Before #BlackLivesMatter: A History Lesson from the Black Panther Party

As part of our ongoing celebration of African American History Month, Craig J. Peariso—author of Radical Theatrics: Put-Ons, Politics, and the Sixties—examines the Black Lives Matter movement within its broader historical context.  In doing so, he revisits Black Panther Party doctrine and questions how it might inform contemporary discussions surrounding police brutality and race relations in America.

Die-ins; marches; rallies; signs painted with the words “Hands Up!”; NFL players taking the field with their hands in the air; NBA players in shirts that read “I can’t breathe.” The grand jury decisions not to indict police officers for killing two men—one in Missouri, the other in New York—have given rise to a series of actions and gestures of solidarity over the last several months. The slogan “Black lives matter,” which has come to be used as something like the official name for the movement as a whole, encapsulates the sentiment. The outrage that has fueled a number of riots in the last fifty years–Watts, Newark, Los Angeles, Miami…the list could go on—has resurfaced once again, becoming increasingly intense and widespread in the months since Michael Brown was shot by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri last August.

In the press we see images of a diverse group of people coming together to give form to their opposition to racial profiling and injustice, expressing their anger and frustration over the excessive force too often deployed in the arrest of minority suspects. With each story we hear a narrative that turns on questions of police racism. Are the officers who patrol minority neighborhoods more likely to use force in apprehending suspects? Are they predisposed to seeing young black men as potentially violent? Is the excessive use of force simply a result of officers patrolling communities with which they have no connection? Much as I understand the need to ask these questions, it is important that we also look beyond these longstanding racial tensions in understanding our current predicament.

I cannot help but think of the Black Panther Party’s 1966 “Ten-Point Platform and Program,” which called explicitly for “an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of black people,” and proposed the organization of “black self-defense groups” dedicated to defending the community. That year the Panthers began organizing their own patrols, following police through the ghettos of Oakland and standing, visibly armed, at a legal distance to observe as police stopped individuals for questioning. While some will hear of this and conclude that little or nothing has changed in interactions between the police and minority communities, to do so would be to forget the Panthers’ larger point.

Bobby Hutton and Bobby Seale, California State House, May 2, 1967. Photo by Wade Sharrer.

The Party’s founders, after all, insisted repeatedly that their work not be mistaken for simple racial politics. Their Minister of Defense, Huey Newton, spoke on any number of occasions of the need to understand the organization’s actions as part of a larger class struggle, stressing that in many ways the Party used both race and the gun as rhetorical strategies, deploying common tropes of oppression and rebellion to emphasize the need for a broader conversation about social and economic injustice. Little to nothing would be accomplished, he argued, so long as individuals insisted on thinking only in the very limited, and limiting, terms of race—terms that had been dictated not simply by the history of prejudice in America, but also, and in large part, by the media and those who profited from existing relations of power.

In the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, we would do well to remember this lesson from the Panthers and to ask other equally important questions about the events in Ferguson and New York: Has media coverage skewed our understanding of who is participating in the protests and overemphasizing racial antagonisms? Is police brutality simply a result of racial prejudice or are there also class issues at play? Given the speed with which corporate media has reduced this movement to being solely about race, one cannot help but ask just who has benefited from this narrative of racial antagonism, a narrative that existed long before August 2014. It has certainly not been Michael Brown, Eric Garner, or any other poor soul who has found him- or herself on the wrong end of official aggression.

Craig Peariso is assistant professor of art history at Boise State University.

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