Panthers, pacifists and the question of self-defense

As we evaluate the successes and errors of past organizations in order to shape more effective movements today, it is vital to be careful and precise about what lessons remain relevant. Certain organizations, such as the Black Panthers, have amassed so much interest and subsequent mythology that it is often particularly difficult to sort through the hype. White nonviolent activists, furthermore, have an added burden; if we are to be valued participants in building successful mass movements for social change we must be extremely careful to provide as much principled solidarity as we do criticism.

George Lakey’s recent essay, “The Black Panthers’ ‘Militarist Error,’” spotlights an important fact, delivered by a person with many years of anti-racist experience: Many leading former Panthers recognize a strategic error in their glorification of the gun. Even amongst those Occupy Cleveland supporters who were recently accused of plotting to blow up an Ohio bridge, the message is clear: If a movement is going to be built for the long haul, “those kinds of tactics just don’t cut it.”

There are other vital insights, however, which must be brought to light if peace advocates are to further engage in drawing lessons from the Panther legacy.

For starters, the Black Panther Party (BPP), though centered in Oakland, Ca., beginning in 1966, always understood their Southern roots, taking their name from a Lowndes County, Ga., electoral organization which had been supported by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC Chairman Kwame Ture (then known as Stokely Carmichael) had campaigned in Lowndes and worked with Revolutionary Action Movement leader Max Stanford to form the first Northern Panther chapter in New York City, some months before the Oakland branch got its start. They evolved from black nationalism only insofar as they admired the later teachings of Malcolm X, who — in his last years — was much more of an internationalist and pan-Africanist than a narrow nationalist.

The Panthers were always aware of the need for revolutionary coalition-building, forming early alliances with Chicano, Puerto Rican and Native American groups, and with colleagues in the predominately white student organizations of the time, including Students for a Democratic Society. Because of critiques of opportunism by whites, including in groups like SNCC and the campaigns led by Martin Luther King, the Panthers were careful to forge principled alliances, working cautiously with only small groups of whites whom they felt they could rely upon. This simple set of cautions did not make them nationalist.

It is also historically misleading, as Lakey does, to call them “an outright alternative to the civil rights movement” at a time when that phrase was already beginning to lose favor amongst many participants. In the years previous to the start of the BPP, many communists, nationalists and other radicals had begun to emphasize the phrase “human rights” over civil rights, as a more tactically useful moniker to frame the movement (which some, from the start, had more simply called “the freedom movement”).

Just a few months after the BPP was birthed, Stokely Carmichael helped popularize the phrase Black Power, which became — along with the idea that “black is beautiful” — the most utilized phrase to describe political self-definition, at least amongst young people of African descent. From “colored” to “Negro” to “black” to “Afro-American,” “African American,” “New Afrikan” and just plain “African,” words were in great contest (especially then but also now), and most accounts make it clear that the Panthers saw themselves not as an alternative but rather as an improvement — the next generation taking up what needed to be done where the last had left off. It is striking, in that respect, that Oakland was one of the very few Northern cities which had no riots in the days following the assassination of King. Though the Panthers were only a few years old, their influence in the city of their founding was enough to keep calm; resorting to angry looting and violence, they urged, was no way to honor the martyred King.

It is very true that not enough notice has been taken of the Panther’s most intensive legacies: founding community-based institutions which were borne of the need for survival as well as self-determination. The mix of these two ingredients made the BPP medical, educational and food programs much more than charitable hand-outs. They were based upon people’s empowerment for liberation and revolution. Therefore it is critical that white progressives take note when black radical researchers make essential new contributions to our fields of understanding. One such example is the recent publication of Alondra Nelson’s Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Struggle Against Medical Discrimination. Nelson chronicles and details the BPP’s efforts at Sickle Cell anemia testing and treatment, the setting up of free neighborhood clinics and other initiatives.

Similarly, Donna Murch has built on contemporary research about the pedagogical basis for and work of the Panthers in the 2010 book Living for the City: Migration, Education and the Rise of the Black Panther Party. In fact, a veritable cottage industry of books has come out in the past five to 10 years documenting aspects of Panther history. As far as the community structures they were instrumental in setting up, Panther co-founder David Hilliard helped publish the 2008 retrospective Service to the People Programs, which gives evidence to the long-lasting nature of the those grassroots BPP campaigns. It is hard not to think that these efforts are amongst the closest and most successful U.S. answers to Gandhi’s call for de-colonized constructive programs.

