This past Wednesday the YWCA of Tulsa hosted a screening of a new documentary called The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. The documentary will appear on PBS this Tuesday (February 16), and is part of a series of documentaries produced by Independent Lens, an offshoot of PBS, which focuses on producing documentaries around social justice issues which have been misrepresented or have been represented with only one story.
The single story of the Black Panthers is the often-touted belief that they were effectively black terrorists, murderers and “thugs.” This single story from the 1960s and 1970s is the same story that surrounds Black Lives Matter protesters and advocates today.
The documentary told the story of The Black Panther Party: why it came into existence, how it functioned and what it advocated. And shockingly, not one of these questions could be accurately answered with “terrorism.”
It explained the Black Panther Party through the many stories of folks who were active in it: people of different genders and ages and roles. It told the story from the mouths of the protestors and the police.
The Black Panthers arose out of a need for safety. It began in the middle of the civil rights era, because several black men were tired of the brutality experienced by people of color at the hands of (primarily) police officers. The only initial function of the Black Panthers was to make sure that if a cop was interacting with a person of color that some folks of color would be there, and would be noticeably armed. The laws in California at the time required open carry, rather than concealed, so they were not breaking any laws. They did not act violently, they merely acted in such a way that the police knew they were being watched. They acted in a way that created a more equal balance of power and that created safety for a lot of people of color.
The movement grew quickly, and began to include women. It became a national movement, and then an international one. Somewhere in the middle of all this, the Panthers began to take stances on other social justice issues. They advocated a form of democratic socialism, feeling that people of color could never be equal in a system built on the backs of black slaves. They turned gender roles upside down by arming women and asking men to cook. They fed breakfast to poor children every morning before school.
They were a force for good, and they experienced imprisonment and murder of their leaders. In 1969, police raided the apartment of Panther leader Fred Hampton and killed him and a Panther guard. The police shot over 80 times, and only one shot came from a Panther gun. They raided without warning, they shot without warning, they killed without warning.
The screening was followed by a panel featuring DeVon Douglass of Oklahoma Policy Institute, Lawrence Ware, professor at OSU and minister, and TU’s own Isaac Sanders.
The primary focus of the panel was certainly in drawing comparisons to today’s racial climate. Lawrence Ware spoke about how he believes that one of the main comparisons is that both movements (Black Panther and Black Lives Matter) are focused on self-love, “When you make a decision to validate yourself…that is a thing that is dangerous, and that can get you killed.”
Ware and Douglass both argued for groups of oppressed people banding together in order to create a bigger group with more political and social sway. Ware stated, “If we shift [the] focus from race to oppression—by linking, we become dangerous.” Douglass, an economic policy analyst, argued for an economic and social system based on working together because change can come only “when the people who profit from those powers and structures see the oppressed people working together.”
Both the Black Panthers and Black Lives Matter have in common, at their cores, asserting people of color’s right to exist as they are in this society—and to expect to be able to do that safely. In both cases, people fight against them because, as Douglass said, “They see we are fighting back.” By fighting back, oppressed groups undermine the stability of the systems that keep them oppressed—white supremacy, patriarchy and capitalism.
Unfortunately, in both cases, the consequences for fighting back have been increased vigilance on the part of the folks who benefit from these systems, which, in the interim, creates decreased safety. Douglass was clear on this point, emphasizing that, “It’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
Isaac Sanders summarized his involvement in social movements very succinctly, stating, “I don’t want to sit here and then look back on history and be like ‘I saw this happening, I just didn’t do anything.’” With this, Sanders taps into the dangers of indifference and the power of working together as a collective to create social change. Collective work requires many people and by definition cannot happen alone. Indifference is the enemy of progress and change.
Each of the panelists made a statement about their love for their own blackness, and Sanders encapsulated it all by saying, “I want the identity of being black and of being proud.”
The goal of the Black Panthers and the goal of Black Lives Matter are inherently about being able to be black and proud. The documentary is eye-opening and truly does the job of creating more stories. The Black Panthers were not a terrorist organization, they were a collective of people mobilizing to assert their right to exist as they were, and as they are. Black Lives Matter activists are the same thing.