on April 10, 2007
What We Want, What We Believe: The Black Panther Party Library is a 4-DVD collection of over twelve hours of rare footage documenting the Black Panther movement. Contents include films taken by Newsreel film collective, interviews with Field Marshall Donald Cox, footage from the 35th Anniversary Reunion, interviews with former FBI agents, footage from the Wheelock Academic Conference on the Black Panther Party, interviews with various movement lawyers discussing Panther cases, interviews with Newsreel members, DVD-ROM documents from the Roz Payne "Archives chronicling the movement and repression against it, and more. Though unquestionably sympathetic to the Panthers' perspective, What We Want, What We Believe contains a great wealth of invaluable historic footage and is therefore especially recommended for college library DVD collections. 720 minutes, black & white and color.
on March 24, 2008
Readers of this space are aware of my admiration; tempered by some political criticism, of the heroic Black Panther Party, an organization that represented the highest expression of black revolutionary consciousness from the mid 1960's to the early 1970's. Thus it has been something of a treat, although mixed with a little fatigue, to review the 12 hours of cinematic documentation about the party. The footage is spread over four discs so I will therefore comment on the contents of each disc separately. Disc One includes three pieces of black and white amateurish propaganda footage of very uneven quality entitled respectively, May Day, Repression and Off the Pig (if you remember that expression that dates you, doesn't it?). The important pieces on Disc One are an extended interview with the exiled ex- Panther Central Committeeman and Field Marshall Don Cox and Kathleen Cleaver's remarks at the 35th Reunion of the party held in 2001. A word about those two parts is warranted.
The Cox interview, marred by its having been filmed while he was apparently doing chores for dinner and smoking some dope, is a fascinating anecdotal look at the rise of the Panthers in the Bay Area and the differences between the Oakland home chapter and his San Francisco chapter. And there were differences. Moreover, Cox provides some very important information about the nature of the struggle inside the party in 1970-71 on the question of `electoralism vs. armed struggle' (the Hugh Newton/EldridgeCleaver faction fights) that decisively split the party, a historic problem in the revolutionary movement going back to such organizations as the Russian Social Democracy at the turn of the 20th century and to more recent examples like the Irish Republican Army.
Although Cox was on the Cleaver `armed struggle' side of the split (prevalent in the exile community and on the American East Coast) he nevertheless offers insights into the American West Coast's push away from such strategies as they faced the guns of the American security apparatus (and a prodding from the reformist American Communist Party that it depended on for legal/financial assistance) and the very real attempt by the American government to exterminate every last Panther or Panther sympathizer. Cox also lets the cat of the bag in his descriptions of the cult-like atmosphere surrounding the personage of Huey Newton, the leader of the Oakland-based faction. He further sheds light on, as does Cleaver and other speakers, the role of the governmental Cointelpol undercover operations to disrupt and destroy the party.
Attorney Cleaver's remarks, made at the 35th Reunion, are important for a different reason. In trying to sum up the meaning of the Panther experience she made a very telling comparison. She commented that in her view the Panther's were a vanguard organization much like John Brown's operation at Harper's Ferry in 1859. It was the spark. I am not sure that is the appropriate analysis (although readers of this space know of my huge admiration for Brown, his band and his deeds). The Panther's never broke out of their isolationist black nationalist phase long enough to really go after the working class base they claimed to be trying to represent. Their base was always composed of `street' kids drawn by the military discipline of the organization. The problem is that such strata are hard to keep in check and focused.
When the deal went down those black workers (and there were plenty in the Bay Area, particularly Oakland)outside the party's orbit never got organized to defend the party. To speak nothing of the necessity of getting white workers to do so. No question the American government played a nefarious role in the demise of the Panthers. No question that the Panthers made some strategic decisions that were misplaced. However, in the end it is that failure to draw in black workers and ultimately to act as the vanguard for all the oppressed that did the Panthers in. That rampant sectoralism, developed to an art form in the New Left and exemplified by the Panthers (each oppressed group organizing itself around its own demands and eventually meeting up to take on the state- in the great by and by), is still with us and still acts as a paralyzing agent in the attempt to take on the American monster. United under one banner does not assure success but it is nevertheless the beginning of political wisdom. Does one need an example for the contining failure to do so? Five years of war in Iraq and counting. Enough said.
If disc one was dominated by trips down memory lane by various surviving leading Panthers then this second disc is dominated by the ever-haunting question of police infiltration and disruption of the organization (that continues to this day, witness the number of Panthers still in prison and the reemergence of the case of the San Francisco Eight. For a link to that defense committee see right side of this commentary page). There are two main pieces on this disc- an academic conference that puts the problems of Panther security in perspective and interviews with central government police agents, here the F.B.I., on the West Coast who orchestrated the demise of the Panthers. A couple of comments are in order.
