THE BLACK PANTHER PARTY
By Athith Anandavathana
Content Warning: Descriptions of Police Brutality
The 1960s in particular was a difficult and dangerous period for Black activists in the United States. Many influential African revolutionaries and activists throughout the world had died or been killed in this period, including, but not limited to, Frantz Fanon, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Mark Clark. However, one example of ‘self-justified’ government violence that stands out in particular is the police murder of Fred Hampton in 1969. Having been the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party in his native Chicago and a chairman of the national BPP, the FBI inevitably opened a file on him by 1967 and within the forthcoming two years preceding his death, had targeted his family and his associates. A militant, Black nationalist, revolutionary socialist organisation - the FBI and the Counter Intelligence Program, then led by J. Edgar Hoover, wanted only one fate for the BPP: to destroy what it stood for. By the end of the 60s, Fred Hampton, who had just become the chairman of the BPP’s Chicago chapter, was praised for his organisation talent and his accumulation of BPP members, which he did by forming alliances with street gangs as well as unifying with Latinx organisers, whilst making him a hero in the eyes of the Black revolutionaries across America, all the more made him a larger threat in the eyes of the US Government. The month before his assassination, two Chicago police offers had died in a shootout with Panther members out of a total nine who were injured. At this time, fears of the BPP had significantly augmented, among the government officials and the White public, who had been influenced by the mainstream media. The Chicago Tribune had then urged the Chicago Police Department to be, “Ordered ready to shoot,” at any incoming suspected Panthers. The FBI had henceforth planned, that the evening of the 3rd of December would be the night that they infiltrate Hampton’s apartment to carry out an arms raid. A Special Prosecutions Unit team of 14 was deployed to carry out this raid. William O’Neal, back then a friend of Hampton’s, was an informant for the FBI, who was key in ensuring this raid was carried out efficiently. He gave the FBI a detailed plan of Hampton’s apartment, as well as preparing a dinner for several affiliated Panthers there, including Mark Clark who was also murdered, so he could mix a sleep agent into Hampton’s drink so to not wake him up during the FBI raid. At 1.30 am, after O’Neal had left, Hampton had fallen asleep while on the phone with his mother. Three hours later, the team of FBI infiltrators arrived at the apartment and organised themselves as to carry out this raid efficiently. At 4.45am, they forced themselves in Hampton’s apartment, killing Mark Clark instantaneously with a shot in his chest, who was also then on security duty, which in turn caused a single round to be fired from his gun as a result of his death reflex. At this point, Fred Hampton was sleeping on a mattress with his 9-month pregnant fiancée, Deborah Johnson. As a result of gunfire from the police department, Hampton became wounded at the shoulder, though was unable to wake up because of the sleeping pills he had ingested earlier. The police officers would then drag Hampton out of his bedroom and Johnson was reported having heard an officer say, “He’s good as dead now.” This was due to two gunshots directed at Fred Hampton’s head at point blank range. Hampton was left in a pool of his own blood in the corridor of the apartment, while the remaining alive Panthers were dragged out onto the street, beaten, severely bruised and wounded, and, unbelievably, they were arrested for attempted murder of the officers. Later on, it was confirmed that only one shot was fired by the Panthers, an accidental shot due to Clark’s reflex, whereas the Chicago PD had fired one thousand. Fred Hampton’s funeral was attended by over 5,000 people. What we can see through this, is the effort the American government and its numerous intelligence agencies had put towards cracking down on revolutionary activity in protest of its oppressive manners and means. Really then, it should come as relatively little surprise that little is done concerning the justice of the thousands of missing and murdered indigenous women or, more recently, the suspicious circumstances surrounding the lynchings of several Ferguson protesters (CW: these links are very graphic). Even today, it is not uncommon to hear commentators and the like regard the BPP as, “Black supremacist” or, “Racist”, a trend that has always concerned minority activist movements. In this article, will explore in further detail the early history of the BPP, the ideology that motivated them and the numerous things they have done for the Black community in the United States.
