Forwarded from Anthony (on Black Panthers)
lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Tue May 23 09:01:59 MDT 2000
A note especially for Josh about the Black Panther Party.
When I was a teenager in the 1960's my political thinking was electrified
by four events: the Free Speech Movement at the University of California
at Berkeley, the war in Vietnam - and the movement against it, the
hippies in San Francisco - and all that went with them, and the Black
I was a little white boy in the burbs of San Jose - just then becoming
silicon valley. But when Huey Newton was arrested, my friends and I cut
school, and drove to the Federal Building in San Francisco to march
around shouting, "Free Huey, I am a revolutionary." Most of the crowd,
maybe 70%, was black at those demonstrations.
Subsequently we organized the antiwar movement at our high school, tried
to build a student union, and succeeded in winning -for a year - control
of the student council.
I have always held the Black Panther's in great respect.
The Black Panthers were one of the seminal organizations of the 1960's.
And I do think it is worth studying their thoughts, and ideas - because
those thoughts both reflect the times, and show how revolutionary
consciousness was developing in an important section of the black
community, and in an important section of the proletariat in the United
I also think that to understand what Huey and the others were thinking,
saying, and doing, you have to understand the historic context.
Huey Newton, the ideological leader of the Panthers, was the son of the
minister of one of Oakland, California's largest black church's. As such
he came from the priveledged black petty bourgeoisie within a very
proletarian black community.
Oakland , California was an industrial city - which was being
de-industrialized in the 1960's. The San Francisco Bay Area's traditional
economy was based on the very rich agricultural region surrounding it [and
in the interior Great Central Valley of California), industries related
to agriculture, and the commerce of the great harbor.
But WWII brought a boom and bust of heavy industry related to arms and
ship building for the war in the Pacific against Japan. After the war was
over, local steel production, shipbuilding, and other related industries
(autombiles) declined, or were completely shut down. The center of steel
using heavy industry in the Bay Area, was Oakland.
Oakland also was, and still is, the center of the black community of the
area. The wartime industrial boom brought waves of migrants to the
industrial cities from the countryside - mostly from the south. In the
Bay Area these immigrants settled in very racially segregrated communities
- black workers in West Oakland (a little later the black community
expanded to include most of East Oakland), West Berkeley and Richmond, and
white workers to the South of Oakland in San Leandro and Hayward.
[Immigration of Mexicanos to the area was centered in the South Bay, in
the region of San Jose - but there were Mexican and Chicano neighborhoods
in all parts of the area. (As well as Chinese, Japanese and Pilipino -
but these communiites were not growing due first to immigration law, then
WWII - which cut off immigration from the Pacific region and led to the
incarceration of the Japanese commmunities.)]
When deindustrializaton began, the economy of the region was still growing
- but in other directions. White and Latino workers who lost their jobs in
heavy industry, despite bad times, found other jobs much more easily than
The reason was racism. The financial and tourist "industries" of San
Francisco just didn't hire many black people (but the tourist industry did
hire Chinese and Latino workers). Agriculture didn't hire many black
workers either, but it did hire Latinos (It also paid a lot less - two
factors which contributed to the soon-to happen organization of the United
Farm Workers of America)
Neither did the rising aerospace and electronics industries hire many
As deindustrialization was hitting Oakland, another blow was being struck
at the proletariat of the region from a different direction - the
Freight containerization - begun during WWII really came into its own in
the early 1960's. Oakland, California built what was - at the time - the
world's largest container port. The port from which most of the US arms
sent to Vietnam originated.
Containerization - and the other technological changes associated with it
- dramatically reduced both delivery times and labor costs of
transportation. And, while the tonnage shipped multiplied tens of times
over, the amount of labor involved in the process dropped precipitously.
I do not have the figures in front of me, but I know there were more than
50,000 longshoremen working in the various Bay Area ports at the end of
the 1940's and something on the order of 3-5,000 working those same ports
in the middle 1980's.
The docks were the other primary source of employment for the black
proletariat of the Bay Area.
To complete the historic context, a little knowledge of the regions
political history is also in order. The San Francisco Bay Area was the
political and cultural capital of the Gold Rush. According to Mark Twain,
' if you stood the United States on its edge, and shook it, everything
loose would fall to California.' And by California, he meant San Francisco
and the gold country.
