Polaris

The Black Panthers came to rise in Oakland, California in the late 1960s. A northern answer to the civil-rights movement, the Panthers were tackling issues very similar to today’s Black Lives Matter protesters: Police brutality, housing discrimination, high levels of poverty, and unequal education.

The group wasn’t just a pro-black militant organization taking up arms to intimidate what they viewed to be oppressive and violent police forces. They started free breakfast programs, sickle cell anemia research, and nutrition classes in their communities, among many other programs. The Panthers were a movement, an ideology, a way of living.

In a forthcoming documentary, Director Stanley Nelson chronicles the rise and fall of the party, its leaders—and its eventual destruction by the U.S. government.

Watching the film, it is impossible not to be struck by the similarities between then and now, to compare Panther tactics to Black Lives Matter tactics. Below is a conversation about those similarities, and of the internal and external factors that wrecked a movement.


Watching this film, you realize how relevant it is to now. So I’m going to ask you right out the gate: has anything changed for black people since the peak of the Black Panther movement?

Obviously things have changed since 1966. For a few African American people, things have changed a great deal. But for a vast majority, things haven’t changed that much. What’s striking and relevant is that most of the Panther’s 10-point program is so relevant today. The Panthers started as a way to fight against police brutality, and the reason it spread across the country so quickly is because other African Americans were experiencing the same thing too.

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The reactions of white lawmakers to the Black Panthers arming themselves was to try and disarm them.  And they ended up successfully changing gun laws in California, formerly an open carry state. If black Americans took up weapons now, in states with open carry laws, do you think the same thing would happen?

One of the saddest and [most] telling things in a screening we had early on was when one audience member stood up and said, “You couldn’t have the Panther movement today like you did back then, because immediately seeing black people carrying guns would lead to violence.” What does that say? To me it says things have gotten worse, not better. The patrols Black Panthers went on worked, and they were actually nonviolent. There was never a shootout as a result of them.

Ironically, one of the things that might cure open carry laws is if you had groups of armed black people patrolling.

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Freedom, education, housing, and police brutality were all part of the 10-point platform. And Panthers were targeting the “brother on the corner.” Are Black Live Matter organizers trying to find “the brother on the corner,” or are they trying to appeal more to the media?  

My understanding is that they’re very focused on African Americans getting involved and getting their message across. Part of that is grabbing media attention. The Panthers believed that you engage with some people who won’t like you or what you’re doing, but that doesn’t matter. And maybe that was something so brilliant for the Black Panthers to realize: There were gonna be some people who were gonna be pissed off, but that that didn’t matter. You don’t have to win everybody. You have to win the people who sympathize with your cause. And that’s similar to Black Lives Matter. They’ve seized upon the media and said here are our issues and we don’t care what you think.

There are lots of assertions that Eldridge Cleaver, an early leader of the Panthers, and others were particularly misogynistic, sexist, and violent toward women. Was there a reason you didn’t expand on what many think was rampant misogyny within the Black Panther Party?

Some of the really terrible things that happened in the party happened after the period we covered. We covered ‘66 to ‘73. And so some of the stories you hear really happened after that. There were different phases in the party. A lot of that happened afterwards. We talked to women who were in the party about their experiences, and we pretty much gave an accurate assessment of what happened up until that point.

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Charles Bursey hands plate of food to a child seated at Free Breakfast Program. Photo courtesy of Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch.

During the course of your interviews did you discuss colorism in the Black Panther Party? Many of the women in leadership, Elaine Brown for example, were fair-skinned.

No, it wasn’t something anybody ever talked about to me. [Colorism] is something that exists all over the black community, so of course it’s something that existed in the organization to some extent. It’s a very complicated problem. Because if you look at education, study after study show that the light-skinned person gets better grades because they have more opportunity. So when you start an organization some of those people will be thought of as more qualified. But it was so abstract and minor in the story of the Black Panthers.

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Asked by a reporter if he planned to join the Black Panthers, the late Julian Bond once said, “Not today or tomorrow at any rate. But maybe the day after.” Were prominent black organizers and protesters able to be more fluid with their opinions and beliefs then than now?

The reason we loved that quote was because it showed how accepted Black Panthers were back then. They weren’t thought of as a crazy, radical group to avoid at all costs. In some ways they were part of the mainstream. They were on TV every night giving their take on what was happening. We had another quote that we didn’t use by Andrew Young, former Atlanta mayor, that basically said the same thing. The [Panthers] were not as marginalized as we think.

When Richard Nixon was elected he was explicit extending full power to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to repress the Panther movement. Do you think whoever is elected in 2016 will have to listen to black protesters, like Clinton and Sanders seem to have done, in these beginning stages, or will their voices be suppressed?

I dont know where this is going to go. You have Hillary meeting with Black Live Matter. You have Donald Trump saying,“If they come up here I’ll punch ‘em out.” It depends on the political figure. But the protesters seizing the time and opportunity and making their statement heard is in a lot of ways in the tradition what the Black Panthers did.   

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Is the fall of the Black Panther party a natural progression of militant groups—that personalities and philosophies clash and they implode for that reason—or is it solely because of efforts by the government to suppress them?

The fall might have been inevitable given the forces they were up against. And the personalities, too. But I don’t think it has to happen that way for the next movement that comes along.

The film, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of The Revolution premieres Wednesday September 2 at the Film Forum in New York City with additional screenings nationwide.

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Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.