Workers Vanguard No. 1076
16 October 2015
The Black Panthers
By M.J. Clancy
With its powerful archival footage and interviews with former Black Panther Party members, Stanley Nelson’s documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution reopens a chapter of black history that has long been distorted, hated and feared by the racist rulers of America. While the capitalist ruling class has embraced Martin Luther King as the prophet of “nonviolence” and “patient moderation,” the Panthers have long been demonized as little more than thugs. Even amidst the outpouring of protests against racist cop terror, there has been little reference to the Panthers who courageously championed the defense of the ghetto masses against police brutality. Instead, the call has been to “reclaim MLK” as some kind of radical opponent of American capitalism.
To some extent, such mythology is also shared by Nelson. His documentary gives the impression that the Panthers were a kind of Northern offshoot of the civil rights movement and that it was only following King’s assassination in 1968 that they came to despair of his “turn the other cheek” liberal pacifism. On the contrary, the Black Panther Party was founded as a direct response to the failure of the civil rights movement, embodied in MLK’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to make any serious dent into the bedrock of black oppression when it moved North in the mid 1960s.
Here, the political premises of the King leadership—which looked to the federal government and the Democratic Party for legislative redress—collided with economic and social reality. Black people in the Northern ghettos had lived with “equality under the law” for years while being segregated in the rotting tenements of the inner cities, relegated to the worst, lowest-paying jobs and daily humiliated and brutalized by the police. It became abundantly clear that King had no program to fight the causes of racial oppression, which is rooted in the economic and social structure of capitalist America.
A movement that had raised great hopes and activated tens of thousands in often-heroic battles collapsed amidst the ghetto uprisings that began in Harlem in 1964 and continued with undiminished intensity through Watts in 1965 and Newark, Cleveland and Detroit in 1967. In the middle of these upheavals, the Black Panther Party was founded in Oakland in 1966 by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton. They sought to strip away the deeply felt sense of powerlessness of the black inner city residents, particularly in relation to racist cops gunning down blacks on the streets.
Images of Malcolm X and his call for the right of self-defense “by any means necessary,” fill the screen at the beginning of the documentary. But it gives little idea of the impact of his uncompromising opposition to the capitalist rulers of America, Democrats as well as Republicans. Malcolm sparked hatred and fear in those rulers and inspired black militants. The Panthers were established just two years after The Autobiography of Malcolm X was first published. In his book This Side of Glory (1993), former Panther leader David Hilliard recalled a conversation in which Newton announced that he was about to found a new organization that will be “the personification of Malcolm X’s dreams.”
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution shows footage of BPP patrols in Oakland, armed with guns and law books, surrounding a gang of white cops terrorizing a black “suspect.” For boldly asserting their constitutional right to bear arms and challenging racist cop terror, the Panthers gained the respect of the ghetto masses and began drawing many black youth into their ranks, first in Oakland and then nationwide. At its height, the BPP had 4,000 members and 35 chapters. As one former Panther says in the documentary: “We were not after the church folks; we were not after the Muslim folks. We wanted the brother on the corner, the brother who is getting his head banged in every weekend by the police.”
Other former Panthers recall the problems of trying to assemble a “vanguard of the revolution” from unemployed black youth. The BPP made its stand on purging the ghetto of police brutality. This was equivalent to calling to overthrow the armed might of the capitalist state, a perspective that could and can only be realized by the mobilization of the multiracial working class under the leadership of a genuine vanguard party. Despite the radicalism and personal courage of its militants, the BPP shared the predominantly white, student-centered New Left’s rejection of the centrality and strategic social power of the working class in the struggle against racial oppression and class exploitation.
As we wrote in 1972:
“To avoid the Marxist contention that the organized working class is the key revolutionary element, the Panthers came up with the theory that black lumpens are the revolutionary vanguard, and that all employed workers, black and white, have been bought off by the ruling class. The Panthers’ ‘theory’ of lumpenism is a mixture of self-aggrandizement and impressionism....
“A political movement which isolates itself in a social milieu hostile to normal work-a-day society must become irresponsible, individualistic and ultimately cynical and contemptuous of the mass of working people. It is precisely that task of revolutionaries to penetrate the mainstream of social and economic life and explode ‘normal work-a-day’ society on the basis of its terrible oppressiveness—the very oppressiveness which drove individuals to become revolutionaries in the first place.”