There are two people we can draw to the founding of the Black Panther Party. The first would be Huey Percy Newton. He was born in Monroe, Louisiana, as the youngest of 7 children. Huey’s parents, Walter Newton and Armelia Johnson, could be regarded as rebellious; from their actions throughout their youth, it becomes apparent where Huey got his revolutionary spark from. Armelia stayed at home and raised her seven children, unlike most Southern Black women of the time, rather than working as a domestic servant. Walter Newton was a miller and was known within his community as a “crazy man”, since his challenging of white bigotry at the time was incredibly risky; this sort of defiance often would have got other Black people in the South lynched, in fact, many considered him lucky to be alive in how he challenged White people. Moving to Oakland, California after the Second World War, being a poor family of nine, they struggled to feed themselves, although Huey maintains strongly that he was never without food and shelter growing up. Huey himself was not able to read by the end of eleventh grade and was regarded by his teachers in high school as, “Not college material,” and would rather be rebellious throughout his high school years, as well as being involved in petty criminal activity. Almost miraculously, he graduated high school in 1959 and over the next couple of years taught himself how to read. He attended Merritt College in Oakland, where he became involved in the Afro-American Association. He was a fierce debater, but also, unlike the other intellectuals at his institution, he knew the life of the street and the struggles associated with it. In 1962, at a demonstration with his institution opposing the US blockade of Cuba, he would meet the other person involved in the founding of the BPP: Bobby Seale. During this, Newton and Seale engaged in a debate, where Newton convinced Seale why the blockade was wrong, which caused Seale to join the Afro-American Association. Much like Newton, Bobby Seale was born in the South, in Dallas, Tex., and he also grew up in Oakland, to a carpenter father and a mother who often switched professions.
Although he taught him a lot, including building and hunting, his father often subjectively beat him, which caused Seale to build a fighting, resistant spirit inside of him. In his teen years, he was something of a loner, and with another friend, Steve, he would wander around the Berkeley Hills, pretending to be Lakh̆óta warriors. After high school, however, Bobby grew estranged from Steve after he joined the military, which caused Bobby to drift between cities and occupations. Eventually, growing sick of this, he joined the Air Force. Discharged for bad conduct in 1958, he worked towards his high school diploma again, enrolling in Merritt College, where he was to meet Huey Newton. At their all-Black Afro-American Association, Newton and Seale studied historical Black literature, from authors such as James Baldwin and W. E. B. DuBois, as well as exploring and embodying Black nationalism and Pan-Africanism, a movement which stresses self-determination of Black people against oppression, not only in the United States, but around the world, as well as a transcontinental black identity rooted in their ancestral land of Africa. Their advisor who ran the AAA, Donald Warden, emphasised these views and little did he know that he would be cheering leaders of the Black Liberation movement on. Alongside Seale and Newton, Warden mentored many influential figures, including singer James Brown, which helped him influence the politicisation of Black music. However, Newton grew disillusioned with Warden’s teaching, thought that he offered no solution to the community, criticised his “black capitalism” mentality which he thought was damaging to the Black community and split to search for a new way forward.
In 1966, fuelled with anger over a variety of issues, not limited to the maltreatment of Black people by the police and the recent murder of Malcolm X, Bobby Seale enrolled doing youth work at the Anti-Poverty Centre, which was funded by the US Government in their “War on Poverty” efforts. He came to learn more about the needs of the Black youth and community and used the inherent bias against Black people in the government to bring his Black nationalism to the youth who he was helping. He let the Black youth take a stand against police authority themselves. Seale went took them on a tour around a police station in North Oakland, although they were met by police officers who wanted to interview the youths about gangs in their neighbourhood. Seale protested this, telling him group to remain silent so that the police would not spy on them. He then encouraged the youths to express their anger at the police for the damage they had done to their community. Around this time, infamous activist Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture) and a group of other activists were arrested in Greenwood, Miss., and upon their release, Carmichael said “What we’re gonna start saying now is Black Power.”, a phrase that would only spread uncontrollably. A sense of Black pride was created among the Black people of America and soon across the world and dated terms such as coloured and Negro gave away. Around this time, the political powers of the country, and California, grew particularly wary. Gov Pat Brown and his successor Gov Ronald Reagan, governors of California at this time were to publicly criticise Black nationalist movements as well as figureheads within these movements. Reagan had sent a telegram to Carmichael threatening him to stay out of California and Brown publicly said, “he’s caused nothing but trouble” and “Californians don’t want Black Power.” The Black revolutionary movement also publicly criticised the immorality of the Viet Nam War and the strides they were making at the time led to big politicians calling for increased police surveillance around Black neighbourhoods, in the name of “peace”. On the 15th October 1966, the Black Panther Party is founded, after Seale and Newton recruit a boy whom they found working at the Anti-Poverty Centre, the 16-year-old Robert “Lil Bobby” Hutton. In late 1966, the BPP, made up of only Seale, Newton and Hutton at the time, started carrying out their first course of action, the Black Panther “Police Patrols”. One of the major distinguishing features of the BPP was exercising their right to the open-carry of weapons, believing that the Black youth should be armed to fight against the brutality and oppression of the armed police. Their first example of this would certainly prove brave story. The three of them were cruising around Oakland in a Chevrolet Bel Air and decided to follow a police car they saw patrolling the area. They were all armed, Hutton with an M-1 rifle, Newton with a shotgun and Seale with a 45 calibre revolver.