The city, and its region, grew on the mining and agricultural booms of the
19th century, and was a magnate for immigration from all parts of the
world. Class conflict and racial and ethnic conflicts, became mixed
together from the beginning.
The first workers organizations, unions and a political party called the
Workingman's Party - were formed to fight the bosses, and the chinese and
black workers. That movement, led by Dennis Kearney was very militant,
and demanded the exclusion of Black and Chinese workers from all
businesses it organized. The unions it organized - those that survived,
became the AFL affiliates in San Francisco.
Those unions later successful organized another political party - called
the Union Labor Party, which controlled the city government of San
Francisco at the time of the great earthquake of 1906.
And, Jack London, grew up in the Oakland of the time, which had a strong,
left wing, and racist Socialist Party. (yes, it was both left wing - and
racist, sad to say.)
At the end of WWI a great strike movement was broken, and along with it
the power of those racist unions (this was a national phenomenon, but
strongly felt in the San Francisco Bay area).
When the great depression hit, workers were ready for something new and
different. The Communist Party organized a powerful series of agricultural
strikes, which were defeated. The strikes were notable because they
departed from the third period sectarianism of the time, and because they
prepared for a more powerful - and successful strike wave.
A small nucleus of dock workers, including CPers and anarchists organized
a new union to compete with the "blue" union (remnant of the racist unions
of the earlier period). Their work culminated not only in the formation
of a new union, but in the San Francisco and West Coast General Strike of
1934. This was one of the seminal events of the class struggle that paved
the way for the formation of the CIO in the United States.
Its impact was to lead to the rapid spread of union organization through
out the San FranciscoBay Area, and to catapult the Communist Party into
leading positions in many of the newly organized unions, and in the newly
emerging left outside of the labor mmovement as well.
That CP however, was always looked at askance by the party bigwigs in the
east. For one thing they had broken ranks with the third period before
Dmitrov and Stalin did. And for another thing they won strikes when other
CPers were losing them (notably Gus Hall in the Little Steel debacle of
All of this had a major impact on the future development of the Black
Panthers. The new unions, especially the ones in which the CP was
strongest, opened their doors to black workers. Black workers became the
strongest supporters of the new unions, and of the CP. Black housing
projects in Oakland, West Berkeley, and Richmond would vote as a block for
CP municipal candidates during WWII.
Even when CP support for Roosevelt's no strike pledge began to undermine
CP support among militant white workers (something which prepared the way
for the successful witchhunt of the CP after the war), the CP maintained
its strong base of support among the organized black workers.
When the anti-communist witchhunts hit the unions, the CP's defense of
itself was not effective. Union leaders quit the party, or pretended to
quit the party, some became anti-communists to keep their jobs. Workers
were blacklisted. The Rosenbergs were executed, their defense led not by
the CP but by the Guardian.
And when in the middle of the witchhunts the deindustrialization and
reindustrialization of the Bay Area began, the CP - and the rest of the
leadership of the labor movement, had no program to stop it.
In fact, the union where the CP remained the strongest - the International
Longshoremens and Warehousemens Union (ILWU), with strong CP support -
signed an agreement with the ship owners called the Machine and
Mechinization agreement - which made it possible for the shipping
companies to go ahead with containerization, and reduce port employment by
tens of thousands of workers - including tens of thousands of black
Still, the CP in the Bay Area did not completely lie down and die. There
the local CP was active in the defense of the Rosenbergs, and in the civil
rights movement - which in the Bay Area directed itself against both job
discrimination and housing discrimination.
But the fact remained, that by the early 1960's the black proletariat of
Oakland - was being deproletarianized, and black workers had for the most
part lost faith in the CP's ability or willingness to lead any kind of
real struggle around this central issue of their lives.
People who had worked in the same factory all of their lives, now could
not find work even after looking for years.
This was the situation when Huey Newton and Bobby Seale met each other in
Oakland's ghetto. I think both of them were students at Laney Junior
college. They formed a study group and began reading Franz Fanon, Mao,
the US constitution, legal textbooks and whatever revolutionary literature
they could get their hands on.
The Oakland of the time was controlled by the very right wing Republican
political machine of the Knowland family, which owned the city's daily
newspaper, and half of hte Republican Party of California - William
Knowland was a US Senator from California, one of the high priests of
McCarthyism and one of the powers behind the rising star of Richard Nixon.
