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The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution USA (2015)

Posted by keith1942 on July 30, 2020

The Black Panther Party was one of the most important organisations in the struggle for full emancipation for black people in the United States. This was a struggle for Civil Rights rather than national liberation: but it was an important part of the twin struggles of class struggle in advanced capitalist societies and liberation struggles of the oppressed peoples and nations. The Panthers were, at least initially, inclined to a nationalist perspective on the struggle but as the party developed it became a more class conscious and internationalist organisation. Thus the description of ‘Vanguard of the Revolution’ in the title of this full-length featured documentary is fully deserved.

Running for just on a hundred minutes the title offers a narrative of the development of the Panthers from their founding in 1966 up until their serious decline in the early 1980s. The narrative is full of asides that focus on aspects of the Party’s History. There are portraits of the important members of the Party including Huey Newton, Bobby Hutton, Bobby lease, Eldridge Cleaver, Fred Hampton and Elaine Brown.

The distinctive feature of the Panthers was their emphasis on self-defence for black communities. They utilised the constitutional right to bear arms in order to carry weapons for defence; and this involved monitoring police actions bearing arms. It is instructive that the Republican Party and the California governor Ronald Reagan, normally advocates of unlimited gun control, passed the Mulford Act in 1967 to restrict this right; specifically aimed at the Panthers. Even more oppressive was the reaction of the Federal government and in particular the Federal Bureau of Investigation, then led by the powerful and reactionary J. Edgar Hoover.

“counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) of surveillance, infiltration, perjury, police harassment, and many other tactics, designed to undermine Panther leadership, incriminate and assassinate party members, discredit and criminalize the Party, and drain organizational resources and manpower.” (quoted on Wikipedia).

The title presents a number of episodes where the FBI and other state security organs used and abused their powers to attempt to subvert the Panthers, on more than one occasion resulting in state sponsored murder.

Several Panther leaders were prosecuted, though the process was suspect. And this persecution resulted in broad support for the Panthers from Civil Rights and Revolutionary [in embryo] organisations and demonstrations involving large popular participation. The ‘Free Huey! Campaign’ was a notable example. But the FBI campaign was successful in the longer term as the film indicates. A notable example of these state trials was the prosecution of the ‘Chicago Eight’, including Bobby Seale, following the conflict around the 1968 Democratic Convention in the city. The conduct of the trial, including the racist treatment of Seale, can be seen in the 1970 The Chicago Conspiracy Trial and the 1987 Conspiracy The Trial of the Chicago 8. And the trial is also referenced in a number of other films, including works by Jean-Luc Godard and Peter Watkins. The use of the law to pursue Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver led to them leaving the USA and finally setting up an international bureau in Algeria. The Panthers both received support from Liberation Struggles and took an open stand supporting liberation struggles. This internationalism was one of the most positive angles of the Panther politics.

Another aspect delineated in the documentary are the social activities of the Panthers. The most notable part of this was the ‘Free Breakfast for Children Program’ which ran in Los Angeles. There were also health programs and organisation actions to help black communities fight poverty and economic exploitation.

At the end of the 1960s the Panthers were well organised, successful and enjoyed respect and support across the Afro-American population. However, the overt and covert actions buy the state undermined the organisation and splits within the leadership exacerbated this. The Panthers maintained active and influential throughout the 1970s but by 1980 they were in serious decline. And sections became involved direct criminality.

The documentary charts this history with detail and much illustration. However, there is a real weakness when we look at the coverage of the politics of the Panthers. There is a reference to the 1967 ‘Ten Point Program’; but this does not present the whole programme. The documentary is also scanty in the way that it presents the influences on the Panther politics; including that of liberation movements and the ‘socialist’ camp:

Wikipedia offers Curtis Austin writing that by late 1968, Black Panther ideology had evolved from black nationalism to become more a “revolutionary internationalist movement”:

“[The Party] dropped its wholesale attacks against whites and began to emphasize more of a class analysis of society. Its emphasis on Marxist–Leninist doctrine and its repeated espousal of Maoist statements signalled the group’s transition from a revolutionary nationalist to a revolutionary internationalist movement. Every Party member had to study Mao Tse-tung’s “Little Red Book” to advance his or her knowledge of peoples’ struggle and the revolutionary process.” [2006 book on the Panthers].

One wry reference in the documentary recounts how the Panthers sold the ‘Little Red Book’ on campuses for a profit. But, for example, the development from a Black Nationalist standpoint to a Revolutionary Class-conscious standpoint is not really detailed.

One response to the documentary quoted on Wikipedia is:

 “Elaine Brown, a former Black Panther Party leader, criticized the film, writing that it presents “a disparaging portrait of Huey P. Newton” and that Nelson “[excised] from his film the Party’s ideological foundation and political strategies, […] reducing our activities to sensationalist engagements, as snatched from establishment media headlines.” [Elaine Brown has appeared in discussion programmes on Al Jazeera presenting an acute analysis of C21st US capital].

Elaine Brown represents one of the other developments in the Panthers; a move away from a male chauvinist position and the relegation of women to support roles to a much more clearly defined revolutionary position on gender roles. This is something highlighted in the documentary.

The limitations of this production reflect the limitations of the main stream media with the documentary aimed at that sort of platform. Much of the illustrative film footage has been re-framed to the 16:9 standard for television. However, there is little available on the Panthers in Moving Images. There is a 2010 documentary, 41st & Central: The Untold Story of the L.A. Black Panthers on the ‘Bay Area’ Chapter of the Panthers. The title refers to a violent raid on the Panther Chapter by the Los Angeles Police Department. The Wikipedia pages on the Panthers provide much detail of the organisation’s history.

Both PBS in the USA and BBC 4 in Britain have aired the documentary and it is likely to be aired again in the future; [it is currently appearing on the British PBS channel].. It is a flawed but  fascinating treatment of a seminal organisation in the history of US Civil Rights and even more class conscious action. Clearly the Panthers continue to exercise an importance influence which can be seen in the current ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. The latter is a varied set of groups and politics, but the more radical elements reflect both the class consciousness and the internationalism of the mature Panther Party. It is an interesting reflection on the context that whilst the only response of the state to the Panthers was organised violence there are clear attempts to co-op the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement both by capital and elements of the US state like the Democratic Party. If a high tide of revolt occurs, as was the situation when the Panthers arose, then elements in this movement might rival the Panthers in some ways.

The Black Panther Party first publicized its original “What We Want Now!” Ten-Point program on May 15, 1967, following the Sacramento action, in the second issue of The Black Panther newspaper.

We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.

We want full employment for our people.

We want an end to the robbery by the Capitalists of our Black Community.

We want decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings.

We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present day society.

We want all Black men to be exempt from military service.

We want an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of Black people.

We want freedom for all Black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails.

We want all Black people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury of their peer group or people from their Black Communities, as defined by the Constitution of the United States.

We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.

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