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An Ideal Blueprint

The Original Black Panther Party Model

Colin Jenkins

The rise of the Black Panther Party (BPP) in the late 1960s signified a monumental step toward the development of self-determination in the United States. In a nation that has long suffered a schizophrenic existence, characterized by a grand facade of "freedom, liberty and democracy" hiding what Alexis de Tocqueville once aptly described as "old aristocratic colours breaking through", the BPP model provided hope to not only Black Americans who had experienced centuries of inhumane treatment, but also to the nation's exploited and oppressed working class majority that had been inherently disregarded by both the founding fathers' framework and the predatory nature of capitalism.

Multi-trillion dollar financial institutions and multi-billion dollar corporations pulling the strings of the most powerful politicians—Presidents, Senators, Congress members, and Governors alike—all of whom have at their disposal the abilities to print money at will, control markets through fiscal and monetary policy, deploy powerful militaries anywhere in the world, and unleash militarized police forces to terrorize America's neighborhoods.

Despite constant grumblings regarding the "inundation" and "worthlessness" of theory from within the modern Left, a glance at the operational effectiveness of the original BPP lends credence to its usefulness.
The BPP was firmly rooted in revolutionary political philosophy, most notably that of Marxism -a tool that is needed to understand and properly critique the very system which dominates US capitalism. "Capitalist exploitation is one of the basic causes of our problem," explained one of the party's founders, Huey P Newton, and "it is the goal of the BPP to negate capitalism in our communities and in the oppressed communities around the world".

The BPP's ongoing exploration of theory allowed for the development of a crucial class component that perfectly balanced their fight against institutional racism. This helped create the notion that the fight for racial justice could not be won outside the confines of economic justice and class division, something revolutionary counterparts like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X would also eventually realize.

Stemming from Marxism was the method of and adherence to "dialectical materialism," which "precluded a static, mechanical application" of theory and allowed the party to adapt to the constantly developing environment while maintaining a mission based in class and racial oppression. "If we are using the method of dialectical materialism," argued Newton, "we don't expect to find anything the same even one minute later because one minute later is history." Regarding the party's embrace of this method, Eldridge Cleaver noted, "we have studied and understand the classical principles of scientific socialism (and) have adapted these principles to our own situation for ourselves. However, we do not move with a closed mind to new ideas or information (and) know that we must rely upon our own brains in solving ideological problems as they relate to us."

The Party's belief in "international working class unity across the spectrum of color and gender" led them to form bonds with various minority and white revolutionary groups. "From the tenets of Maoism they set the role of their Party as the vanguard of the revolution and worked to establish a united front, while from Marxism they addressed the capitalist economic system, embraced the theory of dialectical materialism, and represented the need for all workers to forcefully take over the means of production." This approach was echoed by Fred Hampton, who urged all to resist fighting racism with racism, but rather with (working class) solidarity; and to resist fighting capitalism with "Black capitalism," but rather with socialism.

Through this theoretical base, "Newton and the BPP leadership organized with the intent of empowering the Black community through collective work," Danny Haiphong tells the world. "Each concrete medical clinic, free breakfast program, and Panther school were organized to move community to confront the racist, capitalist power structure and embrace revolutionary socialism and communalism."

The Party's Ten-Point Program and platform, which evolved slightly over the course of several years, rested on demands that focused not only on historical roots to the daily injustices faced by Black Americans and oppressed communities, but also took on an international scope that allowed for understanding macro-systemic causes, and particularly those associated with capitalism. As Cornel West explains, "The revolutionary politics of the Black Panther Party linked the catastrophic conditions of local Black communities (with the disgraceful school systems, unavailable health and child care, high levels of unemployment and underemployment, escalating rates of imprisonment, and pervasive forms of self-hatred and self-destruction) to economic inequality in America and colonial or neocolonial realities in the capitalist world-system."

The BPP didn't just talk about change, they actively pursued it. Their presence was felt in the neighborhoods for which they lived and worked. They walked the streets, talked with folks, broke bread with neighbors, and cultivated a sense of community. Their numerous outreach efforts were well-planned, beautifully strategic, and always multi-pronged—combining basic and pleasant human interaction with education and revolutionary politics. They were the perfect embodiment of solidarity, often times rejecting notions of leadership and superiority to create a radical landscape where all were on equal footing. The sense of empowerment felt by all who came in contact with them was unmistakable.

