Armed revolution and free breakfast: The extraordinary true story of "The Black Panthers" and how they shaped our era

America's legendary black radicals faced covert ops, militarized cops and a proto-War on Terror -- 45 years ago

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published September 2, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

  (Firelight Media/Jeffrey Blankfort)
(Firelight Media/Jeffrey Blankfort)

It’s useless to inquire whether the organizers of Black Lives Matter have learned the lessons of the Black Panthers, the explosive and extraordinary activist movement that shook the American establishment to its core in the late 1960s and was promptly destroyed. It’s especially useless, no doubt, for a white dude writing an article on the Internet to ask that question, and I claim no special insight into BLM’s collective understanding or interpretation of that not-so-distant history. But the larger point is that no one has learned the lessons of the Panthers, because half a century after their startling emergence from the streets of Oakland, California, we still have no idea what those lessons were. There is nothing close to general agreement on what the Black Panther Party meant, or how and why its radical agenda of African-American empowerment went off the rails.

What we see in Stanley Nelson’s urgent and necessary documentary “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” is the story of an organization that meant many different things to many different people, and that changed so dramatically during five years or so in the national spotlight that it could almost be described as reshaping itself month by month and putting forward a distinctive face at almost every moment. The Panthers were an urban self-defense militia organized to stop police brutality in the black community and they were eager defenders of the Second Amendment. (Yes, really.) They were an unofficial social service agency that fed schoolchildren in poor neighborhoods and provided free medical care. They were a social-justice movement and a political party, and in both of those modes they began to reach beyond their base in inner-city African-American neighborhoods.

Those individual components were all important, but what they added up to in aggregate was a symbolic expression of black anger, black militancy and black power that galvanized the entire African-American community, mesmerized the media and simultaneously terrified and fascinated the white world. There were more than enough reasons why J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI wanted to crush the Panthers, even before they began to conceive of themselves as the vanguard of a cross-racial or multiracial revolutionary movement. In fact, Nelson’s title is ambiguous, because exactly what kind of revolution the Panthers advocated was a subject of constant discussion and disagreement. But whether it was to be a black nationalist uprising, a class-based political movement or the domestic front of global Marxist-Leninist struggle, it was understood by Hoover and others in Washington as the greatest internal threat to American society in decades, and as a threat to be neutralized by any means necessary, as Malcolm X would have put it.

We had a micro-news moment this week when Megyn Kelly harangued a Black Lives Matter supporter for what she perceived as the movement’s “violent” rhetoric. I don’t know what Kelly heard, or thought she heard, but it is not likely to compare with newsreel footage in “The Black Panthers” of large crowds of college students, most of them white, chanting, “Free Huey! Off the pigs!” While the Panthers’ allure for the white campus left and the Manhattan and Hollywood intelligentsia was widely noticed and widely mocked at the time (most famously in Tom Wolfe’s article “Radical Chic”), Nelson also includes a less prominent Panther outreach effort that I bet really got Hoover to sit up and take notice. After brokering a truce between Chicago’s black, white and Latino street gangs in 1969, local Panther leader Fred Hampton began holding organizing meetings among poor white communities of Polish-Americans and Appalachian migrants on the city’s south and west sides. What might have come of such an alliance we will never know, because within a few weeks Hampton had been killed in his bed during a police raid, shot twice through the head at close range in what was essentially a death-squad hit.

No one described the Black Panthers as “domestic terrorists” at the time, not even Hoover, but only because that term was not in common use, and the definition of terrorism had not yet been broadened to its current all-purpose level of abstraction. (Where it now means "whoever does or says something we don't like.") One could argue that America’s supreme secret policeman began to set the rules of the War on Terror around 1968 without calling it that, and those rules look eerily familiar from our vantage point. If the extrajudicial execution of Fred Hampton stands out as especially egregious, it also fits into a larger pattern. Warrantless secret spying, coordinated campaigns of counterintelligence and disinformation, the coercive recruitment of informants and the insertion of provocateurs were all key elements of the FBI’s extralegal and highly classified COINTELPRO program, whose principal target was the Panthers. Local police were told, either specifically or by implication, that they could ignore constitutional rights and abandon normal law enforcement practices, and that the Panthers were so well armed and dangerous they had to be confronted with military-style force. As an LAPD veteran tells Nelson, the first SWAT team action in American police history, complete with military surplus vehicles and cops in body armor, was a famous December 1969 raid on the Panther headquarters in South Central L.A.

You get that peculiar feeling of seeing echoes of the present in the grainy video footage of the past over and over again in “The Black Panthers.” While ‘60s historians and African-American studies scholars have written numerous works about the Panthers – Nelson calls upon several such experts, including Beverly Gage, Donna Murch and Yohuru Williams – in mainstream American cultural and political discourse they are presented either as bizarre and incomprehensible caricatures or swept under the carpet entirely. What we see in Nelson’s work is a history that is very much alive in the American present, and not just within BLM or the African-American community, but is hardly ever discussed. It’s a history that is exciting and frightening and repressed and distorted, and whose ripple effects have shaped the ideological landscape of the country we live in today.

