For at least a month before its premiere, I was repeatedly invited to press screenings of “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” over the summer of 2015 that I turned down because the title of the film suggested that it would be a kind of fan’s tribute to a highly problematic Black nationalist group that imploded just a few years after its formation through a combination of its own ineptitude and police repression.
Among the batch of DVD’s I received in November in conjunction with NYFCO’s 2015 awards meeting was this documentary that remained gathering dust on my bookshelf for the reasons mentioned above. When it aired last night on PBS (and that can be seen here as well), I decided to finally have a look especially since it was bashed by former member Elaine Brown in the Daily Beast:
Like new-right ideologue David Horowitz, Nelson paints Huey as a thug, a “maniac,” according to an interview he highlights with one former Panther—a man harboring a lifelong, apolitical grudge against Huey, whom he never knew or even met. Nelson’s Huey is then reduced to a thug and drug addict killed by his own “demonic” behavior. Although Huey was killed 10 years after the Party’s demise, Nelson ties Huey’s tragic murder to the death of the Party. This opens the way to his wholesale condemnation of the Party as a fascinating cult-like group that died out on account of the leadership of a drug-addicted maniac. In this, he exonerates the government’s vicious COINTELPRO activities, and discredits and destroys the very history and memory of the Party.
The Nelson referred to above is African-American director Stanley Nelson who could not be more unlike David Horowitz based at least on his 2003 documentary on the murder of Emmett Till not to speak of his simply allowing former Panther members to tell of their own experiences with Huey Newton in the last year of his life when they saw him as a paranoid megalomaniac who had evolved into a gangster leading a crew that specialized in robbing drug dealers and pimps.
My biggest worry before seeing the film was based on the occurrence of the word “vanguard” in the title. Not only do I find it routinely misunderstood by “Leninist” groups but in the case of the Panthers all the more so since in their case it was a purely “substitutionist” project. As one former Panther in the film put it, they carried guns and adopted revolutionary rhetoric in order to spur the Black community into following their example. As it turned out, their roots in the Black community were fairly shallow so when the repression deepened they proved highly vulnerable.
I was keenly aware of all the events depicted in Nelson’s film, having seen them unfold in the late 60s and early 70s but they were only a blur now in my mind until revisiting them in this nearly two hour highly powerful documentary.
Long before I became a Trotskyist, I was attracted to Black nationalism. I was moved by LeRoi Jones’s reading of “The System of Dante’s Inferno” as a Bard College freshman and in my senior year went to a debate on Black nationalism at the Village Gate in March, 1965 that pitted Jones (who would become Amiri Baraka a year or so later) against the awful Nat Hentoff. I loved how Jones took Hentoff apart but the biggest thrill occurred three months earlier when I heard Malcolm X speak at a Militant Labor Forum in New York, sponsored by the Trotskyist group I would join two years later.
In 1967 I ended up working in Harlem for the welfare department and began radicalizing under the impact of the war in Vietnam and seeing poverty for the first time in my life. When Newark erupted in July, I was convinced that world revolution was on the agenda and applied for membership in the Young Socialist Alliance two months later.
In late 1967 the Panthers had attracted the attention of both the bourgeois media and the radical movement. For the SWP, the Panthers were seen as a major development because they were popularizing the idea of Black control of the Black community, a slogan we raised in our election campaigns.
Whatever enthusiasm I felt would be dampened to some extent by the appearance of Fred Hampton at the YSA convention in November 1968. We had invited the chairman of the Illinois Panthers to give greetings to the convention with a fifteen-minute time limit. Instead he harangued us for over an hour, essentially coming across as if he was speaking to the Young Democrats. Derrick Morrison, an African-American YSA member who had frequent meetings with Malcolm X, kept coming up to the podium passing him notes that his time was up. When Hampton finally got tired of these reminders, he concluded his “talk” with a four-letter tirade and stalked off.
What a contrast to Malcolm X who told the Militant Labor Forum that he was grateful for the opportunity to speak to the meeting and praised the newspaper for telling the truth. Now I don’t know if he was simply being diplomatic but the kind of macho bluster heard from Hampton was pretty much par for the course in this period.