—“End of the Black Power Era,” reprinted in Marxist Bulletin No. 5 (Revised), “What Strategy for Black Liberation? Trotskyism vs. Black Nationalism”
The Panthers had members working in factories near Oakland and even put out a few issues of a plant newspaper at the Fremont GM plant. Unionized white workers on strike at an oil refinery in Richmond, California, took up the BPP’s cry of “pig” against strikebreaking cops who were attacking their picket lines. Thus, the idea of linking the anger of the ghetto masses to the power of labor was not some kind of utopian pipedream. The Spartacist League sought to win young black militants around the Panthers to a Marxist perspective and to the struggle to forge a multiracial revolutionary workers party. Fighting in the unions as well as among radicalizing youth, such militants could have been instrumental in breaking the brittle stranglehold of the racist, anti-Communist AFL-CIO misleaders over the integrated labor movement, in defeating the black Uncle Toms in the inner cities and their capitalist patrons in the Democratic Party.
But the BPP turned its back on the multiracial working class. Instead, the Panthers substituted their own militants for the organized power of the working class. However heroic, they were no match for the armed might of the capitalist state.
The Panthers Pick Up the Gun and Are Defeated
Taking advantage of California’s then-permissive gun laws, the Panthers applied their “pick up the gun” theory. At first this tactic seemed successful as Newton’s armed patrols in Oakland went unmolested. The Panthers also held a rally protesting the police murder of a young black man, Denzil Dowell, in Richmond, California, which the cops ran like a Southern town. Again, they succeeded in facing down the cops. The documentary shows footage of the most spectacular action of the BPP, the one that put them on the map nationwide. That was the armed Panther march, led by Bobby Seale, into the state Capitol in Sacramento, to protest the Mulford Bill. This bill (named after a white politician from a wealthy Oakland enclave) was drafted specifically to disarm the Panthers.
The scenes from Sacramento in the documentary, with then California governor Ronald Reagan and state legislators cowering, capture the spirit that inspired the rapid growth of the Panthers. They are also a powerful indictment of gun control laws, at the time pushed by right-wing Republicans and today by liberals. What is abundantly clear is that the purpose of such laws is to disarm black and working people, ensuring that the cops maintain their monopoly on the means of violence together with their fascist and criminal counterparts.
Taken aback by the Panthers’ flamboyance and uncertain how much support they had in the ghettos, the state’s authorities at first proceeded with some caution. But beginning with the wounding and jailing of Huey Newton on frame-up charges of killing a cop in October 1967, and gaining steam with the Oakland police killing of 17-year-old Bobby Hutton and the arrest of Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver in April 1968, a coordinated national campaign to wipe out the Panthers was launched by the FBI under the Democratic president Lyndon Johnson and carried out by local police forces. In many cases they had the active collaboration of cultural nationalist groups like Ron Karenga’s United Slaves organization, whose members killed L.A. Panther leaders Bunchy Carter and John Huggins on the UCLA campus in 1969.
While Nelson’s documentary doesn’t mention the role of these black cultural nationalists, who glorified the heritage of African kings and queens, it very powerfully depicts the murderous vendetta launched by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Raving that the Panthers were the “greatest threat to the internal security of the country,” Hoover revived COINTELPRO, the counterintelligence program that had originally been set up in 1956 with its main target being the Communist Party. In a memo distributed to all FBI offices in the country, Hoover declared: “The purpose of this new counter-intelligence endeavor is to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalists.” What Hoover meant by “neutralize” was spelled out in 1968, “the Negro youth and moderate[s] must be made to understand that if they succumb to revolutionary teachings, they will be dead revolutionaries.”
COINTELPRO unleashed the most savage and systematic campaign of racist murder in modern American history. Much of this is vividly portrayed in archival footage in the documentary: from images of Panthers in Philadelphia stripped to their underwear and lined up against the wall outside their headquarters, to Oakland Panthers piling up sand bags in anticipation of a police assault on their office. There are depictions of Bobby Seale being bound and gagged like a latter-day slave on orders from the judge in the Chicago Seven trial. Footage of a rally outside the courthouse shows the powerful eloquence of the 20-year-old Fred Hampton, the deputy chairman of the BPP’s Illinois branch.
There is also footage of the bloody aftermath of the 4 December 1969 pre-dawn raid by the Chicago police on Hampton’s apartment. Orchestrated by the FBI, the cops unleashed an onslaught of bullets killing Hampton and 17-year-old Mark Clark in their beds as they slept. Among those interviewed in the movie is William O’Neill, the police informant who was Hampton’s bodyguard and provided the floor plans to the apartment.
