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The Black Panthers Had the Right Idea

It’s kind of fitting that police officers Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo, murderers of Mike Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York, were cleared of criminal wrong-doing in the last several weeks. The eruption of protest, activism and organizing in response to the (bad) decisions of legal bodies to not hold these officers accountable for their crimes has occurred at a time of special significance for the legacy of the Black Panther Party (BPP).

October 15th saw the 48th anniversary of the birth of the BPP in Oakland, CA.  Originally named the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, the BPP had a self-defense strategy against the brutal terror of the police. The strategy unashamedly and unapologetically maintained that Black people have human rights that are to be respected, including the right of armed self-defense, and BPP members had a right to intervene with those arms if necessary when law enforcement – those touted as the ones whose job was allegedly to protect and serve – violated those rights. In Los Angeles, the month of October also saw the deaths of Ronald and Roland Freeman, brothers who were co-founders and leading members of the Southern California Chapter of the Black Panther Party.  Ronald and Roland, who were born one year apart and died one week apart, were also survivors of the Dec. 8, 1969 shootout with the Los Angeles Police Department’s SWAT team on 41st Street and Central Avenue. The pre-dawn attack, the SWAT team’s first major engagement, lasted 5 hours and saw 13 members of the BPP stand trial for attempted murder of police officers. All 13 of the Panthers would eventually be acquitted of all charges in December, 1971 due to the illegal actions of the LAPD.

One day after the New York grand jury failed to indict Pantaleo (Dec. 4) came the 45th anniversary of the murders of Mark Clark and Fred Hampton by Chicago Police. The pre-dawn “shoot in” was the result of collusion between the local police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Illinois State’s Attorney’s office to neutralize Hampton and the work of the Illinois Panther Party.

Images from films and popular culture saturate our consciousness of stern-looking, black leather-jacketed and black beret-wearing young men (predominantly) holding shotguns, some with bandoliers strapped across their chest.  Those images are intended to instill fear and, in today’s climate, a bit of incredulousness.  Along with those images are the mischaracterizations and outright lies that the BPP wanted to kill whites and police officers. Racist white police officers – overzealous in the performance of their “duties” – often bore the brunt of the Panthers’ strategy but the BPP understood it was not about individual officers but a system that allowed for violations of Black life.  With law texts in one hand and guns in the other, police officers that were observed violating the human rights and dignity of Blacks were confronted with a choice.  The majority of those confrontations were resolved without fanfare or gunplay.

Protecting Black Life

The Panthers’ self-defense strategy is primarily ridiculed and condemned as militarist and adventurist but rarely acknowledged as a central tenet of human rights activism. If we focus on the idea of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense and not the image we have been given, the idea makes perfect sense.

Imagine that, instead of bystanders filming CHP Officer Daniel Andrew mercilessly beating a helpless Marlene Pinnock by the side of the I-10 freeway last August, a handful of those bystanders had trained their weapons on Andrew, demanded he cease and desist, handcuffed him and waited until a commander from the CHP arrived on the scene?

Another scenario: imagine if, in addition to Ramsey Orta filming the murder of Eric Garner by Pantaleo, bystanders had intervened and subdued Pantaleo who continued to keep Garner in a chokehold after Garner was on the ground and complaining of not being able to breathe?

Or: if some of the residents of Canfield Green Estates in Ferguson, MO, had surrounded Officer Darren Wilson after he had emptied his service weapon in a populated apartment complex in broad daylight, killing Mike Brown with six shots; what if those residents had surrounded Wilson and demand that he cease and desist, disarmed and handcuffed him, and then delivered him to the Ferguson Police Department? In spite of the shenanigans of the Ferguson PD, imagine: in all instances, Black lives could have been spared; abusive police officers would have been immediately neutralized; and the citizens themselves would have played a role in maintaining a safe and secure environment for themselves and their families.

Imagine.

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Thousands of people rally at the Hall of Justice in downtown Los Angeles December 11, 1969, three days after the LAPD’s SWAT unit illegally attacked the Southern California Chapter of the Black Panther Party headquarters on 41st Street and Central Avenue in South Los Angeles (Los Angeles Herald Examiner Newspaper).

The characterization of the BPP via popular culture and law enforcement lies does not match the current reality of police murders occuring today. The overwhelming majority of police murder victims that activists have been calling attention to were either unarmed or nonthreatening at the time of their deaths, calling into question why there was a need for police presence at all; or the officers lied and/attempted to cover-up their crimes. In both instances, the legal system which claims both moral authority and jurisdiction over such matters has failed to hold police accountable for their crimes or secure a modicum of punishment for the officers’ crimes. That translates into a lack of respect for and protection of Black life.

Who will protect and defend Black life when those who are charged with protecting and serving are the very ones who violate our right to life … unjustifiably and with impunity?

Who?

The murders of Garner, Brown and countless others have unleashed a fury of activism and organizing not seen since the BPP was on the American landscape.  This current iteration of activity, like many of its predecessors, has connected the dots of racism, militarism and economic exploitation that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about. They have linked the heightened militarism and terrorism of local police with U.S. foreign policy, and laid bare a domestic policy that relies on punitive measures such as stop-and-frisk and.over-incarceration to the shredding of a social safety net. The bulk of the activism and organizing of these young people has involved direct-actions and civil disobedience. The majority of their actions have been nonviolent. The majority of actions in opposition to them – by law enforcement and right-wing, white supremacist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan – have been violent or encouraged the use od violence. This is unacceptable.

Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, co-founders of the BPP, believed the organization to be following in the logical footsteps of Malcolm X who believed in the sanctity and the assertion of Black peoples’ human rights “by any means necessary.” Malcolm X was seen as a necessary – and scarier – counterbalance to Dr. King. In order for this new movement to be successful, a movement currently challenging the failure of the legal system to hold its officers accountable for the murders of Black people, this new generation could also use a counterbalance.

They shouldn’t have far to look for some ideas.

Thandisizwe Chimurenga is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.  She is the author of No Doubt: The Murder(s) of Oscar Grant; a contributor to Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence, and to the forthcoming Hands Up Don’t Shoot: Collected Essays/Stories on the Racialization of Murder.

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