Black Against Empire: Joshua Bloom Interview 2/3

October 28, 2015


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. The first part of this interview can be found here. Here is the second part:

OT The rise of the Black Panther Party (BPP) coincided with some of the largest urban uprisings in US history: Watts in 1965 and Detroit, Newark, etc. in 1967. In the last two years we have seen similar rebellions in Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere. In many cases in both the 60s and today, the spark has been a police murder or assault on a black person. What parallels do you see between these periods? Would the BPP tactic of armed monitoring of police in the community be viable today? What was the Panthers’ take on spontaneous uprisings – were they seen as potential moments of revolution or situations that called for more organisation?

JB I think there’s one thing that’s very parallel, or one set of things that’s very parallel about the the set of conditions and one set of things that’s very different about the set of conditions. The lived experience of police brutality and containment policing that really fuelled the rebellions in many ways is very similar, it hasn’t changed a lot for the people who live in those conditions. What has changed tremendously is how that dynamic fits into a global political context – first, in terms of Black America and the bifurcation of Black America that we’ve talked about. Shortly after the Party’s heyday or through the years of the Party’s influence and during the years subsequent, congressional representation grew into the thirties and I think even the forties at some points, just as an example. The black middle class, access to higher education, police departments were integrated, municipal hiring was integrated – by all those kinds of indicators, black people got access. Not ALL black people but significant segments of black America got access in ways they hadn’t. But also internationally you had diplomatic openings with China, with Algeria, with, even to some extent, Cuba the dynamic changed. And the draft was repealed! A lot of domestic support for the Black Panther Party came from the Panthers saying “hey, if you’re resisting the draft and you’re being beat up by the National Guard, you’re part and parcel of the same global struggle against imperialism, that’s the same as the police beating the hell out of us black people, that’s the same as the Marines beating the hell out of the Vietnamese, it’s all part of the same imperialist dynamic.” And that relationship actually was important to the development of draft resistance, the anti-war movement, and the New Left, as well as being important to the Party. So what’s different is not just in terms of domestic Black America but in terms of the international context of anti-imperialism. And there is no draft but also there’s no international anti-colonial movement in many parts of the world that really has a similar kind of political dynamic that the Party can situate itself in that way. Now that takes me to the second part of your question about would the tactic of armed monitoring of police in the community be viable today – that stopped being viable in May of 1967! Before the Party even became that influential. The Party got its first influence by armed patrols of the police but as soon as there were hundreds of black people who weren’t Panthers coming out to Panther rallies in North Richmond, bringing their own guns, the State of California very quickly changed the law to make those patrols illegal. So the Party got its start, built its initial momentum with those early legally armed patrols of the police but by 1968, by the time the Party is really growing, it’s no longer legal to do armed patrols – they had to reinvent themselves and at that point it’s a suggested advocacy of insurrectionary violence. So the Party never directs in any overt or explicit way any kind of armed confrontations with the state but what they say is: [quotes Huey Newton] “The racist dog policeman must withdraw immediately from our communities, cease their wanton murder and brutality and torture of black people, or face the wrath of the armed people.” And Huey says, in Executive Mandate #3, every Panther HAS to have a gun in their home and if the police come with a warrant: take the arrest, if they illegally invade your home and start shooting: shoot back. So the conditions are created without any directive action on the part of the Party for all these armed confrontations between Panthers and police all over the country. That’s where ‘business as usual’ becomes impossible. ‘Business as usual’ is impossible with the Panthers around because people are shooting it out with the police, challenging state power in this very direct way. Is the Party directing that? No. Is the Party instigating that? Absolutely. So what happens is that that disruption is sustainable only because large swathes of America are being asked to go, are being told to go, fight and die, to pursue this Vietnam War that nobody believes in. And when you look at the Democratic Party and you think about 1968, you think about the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and you think about [Mayor Richard J.] Daley coming and beating the hell out of protesters on the street – well that was the minor story. The big story was what was going on inside which was that 80% of registered Democrat voters – we’re not talking radicals here! – voted to end the war. They voted for antiwar candidates who were promising and advocating to end the draft and get out of the war. That’s what the Democratic Party constituents said and what the [Democratic] Party did is they said “screw you! You may be the official constituency but that’s not how things work around here and we’re gonna put through our pro-war platform and candidate.” So there were no electoral means for America as a whole, certainly not through the Republican Party at that time, so those folks were like: “okay, we’re being told we have to go die”, you know, parents of kids who were being drafted voted against the draft so it wasn’t necessarily as if they supported the [Black Panther] Party but, again, if Fred Hampton’s going to be killed in his bed in a direct raid, an assassination, with the FBI working with the local Chicago police and all these killings. Look at Bobby Seale, the efforts to pin the killing of Alex Rackley on Bobby Seale, where nobody has a “smoking gun” that says George Sams was paid by the FBI to kill Alex Rackley but all the circumstantial evidence points to it and it’s very clear that Bobby Seale had nothing to do with the thing but the state is only interested in putting down the leadership of the Party and that’s the way it looks to everyone. So when there’s that kind of state repression, in a context in which the Party has very squarely made common cause with other constituencies trying to figure out how to advance their own interests then the repression of even advocacy of armed insurrection doesn’t work. The more that the police raided Panther offices with guns blazing, the more it drives support to the Party. So would armed patrols of the police work today? Absolutely not. They stopped working in May of ‘67 before the Party even grew. Would advocacy of armed insurrection work today? Absolutely not. Who’s going to support them? Today those would be “terrorists”. I am a firm disbeliever in the power of the fixed ideology of revolution. I don’t think the reason why the Party is able to build those broader alliances and articulate a broader movement and move towards a greater challenge to state power, I don’t think that’s because they got the analysis “right” in some fixed way. I think it’s because what they did on the ground tapped into broader interests. And specifically, it leveraged broader political cleavages. Those political cleavages, those kinds of political cleavages, are everywhere today! And they’re always everywhere. So it’s not like because the politics of the Party can’t sustain those broader challenges that there’s no way to sustain broader challenges today. I think, in fact, it’s eminently possible. But I think that’s what it takes. It takes figuring out how to make ‘business as usual’ impossible in such a way that it leverages the broader political cleavages as they are in this moment. That’s what the challenge is and that’s what people have to figure out.

