"AMERICA NEVER WAS AMERICA TO ME": From the Black Panther Party to Black Lives Matter

O, yes,

I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath–
America will be!

(From Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again,” 1938)

Fifty years ago, in 1966, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, founded the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. The Party inspired African American and white leftists who were beginning to see capitalist exploitation and racism as central to the American experience. The BPP saw the need for Black people to organize to defend their communities; to develop a theory that would help Black people understand their subordinate condition; to construct institutions, particularly health care, education, and food distribution, to serve the people; and to act in solidarity with liberation struggles on a worldwide basis. To articulate its goals the BPP wrote a 10-point program that would serve as a guide to programs and action for party members (collectiveliberation.org).

The BPP program included demands for community control, access to “land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace,” and an end to police violence and mass incarceration of Black people. In each issue of The Black Panther newspaper, all 537 of them, the platform was printed. The dramatic escalation of state violence against the BPP and the Black community in general by the FBI and local law enforcement agencies testified to the fact that the Panther program resonated in urban communities around the country, particularly among the young. 

The Party encouraged grassroots activism and community control basing its appeal on the idea that it would serve the needs of the people. Establishing free breakfast programs for children, health clinics, and education, had enormous appeal. And with growing violence against the community by the police the BPP advocated collective self-defense.

Fifty years later a new movement, Black Lives Matter, has emerged to address the unfulfilled dreams articulated in the BPP vision. The immediate impetus for BLM, as with the BPP, was defense against state violence. Mass incarceration, criminalization, indiscriminant police killings, creating police occupation armies with high technology weapons, and growing economic devastation of whole communities in 2016 very much parallels the racism that motivated Newton and Seale to pick up the pen and the gun in 1966. Economic inequality; massive poverty; lack of access to quality education, healthcare, housing, transportation; and political marginalization plague African Americans today almost as much as was the case fifty years ago.

Black Lives Matter issued a detailed platform on August 1, 2016 resulting from the deliberations of at least 50 organizations whose membership includes thousands of Black people around the country. It comes at a time when the visible incidences of police violence have been experienced everywhere and young women and men have been hitting the streets expressing their outrage. The capsule summary of “A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom, and Justice” includes six core demands (The Movement for Black Lives, Portside, August 4, 2016; the BLM website is policy.m4bl.org):           

            End the war on Black people



            Economic Justice

            Community Control

            Political Power

Since so many of the problems that animated the rise of the Black Panther Party unfortunately still exist, the core demands of Black Lives Matter remain all too familiar. But, in addition to the remaining core problems of racism, white supremacy, capitalist exploitation, and police violence the more recent statement wisely expands its vision and agenda. For example, the introduction to the document declares that “We believe in elevating the experiences and leadership of the most marginalized Black people, including but not limited to those who are women, queer, trans, femmes, gender nonconforming, Muslim, formerly and currently incarcerated, cash poor and working class, differently-abled, undocumented, and immigrant. We are intentional about amplifying the particular experience of state and gendered violence that Black queer, trans, gender nonconforming women and intersex people face.”

The statement acknowledges its domestic focus but declares that “Patriarchy, exploitative capitalism, militarism, and white supremacy know no borders. We stand in solidarity with our international family against the ravages of global capitalism and anti-Black racism, human-made climate change, war, and exploitation.”

Perhaps the greatest contribution that the BLM platform makes is in its detailed 40 demands for change, each of which comes with an explanation and policy proposals. Whereas the BPP platform concentrates on a critique and demands for revolutionary changes, the BLM platform adds doable intermediate changes in public policy. “We recognize that not all of our collective needs and visions can be translated into policy, but we understand that policy change is one of many tactics necessary to move us toward the world we envision….We are dreamers and doers.” 

And the BLM movement recognizes that it is linked to the long history of struggle for liberation. “This agenda continues the legacy of our ancestors who pushed for reparations, Black self-determination, and community control, and also propels new iterations of movements such as efforts for reproductive justice, holistic healing and reconciliation…” (A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom and Justice, policy.m4bl.org).

by Harry Targ