Like most things associated with the NFL these days, the run-up to Super Bowl 50 can only be described as shameful. The dominant, contrived theme pushed by sports media painted a contrast in styles between the two quarterbacks — Peyton Manning (read: super white, all the unstated characteristics that come with that) and Cam Newton (read: super black, all the unstated characteristics that come with that). As it turned out, both quarterbacks played terrible and it was the halftime show where an eager press found the pronounced racial themes they sought. As David Zirin wrote in The Nation, “The fact that Beyoncé and her dancers paid tribute to the Panthers, complete with black berets and assembling in an X formation, amid the glitz, schmaltz and hyper-nationalism of the Super Bowl, has sparked an immediate and bracing wave of discussion.”
The Black Panther Party for Self Defense is also marking the 50th year since its inception. Founded in Oakland in 1966, at the opposite end of the bay from Santa Clara (this year’s Super Bowl site), the Panthers have been finding an interested audience in a new generation of activists looking to redress police violence, massive inequality, and a political establishment unresponsive to the desires of the vast majority of American citizens. The Beyoncé event comes on the heels of Stanley Nelson’s film The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, which like The Black Power Mixtape has reanimated a discussion on the legacy of the Panthers. If Zirin is going to be proven correct, and discussions about the Panthers are going to be “bracing” and constructive, participants will need a better understanding of the complex politics of the Party. There is no better place to begin this reassessment than Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin’s comprehensive account of the movement, from its inception out of the Civil Rights Movement to its undoing in the mid-70s. According to Bloom, the puzzle at the heart of this period is why, “right at the height of success following the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of ‘64 and ’65, the center of black freedom struggle shifts towards black power and the Panthers emerge.”
I spoke with Bloom, who teaches Sociology at UCLA, about this puzzle, how a new generation of activists are discovering the Panthers outside of the legacy of organized vilification of the Party by the state, and how they understood their position in relation to contemporaneous anti-imperial struggles across the globe. This is the first half of what turned out to be a long conversation. The second half of the can be found here.
Michael Schapira: The Panthers come freighted with a lot of ideas attached to them. Personally, when and where did you grow up and what were the prevailing attitudes about the Panthers when you first learned about them?
Joshua Bloom: I grew up in New Haven after the era of the Panthers, but my parents had been activists when they were young and had been impressed and influenced by the politics of the Party. So there was some idea of the Party being an important moment in a broader progressive movement in the United States, but it was fairly vague. There were little stories or images. I had heard that the city had shut down in 1970 around Panther mobilization. I heard, interestingly, from my mom who was involved in the New Haven women’s movement, that the Party had actually been a crucial reference point, and really a catalyst, for the women’s movement in New Haven. The women’s movement had grown there, unlike like so many other places where it grew out of the Civil Rights Movement, out of alliances with the Black Panther Party. So I had heard those stories floating around, but there was not much detail or understanding of what the content was.
Then, a good bit later, I was working as an organizer in Oakland, doing work mostly in public housing, and I ran into a number of former Panther leaders. I was struggling with issues of contemporary organizing and alliance politics, as well as some of the challenges of deeper, far reaching politics with a transformative vision. Talking with some of the Panther leaders I had met, Bobby Seale and David Hilliard specifically, I got interested in the puzzle, and it’s really the puzzle that motivates the book, of why black politics shifted so drastically in the mid-60s.
You have the tremendous success of the Civil Rights Movement, dismantling Jim Crow and long-standing forms of past discrimination. And right at the height of success following the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of ‘64 and ’65, the center of black freedom struggle shifts towards black power and the Panthers emerge. I got interested in trying to figure out why so many young black people took up the gun and took up revolutionary struggle right on the heels of the success of non-violence, and why non-violent insurgency unraveled in all the main organizations like CORE, SNCC, and others that advanced those struggles in that period. Why did that happen? Why does one set of practices work powerfully in one environment and context and not work in another? What’s that relationship? That seemed like an important question for activists, and I was interested in understanding it for my own political work. That is how I came to the project.
I want to come back to that, because one of the interesting things in reading the book today is that it marks a contrast to something like Occupy, in which there is skepticism towards naming a vanguard party and building alliances in that kind of orientation.
But before coming to that, in the preface you talk about there having been a gap in the scholarship on the Panthers for a long time, and filling that gap was a motivation for writing the book. What had changed that allowed you and Waldo [E. Martin] to write this book—whether new materials had become declassified and available to scholars, whether prevailing attitudes towards the Panthers had changed, whether they were attracting more attention within scholarly circles?