OT And what about the Panther theorisation of these uprisings?

JB Huey was very explicit and direct about it. He said, these reveal the political capacity of Black America. He said, if you cannot deliver consequences you’re insignificant, all these “black leaders” who supposedly represent something but can’t deliver consequences, they don’t mean anything if you can’t deliver economic consequences, if you can’t deliver military consequences. He said, look at Black America, Black America is willing to stand up and get killed to stand up against this injustice. So he saw these spontaneous rebellions, and in particular the Watts rebellion, as indicative of the capacity that needed to be channeled and organised. He did not see it as a revolutionary process in and of itself but he saw it as indicative of where the source of power was, where the source of consequences were. If people were ready to rebel then they were ready to do the kinds of things that the Panthers were advocating and this proved to be completely true. His analysis proved spot on. That if you could organise the “brother on the block”, who was already going head-to-head with the police anyway, and get that energy and that willingness to resist organised then you could deliver consequences and you could move mountains.

OT In the aftermath of the Charleston mass murder in June, a new hashtag trended on Twitter in the US: “#WeWillShootBack”. The discussion on the hashtag, over the merits of counter-violence/armed self-defence, spoke to some of the ongoing divides over tactics that were very clear in the 1960s between Civil Rights and Black Power. To what extent did the BPP’s advocacy (and performance) of more militant practices itself lead to, or perhaps reflect, a changing consensus within some black communities regarding attitudes to violence? How much did disagreements over what kind of violence was acceptable lead to the major internal splits in the Party between the Oakland leadership and the Cleaver/New York faction as the BPP began to unravel in 1971? What do you think Panthers would be advocating in the current situation as movements are growing across the US in reaction to the daily murders and humiliations inflicted by the white supremacist capitalist state?

