[Marxism] A few words In Defense of the Black Panther Party
anthony.boynton at gmail.com
Sun Nov 8 09:49:46 MST 2009
The Black Panther Party failed, just like the SWP, the CP, and just like
every other would-be wannabe revolutionary party in the history of the USA.
But, the BPP was an authentic working class revolutionary organization which
rose from the proletarian cauldron of Oakland, California. Huey P. Newton
and Eldridge Cleaver looked around for whatever revolutionary theory they
could find, and what they found was the Communist Party USA, and third
worldist Maoism. They didn’t find Trotskyism because the Trotskyists of the
SWP and IS were small in number, and focused on the unions and UC Berkeley,
not the impoverished black youth.
Mao said power grows from the barrel of the gun, and evidently in 1966, in
West Oakland, it did. The police were almost all white, and almost all
recruited from the deep South. They carried guns and used them against black
When Huey and his small group began patrolling the streets of Oakland
following the police, they did so with their guns in the open. They read the
constitution, they consulted lawyers. And then they acted in a way that
scared the shit out of the police, energized the community, and temporarily
stopped the police from shooting innocent people.
Their inspiration may have also come from the ILWU, whose honor guard
marched armed with polished steel loading hooks. Not exactly pacifists, and
not very defensive. Two area wide general strikes had occurred in recent
west Oakland history: the great San Francisco/west Coast General Strike of
1934, and the Oakland general strike of 1948.
The organized labor movement was still extremely powerful in the Bay Area
by 1966 when the BPP came into existence, but labor was doing nothing to
prevent the restructuring of the local economy which was in effect expelling
black working class youth from the working class.
One of the key factors was the containerization of cargo which was
destroying employment at the ports of Oakland and San Francisco of Oakland.
Traditional break bulk cargo ships required crews of dozens of longshoremen
working several days to load and unload one ship. Container ships could be
loaded or unloaded at special capital intensive terminals with very small
crews in very short times.
Containerization became possible because of the provisions in the 1961
contract between the International Longshormen and Warehousemen’s Union
(ILWU) and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) Those agreements became
known as the Modernization and Mechanization agreements. Up until that
agreement, the giant container ports planned for the West Coast were
essentially blocked. ILWU contracts included manning agreements stipulating
the numbers of men to be sent by the union controlled hiring halls to load
or unload a ship.
The M&M agreements opened the door to containerization, and led immediately
to the opening of the Oakland container terminal in 1962. Still one of the
largest container ports in the world, by the mid 1960’s Oakland had become
the second largest container port anywhere. Those agreements guaranteed
that high seniority members of the ILWU would be grandfathered in at high
salaries, and offered preferential positions in training programs for the
very highly paid and secure position of crane operators, but the old manning
schedules which had guaranteed high levels of relatively well paid
employment for unskilled workers were scrapped. Along with them the job
possibilities of thousands of black youth in West Oakland were also
(These agreements were especially important for the US war against Viet Nam
at the time, since the Robert McNamara version of war depended on massive
use of arms and men, most of which were shipped out of Oakland.)
Jobs in the port plummeted, and so did ILWU membership. Unemployment in the
ghetto skyrocketed, especially among black youth.
The generation gap which appeared throughout the United States in the 1960’s
was especially strong in places like Oakland. Older black workers were
mostly union members. Many owned their ‘own’ houses in West Oakland, East
Oakland, West Berkeley, Richmond and other black neighborhoods (but not in
the segregated towns and neighborhoods like San Leandro and the Berkeley
They worked on the docks, at the GM factory in Fremont, or in the hundreds
of small and medium sized factories that lined the bay from Fremont in the
south to Martinez in the North.
New factories, like the GM factory in Fremont, were built far from the
ghetto neighborhoods, public transportation to these factories was minimal
or non-existent. The fastest growing industrial sector, the arms industry
centered around FMC corporation in San Jose, California, and Lockheed
Missiles and Space in Sunnyvale. Both were far from the north bay black
communities and were inaccessbile by public transportation.
Older workers and their unions were conservative in the light of the growing
unemployment among black youth. They negotiated contracts aimed at
preserving the jobs of current union members, making and small gains in
wages and benefits. Politically they supported the Democratic Party.
In the early 1960’s when the conditions which created the BPP were being
formed, the liberal Governor of California, Edmund G. Brown (Jerry Brown’s
father) offered “fair housing” to the black community and “education” to black
youth. Brown and the Democrats received the overwhelming support of the
unions, the leaders of the black community, and the black voters.
Neither the promise of “fair housing” nor the promise of improved education
became realities, but they were sufficient to provide the issues through
which an enormous revival of the right wing was mobilized.
