Forwarded from Anthony (on Black Panthers)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
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
Panther Party.

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
black workers.

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
black workers.

As deindustrialization was hitting Oakland, another  blow was being struck
at the proletariat of the region  from a different direction - the
transportation  revolution.

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.


Louis Proyect

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