There were a lot of people working to challenge the prevailing attitude which dismissed the Party and its politics without serious consideration. But lots of people rejected the established view and were chipping away at it by doing all kinds of research on pointed questions. What was the alliance politics of the Chicago Black Panther Party, or how did the health programs work in New York, or what were the similarities and differences between the New York Panthers and some Jamaican revolutionary nationalist movements? I think by the time we published there had been 100 dissertations in the last 20 years on the Black Panther Party. Waldo had his hand in a couple of them. What we were able to build on was research by people who didn’t buy the prevailing dismissal and wanted to get at the real deal. The party was so controversial that there wasn’t a lot of space in academia to ask the big questions, so people uncovered the history by asking very detailed questions very thoroughly.
So you have this accumulation, and much of that stuff was never published. Some of it was, and some pieces are really great and have their own trajectories, but a lot of people did a lot of painstaking, careful work because they believed that there was something there worth uncovering not being addressed.
Some of that started to consolidate. I don’t know if you know Peniel Joseph.
Yes, he wrote that recent Stokely Carmichael biography.
I’m not thinking about the Stokely book, but Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour. In a way that book goes much broader and declares Black Power Studies, and challenges some of the prevailing wisdom about this history. There was this recognition among a number of historians that a lot of the treatments of black freedom struggle—and a lot of historians study black freedom struggle, there are shelves and shelves in the library of histories on black freedom struggle—focused on the Civil Rights Movement, and that both the earlier mobilizations and the later ones, the ones that didn’t fit neatly into the Civil Rights frame, had been ignored.
There was also a shift in professional historiography. If you listen to Thomas Sugrue or Jacquelyn Dowd Hall and some of the other folks that championed this perspective, there is a long and geographically wide Civil Rights Movement, and not a narrow and geographically constrained one. That is reflective of the discipline of history having to deal with all this specific information that people studying the Black Panther Party and studying black power more broadly had been digging up and bringing to the fore.
I disagree with aspects of that framework. I think actually that revolutionary Black Nationalism, of which the Black Panther Party was a part, was stridently not part of the Civil Rights Movement. So thinking about what a movement is and how black freedom struggle developed and evolved, you are doing a disservice calling the whole thing the long Civil Rights Movement. But I think the broader, in some ways deeper point that those folks are recognizing, that I agree with, is that there was lots of stuff going on that didn’t fit into the neat Civil Rights Movement framework that was studied. I think it would have never have been possible to write the book that we did had not all those folks done that careful and patient work.
Nonetheless the very first paragraph of the book has the Panthers in Hong Kong, and the book is called Black Against Empire, so embedding the movement within broader international currents in politics was obviously a priority. When did that become important as an organizing principle for the book?
Well it really emerged from the history. And I need to clarify something, because the anti-imperialist politics of the Party was really about the way that the Party saw the character and condition of black America. It’s the way they saw black freedom struggle. It’s the way the activists, the leaders, and the participants in the Party came to see the struggle against racism—that racism was a form of imperialism. The character of oppression that people faced in black communities was deep poverty, exclusion from the political machine, exclusion from elite higher education, exclusion from police departments and municipal hiring more generally, and basically exclusion from the middle class. Those were not some abstract kind of racism or individualized condition; those were expressions of an imperial condition. Those were colonial conditions. The Party called itself the colony in the mother country, so that reference is related to the question of alliance politics, but it’s really a question of viewpoint, and the way the Party understood itself, Black America, and racism.
That view was central to the politics of political alliances internationally, but not only internationally. In fact, if pushed, I might have to argue that it was more important domestically, because that was the basis upon which the Party built alliances with Chicanos, or Asian immigrant and Asian American organizations. It was the basis upon which the Party worked with poor whites, with American-Indian movements, and not least, built very deep relationships with an anti-imperialist New Left that was centrally oriented around fighting against the Vietnam War.
You have to understand that a key part of this moment was not only anti-colonial struggle abroad, but that there were lots of people who were being drafted to go and die in the Vietnam War. The anti-war movement was built around resistance to the draft and was specifically framed as an anti-imperialist struggle. That framing in part comes from Stokely Carmichael. In the book I talk a little bit about how he dragged SDS into draft resistance and really set the frame for it.
I don’t know if you ever saw the movie Ali. I went to go see it when it was in the theaters, and they basically have Ali out on his own resisting the draft and refusing to participate in the draft. I’m like, “Come on! What kind of glorification is this? That there’s no anti-war movement, there’s no broader draft resistance? Here is Ali doing this all by himself?” And I went and looked into it and the filmmakers were absolutely right. In 1966, except for a few fringe Catholic groups, it was SNCC and the Nation of Islam resisting the draft. It was these black organizations. It really was Elijah Mohammad earlier, who set the framework for it, but in that moment Ali is working with Malcolm X and taking the outlandish, treasonous stance that he will not fight in Vietnam, and is in part doing this by making analogies with the Civil Rights Movement and the oppression of black people. We are not getting any kind of equal treatment at home, why should we go and kill people halfway across the world for state power here?
