Kush films continued their new monthly ‘film boutique’ events with an extra special screening of The Black Panthers: Vanguard of The Revolution, the documentary which traces the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party.
Walking into the Regent Street cinema was a huge joy, the event was billed as a theme night and the audience didn’t disappoint. Everyone wearing the iconic black leather, dark-glasses and black-gloved fist look synonymous with the Black Panther Party and the movement they created in 1960s America. Afro’s (real and fake), long boots, headwraps and berets were everywhere as Public Enemy’s infamous justice theme song, Fight The Powerblared from the speakers controlled by legendary DJ, Ronnie Herel.
During the first half of the 2hr long documentary we learned about the first leaders, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and Bobby Seale via a fellow founder Elbert ‘Big Man’ Howard and lesser known members; those in the background who fought with them, marched the streets armed with rifles, built the after school programs and free clinics which helped to shape the community and have lived to tell the tale. Listening to them you still get a sense of happiness and pride in their tone as they relived what it was like to be a Black Panther and what that whole period meant for African Americans.
The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was built in 1966 as a response to police brutality in Oakland California. After the assassination of Malcolm X the Panthers were committed to continuing the ‘By any means necessary’ modus operandi. The call to revolution was so strong back then, people left their jobs to sign up. Some en route to college, heard about the rise of the party and turned around, others had suffered at the hands of police brutality. My mind immediately jumped to the present day and the #BlackLivesMatter movement taking shape in America in response to the same problem. It’s amazing how eerily similar all the tragic stories of lives lost at the hands of the police were.
It is remarkable that Stanley Nelson could summon such a stellar group of participants for this project. The archive footage was invaluable to tell the story but without the voices of the people who were there – police, FBI informants, journalists, white supporters and detractors; Black Panthers who remained loyal to the party and those who left it, the film wouldn’t have been as enthralling. We even heard from a police officer who recalled trying to speak to a 4yr old in the community who promptly told him to ‘fuck off’ – cue rapturous laughter from the audience. Sound bites like that are what made this a brilliant watch as were poignant scenes of a mother with baby in one hand and a gun in the other.
In the beginning, the Black Panthers were not seen as a direct threat to authority, a turning point was when the illustrator for the Black Panther newspaper depicted the police as a walking pig with the caption ‘support your local police’. Then the chant “off the pigs” started by the Panthers during protest marches reached white college students. Another fact which often goes unnoticed, was that by the end of their reign, most of the party were women, and they had to make a stand for feminism, even back then. The Black Panther Party had a chauvinistic tone, with the women not being trusted to take on any revolutionary or militant acts so they demanded a switch in roles. The men made breakfast and controlled the free clinics while the women worked and held the guns. Sadly, the misogyny was never overcome, the roles soon switched back. One female Panther exclaimed “the men were not from revolutionary heaven”.
The death of Martin Luther king was a pivotal moment for the Panthers, this was when Eldridge Cleaver broke ranks and retaliated against the police with an ambush with ended in the brutal slaying of 17yr old Bobby Hutton, one of the first members to be executed by the police. The full story was told by Elbert ‘Big Man’ Howard who says he spoke to Bobby before he left, gave him a gun and sent him out to battle. He still feels guilty to this day. From there the demise of the party is charted in great detail… The Bobby Seale saga which led to him being bound and gagged in court before being sentence to jail for 4 years for contempt. The incarceration of Huey Newton; Eldridge Cleaver fleeing to Algeria.
The main catalyst for the fall of the party was then head of the FBI, J Edgar Hoover. I had heard and read about his involvement but did not realise how ruthless the FBI were in ensuring that the Panthers failed in their quest for human liberation, which was the ethos of the party – not just equality for black people. The Black Panthers were considered the No 1 security risk in the USA during the Vietnam war. They had factions all over the USA by that time, but exact numbers were unknown, so the police over exaggerated and feared them. The full police force was under orders to extinguish the group completely via an operation called Cointelpro formed to neutralise ‘hate groups’ by jail, recruitment as informants, or death. They could do whatever they wanted to bring them down. This brings me back to the present day and the current attempts to paint the #BlackLivesMatter movement as a hate group. I think about Sandra Bland, how she spoke out against police brutality and was then targeted, arrested and ended up dead in a jail cell. I see an awful pattern of systematic injustice forming. A national all-out assault was launched and the Panthers had no resources to fight back.
Some of the tactics were outrageous, the police resorted to telling wives their husbands were cheating on them to breakdown the families from within. We heard this directly from Panthers who were FBI informants. The term ‘Panther pads’ was created – houses for the men who had to leave their families due to FBI interference, they effectively created a new community.
“You can jail the revolutionaries but You can’t jail the revolution” – Fred Hampton
Black Panthers on parade at Free Huey rally in Defermery Park, Oakland, July 28, 1968. Photo courtesy of Stephen Shames.
One very important part of the documentary highlighted the racial unity created by the Panthers. The chant ‘All power to the people’ was a unifying call for all people of all races to unite against police brutality and they did attract diverse crowds of people in the streets defending their actions. A stark contrast to the racial divide in America today which is so fractured white people are paying the bail money of police officers who gun down unarmed black teenagers or people like George Zimmerman have been able to garner ridiculous amounts of support for his very public slaying of 17yr old Trayvon Martin.
The death of Fred Hampton was one of the most eye-opening examples of blatant police corruption. Fred and his companions were asleep in a house which was ambushed by the police who claimed they shot first. The police used the line ‘they feared for their lives’ to justify the brutal slaying of 5 people. When police in the UK shot Mark Duggan they feared for their lives, when they shot John Charles de Menezes at a London Underground tube station, they feared for their lives, and every time we hear of another police shooting in America it is the test book excuse that is used. How is it possible that this one line can make murder at the hands of the police legal across the world? It is obvious that something must be done but we are powerless to stop the police from killing us if they want to, and it seems that if we followed the example of the Black Panthers, and stuck to their original ethos we may have a chance to change things for good.
The FBI systematically destroyed the Party which could’ve been avoided if they simply trusted each other. Huey Newton & Eldridge Cleaver had public arguments, they even had verbal battles on live TV letting the entire world know that the party was fractured beyond repair. The Black Panther Party for Self-defense split into half and then erupted into violence among themselves. Was this the beginning of the rival black gangs we see in operation now killing each other on the streets of America for no formidable reason?
A couple of days after watching this I watched the 1995 movie Panther. The movie was poor in comparison, devoid of any relevant or the most important content and did not tell the story of the Black Panther Party at all. It underpins the importance of documenting our history as it happens and ensuring we get to show the next generation what we went through so they don’t make the same mistakes.