Comment | Fifty years on, the Black Panthers should be honoured — Not in prison
New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Friday, December 16, 2016 17:51 - 1 Comment
“Tell them how we just wanted our people to be safe. Tell them how we fed our children. Tell them how we opened the first-ever free health clinic in America and that it was in the Bronx. Tell them we stood with mothers who were being harassed at welfare offices. And yes, tell them we fought police, but tell them we did it to defend ourselves because what we, a bunch of 20-year-old kids did, exposed what the government with billions of dollars refused to do. And they couldn’t take that. Ultimately, that’s what made us political prisoners. That’s why we were targeted. That’s why we were killed.”
-Sekou Odinga (Black Panther Party) writing to Asha Bandele
The successes of the Civil Rights Movement had destroyed the apartheid laws of the Jim Crow South in the early 1960s. However, African-Americans still found structural and institutionalised racism in the states and cities of the North where they were ‘ghettoised’, reduced to conurbations with high rates of unemployment and inadequate housing.
The African-American question had ceased to be a primarily ‘civil rights’ one, instead focusing upon how economic and political self-determination could be achieved, and how African Americans may respond to the systematic abuse from enforcers of the status quo: the police.
The United States was a country founded on the enslavement of one people and the ethnic cleansing of another; a country where, a few years later, the US government would partake in its only ever bombing of its own citizens, a primarily African-American neighbourhood in Philadelphia; where African-Americans were (and continue to be) underrepresented in key areas of employment, and overrepresented in the mass private prison industrial complex. Indeed, today African Americans comprise 15% of all police deaths in 2015, but only make 12% of the entire US population.
On October 15th 1966, the Black Panthers movement was born. After pain-staking study of local California gun laws, the Black Panthers began a system of armed police-monitoring patrols, in order to protect the community from their brutality. To quote one of its progenitors, Bobby Seale, “we’ll protect a mother, protect a brother, and protect the community from the racist cops.”
One of the movement’s founders, Huey P Newton, a fiercely intelligent and politically astute law graduate, recognised that he could channel and organise the ‘rage of the ghetto’ as a force to protect the American black community from the police.
The Panthers articulated a 10-point programme demanding, among other things, ‘land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.’ They went on to become a national organisation with chapters in over 40 American states, and support groups all over the world. They were perhaps best known for their community survival programmes, one of which provided a mix of free breakfast for kids, with classes on history, self-knowledge and community organising.
Unlike other Black Power and Civil Rights movements, which often deified one or two individuals, the Panthers had many well-known organisers, such as Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, Kathleen and Elridge Cleaver, Stokley Carmichael, Erica Huggins, Bobby Hutton, Fred Hampton, Elaine Brown as well as notable supporters, including Angela Davis.
The profound impact they had on the world cannot be underestimated. Though its only international chapter was in Algeria, the Panther-type organisational model was adopted by oppressed groups all over the US, by groups including The Young Lords, The Patriot Party, the American Indian Movement, the Red Guard and the Rainbow Coalition, among others. Similar groups were set up from London to India, the Pacific Islands to France. Indeed most ‘Black Power’ politics resonating with so many of today’s social movements can draw its lineage from the Black Panthers.
It was well documented that the popularity of the Panthers and their anti-capitalist, anti-racist message; the pride they instilled in the African-American community, was seen as a threat to the government. The resulting backlash from state and federal authorities led to the death and incarceration of many Panther members.
Today, fifteen members of the Black Panthers remain in prison.
- Romaine “Chip” Fitzgerald
- Ed Poindexter
- Joseph Bowen
- Jalil Muntaqim
- Herman Bell
- Russell Shoats
- Sundiata Acoli
- Veronza Bowers
- Robert Seth Hayes
- Zulu Whitmore
- Maliki Shakur
- Mutulu Shakur
- Imam Jamil Al-Amim
- Kamau Sadiki
- Mumia Abu-Jamal
All of them are considered political prisoners: women and men who have been incarcerated for their political beliefs and actions. Most have been convicted on questionable and tenuous evidence, while many have been up for parole several times but continually refused.
ALL of them, without exception, are in their late 60s and 70s. Put simply, they should not be left to die in jail.
The 50th anniversary of the Black Panthers also marks the last year in office of the first African-American President, Barack Obama. His historic and controversial presidency will be remembered not only for its highs and lows but the constraints placed upon his visions by the US Congress.
However, the US Constitution – specifically Article II, Section 2, Clause 1 – gives the US President the authority to grant clemency for those convicted of federal crimes. Indeed, during his tenure, the President, as of November 2016, has pardoned ten people under such powers.
We thus urge President Obama, in his last few weeks in office, to grant such a gift, and free the Black Panthers. We also urge all Ceasefire readers to do sign our petition to Free the Black Panthers from prison, here.
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