Nelson’s film is very useful as an introduction to the factors that led to the Panther’s collapse but you never get the sense that he has a deeper understanding of their failure or even more importantly a critical approach to their major success: the free breakfast program and other elements of their “survival” turn such as medical clinics. One interviewee characterized the breakfasts as a major achievement, reaching 20,000 children per day at its height. Supposedly the program was something that kept J. Edgar Hoover up at night and thus led to Cointelpro and the death squads that would lead to Hampton’s murder in December 1969.
The free breakfasts were inspired by the Maoist “serve the people” ideas that flourished on the left in the 60s and 70s. For the mostly white groups led by Bob Avakian and Mike Klonsky, it was interpreted mainly as a paternalistic approach to organizing with their cadre going into working class areas like missionaries for socialism. Ironically, the SWP would adopt this organizing method later on without having the slightest clue that if it failed for the Maoists, it would also fail for them.
At least with Avakian et al, the “serve the people” notion was an element of a strategy meant to challenge the capitalist state. So, for example, the Maoists went into coal-mining regions with the goal of strengthening the leftwing of the UMW. But for the Panthers, there was nothing like this at work in the breakfast program. To some extent, it was simply a turn away from the gun-toting adventures that had begun to decimate their ranks. How could you send the cops against a group making breakfasts for poor Black children? That was the idea anyhow.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, they never dropped the stupid rhetoric about offing the pig that continued as the breakfasts were being served. If you were reading their paper, as I was in this period, you could not help but be appalled by pictures such as this:
This ultraleft image of a gun being trained on a pig was very much a product of the times just as the Weathermen’s tone-deaf “kill the rich” rhetoric that ultimately evolved into outright terrorism. In either case, bold imagery and words were meant to distinguish the “revolutionaries” from ordinary society that lagged behind their advanced consciousness.
The obsession with guns and bombs obviously was connected to the Vietnam war and the Cuban guerrilla initiatives that gave many—including me—the sense that American imperialism was surrounded by revolutionary forces closing in. To some extent this led to the feeling that emulating the NLF or Che Guevara’s fighters meant breaking with bourgeois society and showing solidarity with foreign fighters by breaking the law. It was ironic that for the Panthers this meant simultaneously carrying out an armed struggle and engaging in free breakfast meliorism.
One of the faintly remembered events that the film brought alive to me was the shootout between Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Hutton and other Panthers on one side and the Oakland cops that took place on April 6, 1968. Cleaver had become a leader of a faction in the Panthers that was dubious about the breakfast program and sought to “bring it on” as urban guerrillas. In any armed confrontation between a tiny group with thin support in the Black community and the cops, the revolutionaries were likely to end up on the losing side. Apparently, Cleaver embarked on this adventure as a response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. two days earlier.
In essence, this convergence of events symbolized the inability of the Panthers to understand what King was about and their failure to develop a program that might be modeled on what King was doing in Memphis—a working class mass action that threatened racist and capitalist power to such an extent that it cost him his life.
Unlike King, who went to Memphis to build solidarity for striking garbage men, neither Cleaver nor Huey Newton saw their role as building a working class movement. They oriented to lumpen elements in the Black community, something that always struck me as perhaps being inspired by “The Battle of Algiers” with its main character Ali Le Pointe abandoning a life of petty crime to join the FLN.
What an opportunity was lost for a Black revolutionary movement to focus on organizing Black workers. Keep in mind that this was before the phenomenon of runaway plants and when Detroit et al were still thriving industrial centers. Auto, steel, rubber, oil, etc. were still profitable industries with very large—if not majority—African-American workforces. These were workers who were open to radical ideas as the Black caucuses in the UAW would indicate.
If the Panthers had built a movement in the ranks of the Black working class, it might have become a powerful deterrent to the runaway shops that have devastated Black America.
Although I could be wrong, it strikes me that Black nationalism will never undergo a revival. Black youth today who oppose police brutality are inspired much more by Martin Luther King Jr. than the Panthers. That being said, I still hold out hope that some day there will be a real engagement with Malcolm X’s ideas that while being Black nationalist were evolving toward working class internationalism. That, of course, is what probably got him killed just as it got Martin Luther King Jr. killed.