Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

Panthers on parade at Free Huey rally in Defermery Park (named by the Panthers Bobby Hutton Park) in West Oakland

Ericka Huggins

Angela Davis

Kathleen Cleaver

Kathleen and Eldridge Cleaver

Eldridge Cleaver

Huey P. Newton, Chairman of Defense

Huey P. Newton holds a Bob Dylan album at home after he was released from jail

Chairman Bobby Seale speaks at Free Huey rally in Defermery Park in West Oakland. Bill Brandt, who later defected to Cuba, is at left

Chairman Bobby Seale

Bobby Seale in jail

Eldridge Cleaver gathering petitions for his Presidential run in 1968

Top left to right: Elbert "Big Man" Howard; Huey P. Newton (Defense Minister), Sherman Forte, Bobby Seale (Chairman). Bottom: Reggie Forte and Little Bobby Hutton (Treasurer), November 1966

Huey P. Newton at a Black Panther rally

Bobby Seale (left) and Huey P. Newton

Chairman Bobby Seale

Director Stanley Nelson

Many of the photos are attributed to Stephen Shames from the Steven Kasher Gallery, Black Panther Party—Stephen Shame

USA  (113 mi)  2015  d:  Stanley Nelson                   Official site

The purpose of this new counterintelligence endeavor is to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist, hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership, and supporters, and to counter their propensity for violence and civil disorder.  The activities of all such groups of intelligence interest to this Bureau must be followed on a continuous basis so we will be in a position to promptly take advantage of all opportunities for counterintelligence and to inspire action in instances where circumstances warrant.  The pernicious background of such groups, their duplicity, and devious maneuvers must be exposed to public scrutiny where such publicity will have a neutralizing effect. 
—J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI, Cointelpro memo from August, 1967 declaring the Black Panther Party a Black Nationalist hate group

The Black Panther Party is one of the most misunderstood elements of the late 1960’s political and social movements in the United States due to government disinformation, harassment, and racial misperceptions that were magnified by an FBI campaign not only to discredit the organization, wipe out any future leaders, but also to destroy it by taking every available opportunity to either arrest or kill any surviving members, where what was once believed to be fiction is now fact.   This film doesn’t really get into the history of the FBI COINTELPRO program, a covert counterintelligence operation that officially started in August, 1956 to target and discredit activities of the Communist Party of the 50’s, but was expanded in the 60’s to include a number of domestic groups defined as hate groups, among which included peaceful Civil Rights organizations like Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), claiming the organizations were infiltrated by communists, but also individuals associated with the women’s rights and anti-war movements, also the Ku Klux Klan, the Socialist Workers Party, American Indian Movement, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Weathermen, and the Black Panther Party.  Identifying the motivations of these groups as subversive, the FBI investigated and undermined virtually every prominent black leader in the country for 15 years, including a veritable Who's Who of iconic historical figures, ranging from Malcolm X and his wife Betty Shabazz, from their marriage in 1958 through 1970, continuing even 5 years after her husband’s murder, while also hounding Fannie Lou Hamer, Jackie Robinson, and Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King, planting listening devices in their home and various hotel rooms, tapping their phones, writing fake letters and initiating false allegations, undermining their marriage, even sending a “suicide letter” to Dr. King in a crude and disgraceful attempt to convince him to commit suicide rather than accept the Nobel Peace Prize. 

FBI undercover agents spied on leaders, federal informants were planted inside organizations, disinformation was deliberately spread with the intention of exacerbating internal dissension within the ranks, spreading discord and strife between leaders, organizations, and their families. To this day, huge volumes of the COINTELPRO documents remain redacted and off limits, fueling speculation on just what they may still be hiding more than 40 years later, as the program officially ended in 1971 after it was exposed in open court deliberations and later criticized by Congress and the American people for violating first amendment rights and making inappropriate use of American tax dollars.  Through the Freedom of Information Act, the department was forced to release official documents that exposed to the public revelations of police abuse, humiliation, misinformation, outright lies, coercion, informants, plants, and more.  Any documentary or historical exposé of the Black Panther Party must also include the extreme degree to which individuals and the organization were intentionally discredited by the FBI, using anonymous letters encouraging violence between the Panthers and street gangs, working with local police departments to harass local members of the Black Panther Party through raids and routine vehicle stops, even providing the strategical logistics of those pre-dawn raids, providing maps and floor plans to the police, while the newspaper and television version of unfolding news events followed the police-fed reports nearly verbatim, making the police department version the one that was officially used with the public to describe the Panther Party and their activities.  That bias continues to this day, where no one has officially corrected or updated the record, and as a result this period of history, and in particular the Black Panther Party, remains clouded in ambiguity.  

