the police activities in neighborhoods where cops are prone to brutality and harassment) and set the basis for the movement for independent civilian police review boards. Every day Panthers were out selling their paper, which had a circulation of 100,000 to 250,000, they lent support and advice to Native peoples, aided in the creation of the American Indian Movement (AIM), and inspired The Young Lords Party (Puerto Rican activists based primarily in New York and Chicago) and the Brown Berets (Chicano/a activists in California), not to mention international organizations that sprung up from India to England (the essay by Clemons and Jones on international groups inspired by the Panthers is very interesting).
The Panthers constituted the beginnings of a dual power to capital, racism, and the State. They demonstrated that it takes more than ideas to create change. Certainly their ideas resonated with millions in the Black community, internationally, and amongst the white revolutionary Left, as this book amply demonstrates. But it was their practice which made a difference in the daily lives of tens of thousands of people. If it is true that one can gauge the effectiveness of an oppositional organization by the level of repression it receives at the hands of the state, then the Panthers were effective indeed.
Ward Churchill's article tells the grim story of killings, frame-ups, and disruption against the Panthers as part of the government's counter-intelligence program (COINTELPRO). Churchill lists twenty-nine "police induced fatalities" of Panthers and reports "that the police were very nearly as busy coming up with pretexts upon which to kill Panthers as they were finding excuses to arrest them."(8)
From reporting on today's protest movement, we know the press to be hostile to oppositional ideas and actions. We should pay attention to Churchill's documentation of how the FBI worked through various reporters to paint derogatory pictures of Panthers through planted newspaper and TV news reports. This domestic propaganda effort cost the Panthers some support amongst liberals and its effects can still be felt today in many people's skewed perception of the Panthers.
Donald Cox's contribution laments the tragic loss of life with instances of Panther killing Panther, in part precipitated by COINTELPRO. COINTELPRO helped set Newton and Chief of Staff David Hilliard against East Coast Panthers and Eldridge Cleaver's international section in Algeria, and divided Panthers on the West Coast against each other, as in the case of Geronimo Pratt. This ultimately led to a permanent split in the BPP.
The book describes the split between Newton and Cleaver as resulting in reformist and revolutionary directions, but also chronicles the existence of a Black Liberation Army before the BPP and running parallel to it. Ultimately many Panthers went underground in response to government repression and initiated offensive guerrilla-style action. Although Newton always advocated armed self-defense—this is how the BPP first attracted public attention—he publicly opposed developments which led to the organization of the BLA. Essays in this collection shed more light on underground armed action: Shoats critiques the loss of connections to an above-ground movement but shows the mass support the BLA enjoyed when they liberated Assata Shakur from jail in 1979.
Idealism and Downfall
Perhaps the highlight of 1960s aspirations occurred in response to a call by the Panthers for a Revolutionary People's Constitutional Convention in 1970 in Philadelphia. Against the backdrop of police terror, 10,000 to 15,000 turned out to democratically draft a new Constitution. This diverse and multi-cultural group "generated documents that offer a compelling vision of a more just and free society than has ever existed."(9) Katsiaficas, who attended the event, reports, "The twin aspirations of the global movement of 1968—internationalism and self-management—were embodied throughout the documents."(10) This little-known moment in U.S. history countered the conservative myth that "people never change": "Within the constraints of the existing system, it takes moments of exhilarating confrontation with the established powers to lift the veil concerning people's capacities."(11) Katsiaficas offers an excellent account of this momentous event and the documents produced are included in an appendix.
The authoritarian and liberatory elements in and around the Panthers came to a head in Philadelphia: the convention was the ultimate expression of 1960s idealism followed by downfall. As Katsiaficas points out, the Philadelphia conference "became the pivot around which mutual synergy, celebration of difference, and most importantly, unity in struggle turned into their opposites: mutual self-destruction, internecine warfare, and standardization in the ranks."(12)
An internal democratic structure may have mediated liberatory and authoritarian tendencies in the Panthers, offering more room for internal debate and directly democratic means of charting future strategy and politics. Instead Newton perceived the Convention as a plot by Cleaver to seize control of the organization and responded by shutting down all the Panther offices across the country in order to centralize power in Oakland. Katsiaficas reports that the results of the convention were never followed up on by the Panthers. Although an historic opportunity was missed, the politics democratically articulated in 1970 laid the basis for social movements for years to come.