You know that you have arrived as a fit subject for academic debate when a conference is planned around the history of your organization. Alternately, you also know that your organization has been relegated to the historic scrape heap in order for this to occur. Nevertheless, despite some abstruse academic ponderousness on the part of some participants that is par for the course, the question presented by the conference is one that present and future radical movements need to deal with-the ever-present problem of our governmental political opponents pulling out all stops in their bag of tricks to disrupt and destroy our labor and left organizations before they are strong enough to counterattack.
The Bolsheviks, most famously in the Malinovsky and Azev cases, also had to confront the problem of police infiltration. In the Malinovsky case Malinovsky actually led the Bolshevik fraction in the Duma (Czarist Russian parliament) at critical times. Lenin argued that despite Malinovsky's treachery he did, as is the nature of such work, objectively aid the revolution, while nevertheless working for the other side. Needless to say after the Bolsheviks took power Mr. Malinovsky was, justly, summarily executed for his deeds. This example, however, brings up the real question that is that one must try to organize, assume police infiltration, and yet move on with the work. Apparently in the case of the Panthers this police infiltration was so insidious that it had comrades at each other's throats. Part of this can be traced to personality differences, part to problems of political program but part to the generally low level of political consciousness at the base of the Panther organization. Either way it produced serious problems and placed the organization of the defensive almost from the beginning.
Let us face it; if there is one trend in American history that has been constant it has been the white fear of armed blacks defending themselves. Slavery times, Civil War times, Jim Crow times, Civil Rights times it did not matter; once blacks took up arms that white fear became inflamed. And the modern American state and its agents were more than willing to violate any number of `democratic norms' to crush those kind of movements. Pronto. Hell, they became apoplectic at Martin Luther King's non-violent movement. One can only imagine their reaction when a bunch of armed blacks got in their faces, especially in the faces of their police.
The interviews here with the two police agents lays out the governmental program in graphic detail. Probably the most informative part of the interviews is how widespread the lawlessness of the governmental agents was. And they thought nothing of it. These are lessons that should be etched into the brains of every militant today. If you are seriously going to take on the state then you must be ready for anything. They are.
In many ways this disc which includes several interviews with movement lawyers, who represented various Black Panther defendants at various stages of the struggle, from a purely legal standpoint is the most interesting of the four. The defense strategy and tactics talked about in theses clips in order save the various Panther defendants took all the resources, intellectual and financial, that these lawyers could produce in their idealistic energetic youths. And that is the problem. Between orchestrated government harassment and commitment to prosecute anyone every closely associated with the Black Panthers and their own internal divisions the organization spent most of its existence in courtrooms, not out on the streets. To speak nothing of the extra-legal Cointelpro project created to essentially liquidate, one way or another, the leading Panther cadre.
This disc also brings up the problems of finding financial resources in order provide an adequate defense. Thus, most energy and outreach was spent on these efforts to the detriment of the political struggle. In short, the courtroom and the vagaries of the American court system are not easy ways to make political points. That said, obviously kudos need to be paid, here in retrospect, to the heroic legal efforts of these movement lawyers. Unfortunately, as the current New York case of lawyer Lynne Stewart demonstrates movement lawyers willing to work 24/7 on these types of cases are few and far between. The Conrad Lynns, William Kuntslers and the Lynne Stewarts of the legal world head toward the danger, however, most lawyers head the other way.
This disc is a trip down memory lane by white supporters of the Panthers, including the archivist of this series Roz Payne. The stories presented here are an interesting and fairly accurate reflection of what the white left, or at least a portion of it, thought about the Panthers. That is that the Panthers were the vanguard and that therefore the role of whites was merely to support the effects of the Panthers in the black community and not much else. In short, the classic sectorial politics that helped the implosion of the left around 1971-72 when everyone went off to do `their own thing'. And we have not heard from them since.
The Panthers, as I have stated many times, contained many subjectively revolutionary vanguard elements that could have helped to lead the American Revolution. With this caveat, that they formed part of an integrated leadership. As this series makes clear there were cadre who were very capable of doing that. But that would have meant political struggle against that black vanguardist approach. The odd thing is that these kinds of disputes had been fought before in earlier radical and revolutionary movements that were contemptueously ridiculed by the New Left, and here I include myself, of the "Old Left" squabbles. Hello, you either deal with these separatist issues or lose your movement. As we all know we have been waiting patiently for a long time for a new breeze to stir.
I would add one last point that is a fairly constant theme through these twelve hours of documentary history. That is the observation, by black and white leftist alike, of the importance of the Panther Breakfast program for children. Either we have gone soft or I missed something but that program seemed to me, and not just to me, to reek of social workerism. I will not even discuss the fact that the government was capable of doing that type of program better, and did for a while. That aside, what I want to remember about the Panthers is that they were serious about revolution, for a time, and that they were ready, far better than most of us of the white left, to lay down their heads for that dream.