The film opens to the innocent sounds of Chicago’s own Chi-Lites, Chi Lites For God Sake Give More Power To The People 1971 B1 YouTube (2:44), eliciting the familiar refrains of social change in the air, where the non-violent protests led by Martin Luther King were inextricably linked to the Civil Rights era, yet increasing numbers of young people, both black and white, were appalled by repeated scenes of blacks being brutalized by heavily armed white police, not just in Selma, Alabama but in urban cities across the country.  While there were more militant spokespersons, Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965 at the age of 39, leaving behind a power vacuum in the black movement.  The Black Panther Party, formed in Oakland, California in October of 1966, attempted to fill that void, founded by 24-year old Huey Newton and 29-year old Bobby Seale, both with Southern roots (one from Louisiana and the other from Texas) who met and grew politically active at Oakland City College, gravitating towards the militancy of Malcolm X rather than the more passive tactics of Martin Luther King, where initially it was Newton’s idea to go on armed patrol with other members to monitor police behavior and bear witness to police brutality, providing an extra set of eyes and ears to the actions of police on the street, hoping to minimize the potential harm done to minority citizens that were routinely stopped and harassed by police.  Standing off to the side, perhaps ten feet away, so they would not be accused of interfering, their mere presence altered the playing field so cops couldn’t just gang up on innocent blacks.  As citizens of California at that time had the legal right to carry arms openly, they formed a quasi-military organization whose initial aim was to defend the black community from the excessive harassment of the city’s predominantly white police force.  Drawing up an ambitious 10-point program, their aims were influenced by Marxist and Maoist ideology, including the writings of Malcolm X, Chairman Mao, and Franz Fanon, where they fought to establish revolutionary socialism through militant self-defense, mass organizing, and community-based programs, like setting up medical clinics and free breakfast programs in the neighborhoods where they lived, but they were quickly labeled “extremists.”  They drew national attention on May 2, 1967, with local press and TV cameras alerted, when 30 armed Black Panthers carrying rifles, including Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver, drove to the state Capitol in Sacramento to protest a bill being discussed that would prohibit anyone from carrying loaded firearms in California other than the police, army, and hired security guards, where at one point they were no more than 10-feet away from Governor Ronald Reagan who was admittedly appalled at what he saw. 

Dressed in black leather jackets, berets, sunglasses, and armed with shotguns, the image of Black Panthers became legendary overnight, anointed the darlings of the political left, including the white liberal Hollywood faithful who flocked to rub elbows with “real” revolutionaries and organized fundraisers on their behalf, labeled “Radical Chic” by author Tom Wolfe who mocked and satirized this practice in his 1970 book, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers.  Nonetheless, it was their practice of defiance in the face of rampant police racism that people found so captivating, as this was such a stark contrast to the meek horrors on display witnessed in other more notable Civil Rights activities led by Martin Luther King.  Their methods certainly caught the eye of FBI head J. Edgar Hoover who called the Panthers “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”  Invariably, when looked back from this distance, it resembles a good and evil campaign, where noble intentions are countered by the dark machinations of the state, as the FBI resorted to a dirty tricks campaign targeted against the Panthers, even resorting to murder, as depicted in Howard Alk’s The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971), where information from an FBI informer led to a police raid that literally assassinated the Chicago Chairman of the Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton.  Once more, the police invent a fictitious scenario of facing a flurry of bullets from the Panthers to justify their use of force, but the evidence proves otherwise, as there were 99 incoming bullets and only 1 outgoing bullet, which was itself an accident, as the Panther guarding the door, Mark Clark, dropped his gun during the initial pre-dawn police assault where he was killed instantly, his gun firing when landing on the floor.   Any attempt to portray the Panthers in a socially progressive light, however, is met with equally valid criticism that many of its members were illiterate and lacked education, had extensive criminal records, where their stubborn insistence to remain an armed group in the face of continued military assaults organized by the much more extensively armed and better funded police force defies reason.  While there’s little doubt that the FBI campaign against the Panthers was viciously excessive, it’s also important to remember that blacks only comprise about 12% of the population, where the overwhelming majority of whites continue to believe the police version of events, where Panthers are not only perceived as militants, but terrorists.  As a result, even forty years after the fact, it’s hard to distinguish between the idealized goals of the organization, some of which have eventually come to light, and the gun-toting activism that provokes a kind of retaliatory violence the public abhors.  While people may be drawn to mythological outlaw figures like Bonnie and Clyde (1967), no one disputes that they were notorious criminals, who used guns to rob banks during the Depression, and killed a few people along the way.  While that film ends in a hailstorm of bullets, viewed as excessively violent at the time, there are always going to be some that claim they only got what they deserved, as the nature of their criminality is what led the police to track them down.  By re-electing Richard Nixon as President in 1972, the American public overwhelmingly rejected the aims and tactics of the Panthers and voted for the strongest law and order candidate on the ballot.  