The anti-war draft resisters, that Catholic fringe, were being beaten in the streets because they were seen as treasonous. They couldn’t sustain that. What happened was the movement was able to, by making that articulation with black power and the effort to continue resistance to racial oppression in the US, bring the questions of colonialism and imperialism home in this powerful way. This let the core of anti-imperialist activists invent draft resistance for a broader movement, in a way that was no longer treasonous and unsupportable. The Panthers stepped into that position. That articulation was happening right as the Black Panther Party that we know of was being born. Stokely was travelling the country in 1966 promoting an earlier idea about the Black Panther Party that came out of Lowndes County. The Black Panther Party that grew up in Oakland and became the Black Panther Party seized upon that anti-imperialist politics and became the focal point for those relationships among a much broader anti-imperialist left.
It seems like the background of the Vietnam war is really decisive for this alliance building, especially with the New Left, and really speaks to what you were mentioning earlier, which was your personal motivation when you were doing activist work in Oakland to see why some kinds of practices took off in certain settings and failed to in others.
During Occupy, and it’s been in vogue in other activist circles, there was a fetishization of process, or a commitment to being more self-consciously democratic in your organization and skeptical towards the kind of hierarchy that would emerge if you were to embrace a vanguard party. What do you make of this heavy resistance towards organizing with a specific portion of the movement being the vanguard of the movement?
I tend to think, not just of the Party, but in other work that I’ve done on quite different moments of black freedom struggle as well as labor movements, is that the organizational forms don’t drive the process. This may seem counter-intuitive. There’s a lot that organizational form does affect and does drive, and there’s lots of sociologists who will tell you that movements are just like any other form of organization. I think that’s dead wrong. I think there is something different that happens when people use disruption as a source of power from below. People who are facing oppression and don’t have institutionalized means to challenge that oppression occasionally make business as usual impossible, and do so in such a way to shape the course of events and transcend their oppression. When that happens, I think that it’s really the practices that become determinate, the practices of disruption and the way that those practices are framed.
If you look at the waves of mobilization in black freedom struggle, they follow these coherent sets of practices. All kinds of people came knocking down the door all over the country, streaming to the Black Panther Party, trying to be a part of the action. And you could say the same thing about Occupy. Occupy was started on Wall Street and there were very low barriers to entry. Anyone could set up a tent or some kind of little encampment on public land and start saying, “We are the 99%.” In that moment it was just slightly violating business as usual, but what was so threatening about it was not that you were going to have these little encampments, it was that once people are there and they are living in these tents talking about “We are the 99%,” then they are going to start talking about shutting down the Port of Oakland, and now you are talking tens of millions of dollars of disruption a day.
So in fact what is just a little stretch beyond free speech in a modest sort of way becomes very disruptive and creates a source of power. The practice of occupy became a source of power, just the same way that the practice or being a Black Panther and saying “we are going to monitor the police and defend ourselves” created a situation where containment policing, customary practices of unbridled police brutality, became very hard to maintain. The Party developed a set of practices, a way of understanding and talking about their position, and some pretty basic sets of tactics which made business as usual impossible in such a way that when they were repressed, lots of people were threatened by that repression. When you create that kind of dynamic, lots of other people see that as a source of power and join in. So I think that that’s the crucial dynamic. The crucial dynamic is that the party developed a set of practices that made business as usual impossible and was really hard to repress.
Think of the Civil Rights Movement. It’s the same with the sit-ins. On February 1, 1960 four students get together and they sit down at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, NC, in a place where there is lots of organized support for black rights—there are liberals, there are black organizations, Jim Crow is fairly vulnerable. They sit-in and Woolworth’s has to shut down. These students are violating the law, but Woolworth’s can’t beat them or arrest them, so they end up just shutting down the Woolworth’s. Everybody sees that and within three months, dozens of cities in every state in the south outside of Mississippi has had a sit-in or lots of sit-ins.
What happens is that out of the practice organizational forms are developed. If you are setting up these tents, and there are all kinds of authorities trying to repress you in some ways, it’s pretty advantageous to not have some centralized leadership that can be taken out and vilified. I’m not sure how much of a weakness that was.
I haven’t studied Occupy in detail. Maybe there were junctures where a strong central leadership would have been able to win the public relations battle. I think where Occupy lost, my perspective, is that nationally there was a very strong recognition in how challenging and threatening Occupy was. There was a strong coordination nationwide, by municipal governments and perhaps the FBI, to do two things. One of them was to make sure that none of those tents stayed up. And the second was to explain the intensity of repression through a process of vilification that basically said, “oh these are a public health hazards. Homeless people will congregate there and bring health risks to the public.” What is interesting is that where things get most charged is on campuses, where it is more difficult to make that homeless health and safety argument. Here are students who are paying these big tuitions trying to do some kind of free speech. Look at the anti-Apartheid movement. Once those tents went up they stayed up and didn’t come down until Apartheid fell. And there was so much public support for “We are the 99%” after the recession and the bailout of the folks who created the recession. So many people saw the banks as responsible for that recession and so many people saw the banks as unfairly the recipients of government largess, and here was Occupy, calling into question the whole thing. I think there was a concerted national government effort to tear the tents down, and vilify the tents in specific, and I think…. we lost. I don’t think the organizational structure was really in any kind of narrow determinate way responsible for that loss.
