Policing the Police

Fredrick Harris

  • Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party by Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin
    California, 539 pp, £24.95, January 2013, ISBN 978 0 520 27185 2

On 1 January 2009, around two in the morning, 19 days before the inauguration of Barack Obama, Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old unarmed black man, was shot in the back by a white transit officer in Oakland, California while lying face down on a train platform with his hands behind his back. He was taken to a nearby hospital, where he died seven hours later. Minutes before, Grant and several other men had been herded from a train by police, who were responding to a complaint about a brawl.

Using mobile phones, train passengers recorded Grant and the other men being handled – and in some cases manhandled – by the police while they were lined up and handcuffed on the platform. The video images of the shooting ignited a firestorm across the city and beyond. Grainy footage shows Officer Johannes Mehserle remove the gun from his holster and shoot Grant. The fatal shot – which pierced Grant’s back, travelled through his body and ricocheted off the platform back into his chest – was played and replayed on local and national television for weeks. A video of the shooting was also posted on YouTube, where it has been streamed more than a million times. Many concluded after watching the video that the shooting wasn’t a murder, but an execution.

Six days after the shooting, a peaceful march in downtown Oakland turned violent. Protesters who had gathered to express their outrage at Grant’s killing as well as their disgust that Mehserle had not been charged for murder were met by two hundred police in riot gear. Several hundred protesters smashed car windows, vandalised businesses and set fire to trash cans, newspaper stands and dumpsters. An abandoned patrol car was set on with rocks and bottles. Angry youth – mostly black but also Hispanic, Asian and white – confronted stone-faced officers who formed a barricade to stop the demonstrators from moving to other parts of the city’s central business district. Some shouted: ‘Pigs go home.’ Others: ‘Fascist police – no justice, no peace.’ One black youth asked in an earnest, defiant tone: ‘As a concerned citizen of the beautiful city of Oakland, can you provide me with a valid reason for what took place the other night to that young man, for being shot in his back?’ He and several others then fell to the ground, lying face down with their hands behind their backs, re-enacting the moment when Grant’s life began to end.

In the chaos that ensued, Ron Dellums, Oakland’s septuagenarian mayor, addressed a crowd of protesters on the steps of City Hall. Dellums, immediately recognisable by his sculptured Afro – which, over the decades, has gone from jet black to snow white – looked shattered, dejected and defenceless. In earlier decades the mayor would have been standing alongside the protesters, rather than standing for ‘the man’, forced to account for and defend the actions of the state against black people. Dellums was first elected to public office as a councilman in Berkeley in 1967; in 1970, he was elected to the House of Representatives as the first openly socialist member of Congress, serving until 1998. In 2006, he ran for mayor of Oakland and won, becoming the city’s third black mayor. Now he told the crowd he understood their pain and frustration but called for peace. ‘We are a community of people, we are civilised people,’ he thundered through a bullhorn and was roundly booed. He and his entourage then returned to City Hall and locked the doors behind them. Protesters continued their rampage. The police eventually dispersed the crowd with tear-gas grenades and arrested more than a hundred people for rioting, vandalism, assault and unlawful assembly. A columnist for the Oakland Tribune called the rioters ‘self-described anarchists’ and ‘wannabe Black Panthers’.

The revolt in the aftermath of Grant’s murder is reminiscent of a bygone era in Oakland and other cities across the United States when black radicals enraged by police misconduct fearlessly confronted the authorities with the backing of ordinary black people and the support of white allies on the left. In Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin trace the origins, rise and decline of a mostly misunderstood political movement. Angela Davis, who was an ally of the Panthers and a member of the Communist Party, complains that she is better remembered as a 1970s fashion icon, known for her large Afro, than for the depth of her political commitment:

It is both humiliating and humbling to discover that a single generation after the events that constructed me as a public personality, I am remembered as a hairdo. It is humiliating because it reduces a politics of liberation to a politics of fashion; it is humbling because such encounters with the younger generation demonstrate the fragility and mutability of historical images, particularly those associated with African-American history.

Black against Empire is the first comprehensive history of the party, a history which, as Bloom and Martin explain, has been mostly ‘forbidden’. What has been told has come in memoirs, biographies, speeches, journalistic accounts, documentaries and the writings of prominent Panthers. We have come to know – though not terribly well – the comrades of the struggle who gained international notoriety, mostly through celebrated trials: Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, David Hilliard, Eldridge Cleaver, Kathleen Cleaver, Ericka Huggins, Elaine Brown. But rather than focusing on the sensationalist and salacious aspects of the party’s history – the confrontations, violence, criminality – Bloom and Martin choose to recount its history through its ideological underpinnings and the dynamics of social movements.