In an effort to curb police brutality and the indiscriminate murders of black youth at the hands of racist police tactics, the party regularly deployed armed citizen patrols designed to evaluate the behaviors of police officers. They coordinated neighborhood watch programs, performed military-style marching drills, and studied basic protective manuevers to ensure measuras of safety and self-preservation for citizens living in oppressed communities.

In January of 1969, in response to the malnutrition that plagued their communities, the party launched a "Free Breakfast for Schoolchildren" program, which was introduced at St. Augustine's church in Oakland, California. In a matter of a few months, the program had spread to other cities across the country. In April, the Black Panther newspaper reported on its progress and effectiveness :

"The Free Breakfast for School Children is about to cover the country and be initiated in every chapter and branch of the Black Panther Party... It is a beautiful sight to see our children eat in the mornings after remembering the rimes when our stomachs were not full, and even the teachers in the schools say that there is a great improvement in the academic skills of the children that do get the breakfast. At one time there were children that passed out in class from hunger, or had to be sent home for something to eat. But our children shall be fed, and the Black Panther Party will not let the malady of hunger keep our children down any longer."

Due to their solid theoretical framework, the Party was able to deploy a proto-intersectionality that allowed them to go beyond issues of racial oppression and police brutality in order to address broad roots and common causes. In doing so, they were able to redirect the emotional rage brought on by targeted racism and channel it into a far-reaching indictment of the system. This created the potential for broad coalitions and opened up avenues for unity and solidarity with revolutionary counterparts, especially with regards to Black women.

The BPP had an open mind towards sexual expression as well as the roles women could play in social change organizations. The embrace of female empowerment and varied sexual identities within the party allowed for women like Angela Davis, to rise to prominent positions of power within the party while other radical organizations of the time such as Students for a Democratc Society (SDS) and The Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC) saved leadership roles for men, and forced women to remain in the background.

Despite constant meddling from the FBI and its COINTELPRO program, which sought to "disrupt, confuse and create tension within the organization," the BPP's organizational structure was solidly built, baring a slight resemblance to that of the Nation of Islam. Some BPP chapters operated with military-like discipline, a quality that tends to be lacking on a loose and often times hyper-serisitive Left (even amongst Leninist organizations).

The party recognized the severity of the situation for oppressed and working-class communities within a racist and capitalist system. The system's inherently predatory nature regarding social and economic issues provided a glimpse of a society based in class division, and the daily brutalization of communities of color at the hands of the police confirmed the presence of an all-out class war. In this sense, the party organized for this purpose—equipping themselves with ideological weapons, building poor and working-class armies through community outreach and education, arming themselves for self-defense, and operating their mission with a high degree of strategy and discipline.

Perhaps the most valuable of the BPP's attributes was its common acceptance and inclusion of the most disenfranchised and oppressed of the working classes—the unemployed, the poor, and those alienated by the criminal justice system through racist and classist laws and law enforcement practices. This approach stood in contrast to the overly-Eurocentric package that housed orthodox Marxism, and openly defied the highly romanticized, lily white version of working-class identity espoused by many Leftist organizations throughout history—often symbolized by the white, chiseled, "blue-collar" man wielding a hammer.

Over the years, Marx's assessment ard discarding of the "lumpen proletariat"—a population that he described as "members of the working-class outside of the wage-labor system who gain their livelihoods through crime and other aspects of the underground economy such as prostitutes, thieves, drug dealers, and gamblers"—had been accepted by many on the Left. However, the BPP's familiarity with Zedong and Guevara led them away from this commonly accepted notion, and their philosophy paralleled that of Frantz Fanon, who in his ongoing analysis of neocolonialism, deemed the lumpen to be "one of the most spontaneous and the most radically revolutionary forces of a colonized people."

Today, at a time when over 20 million able-bodied Americans have been forced into the "underground economy," and another 2.5 million are incarcerated, the idea of drawing society's castaways toward class-conscious political movements is ripe. Narratives that focus on the erosion of the "middle class" are not only insufficient, they're irresponsible. True struggle lies with the multi-generational poor, the unemployed, and the imprisoned victims of the draconian "Drug War" and prison industrial complex.

The BPP's model is needed today. A firm foundation of knowledge, history, internationalism, and political economy is needed. A concerted effort to bond with and assist working-class communities and disenfranchised sisters and brothers is needed. An infusion of authentic working-class politics which shifts the focus from 'middle-class erosion' to 'multi-generational disenfranchisement' is needed. The blueprint is there.

 [abridged]
[source : Marx Laboratory]

Frontier
Vol. 48, No. 46, May 22 - 28, 2016