This began in the 1966 election race for Governor, when Ronald Reagan, the
former president of the actors union (Screen actors Guild) became the
Republican candidate for governor, and campaigned on an anti-welfare and
anti-Berkeley platform. Anti-welfare was thinly veiled code for anti-black,
since welfare subsidies had grown most where unemployment had grown most:
the ghettos of LA and the Bay Area. Anti-Berkeley meant pro-war since
Berkeley was the west coast center of the movement against the Viet Nam
war, but it also meant anti-public education.
Reagan’s victory, and later re-election, strengthened the growth of the new
right in California, which became the seed bed for what was to become known
as the as the homeowners tax revolt. That revival later organized itself
around the now infamous “Proposition 13” aimed at forever rolling back and
capping California property taxes (which pay for public education, fire
departments, water systems, etc.) Proposition 13 was an enormous political
success for the right. It remains one of the elements of the current fiscal
crisis in California and of other state governments. It also propelled
Ronald Reagan into the governor’s mansion in Sacramento, his first big step
towards the White House, and molded the new version of right wing ideology
which later morphed into Reaganism/Thatcherism and on to neo-liberalism.
For black youth in the ghettos like Oakland, the working class organizations
of their parents offered no hope, no jobs, no future. They offered just
So when Maoists said, “Dare to struggle, dare to win”. And Huey and his
friends rode around behind the cops with guns openly displayed, and the cops
backed down. The youth were electrified. And when they took a couple of
busloads of armed youth up to the state capital to defend their right to
bear arms, it gathered national and international attention.
The panthers started to grow like wildfire, even though they did not know
what they were doing. They were learning on the job because the traditional
working class organizations and the left had failed them. Anyone who walked
through Oakland’s black neighborhoods could easily see for themselves the
enormous popularity of the Panthers. Panther posters and graffiti were
Anyone who lived there in the middle and late 60’s could easily attest that
the majority of black people, including even the older homeowners, were
proud of the Panthers. This fact was attested to a half decade later, when –
after having suffered the murders of dozens of party members, and the
imprisonment of most party leaders, Eldridge Cleaver nearly won election as
mayor of Oakland.
It’s true the BPP failed. It’s true that both wings of the panthers failed
in their efforts to defend themselves against COINTELPRO. But we should look
at their failure in the context of what it was, the failure of honest
revolutionaries who started their struggle alone because the traditional
left, which included most importantly the SWP and CP-USA, had totally failed
the black youth of the United States.
One thing that the Panthers did, which the SWP did not do, and which the CP
tried to sabotage, was to join and build the Peace and Freedom Party for the
crucial 1968 elections. That effort was essentially aimed at uniting all of
the various factions of the black movement, the anti-war movement, and the
‘left’ into one electoral campaign for “peace” meaning an end to the US war
against Viet-Nam, and “freedom” which meant “freedom” for black people and
other people of color from racism.
The failure of that effort was due to various factors: the Communist Parties
support for the imperialist Democratic Party’s Lyndon Baines Johnson (and
Hubert Humphrey after LBJ withdrew), the Socialist Workers Party’s sectarian
abstention from the Peace and Freedom Party effort, and the raucous
sectarian fighting of the various Maoists factions being highest on the
list. (It also failed because the police agents within the process worked
overnight to feed the various existing antagonisms.)
The 1968 elections were an enormous lost opportunity for the left in the
USA. Instead of leading to a real revival of the left after its repression
during the post-war anti-communist withchunts (often referred to as
McCarthyism), the left’s failure in 1968 presaged the calamity which was
about to befall it in the 1970’s.
(One element of the SWP's failures, and of the trditional left's failures,
was undoubtedly related to the fact that they were based on the East Coast,
eseecially New York city, which were the least representative areas socially
and politically in the United States. You could say they had no feel for
what was happening out west, even though they did have branches and members
in those places. )
The Panthers were not gun fetishists, nor were they electoralists, even
though they carried guns and participated in elections. They were just new
at what they were doing – which was the most honorable thing I can imagine:
struggling against great odds to build a revolutionary movement under very
difficult conditions. And those difficult conditions include the near total
absence of any real support or leadership from those who could have and
should have provided it.
The BPP was formed in 1966, by 1970 it was finished.
Personally I think no one on this list has the right to be flippant about
martyrs like Mark Hampton, no matter how much they may have disliked him and
no matter how wrong he might have been on any issue.
And personally, I think the BPP, with all of its many major faults, was the
most important development of genuine revolutionary consciousness in the USA
since the founding of the Communist Party.
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