The questions concerning the role of self-defense — including the use of arms — during the black liberation movement (or black-led freedom movement, as historian and close King associate Vincent Harding has suggested we say) have also come under some serious and thoughtful study. Pure Fire: Self Defense as Activism in the Civil Rights Era, a 2005 book by American studies scholar Christopher Strain, breaks down the dichotomies of much of the mainstream history texts on the “civil rights” era, carefully examining the daily realities (and contradictions) faced on the grassroots level, especially in the South. Strain suggests that “in order to grasp the subtleties of this activist approach to self-defense,” we must stop creating false divisions between a “pre-1965 era” and a “post-1965 era,” between rigid definitions of integration and segregation, between Malcolm and Martin and violence and nonviolence. These oversimplifications, Strain suggests, have not served our current movements well — “blurring” the distinctions between the violence of racial animosity and limited acts of self-defense, and equally contributing to the popular misunderstanding of nonviolence as passivity in the face of danger.

An even more difficult argument, on the potential dialectical connections between violence and nonviolence, is made in the well-researched 2007 release by Simon Wendt, The Spirit and the Shotgun: Armed Resistance and the Struggle for Civil Rights. More than a simple, theoretical call for a “diversity of tactics,” Wendt has carefully examined the actions and reactions that led to various positive anti-racist changes in the midst of the 1950s through 1970s. He documents quite candidly the differences, for example, between groups like the armed Deacons for Defense, which helped defend southern civil rights workers, and the Panthers and Black Power advocates, who were often seen as too provocative and militaristic by their Southern counterparts. Wendt readily admits that, even with his own extensive research, “there is too little evidence to argue that actual, as opposed to rhetorical, black violence aided the nonviolent movement on a widespread basis.” He also brings us the important perspective that a non-nuanced, one-sided explanation of social change in the 1960s — emphasizing only nonviolence or armed struggle, with little distinction for the often-tough calls of when a given act of movement “violence” began — “will only obscure our understanding of the civil rights era.”

This obscuring has been a major factor in our movement’s inability to properly assess the lessons of that period.

Amongst those lessons, I would also add, are that solid organizations committed to lasting social change do not leave anyone behind — locked in prison or destitute or forgotten. True reconciliation and peace requires nothing less. That is why most mature movements around the world place a good deal of attention on the political prisoners of previous generations of struggle — so as to maintain continuity, appreciate and learn from history, and show current and future activists that state repression will not be successful in breaking the back of current endeavors. U.S. movements for justice and peace have much to learn in this regard.

It is therefore no coincidence that amongst the longest-held, worst-treated and most obviously political U.S. prisoners are former Black Panthers. Russell Maroon Shoats, at close to 70 years old with most of the past 30 years spent in solitary confinement, is a classic example of the quietly-kept ongoing torture which the U.S. government engages in (and U.S. human rights groups all too often ignore). Still, Shoats remains a beacon of analysis and reflection, providing his own version of the lessons and legacies discussed by scholars far from the front lines. The main contribution of the BPP, in Shoats’ assessment, is that they served as an introduction to radical politics to many youth of the period (both “of color” and others).

Never one to shy away from critical thinking, Shoats acknowledges — by looking at the non-democratic, sometimes sexist and militaristic aspects of Panther practice — that “the methods they chose to use were contradictory to the ends they sought.” Though Shoats is no pacifist, his critiques of Panther “naked terror and violence,” forced on them by an FBI campaign of murderous “counter-intelligence” (COINTELPRO), underscore the importance of just one voice, often unheard but far from muted. His joy at the events of the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and other recent developments is reflected in his writings that these new, popular movements have come “to the rescue!”

History suggests that the role of the nonviolent activist has got to include raising militancy without accepting militarism, helping to build and defend people’s movements without ever resorting to violence. Solidarity suggests that the role of the white activist should be to promote self-determination before critiquing what others choose as self-defense. We must attend to some basic requirements of history and solidarity, in part through simple acts (like signing an online petition or joining the new campaign to get Russell Maroon Shoats out of solitary confinement, or checking out the work of the Jericho Movement to free all U.S. political prisoners). But we must also go deeper, building future campaigns that learn from the mistakes of our collective past. The glorification of the gun is surely one of them, but unresponsiveness to past and present repression — whether due to ignorance or apathy or over-work, or to disagreements with the methods used by those being repressed — is surely another, with equally dire consequences for us all. With so much at stake, our inability to look carefully at the lessons of recent movements is truly indefensible.

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