Sometimes the Panther story feels like stuff that could not possibly have happened, plot twists from an alternate-history novel written by some black radical peer of Philip K. Dick. Did Eldridge Cleaver, the firebrand Panther intellectual, really take over a colonial villa in Algiers from the North Vietnamese government and install himself there as head of the Black Panther Party’s “International Section”? (Cleaver had fled the United States to avoid a prison sentence for rape, a fact Nelson does not mention.) Did he really host all-night parties, rumored to involve impressive amounts of hashish, where Cubans and North Koreans and KGB agents and American radical-chic tourists mingled with revolutionary guerrilla leaders from all over the developing world?

He did, and if you think the American right wing is paranoid now, you need to look back to that forgotten or half-forgotten or willfully obliterated radical wave of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when it seemed conceivable that the postwar capitalist order overseen by the United States could be overthrown at any moment. I would argue, in fact, that the right’s collective bundled-undie terror before even the mildest forms of collective action or left activism is an inherited legacy of fear from that era of chaos and instability. Oh sure, folks standing up to the cops on the streets of Ferguson are exercising their “constitutional rights.” But if you let stuff like that go too far, you end up with Eldridge Cleaver posing for the TV cameras in his stylish tropical wear, telling his North Vietnamese benefactors that he hopes to host them soon as the leader of a revolutionary government in Washington. (Cleaver paid them back by traveling to Hanoi and doing propaganda broadcasts urging black American soldiers in Vietnam to kill their commanding officers.)

On the other hand, consider the infamous action that first put the Panthers on the media map in May of 1967, when co-founder Bobby Seale and about two dozen other members showed up at the California State Capitol in Sacramento carrying loaded rifles and shotguns. It was like today’s open-carry protests held by gun nuts in Walmart stores turned upside down, and the effect was electric. California’s governor at the time, some actor-turned-politician named Ronald Reagan, was holding a press event on the lawn with parochial schoolgirls when the Panthers rolled up, and pretty much ran back indoors and told the legislature to hurry up and pass gun-control laws to disarm the scary black men. Amazingly enough, when the Oath Keepers showed up last month in Ferguson, packing heat and spreading their constitutional gospel, some of them brought up the Panther episode and discussed it with African-American residents – just one of those moments when left-wing and right-wing dissent collide in the land of WTF.

Nelson doesn’t steer away from the abundant contradictions of Panther leaders like Cleaver or Seale or the mercurial, almost mythical Huey P. Newton, the party’s most potent symbolic figurehead and also the face of its implosion. While Newton lacked Cleaver’s literary flair, he was a self-educated scholar who claimed he taught himself to read with Plato’s “Republic” and was well versed in political and social theory. His 1967 imprisonment for the shooting of an Oakland cop became the central focus of Panther activism and fund-raising. (To this day, it’s not clear whether the shooting was intentional or whether Newton did it.) His court case dragged on for years before the charges were dropped after two mistrials – I am old enough to have childhood memories of activists on the streets of Berkeley, holding up signs urging VW and Volvo drivers, “Honk to Free Huey.” (In a puckish variation, some white people also wore buttons reading “Honkies for Huey.”)

A decade or so later, with the Panthers eviscerated by COINTELPRO and riven by political infighting, Newton was holed up in a high-rise apartment overlooking Oakland’s Lake Merritt, essentially running the rump faction of the party he still controlled as a criminal gang. Even while in and out of prison, he did graduate work at UC Santa Cruz and earned a Ph.D. in social philosophy, writing his dissertation on the government’s campaign of repression against the Panthers. In a tragic ending out of Sophocles or Hollywood, Newton died in 1989 in the same downtrodden part of West Oakland where the Panthers had once cooked breakfast for kids. He wasn’t killed by the cops, but shot down by a rival gang member and drug dealer after leaving a crack house.

But Nelson’s film largely avoids getting sidetracked by the ironic and operatic sagas of the Panthers’ flawed and charismatic leaders. “We didn’t get these brothers from Revolutionary Heaven,” wryly observes Elaine Brown, one of a core group of Panther women who kept the party going while Newton and Cleaver debated Marxist theory and went to Jane Fonda’s cocktail parties. Nelson’s point is that whatever mistakes the Panthers made – and surely the biggest of those was to underestimate the subtlety and ingenuity of their enemies – they were not a Great Men’s Club but a genuine social phenomenon that captured the dreams and aspirations of a wide swath of black America, especially in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Most of Nelson’s interviews are with rank-and-file Panthers, and he focuses in particular on the perspectives of women like Brown and Kathleen Cleaver and Ericka Huggins. While the male leadership died or flamed out – Eldridge Cleaver became a born-again Christian and a Reagan Republican before his death; Bobby Seale, whose failed 1972 mayoral campaign in Oakland signaled the Panthers’ pivot toward mainstream politics, is still alive but did not participate in this film – the Panther women largely adapted their agenda of black empowerment and social change to changing times, pursuing careers as writers and professors and community activists. Many of them are still here to witness the emergence of a new activist moment, and while I cannot presume to know what wisdom they have to offer, one maxim drawn from Panther history is clear enough: When your enemy accuses you of spreading hate and inciting violence, bear in mind that he has a loaded gun in his other hand.

“The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” is now playing at Film Forum in New York. It opens Sept. 11 at the Kendall Square Cinema in Boston; Sept. 18 in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Seattle and Washington; Sept. 25 in Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami and San Diego; Oct. 2 in San Francisco; and Oct. 9 in Atlanta, Hartford, Conn., Minneapolis and Portland, Ore., with more cities and home video to follow.

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By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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