The Knowland family knew how to keep the black community quiet - they
hired their police force with ads in the newspapers of small southern
towns - and they hired white policemen. They also kept a few black
ministers on the payroll for insurance.
Oakland police were notorious for their "shoot first, ask later" policy
when it came to black people.
This was the situation when Newton and Seale turned their study group into
the Black Panther Party for Self Defense.
I don't remember its full ten point program, but it was based on the real
experience of black people in the USA, and especially in Oakland. It
included the right to armed self defense against the police, and also
full payment of the current value of the unfulfilled "forty acres and a
mule" promise of the US government when the slaves were emancipated during
the civil war. (It is probalby available somewhere online, but I haven't
ahd time to do any research for this long note.)
Newton, Seale, and their small but growing group put their program into
practice in a dramatic way.
Wearing black leather jackets and berets, and armed with very visible
rifles (so as not to be charged with carrying concealed weapons) the
Panthers began to ride around Oakland in Newton's car - following police
cars. When a police car would stop a black person for any reason, Newton
and the others would stop a respectable distance behind, get out of their
car with their rifles, and .... just watch.
The police were terrified, and so was William Knowland's newspaper.
When the police murdered a young boy in West Oakland, the Panthers staged
an armed demonstration on the block -closing it to traffic while Newton
spoke to the awed neighbors over a megaphone.
These events in Oakland were happening as the war in Vietnam was
escalating, as the hippie movement was escalating with its center across
the Bay in San Francisco, and as the student movement in Berekeley was
exploding into the Free Speech Movement - and in a place which was one of
the strongholds of the Communist Party USA's.
When Newton wrote about the revolutionary role of the "lumpenproletariat",
I think he had two things in mind: most important were the black youth of
Oakland for whom he foresaw a future of permanent unemployment to look
forward to - no more factories, no more jobs on the docks, and the doors
closed in the new industries and services. But he was also looking at the
hippies over there in San Francisco and on the campus at UC Berkeley.
Newton saw these other social groups as potential allies in the
revolutionary struggle - whereas the unions in the growing sectors of the
economy - services and construction especially, were strongholds of racism.
Newton's Party grew overnight into a national party - and just as fast was
A very important part of its destruction was at the hands of the police -
who not only jailed and murdered Panther leaders and rank and file, but
probably more importantly acted as provocateurs internally.
Part of its destruction no doubt owed to the immaturity of Newton and the
other Panther leaders, who simply didn't know how to react to their own
growth, and to the massive repression against them.
Part of it owes to the failures of the rest of the left during the 1960's.
Had the "new left" of which the BPP was a part, been able to form a new
national political party - uniting the black and antiwar movements in a
new party with a socialist program - the new (and old) left - the
Panthers, and the rest of that left, might well have survived as something
other than a collection of fractured and diminishing sects.
The biggest sects of the day - the CP and the SWP, were the strongest
opponents of such a "movement" party - albeit for different reasons. The
CP worked night and day to keep the movement subordinated to the
Democratic Party, while the SWP argued that such a party would not really
be proletarian (and realized that inside such a party they would be in a
Most of the smaller fish, including many of the Maoists and the
International Socialists - along with the BPP, to their credit, joined the
movement to build a "movement" party. The "Peace and Freedom Party" was
the result. The CP entered it (who says Trotskyists are the only ones who
use entryism, Stalinists have used the tactics in all kinds of parties,
including bourgeois parties), to try to prevent it from running
candidates against "left" Democrats like Ron Dellums in Berkeley.
The SWP, despite the adoption by the PFP of a socialist program, refused
to enter, thereby allowing the CP and others to derail its potential, and
- through sectarian abstentionism, aid in the division of the left - at a
time when the main aim of the FBI attack on the left was to keep it divided.
[Of course, therre is much, much more to this story than I can put in this
note, but for me these are the most important points]
Whatever the failings of the BPP, I will always be an admirer of their
courage, intelligence, audacity, and real revolutionary impulse.
For me, they were headed in the right direction without much help from
those who should have helped them - when they were ambushed.
For me their program, and strategy and tactics, were just as often - or
more often - closer to the real needs of the struggle, than were those of
the various Trotskyist sects of the day.
We have a lot to learn from them.
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