It is important to maintain a critical perspective about the Panthers. But it would be a mistake to simply see the Panthers as Marxist-Leninists with nothing to offer today's anti-authoritarians. One has to look at how Panther thinking developed over time—for instance, Newton advocated what he called inter-communalism by the late 1960s and promoted the rights of women and gays, whom he suggested may be the most oppressed in society. Also, the mass of people mobilized and inspired initially by the Panther's Ten Point Program eventually transcended the thinking of their leaders, as articulated in 1970 at the People's Revolutionary Convention, lending credence to the view that the so-called masses are always smarter than the intellectuals and activists.
Revolution and Counter-Revolution
Lee Lew-Lee's film is also an excellent introduction to the history of the BPP. Unlike 1994's Panther by Mario and Melvin Van Peebles, this film is a documentary.
Lew-Lee, a former Panther, was a network camera man during the LA rebellion following the acquittal of the police charged with brutally beating Rodney King in 1992. His coverage of the rebellion inspired him to do this film. It sets the Panthers's emergence within the historic context of racial domination in the United States and as a reaction to the assassination of Malcolm X. He creates a whirlwind of events and personalities, concentrating mostly on key figures rather than rank and file members. The film addresses the central role played by women in the Party, but ignores struggles over sexism. A section covers the efforts of Chicago Panther Fred Hampton to create a Rainbow Coalition (he was the first to use the phrase) with street gangs, poor whites, and organizations like the Young Lords Party.
Also included is information on the work of Mutulu Shakur, a Panther, BLA member and acupuncturist, to force the City of New York to include experimental acupuncture for detox and general health in low-income, underserved areas. The film includes footage of police attacking just such a program in the Bronx, which was, although not stated in the film, probably Lincoln Hospital. Lincoln Hospital was taken over by the Young Lords. Mutulu and the Panthers helped out in part by establishing an acupuncture clinic there. Today acupuncture is a cornerstone of any street level detox program. The Panthers are largely to thank for this, and for initiating screenings for sickle cell anemia—a disease particularly affecting people of African descent.
The film documents the role of U.S. intelligence agencies in destabilizing and disrupting Panther operations, especially New York's Panther 21 case (in which Panthers spent two years in jail only to be found not guilty) and, in 1969, coordinating attacks on every Panther office in the United States. It also documents the U.S. government/Chicago Police Department assassination of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, and the role of FBI informants in framing and killing Panthers. Lew-Lee relies on reputable intelligence agency defectors as well as government documents.
Unfortunately the film's coverage of the Panthers largely ends with the 1970s, only mentioning the electoral activity of the period and not really getting into much BLA history. It does however show the Panthers link to AIM and covers the U.S. government siege at Wound-ed Knee in 1973 and the subsequent frame-up of Leonard Peltier.
All Power to the People shows that despite the Church Committee Congressional investigation into COINTELPRO—and subsequent vows of reform—the same old tactics continue to be deployed. It covers covert operations up to the CIA-Contra-Cocaine connection and the existence of hundreds of U.S. political prisoners and prisoners of war. The film ends with a call for love and forgiveness. In the context of the bloodshed chronicled this call has an authentic ring to it, although forgiveness is difficult given the continued imprisonment of captured BPP/BLA members and unchanged U.S. government practices.
The main problem with the film is its reliance more on the repressive apparatus of the state in discussing the Panthers rather than on politics. Certainly repression was a major part of Panther history, but the film advances arguable theories in place of political analysis. For instance, the film claims provocatively that Newton was the victim of psychological warfare, with the CIA playing off his weaknesses to turn him towards drug abuse, paranoia, and brutality. It also suggests that Elaine Brown, who led the Party in the 1970s, was a police agent.