The radical activism of the left in the US and across the globe in the late 1960s and early 1970s was unique, a zeitgeist, when, as Me’Shell Ndegéocello nostalgically sang, ‘freedom was at hand and you could just taste it.’ That a wide-ranging group of young black people – high-school pupils, college students and college dropouts, ex-felons, gang members, social workers, blue-collar workers and unemployed – should have come together in a revolutionary organisation whose ideas were guided by socialism and Third World Liberation, and whose vision was sustained over several years despite the state repression it met with, is, in retrospect, an extraordinary thing in itself.

Like W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Charlotta Bass, Claudia Jones and William Patterson in the 1940s and 1950s, the Black Panther Party connected the oppression of black America to people of colour around the globe, linking the internal struggle against racism in the US to anti-imperial struggles in Africa, Asia and Latin America. For the Panthers, black people were inhabitants of a colony within the United States – in effect living in a state of internal colonialism – where they were victimised and exploited by what amounted to an occupying force.

In 1966, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, both college students in Oakland, decided to put ideology into action. Impatient with the ‘armchair revolutionaries’ in the various black student groups they were active in at Merritt College, they were less and less interested in merely studying the theories of Marx, Fanon, Mao and Che Guevara: what they wanted was to apply those ideas, to enlist ‘the brothers on the block’ into action on the ground. They drew on knowledge of the US constitution and local and state ordinances regulating the use of rifles and pistols to develop a tactic that jolted the authorities.

The death of Matthew Johnson, an unarmed black youth shot by the police in the black neighbourhood of Hunters Point in San Francisco, sparked a rebellion in September 1966 that lasted several days. His death and a string of other police abuses would be the catalyst in forming the party. Newton, who was studying law, discovered that in California citizens were allowed to carry loaded guns in public as long as they were not concealed. He also discovered that a black group in Los Angeles had been formed to monitor police activity after the 1965 Watts Rebellion. It is in this context that Newton and Seale formed an Oakland affiliate of the Black Panther Party, a loose organisation that was started by Stokely Carmichael, who broke away from the interracial Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC) to mobilise Southern black voters into an independent bloc and to advocate black self-determination.

The party’s first test case came in early 1967, when Newton, Seale and 16-year-old Lil’ Bobby Hutton, their first recruit, were driving in the predominantly black section of North Oakland. They spotted a police car patrolling the neighbourhood and decided to follow it. With shotguns and rifles in plain view, the three drove beside and then ahead of the police as stares were exchanged. The patrolman turned on the siren and Newton, the driver, pulled over. The patrolman stuck his head in the car window and demanded that the men get out of the car and hand over their guns. They refused. Newton grabbed the officer by his collar and slammed his head against the roof of the car. When other officers showed up and demanded they turn over their guns, Newton cited their constitutional rights to bear arms and the local ordinance that allowed individuals to carry guns as long as they were not concealed. In the end, there were no grounds for an arrest and the officers left.

The new organisation – now renamed by Newton and Seale as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense – gained a reputation for policing the police. Some who witnessed the altercation that evening later joined the party. Not long afterwards, the Panthers organised a rally to protest about the killing of Denzel Dowell, who was shot in the back by police in Richmond, a few miles north of Oakland. The rally – and the Panthers’ defiant response to a patrolman standing by and observing them – drew even more support from the Bay Area’s black communities.

Two events catapulted the Panthers to national notoriety. In February 1967, party members carried guns in full display at San Francisco Airport while escorting Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X’s widow. There was a stand-off between Panthers and police officers. Six weeks later, the Panthers marched with guns into the state capitol building in Sacramento to protest against pending gun-control legislation that targeted the Panthers’ patrols. The Mulford Act – Don Mulford was a Republican state legislator who represented a district near Oakland – outlawed the carrying of loaded firearms in public, community police patrols and the display of guns during ‘self-defence’ rallies.

State police surrounded the protesters and confiscated their weapons, but had to return them because the Panthers had apparently broken no laws. (They were arrested at a gas station on their way back to Oakland for violating obscure Fish and Game codes.) The legislation passed and was signed into law by Governor Ronald Reagan, who for once put aside his principled belief in the right of citizens to bear arms. The attempts to suppress the movement through legislation only increased support for the Panthers on the left. This episode, and the legislative limits placed on the use of firearms, set the context for the confrontations to come.

It was the ‘angry children of Malcolm X’, as Julius Lester described his generation, who in 1968 took to the streets to avenge the assassination of Martin Luther King. Many were also aggrieved by the death of Lil’ Bobby Hutton, who, two days after King’s murder, was killed by police in a shoot-out that lasted more than an hour. Stripped naked with both hands in the air – a gesture of surrender – Hutton was gunned down by 12 bullets. These two murders, as well as the countless other police atrocities that blacks experienced daily, swelled the ranks of the party’s membership.

