November 27, 2016

What organizers can learn from the Black Panthers

Alyssa Rosenberg, Washington Post -  In the wake of Trump’s election, organizations including Planned Parenthood, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Sierra Club have seen surges in donations from citizens who want to make sure that vital work continues even if federal policy changes drastically. Advocacy remains critically important, of course, but the Black Panthers also provide a powerful reminder of how valuable it is to meet the immediate needs of vulnerable people.

One of the reasons Stanley Nelson’s extraordinary documentary “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” is so powerful is that it restores the Black Panther Party’s social programs to their rightful place in the organization’s history. Though Black Panthers such as the exiled Eldridge Cleaver would later deride efforts like the party’s free school breakfast program as minor fixes, those efforts filled a gap and helped build solidarity.

“We were showing love for our people,” Panther David Lemieux explained. “If you have a child, if you know these people are going to feed my child in the morning, that’s a big deal.”

The survival programs, as they were known, served two other immediate needs in addition to getting food and medical care to people who desperately needed both. They provided the constituency for the voter registration and turnout operation that almost propelled Bobby Seale to victory in the 1973 Oakland, Calif., mayoral race. And a focus on economic and material needs helped the Panthers organize in Northern cities, where housing segregation, jobs and access to health care remained pressing issues.

Those Panther organizing efforts weren’t limited to black Americans.

One of the bitterest parts of looking back into the history of American radicalism is imagining what Illinois Black Panther party chairman Fred Hampton might have been had he not been killed by a police tactical unit in 1969 at age 20. At the time of his death, Hampton was organizing a multi-racial political coalition that included members of the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican nationalist organization, the Native American Housing Committee and the Young Patriots Organization, which worked with white migrants from Appalachia — members of the sorts of communities J.D. Vance explored in his memoir “Hillbilly Elegy,” which has been embraced as a sort of diagnostic manual for Trump voters.

In “The Black Panthers,” Nelson included footage of one of those coalition meetings, which lingers on a middle-aged white man declaring “I’ll stick with the Black Panthers if they’ll stick with me, and I know they will.” It’s a scene that carries with it the terrible sting of a foreclosed opportunity.


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