Seize the Power – The Black Panthers

Written by Paolo Sedazzari
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Anybody with a rudimentary knowledge of American History will recognize the image of the Black Panther - black beret, black leather jacket, holding a gun and looking mean. But what did they actually stand for? What did they do? What did they actually achieve?

The first thing you have to know about The Black Panther Party was that it was never, in any way, a terrorist organization. They carried guns but they were never about the armed struggle, but armed defence in accordance with their constitutional rights. One thing that Black Panther co-founder Huey P. Newton was very hot on was his constitutional rights. At first Huey read up on the law so he could be a better criminal, but he quickly saw a bigger picture.

‘Why do you want to be a vicious animal like a panther? Huey would break in. “The nature of a panther is that he never attacks. But if anyone attacks him or backs him into a corner, the panther comes up to wipe that aggressor or that attacker out, absolutely, resolutely, wholly, thoroughly and completely.”

To give us insight into the Black Panther party, and the dramatic events surrounding them, there is the book Seize The Time. First published in 1970, it is taken from tape-recorded transcripts from the other Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale, while spending time in San Francisco County Jail and when the people and incidents were still very fresh in his mind.

So the book reads how Bobby Seale speaks –making for lively and engaging reading. Though it takes a while to get used to some of the terminology - people are often referred to as ‘cats’ and here ‘jive’ means something bogus or rubbish, and the phrase ‘right on time’ means something is really true and really right.

Reading the book is like taking a time machine deep into the heart of the sixties - taking us through Bobby’s feelings of anger on hearing about The Death of Malcolm X, his meeting with the charismatic Huey P. Newton at a street rally, the early days of the Black Panthers selling Mao’s Little Red Book to students to raise money to buy guns, right up to the arrest of Huey and Booby, with Bobby recounting how he faced trial literally bound and gagged by order of the judge.

Along with the momentous events and ideology there is also much fascinating detail, for instance facts that the offices of the Black Panthers rocked to the sound of Bob Dylan. The Ballad of The Thin Man was a particular favourite of Huey’s.

Picking up the gun was an important step in the empowerment of the Black Panthers. Huey knew that the California state law at the time allowed for the public to carry weapons as long as they were clearly displayed and not pointing at anyone. But Huey also knew that eventually the law would be modified, but in the meantime the Black Panthers shadowed the armed police (or pigs) as they patrolled the poor communities. A nerve wrenching standoff often ensued.

At many points in the book Booby Seale relates how the Black Panthers had no truck whatsoever with what they called the Black Nationalists, who they saw as perpetuating racism by hating white people. The Black Panther was a left-wing organization that saw the political system as the problem – and differentiated between white racists and non-racist whites. I’ll let Bobby explain – “Those who want to obscure the struggle with ethnic differences are the ones who are aiding and maintaining the exploitation of the masses of the people : poor whites, poor blacks, browns, red Indians, poor Chinese and Japanese and the workers at large. Racism and ethnic differences allow the power structure to exploit the masses of workers in this country, because that’s the key by which they maintain their control.’

The Black Panthers were certainly angry, but their anger was controlled, intelligent and strategic. Huey always made it clear that there should be no rioting, not over the shooting of Bobby Hutton, nor over the assassination of Martin Luther King or even Huey’s own wrongful arrest. Because rioting would only bring in the national guard, a destruction of the community and bloodshed.

‘It’s obvious that trying to fight fire with fire means there’s going to be a lot of burning. The best way to fight fire is with water because water douses the fire. The water is the solidarity of the people’s right to defend themselves together in opposition to a vicious monster. Whatever is good for the capitalists ruling-class system, can’t be good for the masses of the people.’

The ideas of the Black Panthers are still relevant today. They stood for community policing, where the cops were accountable and lived in the community they served. The Black Panthers also insisted that businesses put something back into the community - “There are millions of people in this country, who are living below subsistence; welfare mothers, poor white people, Mexican-Americans, Chicano peoples, Latinos and black people......Any particular chain foodstores that can’t donate a small, small percentage of its profits or one penny from every dollar it makes from the community programs, should be boycotted.....this is exposing the power programme for what it is, the robbery of poor oppressed people by avaricious businessmen.”

A very popular Black Panther program, successfully put into practice all over the US, was the Free Breakfast for Children in poor areas, again demanding that businesses in the area made donations.

The Black Panthers also stood for free health care for all, a policy that the US President is struggling to put through congress as I write this.

So 40 years on from the days of the Black Panther struggle and we now have a black President of the US. That’s got to be progress – right? While mainstream history wants to dismiss the Black Panthers, most people who have any knowledge of the civil rights struggle in the US (including I hope Barack Obama) will know of their commitment and steely determination for a better, more humanitarian way of life.

The important truth is this – the Black Panthers were never terrorists. Against extreme intimidation and outrageous odds they were brave and righteous – they were heroes.

Finally Seize The Time has the most rousing dedication I have ever read in any book. Let me share it with you –

‘Dedicated to Huey P. Newton, Minister of Defence of the Black Panther Party, the baddest motherfucker ever to set foot in history. Huey P. Newton, the brother, black man, a nigger, the descendant of slaves, who stood up in the heart of the ghetto, at night, in alleys, confronted by racist pigs with guns and said : “I’m standing on my constitutional rights. I’m not going to allow you to brutalize me. I’m going to stop you from brutalizing my people. You got your gun. I got mine. If you shoot me – I’m shooting back’

Read 4566 times Last modified on Saturday, 13 February 2021 14:12
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Paolo Sedazzari

Paolo Sedazzari

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