The images of the Black Panthers – black berets and leather jackets, afros, guns, the pouncing panther – and their enduring inspiration are so great that it’s hard to believe that this is only the second full length film documenting their rise and fall. However, it is well worth the wait. The footage and interviews with surviving activists are worth the price of the ticket alone. This film is very political and sympathetic, but not uncritical.
The story of the Panthers’ rise is told succinctly. Founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale exploited a Californian law that allowed anyone with a licence to bear arms in public so long as they were clearly visible.
Much as today, the police were known for their violent assault and murder of black youth. So the Panthers followed police patrols around Oakland, surrounding them if they saw anyone being harassed, and loading their guns loudly if any violence was offered.
This effective tactic swelled the party’s ranks. As one veteran put it, it was dangerous, but why go to Vietnam to be killed when you could fight for something you believed in at home?
One memorable scene shows armed Panthers outside California’s State Capitol in Sacramento when politicians tried to amend the law, possibly the only time the US right have supported gun control.
Alongside the children’s breakfast programme and food and medical programmes for adults, this enabled the Panthers to sink roots into the community. Most party members in this phase were women, some as young as 13.
However, dramatic growth and a failure to politically educate new members brought its own problems. Who were these new recruits, and how did they interpret the Panther’s “Ten-Point Program”? As the FBI declared the Panthers “the biggest single threat to US security”, things began to spiral out of control. Huey and Bobby were framed or jailed on minor charges, leaving the maverick Eldridge Cleaver in charge.
Teenager Bobby Hutton was shot down during the riots after Martin Luther King’s death in April 1968, after which Cleaver fled to Algeria. And in January 1969, all 21 leaders of the New York Panthers were arrested on “terrorism” charges.
By the time Huey was released, the party was ridden with factionalism and paranoia. Newton preferred the safety of the breakfast programme and surrounded himself with thugs; Cleaver advocated a reckless (and hopeless) strategy of insurrection; Seale ran a vibrant but unsuccessful campaign for Mayor of Oakland “with no Plan B”.
The most poignant story is Fred Hampton’s. The Panther leader in Chicago was also chair of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a veteran of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He tried to assemble a “Rainbow Coalition” with the Young Lords, a politcised Puerto Rican gang and the Young Patriots, a group of radical “hillbillies”. FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover had made it a principle to prevent the Panthers from forming exactly this sort of broad political alliance.
But while Fred could delegate and how to spot talent, he couldn’t spot was that his bodyguard was an informer. In December 1969, the FBI shot Hampton dead in a raid on his apartment, but made the mistake of leaving the door open when they left. Sympathisers lined up to be shown how he was killed — with a trickle of blood running all the way from his bed.
The lesson that surviving Panthers in the film draw is that they underestimated the state. Marxists would agree with that. You don’t play at insurrection.
And unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, the key issue of class is not even mentioned. The Panthers were a heroic organisation in many ways, but were heavily influenced by Maoism, replete with a cult of the personality in Huey Newton. They were unable to link up with the organised working class, something the Detroit Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) later did attempt.
Despite this, do go and see the film. If you do, you will I am sure, like me and many of the audience in Peckham who saw it too, leave mouthing the words of Fred Hampton: “I am — a revolutionary!”