The Black Panther Party for Self Defence: A Brief History


The Black Panther Party was among the first organizations to champion the right for people of colour to defend themselves against any threat, including, and especially the American government. One of the objectives of the group was to ensure that there is criminal accountability for the unjustified harassment and murders of Black people by the police. 54 years have since passed since their formation. Our goals however, remain the same: mobilize people to intervene in injustice to promote the achievement of all human rights, dignity, and safety at the hands of law enforcement.


Freedom and self-determination lead the BPP platform and program. The Panthers believed Black people could not be free unless they gained control over their daily lives and future circumstances (Newton 1966, 55). Economic independence for Black people, in the forms of affordable housing, reparations and full employment, were central ambitions of the Party (Newton, 1966, p.55). These sentiments have survived until today and are reflected in BLM’s desire to grow Black villages and establish collective value(s) (BLM, 2020). The multi-pronged approach to community building has continued to be a vital aspect of the Black power movement.


People are quick to criticize the homophobia, transphobia and sexism within the Panthers and rightfully so. As a group claiming to be genuinely radical, it is disingenuous and ridiculous to engage in the same exclusionary politics of the capitalist superstructure they protest. My issue with this criticism begins with the way in which it is presented. The aforementioned problems are often framed as if the Panther’s politics were steeped in prejudice. In a speech that I highly recommend reading for yourself, Huey Newton spoke on the uncertainty about connecting LGBTQ+ liberation to that of the more broad Black “liberation” movements. Liberation is in quotations because there is no “Black liberation” that ignores the most marginalized parts of our communities. Newton believed that people needed to shelve their insecurities about women and queer people in order to “unite with them in a revolutionary fashion” (1970). He acknowledges the that “[homosexuals] might be the most oppressed people in the society” and that “maybe a homosexual could be the most revolutionary”. There is nothing in the structure or official beliefs of the Panthers that is inherently exclusionary. This stands in opposition to many Blaack nationalist movements which embrace heteronormative gender expression and role. Of course a significant proportion of the members and leaders were intolerant hypocrites.


The fact that men like Eldridge Cleaver could rise to such prominence in the organization is a tremendous shame; being a proud rapist who believed his repugnant acts were revolutionary was just one of his many fatal flaws. A key component of keeping people like Cleaver on the outskirts of these movements is formally organizing around the Black queer community. When Black trans people, the most oppressed members of our communities, get the comeuppance they deserve, then and only then, will we be making progress. Cleaver embodies the very worst of the Panther’s and he should be remembered in disgrace as we adapt any of their principles going forward.


However, the framework is worth building on which is why, whether directly or indirectly, BLM draws heavily on the model set out by the Panthers. The most significant gulf between BLM and the BPP, on this front, is BLM’s numerous calls for collective healing that involves the groups who were not explicitly supported by the heteronormative BPP. BLM is making a very deliberate effort to “dismantle patriarchal practice[s],” create free spaces that are queer and trans-affirming as well as combat sexist, misogynist and male-centred societal norms (BLM, 2020). The effort to incorporate and collaborate with other struggles is not a break from the original BPP literature but rather the logical evolution. The Panthers were formed on the basis of Black resistance and solidarity in the face of injustice (Newton, 1966, p.49). BLM, at its core, has the same philosophy, though far less radical.


Both organizations call for the cessation of brutality and the murder of Black people at the hands of law enforcement and vigilantes (BLM2, 2018; Newton, 1966, p.56). Their methods differ but not as greatly as one would assume at first glance. The most glaring difference between the two groups is the BPP’s blatant brandishing of firearms and responding to police brutality with force as opposed to BLM’s demonstrations (mostly in the form of marches), boycotts, cell phone videos, press and media releases. Police brutality was seldom reported during the era of the BPP. Hence, they made it their responsibility to go on ”police patrol,” in order to defend their communities from the police, who they viewed as the occupying force of an internal colony (Roman, 2016).


On Patrols

Despite being thought of as the more violent arm of the civil and human rights movement in the USA, the Panthers made clear to their members that they were not to instigate fights but rather respond to the wrongs inflicted upon them. The founders went to great lengths to ensure that their patrols and surveillance of the police were within the confines of the law. They scoured their local law libraries for information to extend their legal consciousness in order to know how far police officers were allowed to go in each situation they may come across. The Panthers even recited legal code to police officers who were harassing Black people. This doctrine of self-defence was ingrained in the name and insignia of the party. The black panther is an incredibly powerful animal that only lashes out at an aggressor when backed into a corner, the Panthers acted accordingly.


