Issue 191 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
The Black Panthers, set up in 1960s America, were armed, disciplined and ready to take on the police. In a period of increasing black bitterness and hatred against the brutality and racism of the police, thousands of young blacks had rioted across American cities saying enough was enough. The Black Panther Party for Self Defence was an inspiration to a generation politicised by the ghetto uprisings. It also put the fear of god into the US establishment, which did every thing in its power to smash it.
Panther is the latest film by Melvin and Mario Van Peebles. It tells the story of the Black Panthers which were set up by Huey P Newton and Bobby Scale in Oakland, California, in 1966.
Common perceptions about the Panthers are that they were hoodlums and gun toting gangsters who terrorised their communities. The film challenges this view and aims to set the record straight. This it achieves admirably.
The Panthers grew out of the ghettos of Oakland in response to violence. One memorable scene in the film shows the black community protesting at the road death of a child. The people want city authorities to build traffic lights to prevent further deaths. However, when they march to the city hall the marchers are met by a line of police officers determined to stop them. Judge, a former Vietnam soldier, is horrified as his mother is battered to the ground. Amid appeals for calm and peace, men, women and their children are trampled by the police. It is against this background of wanton violence that people start talking of protecting themselves by any means neccessary.
For years before, the local police had operated completely unaccountably as far as blacks were concerned. As in other US cities they would routinely stop, harass, arrest and sometimes kill young blacks. Newton and Scale set up an organisation to challenge the right of the 'pigs' to patrol their community. They used the Californian law to arm themselves, follow the police and question officers' authority.
The film shows Huey Newton, uniformed and armed, preventing the beating of a black man and forcing the police to back down. The audience joins in with passers-by to applaud the Panthers for restoring a sense of dignity.
Panther accurately depicts the main events of the short-lived history of the Black Panther Party--the confrontations with the police, the arrest and trial of Huey Newton for the murder of a policeman, and the murders of L'il Bobby Hutton, Mark Clark and Fred Hampton. It shows how the Panthers grew to over 5,000 as blacks were impressed by their uniforms, guns and, more importantly, their willingness to take on the police. The FBI paranoia over the Panthers' influence, and the political differences between the Panthers' Marxist Leninist ideology and the other black organisations are well portrayed.
The film has drawn some criticism in the US. Some have condemned it for glorifying black violence! Others complain there are historical inaccuracies. My main problem with the film is its explanation of the Panthers' demise. The viewer is left with the impression that the FBI and Mafia destroyed the Panthers by flooding the black community with drugs. What is true is that the FBI targeted leading Panther members for surveillance. It is also true that drugs were a real problem for black people, but this does not provide the full explanation of their demise. Despite this flaw, the film is an exciting and fitting tribute to an organisation which inspired a generation to fight the system.
To fully grasp the experience of the Panthers, there are many books available, including some very good autobiographies. The first three to recommend are: Seize The Time by Bobby Scale (Black Classic Press, £13.99), Revolutionary Suicide by Huey P Newton (Writers and Readers, £7.99) and This Side of Glory by David Hillard (Little, Brown and Co, £9).
All three are excellent and inspiring accounts of the early period of the Black Panther Party. These authors explain vividly the daily racism, brutality and humiliation suffered by blacks. Each book recounts faithfully the key episodes and developments of Panther history so well documented in the film. In their own way, they attempt to come to terms with the final demise of an organisation that was public enemy number one and viewed as the 'greatest threat to the internal security of the United States' by Federal Bureau of Investigation boss Edgar Hoover.
Huey Newton and Bobby Scale took as their starting point Malcolm X's assertion of self defence. They were respectful of Martin Luther King, but were critical of non-violent tactics. Newton's book states that the Black Panther Party was going to be the 'personification of Malcolm X's dreams'.
Scale's book is excellent at explaining political differences between the Panthers and other black organisations. He is scathing in his criticism of black separatists, who he terms 'pork chop nationalists'. He rages against their emphasis on all things African as the way forward for liberation.
He also explains how the Panthers were prepared to work with whites because they did not consider all whites as the problem--capitalism was the enemy, so blacks should unite with other oppressed groups to change society.