Manipulating the police by driving deceptively, they pulled up next to the police car at a crossroad and looked over the officers in the police car. Carrying on driving, the police car then followed them, with its sirens on. Newton would not stop, as he said to Seale, “Anything could be a flashing red light.” The police car did eventually activate its sirens and stopped the Chevrolet outside what was Seale and Newton’s former college, Merritt College. The officer then launched himself out of his car and started hurling slurs at the men. Newton yelled, “You ain’t putting anybody under arrest. Who the hell do you think you are?”, which caused the officer to break open the Chevrolet’s door. The officer tried to take Seale’s shotgun away from him, which caused Newton to grab the officer and slam his head into the car’s roof. He took Seale’s shotgun, kicked the officer in the stomach, loaded the gun and aimed the gun at him, calling him a “fascist swine” and a “bigoted racist”, then proceeding to tell him, “go for your gun and you’re a dead pig.” Seale and Lil Bobby would then leap out of the car carrying their weapons, as students rolled out of the college as well as residents out of their houses. Several police cars arrived, and officers ordered Newton that they see his weapon, to which Newton quoted the Fourteenth Amendment. Another officer demanded that Newton move by the patrol vehicle, but Newton retorted with “I ain’t going no goddamn place. Who the hell you think you are? You ain’t placed me under arrest.” This continued, with the officers demanding to see Seale and Lil Bobby’s weapons, though they would refuse, quoting the Second Amendment, which protected their right to carry arms so long as they were not concealed. After a deliberate standoff, the lieutenant eventually concluded that there were no grounds for arrest, although wrote Seale a ticket for not having the license plate fastened securely to his vehicle. This life-risking event would prove immediately important to the BPP. The police cleared off and the crowd gathered round, where the men would describe their organisation, “The Black Panther Party for Self-Defence”, which led to more community members joining the Party. In January of 1967, an Oakland storefront becomes the headquarters of the BPP and they start publishing The Black Panther: The Black Community News Service. The following year, the first member of the BPP, Bobby Hutton, would later be killed by the police, after fellow panther Eldridge Cleaver led him to ambush the Oakland Police Department in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. It became a shootout and the police Hutton to take off his clothes to demonstrate that he was unarmed, although he refused, in embarrassment, and against his surrendering, the police shot him twelve times. His funeral was attended by two thousand people and being the first Panther to die, he was called a martyr for black power. He was only 17 years old.
The BPP’s efforts to aid the Black community were far from limited to their police patrols. By the 1970s, the Black Panthers had not only nationwide, but also international, developing in the United Kingdom and the newly-formed Algeria. One of the most notable ways in which the Panthers helped the wider Black community is with their Free Breakfast for School Children program. Starting from January 1969, at the St. Augustine’s Church, San Francisco, Panthers worked together to cook breakfast for children before school, which later spread to every major city, totalling 35 programs, in the United States, as well as aiding Chicanx children and other underprivileged children. At its peak, 10,000 children were fed every day before school. This became the most important organising activity of the group, which caused tension within the group as well as with the authorities. The FBI and J. Edgar Hoover disregarded it as the Panthers spreading their Communist ideology and threatening the fabrics of the United States government. Eldridge Cleaver started to became vocally in opposition of Huey Newton, who was a strong believer in the Free Breakfast program, as he thought it defied the revolutionary “By Any Means Necessary” against US oppression stance inspired by Malcolm X and divided the BPP into factions, which was important in their downfall. Fred Hampton would also organise many programs like this in his city of Chicago, including blood drives and health testing. These programs allowed the Panthers to combat the crime issue in the United States and contributed to the brilliant abilities Hampton and Newton had in organising.
From this little insight into the BPP’s history, we can see the difficulties the BPP had in their plight for breaking away from the oppressive United States. Yet, activist from minority groups in the United States still remains difficult and for some deadly. The assassinations of Fred Hampton, Bobby Hutton, Martin Luther King, Jr, Anna Mae Aquash, Mark Clark, George Jackson, the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of the prominent Tupac Shakur, as well as the recent supposed lynchings of several Ferguson Black Lives Matter activists, the FBI’s excessive profiling and targeting of Tupac, Assata Shakur, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley, as well as tens of thousands of others over the course of its history should be evidence thereof. The imperial prison system unjustly mass incarcerating indigenous, Black and Latinx inmates at alarmingly disproportionate rates, the severe force used by the US government forces against indigenous land protestors, the disturbing police brutality in the country as well as its environmental violation and treatment of its modern-day colonies, bordering human rights violations should also be evidence that the United States is a country that still continues to treat a large proportion of its citizens as colonised peoples. Thus, it should not be forgotten, that the United States flag, flown in glory and pride by its settler citizens, has a dark, gory history behind it.