While the film doesn’t get into it, it’s important to consider the circumstances surrounding the Angola 3, where two of three black prisoners accused of killing a prison guard were confined to solitary confinement in a Louisiana penitentiary for over forty years due to their affiliation with the Blank Panthers, still viewed by the warden as belonging to a “terrorist” organization, as depicted in Jean Vadim’s documentary film In the Land of the Free...  (2009).  While all three vehemently deny the charges, the cases have been dismissed by a judge, with convictions overturned as many as 3 times, yet new charges persist that remain clouded in racist turmoil.  One (Robert King) was released from prison in 2001 when his conviction was overturned after 29 years in solitary, another (Herman Wallace) was released in 2013 just before he died after 41 years in solitary, while a third (Albert Woodfox) is still being held in prison, going on his 43rd year in solitary confinement while awaiting his third trial. Though no longer convicted of murder, Louisiana officials still refuse to release Albert from solitary, with the warden Burl Cain claiming “there’s been no rehabilitation…(from their) Black Panther revolutionary acts.”  While watching this film, it’s impossible not to think about how the credibility of institutions has been shattered in recent decades, where a new, as yet undeveloped moral standard is taking shape, but only after DNA evidence has exonerated convicted murderers the penal system has placed on Death Row, cigarette executives lied to the American public for decades about the dangers inherent with their product, NFL executives have been doing the same with concussion information, the Catholic Church lied that they weren’t aware of the sex abuse behavior in priests, Nixon lied about Watergate and the Vietnam War, Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction, while police departments have literally lied for decades about shootings, where Rodney King style videos are changing our perception of institutional police credibility.  While this film is a start, attempting to demystify a dark period of our pasts, it doesn’t go nearly far enough and instead becomes a relatively safe and conventional portrait that resembles a PBS documentary, leaving out massive elements of Panther history. 

While the film attempts to at least demythologize the history behind the Blank Panthers by providing a fairly objective view of their historical importance, what it doesn’t try to do, or even infer, is make the direct line between the secretive FBI COINTELPRO tactics of the late 60’s and the current and standard practice used by police departments across the nation when it comes to discrediting the voices from minority communities, especially when it comes to police shootings, where the official police version doesn’t match the actions captured on video footage, suggesting police have a pattern of abuse, brutality, and outright lies when it comes to twisting the facts in order to bolster their version of resorting to justifiable force.  As recently as Ferguson, Missouri, and the unrest that followed the Shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer, similar police and government tactics were implemented to intimidate, criminalize, humiliate, and undermine activists from day one, using the same kinds of bullying tactics.  Mirroring the civil rights era, angry police dogs were brought to the scene of the crime in an attempt to intimidate the public, the St. Louis police chief holds a press conference and provides erroneous details, later bringing in military-grade weapons and equipment, justified by another police fabrication that protesters were using pipe bombs, though no evidence of pipe bombs was ever discovered.  While the St. Louis County medical examiner decided not to release its autopsy report, it “did” choose to reveal that the deceased had traces of marijuana in his system, as if this somehow justifies the use of lethal force.  The local St. Louis paper claimed “more than a dozen” different witnesses corroborated the police version of events, which is just another example of the police feeding information to the press, which is then reported as fact, though the information turns out to be dubious at best, with dozens of peaceful protesters arrested, including members of the clergy, along with Dr. Cornel West, a former Harvard and Princeton professor who is charged with assault, while a Muslim photojournalist covering the events is held in jail longer than anyone, threatened with trumped up additional charges if he didn’t release the names of protesters he was filming.  These actions assert an intentional police distortion of events when it comes to explaining what amounts to systematic shootings of unarmed black victims and are at the root of understanding why the Black Panther Party was formed in the first place, to combat police brutality and the use of excessive force.  Add to that the distorted and massively incendiary false statistics tweeted by Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump on November 22, 2015 (Trump's Pants on Fire tweet that blacks killed 81% of white ...), alleging 81% of white homicide victims are killed by blacks (incredibly using statistics from a fictitious Crime Statistics Bureau that doesn’t even exist), a number that is actually closer to 15%, according to the FBI, reminding us once again that what was happening then is still happening now. 

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