The Panthers had no intention of inciting any deadly incidents. When they did choose to engage with the police, it was because the officers in question were acting in a dangerous manner that was not conducive with the law. Open carrying rifles and shotguns was legal at the time in Oakland so they were within their rights to be armed. Additionally, the historical relationship of predominantly Black communities and forces comprised of officers foreign to the communities they police has not been a positive one (Bell, 2016; Cinnamon, 2017). To this day, there is no lack of news stories about Black people being abused while in the custody of the police as well as a constant stream of high profile killings of unarmed Black males. Finally, we must examine the availability of other means of response. Since the police are the ones abusing their powers, the communities under siege have no official state-created institutions to call upon. Hence, they are left to create organizations like the BPP to protect their rights. The Panthers developed this mindset specifically because they framed their struggle in colonial terms; the ghettos primarily inhabited by people of colour were seen as an internal colony and the police forces were seen as an occupational army (Roman, 2016). Ultimately, their goal was to surveil the police and act as a check on the police who were operating in an unscrutinized manner.


Coincidentally, the NRA, which has lobbied heavily in Congress to ensure that their gun agenda is protected by the federal government, was totally opposed to gun rights for Black people during the era of the Panthers (Winkler, 2013).


If you are wondering why the police need to be followed around and surveilled then allow me to remind you that of 15 high-profile deaths of black males at the hands of the police in 2017, 11 of the families received financial settlements in excess of $850,000 USD. This implies wrongdoing on behalf of the officers in question but they are spared criminal convictions and, in 10/15 cases, their jobs (Lee & Park, 2017). Only one officer was convicted (Lee & Park, 2017). The settlements are a step in the right direction but without the criminal charges, it is the reduction of black lives to a sum of money,

again.

This year is hardly promising, on either side of the border.


Lesser Known Activities


The BPP’s Free Breakfast for Children Program (FBCP) is one of the most importants aspects of the Party’s legacy. The FBCP was both a model and driving force for the federally sponsored school food programs (Heynen, 2005). The success of the program also fed the success of the Panthers by addressing the failures of the American welfare system, fostering a sense of community through donations and volunteering gave the organization some much-needed good press (Heynen, 2005). This program went a long way to strengthening the BPP’s ties with the communities they operated in because even if people did not believe in the tactics behind the self-defence portion of the party platform, they were feeding the poor and feeding children (Heynen, 2005). The FBCP was made a mandatory undertaking by every BPP chapter in the nations. At the height of the effort, 45 chapters were serving what was considered a nutritionally balanced breakfast. Volunteers did not have to hold membership in the BPP so it truly could be a community initiative and not a press stunt (Heynen, 2005).

The first bulletin of the Ten Point Political Platform was "self determination" and the Panthers set about through their “survival programs” (Heynen, 2005). The provision of basic welfare in the forms of food, health care, education and more served to undermine the authority of the government who were not offering the same aid. By attempting to fulfill many of the basic needs of their communities, the Panthers were then able to pressure their state government into creating its own breakfast program (Heynen, 2005).


Conveniently Overlooked Points


In the times of the Panthers, their patrol vehicles were regularly stopped and investigated for violations. Legally speaking, the police need to have a reason to stop and inspect a vehicle before pulling it over and the Panthers went to great lengths to ensure they did not break nor infringe in any way on the law (Newton, 1966, p. 61). In addition to the abuse by the local authorities, the FBI worked tirelessly to stop the production and distribution of the Black Panther newspaper. The main goal of the newspaper was to inform people of key issues facing their communities and of opportunities to participate in resistance and disobedience across the country. They resorted to arresting the people selling them, convincing airlines to destroy shipments and confiscating the ones that did get through (Roman, 2016). The Panthers were labelled as a threat to national unity and had the FBI sicced on them to crack down on their activities and leaders (Roman, 2016). Unfortunately for Black communities, the federal government still considers the formation of Black rights advocacy networks just as dangerous to the security of the nation as the civil rights leaders and organizations targeted by the extrajudicial surveillance program COINTELPRO (Matthews & Cyril, 2017). The FBI Counterterrorism Division has released a report that broadly categorizes many black activists as “Black Identity Extremists” and points to the killing of Mike Brown as the start of the new “domestic terrorist threat” (Matthews & Cyril, 2017).

The Panthers did well to situate themselves as pillars of the communities they inhabited through their survival programs and their affirmations of Black identity and culture. The shortcomings of the Panthers include sexism, lack of trans and queer recognition, and patriarchal leadership practices. Despite this, they have left a lasting legacy through the fundamental goals of the organization: bringing about the end of the prejudicial organization of the American state with a particular focus ending police brutality.


Despite men garnering the majority of the attention when discussing the Panther, they only made up 40% of the membership. There is no BPP without the women delivering the survival programs that legitimized the organization’s revolutionary credentials. While it is the patrols that receive the most attention, it was the FBCP, free health clinics, liberation schools and the newspaper that were the basis of truly revolutionary action. I say this with the current situation Canada has found itself in. CERB has allowed for myself, and many others, to engage in political actions that may not have been possible without it. Being able to afford to live without working for 40 hours a week has given me the ability to start this blog, read several books and articles, spend time in spaces that value my thinking as well as creating art to reflect the period. I hope that CERB is a precursor to a universal basic income that will afford activists greater time to organize and develop revolutionary ideas.