It would have been interesting to see Panthers address various strategic and political discussions that took place, or to examine the responses to repression that sent Oakland-based Panthers in a reformist direction and East Coast Panthers towards armed struggle. Also interesting would be debates over the alliances Panthers formed with other left groups and the tension in BPP politics between revolutionary nationalism and multi-cultural coalition. But as an introduction this film is a must see.
Perhaps more important than whatever aspects of the BPP/BLA anarchists feel most comfortable with is the fact that the BPP stood up to state power and mobilized tens of thousands in an effort to bring about improved conditions and self-determination for Blacks in America and people around the world experiencing the brunt of U.S. foreign policy.
Both this book and the film demonstrate how the Panthers combined militant activism with community organizing; they both confronted the state and created changes in people's daily lives. They also show the way those in power react to this potent combination; like this summer against anti-G8 protesters in Genoa, Italy, the government both demonized and brutally repressed them.
In talking of a Panther legacy, it would have improved these contributions to include more about post-Panther work in community organizing, new social movements, and feminism. Also interesting would be more on anarchists and anti-authoritarians that came out of the BPP/BLA, looking perhaps at Kuwasi Balagoon, Lorenzo Komboa Ervin, or others. In balance, though, the book more than the film really looks at both the strengths and the weaknesses of the Panthers.
The struggles of Blacks in America, for civil rights in the 1950s and early 1960s, then Black Power, served as inspiration to white 1960s activists. In a similar fashion people in the Southern Hemisphere, once called the Third World, first rebelled against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Riots and large scale mobilizations against "austerity measures" imposed by these institutions predated "the battle of Seattle" by years. It is essential that white activists keep this in mind and understand that predominantly white movements and organizations did not emerge out of a vacuum. Capitalist globalization not only has its most brutal and dehumanizing impact on people of color, but they have led the way through their critique, resistance, and rebellion.
A successful movement against capital and the state must keep the struggle against white racism at the forefront of its theory and action. As part of this, today's revolutionaries should study groups such as the BPP. The BPP not only opposed racism at home, but also developed an analysis of the related phenomenon of neo-colonialism and U.S. imperialism which has laid the basis for what is today commonly called globalization. This is why the Black Panthers were a threat to those in power and why today's movement, if it embraces their lessons, may be even more so.
1. Capital has always sought to expand, pursuing profit in all corners of the globe. This dynamic of capitalism was already apparent to Marx in the mid-1800s. What is unique today is the attempt by capitalists to consolidate a hegemonic global bloc as well as the truly international nature of resistance to this process. Although communists and socialist groups play a part in today's movement, anarchists have been the most centrally involved, visible, and militantly anti-capitalist. The result is that anti-capitalism has become a core identity and protesters are routinely identified as anti-capitalists by the corporate press.
2. "Threats of Terrorism to the United States." May 10, 2001 statement before the Senate Committees on Appropriations, Armed Services and Select Committee on Intelligence, U.S. Congress.
3. Kathleen Cleaver and George Katsiaficas, Liberation, Imagination, and the Black Panther Party, p. 8.
4. "Anarchy and Organization: A Letter to the Left," New Left Notes, January 15, 1969.
5. See Ollie A. Johnson, III in The Black Panther Party: Reconsidered, ed. Charles E. Jones, Black Classic Press (Baltimore: 1998).
6. Eldridge Cleaver, BPP Minister of Information, wrote an introduction to this book in 1969.
7. Solidarity Publishing has recently produced a 120 page pamphlet containing essays by and about Balagoon. Kuwasi Balagoon, A Soldier's Story: Writings by a Revolutionary New Afrikan Anarchist is available from Kersplebedeb, CP 63560,CCCP Van Horne, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, H3W 3H8.
8. Kathleen Cleaver and George Katsiaficas, Liberation, Imagination, and the Black Panther Party, p. 108.
9. Ibid., p. 149.
10. Ibid., p. 150.
11. Ibid., p. 151.
12. Ibid., p. 153
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