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The Uncivil Servant: The Black Panthers, Heroes and Maniacs
by Mitchell Abidor
ON A PURELY PERSONAL LEVEL, Stanley Nelson’s engrossing film The Black Panthers, Vanguard of the Revolution has led me to revise what I’ve been saying for decades about my youthful love for that organization. I’ve maintained that I was right to support them, but it was for all the wrong reasons. In cynical hindsight, they seem to me to have been all about posturing and insanely violent rhetoric that led to their demise and led the white New Left — which had, indeed, treated them as the vanguard of the revolution we thought was coming — into a dead end.
The posturing is undeniable — and the Panthers in Nelson’s film do not deny it, laughing about how rich white people “ate that shit up” when shades- and beret-wearing Panthers came to their homes for fundraising. It was the posturing involved in their first big media splash — showing up for a legislative hearing in 1967 at the California state house bearing rifles — that made their name. Their tailing of cops to keep an armed eye on all interactions with the black populace then solidified their place in the revolutionary vanguard. Their posturing bled onto us, leading teenage me to think it was acceptable and not in the least ridiculous to chant, “Revolution had come! (Off the pigs!) Time to pick up the gun! (Off the pigs!) No more brothers in jail (Off the pigs!) Pigs are gonna catch hell! (Off the pigs!)” Wasn’t that a time...
Although clearly pro-Panther, Vanguard of the Revolution does nothing to hide their flaws and their strategic error in thinking they could take on the armed might of the state — which was unleashed on them in ways that still shock. Yet a line spoken by a member of the Panther 21, who were arrested in 1969 and acquitted in 1971 for a supposed terrorist plot against sites throughout the New York area, sums up the group far better than any jaundiced post hoc analysis: they were motivated, he said, by “undying love for the people.”
So yes, Eldridge Cleaver was crazy and got people killed, as Felipe Luciano, formerly of the Panthers’ Puerto Rican allies, the Young Lords, says; and yes, their love affair with armed struggle led directly to the deaths of many members and ultimately to the group’s demise — but everything they did, and every one of their mistakes, were made in an attempt to protect and empower an oppressed community they were part of and which they loved.
A NEWS CLIP from 1966 talks of the terrible relations between “the police and the Negro community,” words that could, with the modifying of a noun, be used today, but Nelson’s film shows that the Panthers’ response was not simply to oppose police violence — though that was their entry point — but also to denounce the capitalist system, which has racism as one of its key components. Nelson doesn’t make enough of this, showing only a speech or two where this is mentioned, but the alert viewer can see a Panther member reading Mao’s “Little Red Book,” and lying at the foot of the bed on which the party’s most glorious martyr, Fred Hampton of Chicago, was murdered in 1969 by what an interviewee justly calls a “police death squad,” is a volume of Lenin’s “Complete Works.”
In fact, if Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton, and Bobby Seale are the best-remembered of the party’s leaders, it is the chair of the Illinois branch, Fred Hampton (pictured above), who is the true hero of the film.
A lengthy segment, perhaps the film’s richest moments, demonstrates that the FBI’s sworn goal was, as J. Edgar Hoover wrote, to prevent the appearance of a “messiah” — and Hampton, just 21 years old when he was murdered, was the one most likely to play that role. A charismatic speaker, able to form alliances and win the confidence of Puerto Ricans and working-class whites in Chicago, Hampton was able to spark a crowd to take to their feet and repeat after him: “I... Am... A... Revolutionary.” Even now, forty-five years later, it doesn’t seem absurd as we watch him do it.
THE FBI CONSIDERED the Black Panthers the most dangerous threat to the U.S. government, and employed all means necessary to destroy them: poison-pen letters accusing members of cheating on their spouses; harassment; infiltration; murder. So intense was the infiltration that Fred Hampton’s personal bodyguard was an FBI rat who provided the Chicago police with the layout of Hampton’s apartment, facilitating his murder. Much is made in the film of the role of infiltration and the spreading of discord within Panther ranks, in the party’s demise. There can be no doubt that this was an element in the party’s destruction.
But we are told early in Nelson’s film that Eldridge Cleaver was not a man to take second place to anyone, and that in the days of the “Free Huey” Newton campaign, the party had built a cult-of-personality around what an ex-Panther calls, “a fucking maniac.” Egos played no small role in the collapse of the party, with Newton running the Panthers in service of his increasingly crazed and thuggish whims (in the end he viewed their goal as taking control of the Oakland underworld in order to assemble funds), while Cleaver, from his exile in Algiers, disdained the social assistance elements of the party’s work — he mocked the much-vaunted free breakfast program — preferring instead armed struggle. It’s clear that ideology served to mask a battle of enormous egos. The loser in the war was the Black Panther Party, and even more, the black community.
That Newton was a murderous druggie in his final years, known to go into insane rages if anyone called him “Baby Huey,” and was killed in a drug-related shooting, really should surprise no one. Likewise that the ultra-revolutionary Cleaver became a born-again Christian who supported Reagan (whom he calls “a sissy and a punk” in the party’s early days). Apostasy is very much a part of the sad history of the left.
Still, the Black Panthers, Vanguard of the Revolution movingly reminds us that the Panthers were more than their own leaders. They were a class-conscious, internationalist group who responded to the oppression of their people in a way consonant with their era. That they failed is no more of a surprise or a shame than the failure of groups they resembled, like the Tupamaros and the Montoneros. That they fought, that they led each member to feel that he or she was what an Los Angeles Panther calls “a free “Nigra,” is all to their credit. A credit that The Black Panthers, Vanguard of the Revolution, grants them.
Nelson’s earlier documentaries include Freedom Riders (2011),The Murder of Emmett Till (2003), and Wounded Knee (2009), among other films about the civil rights politics and culture. His latest is not to be missed.
Mitchell Abidor, our contributing writer, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his new translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His recent books include an anthology of Victor Serge’s writings, Anarchists Never Surrender, and a translation of A Socialist History of the French Revolution, by Jean Jaurès.
Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.