The Black Panthers

Beyoncé and her dancers, clad in black leather and black berets, their hair Afroed, reminded the world as it watched Super Bowl 50 of the Black Panthers, a radical leftist organization birthed in the 1960s by white American oppression.

Beyoncé and her dancers stood together on the football field and raised their fists in the traditional radical symbol “power to the people,” a sign of both solidarity with allies pushing for positive social change and defiance against oppressors.

After the performance, a group of dancers raised their fists once more. One unfolded a piece of paper inscribed with “Justice 4 Mario Woods.” Woods, reportedly armed with a knife, was shot to death in a heated confrontation with both black and white San Francisco police in December. Super Bowl 50 was held in San Francisco.

The performers also posed for a similar photo hailing Black Power off the field after the show.

The halftime performance came one day after Beyoncé’s music video “Formation” came out, which drew fire from angry whites for its “anti-police” message. In the video, Beyoncé sits atop a sinking police cruiser, a black child dances in front of a line of policemen in riot gear, who eventually raise their hands, graffiti on a wall demands police “Stop Shooting Us,” etc. “Formation” was one of the songs performed during the Super Bowl.    

The Black Panther Party, founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, California, was largely inspired by the ideology of Islamic minister Malcolm X (Beyoncé and her women formed an “X” at one point, likely a reference to him). Malcolm X summed up his view on violence, in accordance with his faith and belief in self-defense, when he said in 1963, “Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery.” 

Formed in 1966, the year after Malcolm X’s assassination, the Panthers aimed to promote self-defense against police abuse and white vigilantes, to unify workers against capitalist exploitation, to embrace black pride, to make African Americans politically powerful and economically self-sufficient, to end illiteracy, hunger, and poverty in black communities, and to fight and die at any time for freedom.

Marxist ideas of transferring power to the common people–giving black people the economic, social, and political power to control their own destinies–attracted many. So did the idea of revolution, violent conflict, as a way to achieve basic human rights.

It was, after all, a time of virulent racism (it should be obvious to all that blacks faced far more severe and deadly oppression than the American colonists who rose up in revolution against the British).

White employers refused to pay blacks the same wages as whites, or hire them for more skilled, higher wage positions; white banks refused to provide home loans to blacks; school districts gerrymandered attendance zones to keep black and white schools distinct; white businesses fled from budding areas of black commerce; white producers charged black stores more for goods.

White residents fled from black neighbors; white real estate agents steered blacks away from nicer homes in white areas; white city councils, city planners, and developers refused to invest and build in black areas; white voters rejected tax increases that would benefit black schools and neighborhoods; white landlords refused to properly maintain property inhabited by black families.

White policemen beat and abused blacks suspected of committing crimes against whites, but ignored black on black crime in the ghettos; white judges and juries handed black criminals longer prison sentences and more frequent executions; white terrorists shot, hung, beat, mutilated and bombed innocent African Americans to keep them out of stores, schools, public facilities, neighborhoods, voting booths, and political positions.

Peaceful protesters exercising First Amendment rights were attacked and killed by police and vigilantes alike. The Black Panther Party and its message of self-protection appealed to those who saw Dr. King’s pacifism as inadequate (while respecting and upholding Dr. King’s belief in socialism).

So the Panthers made use of their Second Amendment rights: they armed themselves against a government that failed–for centuries–to protect their human rights, and in fact frequently worked to destroy said rights. They decided to defend themselves, especially against abusive policemen, whom they called “pigs.”

The Panthers used (what else?) the Declaration of Independence to justify revolution against the State. In their Ten-Point Program, which outlined their demands (the first being “We Want Freedom”), the Panthers reminded blacks and whites alike:

…governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government…

…when a long train of abuses and usurpations…evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.

Yet the Party was more than organizing for self-defense and revolution. Nationally, the Party was renowned for organizing dozens of community programs such as free clothing, shoes, food, education, legal representation, and health clinics for communities of color. They worked with welfare organizations, churches, and local businesses (some white) to ease black poverty.

They organized black history classes, including some that introduced whites to the horrors of slavery and oppression; this glimpse of true history left many whites terrified, tearful, and angry enough to join the fight for civil rights. They held rallies, marches, and strikes to push for black equality.

And although Panther women faced frequent sexual pressure and advances from the men, and sexism in general, the Party aimed to liberate women and promote equality—it was “empowering,” a “source of pride” and “strength,” in the words of one female Black Panther leader.

By the early 1980s, the Black Panther Party was destroyed. From the outset, the U.S. government and local authorities worked to undermine and eliminate it.

The FBI, which has a long history of working to destroy leftist and civil rights organizations (the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, etc.), installed spies, helped assassinate Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton in Chicago, forged letters to create disunity, illegally imprisoned activists, destroyed property like food meant for distribution to the poor, and attempted to discredit the Party through propaganda. The FBI authorized municipal police to terrorize members at home, at meetings, and at protests.

When Bobby Seale was arrested for protesting at the Democratic National Convention in 1968, he was not allowed to choose his own lawyer—he was gagged and bound in the courtroom. Many Party leaders were forced to flee the United States to avoid death or imprisonment.

The Panthers’ deadly clashes with police also lost them support from more moderate black civil rights groups and more affluent blacks, and of course progress in civil rights legislation also convinced some their promised revolution was no longer necessary.

(See Reynaldo Anderson, On the Ground: The Black Panther Party in Communities Across America; Gaidi Faraj, Unearthing the Underground: A Study of Radical Activism in the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army; Paul Alkebulan, Survival Pending Revolution: The History of the Black Panther Party.)

Today, with the rise of more radical movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter, Beyoncé’s homage to the Panthers should come as no surprise. It is a time of immense anger toward the State and white-dominant society.

Research shows nearly all whites hold subconscious anti-black biases, and a solid majority consciously believe racist myths about blacks (whites in simulations are much quicker to shoot both armed and unarmed blacks). Black job applicants with identical resumes as white applicants are still less likely to be called back for an interview, and blacks are less likely to be offered a quality home loan than whites with the same (sometimes worse) qualifications and income levels. Likewise, whites receive better medical care at the same facilities than blacks with identical diagnoses and medical histories.  

Blacks are more likely to receive longer prison sentences and the death penalty than whites who commit the same crimes. They are more likely to be pulled over and searched while driving lawfully than whites driving lawfully. Unarmed Americans killed by police are consistently twice as likely to be black than white.

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