Surviving State Repression, Fighting for Freedom: A Review of the Film The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
Yesterday, I went to UICA to see the film The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. The film is very rich, from the interviews with former members of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, to archival footage and the powerful use of music throughout the film.
So much could be said about the film, this history and its lasting impact on movements for liberation today. My interest in writing about the film is less of a critique and more of a highlighting of themes and lessons learned. No film, documentary or otherwise, could fully encapsulate the richness and the complexity of this one organization within the larger Black Freedom Movement, but the film makers do a pretty damn good job covering a lot of ground in just under two hours.
It was very encouraging to see the film place the birth of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense within the context of a global revolutionary movement. To ignore the influence that insurgent, revolutionary movements around the world had on the Black Panthers, would do a tremendous disservice to the memory of this urban insurgency. One recent book that provides even more details about the Black Panthers within the larger global revolutionary struggle is Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party.
One aspect of the Black Panthers that could have been made more explicit, was their decision to engage in self-defense. There was very little presented in the film about the level of police brutality that African Americans were experiencing across the country. Spending more time on this point would have made the film even more relevant for what for the current uprising within the Black community over police violence and state repression.
In addition, an honest exploration of the decision amongst the youthful Black Panthers to take up arms, would also have revealed that they were not the only African Americans who decided that self-defense was a legitimate position to take. The fact is that there were thousands of Black people across the country who had been engaged in self-defense politics for decades, way before the Black Panther Party for Self Defense came on the scene. Originating in the south, there were groups of African Americans calling themselves the Deacons for Defense, which used guns as a defensive tool against klan and police brutality. This history is beautifully captured in the book, The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement. Another, more recent book, on Black insurrection is, Dixie Be Damned: 300 Years of Insurrection in the American South, which chronicles the tactical use of arms uprising from slave revolts to the present.
In other words, the decision by the Black Panthers to take up arms in self defense was not new, a point made by a participant in the Black Freedom Movement, Charles Cobb, in his book, This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible. By not placing the Black Panther’s decision to engage in a politics of self-defense within the larger history of armed rebellion, further marginalizes their memory within the dominant culture as a legitimate organization and it prevents any serious discussion on any contemporary use of armed insurgency as a political tactic.
Another important aspect of the film was the simple fact that this movement was made up of really young African Americans. Most of the active members of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense were in their teens or their twenties. This importance of this point was made so clearly near the end of the film by a former member of the Black Panthers, when he said, that the youthfulness was both its strength and its weakness. It’s strength could be seen in the fire of young revolutionaries like Huey Newton, Elaine Brown, Bobby Seale, Kathleen Cleaver and Fred Hampton. You could hear the fire in their voices, the conviction and the vision for what kind of world they wanted to live in. Who could doubt that listening to Fred Hampton didn’t want to make you go out and join a revolutionary movement for liberation?
The film also does a pretty good job of looking at the kinds of programs the Black Panthers initiated that would serve very concrete needs in their communities. They were a revolutionary movement in the truest sense, in that they not only wanted to overthrown the system of oppression that kept their people in poverty, they also tried to practice liberation by serving the people through programs like the free breakfast program and the clinics. More could have been said about these programs and others, like the revolutionary drug treatment programs they developed that continue to have tremendous impact. It is safe to to that had the Black Panthers not developed radical drug treatment programs, organizations like the Red Project might not exist today. One book that provides a solid investigation of these revolutionary programs developed by the Black Panther Party for Self Defense is, The Black Panther Party: Service to the People Programs. There is also a chapter in an anthology edited by Eric Holt-Gimenez on the food justice movement, which looks at what we can learn from the Black Panthers about the role of food in community organizing. The book is Food Movements Unite and the chapter is entitled, Survival Pending Revolution: What the Black Panthers Can Teach the US Food Movement.
One area of the film that was so encouraging to see was the kind of organizing that was taking place in cities like Chicago, where young revolutionaries from all communities were coming together to form a coalition. This was one of the strengths of Black Panther organizers like Fred Hampton, who understood the need to bring together sectors of the community which shared a common lived experience of oppression from White Supremacy and Capitalism.
There was that seen where this bourgeoning coalition was in its infancy in Chicago, with Black, Puerto Rican and White radicals coming together to form a united front. This coalition is explored in the little known book, Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times.
A more sobering aspect of the film was the brutal ways in which state repression was used against the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The film does a solid job of using archival footage and interviews to expose the level of state violence, particularly by looking at specific instances of repression during the years the Black Panthers operated. The film talked a little bit about the FBI’s COINTELPRO, the program that was used to undermine any and all revolutionary efforts within the United States. The film even notes that of all the various projects initiated under COINTELPRO, roughly two thirds of them were targeted at the Black Panthers.
The assassination of Fred Hampton in Chicago that was explored in the film, in many ways showed the depth of the insidiousness of the state repression against the Black Panthers. How could one not be enraged by the level of brutality used against this young man who so loved his people? The FBI led-murder of Fred Hampton is the topic of the powerful book, The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther and another documentary film The Murder of Fred Hampton.
We would all do well to have a deeper understanding of the FBI’s COINTELPRO and what impact it had on the revolutionary movements in the US from the 1950s through the 1970s. One of the best books to explore this history, with the use of declassified documents is Agents of Repression: The FBI’s Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement. Another important book on the topic, from an insider who was featured in the film (M. Wesley Swearingen), is FBI Secrets: An Agents Expose.
I have already highlighted many of the main threads of the film up to this point, but it is also important to think about what we can learn from the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, especially those interested in fighting for revolutionary change today.
It is obvious from the film that there were serious organizational problems, such as how the organization was structured and group dynamics. The level of misogyny in the Black Panther Party was made apparent in the film and in no way should it be minimized. However, many revolutionary groups at the time were also engaged in sexist behavior, a reality that led many feminists of the 60s and 70s to develop a more radical critique of patriarchy that went beyond gender equity. This was especially the case for feminists of color who began to develop a more intersectional critique of social injustice and social movements. We are all the beneficiaries of this analysis and we need to make sure that the same kind of misogynistic practices do not infest our movements today.
Another lesson we can learn is that hierarchical models have no place in our movements today. Again, this was not unique to the Black Panthers, but the film makes it clear the dangers of having decisions made by a few “leaders.” We need to adopt organizational models that are horizontal, transparent and ones that use consensus as often as possible.
There was another point made in the film when one of the former Black Panthers was speaking about how there was no real scrutiny of new members coming in. Those involved in movement building today might call this security culture, but the point is that there needs to be a process to incorporate new people into our work that is not naive, keeps us safe and builds capacity. This is particularly important when considering how the state or other repressive systems will do whatever they think necessary to undermine our movements, which includes infiltration. We CANNOT be naive about the fact that if we are engaged in revolutionary politics, we can expect to meet state repression. This is maybe one of the most important lessons we can learn from the Black Panther Party for Self Defense.
By way of ending I also think it is important that we learn from the Black Panthers or at least are reminded by them to always be passionate, to love ferociously, to serve the community, to take young people seriously, to build alliances with other revolutionary groups and to practice radical self love.
If you haven’t seen the movie, it will be playing a few more days this week at UICA. Go see it and take your friends!