Scale and Newton, as founders of the Party, had as their base the 'brothers on the block'--the young, sporadically employed street people of the ghettos. Scale's book outlines how these people would be the life blood of the party as they were most affected by police brutality. This was the section most attracted to the Panthers' uniform and guns. However, when the state cracked down on the Panthers, the 'brothers on the block' proved to be an unreliable base of support and the Panthers were left isolated.
The end of Revolutionary Suicide outlines some of the debates within the Panthers in 1970, between those like Eldridge Cleaver, who pushed for some kind of underground movement to overthrow the state, and Newton who wanted a return to community based work.
David Hillard's book has just become available in this country. He explains the American ruling class's obsession with, and war on, the Panthers and how the Panthers paid with their lives. He also recounts the arguments with black nationalists over the appointment of a white lawyer, Charles Garry, to defend Huey Newton during his trial for the murder of a policeman. The influence and popularity of the Panthers reached its peak during this trial. The 'Free Huey' campaign had 'Honkies for Huey' campaigning alongside the Panthers. Hillard states explicitly how it was a point of principle to have a white lawyer and that the Panthers were proud to have had white allies and friends in their struggle. Anyone who thinks the Panthers were just black 'racists' hell bent on violence should read these personal testimonies. They are essential reading for anyone wanting to discover the true spirit of the Black Panther Party.
Soledad Brother (Lawrence Hill, £10.99) is a brilliant collection of letters written by George Jackson, who joined the Panthers while serving a prison term for stealing $70 from a petrol station. This excellent book has been reprinted and is proof of the barbarity of prison life. Jackson, rages against the system that put him in prison and the racism of the prison guards who try to break his spirit by long periods of solitary confinement and the refusal of parole. He was inspired by the struggles of the 1960s and educated himself by reading voraciously from Mao's Little Red Book to the writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin. He became a hero to other prisoners and this terrified the authorities further. This makes his death at the hands of guards more tragic. His letters are a testimony to the strength and courage of an incarcerated man who defied the authorities to the end.
Taste of Power (Doubleday, £12.99) is an autobiography by Elaine Brown who was the only woman to rise through the ranks to lead the Black Panther Party in the early 1970s. The first part covers her politicisation and recruitment and is an inspiring account of a woman's involvement within the movement. The remainder of her book concentrates on the later episodes of Panther history when they were in decline. She found herself in control of what was left of an organisation past its peak. Her writing exposes the sexism that came to prevail among the dwindling membership.
However, her explanation of this is unsatisfactory. She does not locate the problem as being the logic of the politics and organisation of the Panthers. Whilst they were challenging the police, the Panthers inspired thousands to fight the system. Once the state went on the offensive and the leadership was decimated, the Panthers had no reliable allies to turn to. As the movement declined, the leadership turned towards electoral politics and Elaine Brown stood as a candidate along with Scale. The party imposed discipline from above with little democracy. Accusations and counter-accusations led to expulsions and internal fighting. The rhetoric of Maoism and 'power to the people' could work as the movement was growing, but in its decline all the contradictions of their Maoist politics and emphasis on the brothers on the block came to the fore.
Hugh Pearson's The Shadow of the Panther (Addison Wesley, £12.99) claims to be a 'sober' and honest account of Panther history. In fact, it distorts their history. Pearson is a journalist who was inspired by Huey Newton, but his book appears to place the blame for all the ills of the US on the Panthers. So they are taken to task for daring to defy the police. They are blamed for violence, drugs and even the attacks upon them. By dismissing the Panthers as 'violent thugs', Pearson lets the state and the authorities off the hook completely.
Philip Foner's new book The Black Panthers Speak (Da Capo, £9.99) is quite comprehensive. His excellent commentary is injected with actual speeches and writings of Panther members as well as poems and cartoons. Unlike Pearson, he sets out to rebut the vilification of the Panthers and to reclaim their legacy as courageous fighters.
Finally, to return to the film, there is an excellent book to accompany its release--Panther: a Pictorial History of the Black Panthers (Plexus, £9.99). This provides background to the making of the film, but the best bits are the excellent photographs illustrating the rise and history of the Black Panther Party.
Panthers opens on general release on 10 November.