But the surge in militancy did not go unanswered. The empire struck back, and fiercely. Nixon, who ran for president in 1968 on a pledge of restoring ‘law and order’, targeted, with the backing of the FBI, the anti-war movement, the Black Panthers and other leftist organisations. The FBI declared the Panthers the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States, infiltrated local chapters with undercover agents, informers and provocateurs, and used brute force in its confrontations with Panthers.

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As the party grew and chapters spread to other cities, so did encounters with the police. In Los Angeles, where the second Panther chapter was founded, a five-hour shoot-out between Panthers and the LAPD’s Special Weapons and Tactics Team (formed to deal with the threat presented by the Panthers) indicated the state’s commitment to crushing the party with violence. By 1969, ‘rather than weakening the Panthers’, Bloom and Martin write, ‘the intensive campaign of state repression during the year drove more members, funding and allied support in the party.’ Repression intensified resistance. Bloom and Martin join recent theorists of social movements in showing that even in the face of dangerous risks, raw emotions – anger, disgust, shame – can mobilise sympathisers on the sidelines into actualising their political commitments.

But the dramatic confrontations that become part of Panther history and lore have, as Bloom and Martin remind us, obscured the community service ethos at the heart of Panther activity. In local chapters across the country, the Panthers instituted free breakfast programmes for poor children, started schools that emphasised black pride and revolutionary values, and co-ordinated free health-clinics and screenings for poor and working-class black communities. As Alondra Nelson documents in Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination, towards the end of 1968, when Newton was jailed for voluntary manslaughter and Cleaver fled into exile, the party shifted its emphasis from ‘armed self-defence to social self-defence’.

Community service was shared by men and women in the party, though the concept of what Bloom and Martin call ‘revolutionary motherhood’ highlighted the contradictions of a vanguard that viewed itself as revolutionising not only race and class relations but gender relations too. Panther women were engaged alongside men in the politics of self-defence, but having ‘babies for the revolution’ and operating within a hyper-masculine culture, many of the women struggled to redefine what it meant for them to be revolutionary.

In the early 1970s, the party began to decline. Ideological differences emerged between Newton and Cleaver, with Newton focusing on a reformist approach to ‘serving the people’ and Cleaver committed to continuing the revolutionary vision of ‘self-defence’ and transformation. Some Panthers went underground as guerrillas, joining the shadowy Black Liberation Army. Various legislative and social changes eroded support among black sympathisers and white allies on the left: state concessions; Nixon’s withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam and reduction of the draft, which quelled the anti-war movement; and ‘ballooning electoral representation, government hiring, affirmative action, and reform of college and university access and curricula’, which ‘granted blacks greater institutional channels for participating in American society and politics’.

In 1973, Bobby Seale ran for mayor of Oakland and lost; in 1975 Elaine Brown, then chairwoman of the party, ran a formidable campaign for a seat on Oakland’s city council but lost. The Panthers made alliances with Congressman Ron Dellums’s political machine and endorsed Jerry Brown, who won his bid to become governor of California with the help of black voters in Oakland.

Though for many the history of the Panthers lives on mainly in nostalgia for 1970s cool, some of the party’s ideology and spirit of defiance has resurfaced in unexpected ways. When the US Supreme Court struck down McDonald v. City of Chicago an ordinance that regulated the use of handguns and rifles to curb gun violence in black and brown neighbourhoods, Clarence Thomas appropriated the rhetoric of black self-defence to uphold the right of American citizens to ‘keep and bear arms’. Thomas’s concurring opinion stated that white supremacist groups spread terror among blacks and sympathetic whites during Reconstruction. These groups ‘raped, murdered, lynched and robbed as a means of intimidating, and instilling pervasive fear in, those whom they despised’ without ‘the slightest hint of due process’. In a different time, a different place, these words would have ended with a raised fist and the refrain: ‘Power to the people.’

And last spring, in the well of the House of Representatives, Chicago Congressman Bobby Rush, a former Panther, wore sunglasses and a hoodie while giving a speech to denounce the murder of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black 17-year-old who was shot while wearing a hoodie by a self-deputised community crime watcher who thought the boy looked suspicious. Before officials escorted him off the floor, Rush shouted: ‘Racial profiling has to stop. Just because someone wears a hoodie does not make them a hoodlum.’

And so it continues, the abuses of a police state causing havoc in the lives of many black people. It was hoped that the election of people to public office who looked like them would secure greater protections for black people in American society. Those concessions have yielded little in the realm of criminal justice, where mass incarceration, the death penalty and unchecked police abuse of black, brown and poor people are unabated. The grievances that led to the need for a group like the Black Panthers are still with us.