Four days after the assassination of Hampton and Clark, an L.A. SWAT team laid siege to the Panther office in L.A., firing thousands of rounds of ammunition. Although unmentioned in the documentary, a particular target of the LAPD was L.A. BPP leader Geronimo ji Jaga (Pratt), a Vietnam War vet whose military knowledge was crucial to saving his life and those of his comrades. Geronimo was subsequently framed up for a 1968 murder and spent 27 years in prison (eight of them in solitary) before his conviction was overturned and he was freed in 1997; he died in 2011.
Virtually the entire leadership of the New York Black Panthers was arrested on trumped-up and completely ludicrous “conspiracy” charges, including that they were plotting to blow up the Bronx botanical gardens and other targets. Known as the Panther 21, they were held in jail for nearly two years. After a 13-month trial, the longest criminal proceeding in New York state history at the time, it took the jury only three hours to find all of the Panther 21 not guilty on all charges.
Thirty-eight Panthers were murdered under the FBI’s COINTELPRO campaign. Hundreds of others were rounded up and thrown in jail. Today, 20 former Panthers, including America’s foremost class-war prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal who had been sentenced to death on frame-up charges of killing a Philadelphia cop, continue to languish in America’s prison dungeons. While the number of former BPP members in jail is mentioned in the movie, nothing is said of their cases or the cause of fighting for their freedom. Among the former Black Panther supporters still incarcerated are Ed Poindexter, Wopashitwe Mondo Eyen we Langa and Albert Woodfox, all of whom, like Mumia, receive monthly stipends from the Partisan Defense Committee. The PDC is a class-struggle, non-sectarian legal and social defense organization associated with the Spartacist League.
The Panthers Defend Themselves and Move Right
From May 1967 to December 1969 alone, the BPP was hit with 768 arrests and almost $5 million in bail bonds. Isolated, with state repression relentlessly bearing down on them, the Panthers shifted their focus to legal defense work. The Panthers’ alliance with various white radical and liberal groups, like the Peace and Freedom Party, was not motivated by any realization that American society could only be revolutionized by an integrated working-class movement. Rather they were driven by the need to gain the broadest material and other support for their legal defense.
The documentary shows footage of Panthers at Jane Fonda’s apartment, with former BPP members recalling the titillation of the white glitterati at the sight of them lining the walls in their black leather jackets and berets posturing as if they were about to shoot someone. The cultural wing of the liberal bourgeoisie paid handsomely for the experience of exposing their bourgeois sensibilities to the “black revolution” in safety, an expensive delight somewhat recalling the Roman arena.
What is left unsaid is the role played by the reformists of the Communist Party (CP), although one is left to wonder where all the white lawyers who defended the Panthers came from. Guided by the legal apparatus of the CP, the Panther leadership was influenced to launch a “united front against fascism” in 1969. Its purpose was to forge a political alliance with the liberal Democratic Party establishment against the Republican right on an essentially civil libertarian basis. The central demand of this abortive “united front” was community control of the cops. This demand combined liberal illusions about the nature of the capitalist state with black nationalist illusions that the oppression of black people could be ended through their control of ghetto institutions. Today, the call for community control of the police is again prominent in the Black Lives Matter protests against racist cop terror. Behind it is the deadly reformist illusion that the capitalist rulers can be pressured into dismantling their repressive state apparatus.
Along with their turn toward the liberals, the Panthers launched a series of ghetto social work programs, exemplified by their “breakfast for children” program. As the documentary portrays, these new activities were designed to gain support from black people in the inner cities who had not rallied behind the BPP’s adventurist confrontations with the cops because they recognized that the balance of forces was decidedly not in their favor. In addition, the aim was to give the Panthers a more humanitarian image when facing middle-class white juries. To this day, the image of the Panthers feeding hungry black children is the one preferred by the reformist left and black petty-bourgeois radicals.
With the rulers of this country now snatching school lunches even out of the mouths of white kids, the idea of providing breakfast to hungry children must look pretty good to black youth and others. But the Panthers’ “serve the people” programs were no competition for the money the U.S. government was throwing at poverty programs in the 1960s. This was hardly out of the “goodness of their hearts.” Rather the aim was to pacify the inner cities following the ghetto uprisings. The bourgeoisie needed black youth as cannon fodder for their dirty war against the Vietnamese workers and peasants and didn’t want to fight a war on two fronts, at home and abroad.
But the problem with the Panthers’ food, health and other programs was not that they didn’t work but that they strengthened the BPP’s paternalistic self-image: the Panthers as avenging angels of the black masses who in turn were seen as grateful clients, not as potential conscious revolutionists in their own right. Meanwhile, the main beneficiaries of the government’s “war on poverty” were a thin layer of the black population, many of whom went on to be overseers of the ghettos as big city mayors, police chiefs and in other government offices.
