The Black Panther Party provides lessons for a new generation of activists — as well as a cautionary tale. The group suffered from government efforts to undermine them. What will government actors do today to penalize political protest movements?
Although it was formed nearly 50 years ago, the Black Panther Party provides lessons for a new generation of activists today, particularly the Black Lives Matter movement. Not unlike today’s young anti-police-brutality activists, the Panthers had their detractors and critics.
Further, the bold and audacious black power protesters of another era — with their afros, black berets, and community-centered agenda for justice and social change — provide a cautionary tale. After all, the group suffered from government efforts to undermine, divide, and punish them. The question that remains is, what will government actors do today to penalize political protest movements?
The ‘greatest threat’ — to white supremacy
The PBS documentary by Stanley Nelson, “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” is a dramatic account of an important yet misunderstood chapter of the civil rights movement, at a time of cultural and political consciousness for African-Americans and others. Organizing around police brutality and violence against black bodies, the Black Panthers established a 10-Point Program to address the socioeconomic needs of the African-American community.
This black power organization enjoyed white and multiracial support, including celebrities such as Jane Fonda, Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, and Leonard Bernstein. And they knew how to work the media. And their Free Breakfast for School Children Program was, according to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, “potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities … to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for.”
Under Hoover’s COINTELPRO — short for “counterintelligence program” — the goal was to “prevent the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement. Malcolm X might have been such a ‘messiah’ …. Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael, and [Nation of Islam leader] Elijah Muhammed [sic] all aspire to this position …. King could be a very real contender for this position should he abandon his supposed ‘obedience’ to ‘white, liberal doctrines’ (nonviolence) ….”
The FBI monitored, infiltrated, and disrupted the Black Panthers, and participated in assassinations such as that of charismatic Chicago Panthers leader Fred Hampton. Party members were framed and jailed, and 20 Panthers still remain in prison to this day. Bette Midlet took to Twitter after seeing the PBS documentary, asking if President Obama would pardon them.
#BlackPanthersPBS says there are there are still 20 BlackPanthers still in jail. That must be nearly 40 years served. Will Mr Obama pardon?
— Bette Midler (@BetteMidler) February 17, 2016
This, as ex-Panther Albert Woodfox was just released after spending 43 years in solitary confinement in the infamous Angola prison plantation in Louisiana.
The fight for black lives still demonized today
Meanwhile, fast-forward to the 21st century, and a new black power movement has formed around police violence and criminal justice reform. #BlackLivesMatter has dominated the public discourse and media, and has injected itself into this political season by forcing a badly needed re-evaluation of race, racial inequality, and institutional discrimination.
Yet there has been pushback against black activism and other forms of political protest and dissent. Some public and law enforcement officials are promoting the myth of the “Ferguson effect,” insisting that the increased scrutiny of excessive force by police has resulted in an uptick in crime rates.
Critics have demonized the black anti-police brutality activists as thugs, terrorists, and cop killers. Sen. Ted Cruz said the protesters — who have engaged in peaceful demonstration — are “literally suggesting and embracing and celebrating the murder of police officers.” Meanwhile, armed white supremacists targeted and shot Black Lives Matter activists in Minneapolis, and an Ohio officer reportedly cheered the death of black activist MarShawn McCarrel after he took his life on the statehouse steps in Columbus.
The fight on two fronts
Just as the FBI coordinated the crackdown on the Occupy movement in Philadelphia and other cities around the nation a few years ago, the Department of Homeland Security has been monitoring #BlackLivesMatter since the eruption in Ferguson. In Missouri, state lawmakers have sought to financially penalize the University of Missouri after African-American students protested against campus racism, and the college football team went on strike, demanding the Mizzou president’s resignation.
Similarly, federal legislation targets the BDS movement — or Boycotts, Divestment, Sanctions — an effort to apply economic pressure to end the occupation of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Bills in Congress seek to authorize state and local governments to divest funds from and prohibit investment in any entity that “engages in a commerce or investment-related boycott, divestment or sanctions activity targeting Israel.”
The Black Panthers and Black Lives Matter are two examples of social movements that have pushed for reform, and insisted that America live true to its professed values and ideals. History has shown that such efforts to improve the human condition are met with force and punishment by the state.
Not only must activists struggle for social change, but they also must address the backlash against their movement. While the Panthers were not fully aware of the forces working against them, Black Lives Matter has the benefit of hindsight, as well as social media, which empowers movements and encourages transparency and accountability. Understanding that actors within government and without would undermine and disrupt them, today’s activists must learn from the past, be vigilant against injustice and their detractors — or we will surely repeat the missteps of the past.
The PBS documentary “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” is available to stream online through March 18 at WHYY.org