The OT recently spoke in depth with Joshua Bloom, co-author of the 2013 award-winning book ‘Black Against Empire’, about the history, politics and thought of the Black Panther Party. We have split the interview into three sections. Here is the first part.
The OT One of the central arguments in Black Against Empire is that what lay behind the Black Panther Party’s growth and influence, what made them synonymous with the Black Power Movement rather than the many other contemporary black nationalist organisations, was their ability to form alliances and coalitions – namely with moderate, more establishment black organisations, white student leftists, sympathetic revolutionary governments abroad and Latino, Native American and Asian radical groups in the US. How difficult was it to maintain and balance such alliances, to keep people within the party on board and to avoid being co-opted by less militant groups? What, if any, prospects do you see for any similar alliances being formed for a contemporary revolutionary politics in urban America?
Joshua Bloom So, this really starts to get right away at part of the central and intellectual thrust of the book. The alliances formed were very much on the basis of what the party was actually doing. So neither were those alliances simply organisational alliances. I mean, there were definitely organisational and interpersonal relations between members and leaders of the group and other organisations and those relationships were important, and those organisational ties were important, but they weren’t sufficient to either generate or sustain those relationships – the organisational and the interpersonal relations alone. And on the other side, neither were the ideas sufficient to generate or sustain those relationships, the ideas were also important, so the Party, as we can talk about more and as is reflected in the title of the book, very much emphasised an anti-imperialist politics which centred black freedom struggle in the black community and the black community’s effort to represent itself. And it saw that struggle for self-representation – or sovereignty, if you will – against, and in the context of empire and imperialism, as part and parcel of a global struggle of people to try to represent themselves. And so those ties were with all the groups you mention: with the struggle of Native Americans to return some kind of sovereignty; of other domestic immigrant communities whether it was Latino or they had alliances and actually sort of served as a model for the Red Guard, the Chinese American immigrant youth organisation; but also internationally, I mean, they had very direct ties with not only the Algerians and various African liberation struggles but also had a relationship with China and had a relationship with the North Vietnamese and the Southern Liberation Army in Vietnam. And, you know, just to give an example, at one point discussions with the North Vietnamese, there was a discussion about a prisoner exchange, about the freeing of Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, if the US would release Bobby Seale and Huey Newton then the North Vietnamese would release a bunch of prisoners of war. And Cuba actually at one point had a military training ground and development for the Party. And China sponsored… you know I opened the book with that anecdote, of sponsoring the Black Panther Party at this moment when Nixon is exploring a diplomatic opening with China and at a National Day in China they bring out the Panthers and have tens of thousands of acrobats and dancers, celebrating in the streets, and big banners saying “DOWN WITH YANKEE IMPERIALISM!” And then there’s a state dinner and the Panthers are sitting with the First Lady [of China] and dignitaries. And so you know these were big deal relationships. Algeria was the centre of revolutionary movements in Africa and had diplomatic relations both with all kinds of revolutionary movements and governments throughout Africa but also throughout Asia and the rest of the world. They had no embassy, as they were part of the Non-Aligned Movement, for the US but they had an embassy, an actual embassy building and diplomatic presence, for the Panthers. So those relationships were possible – the ideas were important to those relationships but the ideas didn’t create or maintain those coalitions. So what I argue that the centre of understanding the growth and development of the Party, including centrally those relationships and those coalitions and alliances, you have to think about practices as cohering both tactics and organisational forms and targets and ideas in a coherent set of practices that really creates a particular political dynamic. So what the Panthers really did on the ground that drove the growth of the Party was they made customary containment policing impossible, they made the municipal response of “we’re gonna deal with ‘White Flight’ and ghettoisation and urban poverty by basically beating the hell out of black folks and keeping them in their place” really difficult to maintain. And they did so in a way that drew a lot of armed confrontation eventually with the state and the way that those ideas became important and the way that they facilitated the building of relationships – organisational relationships and interpersonal relationships – was very much around the dynamic of challenge of repression and response to repression. So the Party put itself at the centre of those issues in the black community and for Black America. But also internationally by developing a set of practices that was completely disruptive – especially of containment policing – and was very hard to repress because the repression of it, in that context, was threatening of all these allies. That was really the source and the capacity to build and to sustain and extend those relationships was that they were doing something that could not be ignored, that made “business as usual” impossible, and yet the repression of which was broadly threatening to many many other constituencies.
OT And internally, within the Party, some of the strategic alliances that the leadership wanted to have with maybe some more moderate political forces – you know, trying to appeal to certain liberal elements of the student movement or more Civil Rights black organisations – was that difficult internally, within the Party? Was that a source of contention or was it seen as a good thing to try to broaden the scope of the Party’s operations?