By every index of misery the conditions of life for the black working class and poor are as bad as they were in the 1960s. The reality today is that much of the black population is written off as little more than a “surplus population” by the racist rulers, not worth even providing with subsistence-level welfare and other programs. And of course there are the huge numbers locked up in prisons. This serves to underline, again, that the only road to black freedom lies through shattering the entire system of racist American capitalism. What is necessary is a struggle for power, a socialist revolution, by the integrated working class—the wage slaves without whose labor the capitalist owners cannot reap their golden riches—that will overthrow the U.S. imperialist order.
The Fall of the
Black Panther Party
Facing a dead end politically, their early victories against cop brutality long behind them, the popular-front alliance with the reformists and liberals going nowhere, the Panthers were broken by bloody state repression and COINTELPRO provocations. These in turn fed into murderous internal factionalism. In 1971 there was a violent and spectacular split centered on the personalities of BPP leaders Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton. As seen in the documentary, Cleaver and much of his group were in exile in Algeria where he fled following his 1968 arrest. This wing continued to talk of “urban guerilla warfare,” although given the massive state repression against the Panthers this was little more than posturing. The Newton wing moved to Democratic Party liberalism as seen in the footage in The Black Panthers of Bobby Seale and Elaine Brown campaigning as Democrats in the 1973 Oakland municipal elections.
Despite the idealism and heroism of the early Panthers, the split reflected the problems of trying to build a “revolutionary vanguard” based on the glorification of impoverished black youth in the ghettos, seeing the “most oppressed” as the “most revolutionary.” Although often courageous, these adventurous youth were not recruited on the basis of a revolutionary political program. As a reflection, discipline in the Panthers was imposed by street-gang methods. In the absence of a membership politically armed through education, discussion, debate and commitment, leadership in the Panthers became a form of “hero worship.” The disastrous effect can be seen in the documentary with Huey Newton bathing in adulation following his release from jail. The inherent corruption of the “warrior-hero” leader is captured in scenes of Newton’s lavish penthouse apartment, paid for out of party funds raised for Panther defense cases.
The Panthers’ glorification of lumpenism was also seen in their treatment of women members, who by the 1970s made up over half the party’s membership. While many of these women were leaders of Panthers’ political education classes and some were party leaders, phrases like “pussy power” were thrown around, reflecting the sexual degradation of women in the BPP. This was not simply vulgar talk but came out of the Panthers’ lumpenproletarian base and macho quasi-militarism, which made for a brutal internal life, particularly for women.
Nonetheless, from the late 1960s through to the Cleaver-Newton split, the Panthers were so sacrosanct in radical circles and nearly all self-proclaimed Marxist organizations that any criticism of them was met with shrill accusations of racism. In the face of the widespread hero worship of Newton, Cleaver and other Panther leaders, the Spartacist League polemicized against the BPP’s notion of lumpen vanguardism and argued that black nationalism, even in its most radical form, was a utopian dead end. We also denounced their physical assaults against other leftists and challenged their rightward plunge into the Democratic Party. At the same time, we fought to defend Panther militants against state repression, and we continue to do so.
For Black Liberation
Through Socialist Revolution!
In the end, the Panthers were not defeated politically through the intervention of a Leninist vanguard party, but rather physically and organizationally destroyed by the capitalist state. Thus, many of the lessons of the demise of an organization that represented the high-water mark of black radicalism in the last 50 years of American history have been lost. Our purpose is to arm a new generation of young militants and workers with these lessons, to win them to the program of revolutionary integrationism. That is the understanding that the only road to black freedom lies in the struggle to smash racist, imperialist America through a proletarian socialist revolution, in which black workers, the most combative element in the working class, will play a leading role.
As we concluded our article “End of the Black Power Era,” which was written after the Cleaver-Newton split:
“The Panthers could not defeat the cops because the cops are an essential part of the capitalist state and the Panthers could not defeat that state. Given that fact, the Panthers could only alternate between the bitter consequences of heroic adventurism or appealing to the liberal establishment.
“The oppression of the black people cannot be ended by black activists alone, but only by the working class as a whole. The breakup of the Panthers’ organization and authority creates greater opportunity—but only opportunity—for the struggle for an integrated proletarian socialist vanguard party. The process is in no sense inevitable; there will always be plenty of hustlers and romantic rebels to attempt endless repetition of the old mistakes and betrayals. But the intervention of Leninists among radical blacks can stimulate the understanding that the liberation of black people will be both a great driving force of the American proletarian revolution, and a great achievement of the revolution in power. That revolution will be made, not in the name of black power, but of working-class power—communism.”