I see what you are saying. But that being said, there is the question of the kind of tactics you adopt, and how generally you frame what you are doing. There was a broader theorization of what the Black Panthers were doing that was incredibly attractive to the Young Lords, who come up with their own version of the 10 point program, and the Young Patriots, and the Red Guard, etc. That is what I’m asking, whether in studying the Panthers one thing that can be seen as lacking today is a vanguard theorization that could inspire other groups.
Well, you know, nothing succeeds like success. Why do the Young Lords and the Red Guard and the Young Patriots and everybody else model themselves after the Party? Because they were super influential. Because they were making things happen. Because they were a force to be contended with. Because they provided a venue for young blacks to challenge racial oppression head on and make things move. Any index you use, in terms of numbers of people organizing, or conflicts, or how many people were killed, or how much coverage they got in the mainstream press, or how much money they raised, you name it, they were where the stuff was happening in those few years—we’re just talking about 1968, 1969, and 1970. But in those three years the Party was where it was at. That’s why the Young Lords were born, and the Young Patriots, and everything else. It wasn’t because it was a nice idea; it was because they were making stuff happen, so others wanted to do it too.
If Black Lives Matter was to increase this influence a couple levels and have the kind of influence that the Party had, people wouldn’t be saying “don’t all lives matter” (well, they would, people would still be making this color-blind racist argument), but there would be lots of people saying “yes, black lives matter. And I’m Chicano and I’m going to make a Brown Lives Matter movement to deal with police brutality in my neighborhood, and I’m going to emulate what Black Lives Matter does and I’m going to work with the people who are doing Black Lives Matter on an alliance basis.” People would be emulating it, and hopefully that is what’s going to happen. I don’t think that is because the Panthers said “we are the vanguard.” That sort of phraseology came about in part in the discussions about the relationship between the Party and the anti-imperialist New Left—some of that happened in the relationship with SDS and the United Front against Fascism.
But, to go back to your earlier question about organizational form, you had an organization that was promoting armed self-defense against the state. That is a pretty particular kind of politics! The state is defined, if you look at Weber, as the institution which maintains a monopoly on the legitimate means of coercion in a territory. So the Party is violating the basic premise of the state saying that they are going to arm themselves in defense against the state. I’m looking right now at the classic poster of Huey Newton in the wicker throne, and the quote from Huey on the bottom of the poster is “The racist dog policemen must withdraw immediately from our communities, cease their wanton murder and brutality and torture of black people, or face the wrath of the armed people.” The state has no legitimacy here with their arms and their guns. So there is a basic frontal challenge to the fundamental character of what the state is. It’s an armed challenge. It’s self-defensive in the way it’s posed, and they are pretty careful in not going out and shooting things up most of the time.
But that’s a fairly treacherous, fraught kind of position without a lot of room to just let people do or say whatever they want and claim it under the umbrella of the Party. So part of what the Party was dealing with was that you had a wide range of young black people in the Party. You had middle class Panthers, you had working class Panthers, you had lumpen-“brothers on the block” as they were called, who didn’t have jobs and were either working illegally or running drugs or just getting by whatever way they could.
I don’t know if you know the story of William Lee Brent. He was high and driving the Panther delivery truck and pulled over into a gas station. In the Black Panther Party’s highly marked delivery truck he got out and robbed the gas station attendant for $70 or something. So you can’t be saying we’re going to have this frontal challenge to the state, and have such a strong state where you are not going to be able to win a direct war, and allow just anything to occur under your name. It’s not like this was a kind of direct war that was going to be able to be won in any direct war kind of way. This was a political position. So you can’t take that political position and not have some kind of pretty ironclad organizational control.
That’s pretty different from the dynamics of Occupy. Why the hell can’t you have hundreds of encampments all over the country with people doing their own thing, and saying, “We are the 99%?” You don’t need to control what they do. You maybe need to control more than they did, in that maybe a little more organizational control would have made it easier to avoid the kinds of vilification that happened. Maybe if Occupy had some more organizational coherence it would have been harder to win the public over with the argument that it was necessary to rip down these tents. But you certainly don’t need the kind of organizational control to pull off the tents that you need have armed self-defense against the state.
Michael Schapira is the Interviews editor at Full Stop and teaches Philosophy at Hofstra University.