JB The Party didn’t kowtow to anybody. And at the same time it was very ecumenical, in a funny sort of way. So if you think about moderate black political leaders – and you could make similar statements for other kinds of alliances – but think about moderate black political leaders, think about the kinds of people that supported the Panthers in San Francisco like Willie Brown, who was an assemblyman in California, or Cecil Williams who had a big black church, or think about people like…even Whitney Young, the head of the Urban League – I mean you don’t get much more moderate than that, in terms of black politics at that time – these were the people who led the charge against the most vicious repression of the Party. You know, the book that was done that led to the Senate investigations into the killing of Fred Hampton – who pushed that? In part, the Urban League was very involved in that. Now did the Party support the Urban League? Was the Party friendly with the Urban League? No! I mean they had this column in their paper that they published regularly called the “Bootlicker” column and they said “these Uncle Toms are just all about kissing the capitalist power holder’s ass, the white man’s ass, they’re not about the real deal, they’re not real leaders, they’re not representing black peoples’ interest.” And they would dog these people out in their “Bootlicker” column. But these were the same people who, when push came to shove, felt like the Party was representing at least whatever effort there was on the part of young black people. The Willie Browns, the Whitney Youngs didn’t agree with anything the Party was doing or saying but they thought that given there was no political representation, very little, right? I think there had been, at the most, six [black] representatives nationally in Congress before the Party emerged. There was very little representation in police departments or fire departments or municipal hiring of any form. The Democratic Party machines basically excluded black people even though theoretically black people could run but if they weren’t part of the party machines how were they gonna get represented, right? And they couldn’t get into higher education, there was a miniscule black middle class, so these issues were very real for black moderates as well at this point and so long as that was the case then killing successful young activists in their beds was a threat. Even if Cecil Williams or Willie Young didn’t agree with anything the Panthers were doing and the Panthers were calling them “Bootlickers”, there was a material basis for the alliance based on what the Party was doing and how the state was responding.
OT And do you see potential for similar alliances to be made today for a contemporary revolutionary politics?
JB I think it goes back to the question of practice. If you think of #BlackLivesMatter, there’s this incredible opportunity at this moment. There’s been a rupture, or a crack, or an opening in the veil – Du Bois talks about the veil that separates white America from black America. The character of that is a little different now that you do have a large black middle class, and you do have large segments of Black America that have access but you have half of Black America that continues to live in this militarised, greatly impoverished, basically at war with the state, has very little access and faces heavy repression day-to-day as just a part of daily life. Most people in the United States and the world don’t see that world most of the time. Michelle Alexander talks eloquently about the “New Jim Crow” and what that means and how it exists in the context of the “War on Drugs” and the mythology of “colourblindness”, whereas race very much continues to play, in some ways, an even more salient role in structuring social relations. But most people don’t see what happens on that side. And what’s happened with this video technology on everybody’s smartphones is that that veil has been opened a crack where people are seeing these killings, these brutal killings by police and security officers and vigilantes of unarmed black people are NOT new, they have been going on for decades. What is new is that people who didn’t know that that was going on are now seeing it. Black people knew it was going on, people who have worked and lived in black communities knew it was going on, but now the world cannot ignore that this is going on. The question is: what happens? If you destabilise customary brutal policing of black communities and the way that it’s been done by opening that veil technologically, what happens? How does it transform? And in some ways that is like what happened with Jim Crow, right? You had an exposure of the contradictions and the irony of Jim Crow, not only just a conscious exposure of it but an unraveling of some of the economic basis of it with the decline of the cotton economy. But how racial relations would transform was not preconfigured, it was not pre-set, and what the Civil Rights Movement succeeded in doing – before the Panthers ever came around – was they figured out how to drive the process of transformation and they did it by developing a set of practices in the Civil Rights Movement that made customary Jim Crow, formal caste subordination, legal segregation, impossible to sustain and disrupted it in a way that forced local state repression and by doing so they were able to force all kinds of allies into the fray in that struggle – including the Federal Government. So what’s possible today? It all depends on the practices. I think that if people can find ways of making ‘business as usual’ impossible such that when they get repressed that repression is broadly threatening then they’ll be able to do what the Panthers did for several years and what the Civil Rights Movement did on a much greater scale which is that they’ll be able to drive the transformation that happens through the opening of that veil. Conversely, if people don’t develop practices that are able to destabilise the “New Jim Crow” and force repression in a way that brings other people into the fray and can sort of sustain that disruption as a source of power, if people don’t develop those kinds of practices – which they have not to date – then unfortunately it seems like the trajectory is a series of relatively modest state concessions that sort of beautify and feign some kind of accountability that basically is able to make enough change in a surface way that seeing beyond that veil is not destabilising the way things have been. In other words, not much. Not much is really going to happen unless people figure out how to make ‘business as usual’ impossible.
The interview is continued here