JB So there’s 3 questions there and the first is about the sources of Black Panther militant practices and did they reflect, did they change the consensus…as Charles Cobb and others have shown, or if you look back at Robert F. Williams or the Deacons for Defense, lots of these tendencies were there even within the Civil Rights activists. There was a major rupture that happened, really in ‘66, and the reason that that rupture happened is because the Civil Rights Movement was also built around a set of practices organisations followed and organisational work and development and organising and building relationships and gathering people and finding common interests and those kinds of developmental processes – those are key in all movements and were key in the Civil Rights Movement but they do not, and usually do not, make transformative moments. There has to be another source of power because every step that you’re taking forward using those institutional processes from a place of oppression and subordination, the people on the other side of that relationship who have more power to set the terms of the game are also taking developmental steps so you never catch up. Those institutional divides by institutional means always always tend towards further inequality and you see that, you know Polanyi articulates that well in economic terms, that there’s always this move towards greater inequality, that capital undercuts the conditions for its own production by getting more and more effective at exploitation. That’s not just true of economic processes, that’s true of race as well, that’s true of all forms of power. And so institutions and institutional work build greater polarisation and greater oppression and greater inequality and institutional means of challenging, of building democracy are crucial but they’re never enough to change that trajectory. And so what happens in the Civil Rights Movement and then what happens again on a smaller scale with the Black Panther Party is that there is a shift in the dynamic that comes from successfully tapping the power of disruption, by developing a set of practices that because it does leverage those broader cleavages it’s able to sustain this disruption as a source of power. So the Civil Rights Movement builds as a movement because violation of Jim Crow, bodily violation of Jim Crow, with claims for participation in American democracy and nonviolent morality is incredibly powerful at forcing the federal government to intervene militarily, politically and legally. And also all kinds of liberals and all kinds of more moderate black groups, right? It’s not like most of Black America was getting up and violating the law but most black organisations during the Civil Rights Movement, before the Black Panther Party, were very much opposed – not all, but most – were very much opposed to the brutal beating, jailing and killing of Civil Rights activists who were making those kinds of claims for participation and citizenship rights. So the Civil Rights Movement built its power and trajectory around those practices: in the boycotts, the sit-ins, in the “freedom rides”, in the community campaigns, in the voting rights campaigns, all of those bodily violated legal and customary segregation and disenfranchisement in such a way that there was brutal local repression and all kinds of allies – most powerfully, the federal government – but all kinds of other people as well were forced to intervene. What happens is when you get desegregation the Civil Rights Movement doesn’t work anymore. It never worked to challenge economic exclusion, it never worked to challenge ghettoisation, it never really worked to challenge de facto political exclusion either. So you got tokenism, you know, you read the accounts of CORE, in the same period of the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement but in the North in the early ‘60s, the same organisers, the same organisation, the same moment, and they’re fighting for years and years, beating their heads against the wall, pouring all their resources into these struggles in the North and they get like one job at a Woolworth as a token integration. No change in economic exclusion. Because Civil Rights insurgent practices never worked to do anything but fight Jim Crow. So when you beat Jim Crow the Civil Rights Movement implodes. I’m doing a quantitative analysis now but you can look at the arc and you get this steady rise in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s of the rate of mobilisation coupled with the rate of repression and as soon as you get desegregation the rate of repression dives off. People keep trying to do nonviolent mobilisation for another couple of years until the late ‘60s and then that just follows because it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work anymore. So what happens in ‘66 is that that issue comes into the public with the call for “Black Power” by Stokely Carmichael and Willie Ricks. And what they say is, we’re not gonna turn the other cheek anymore, we want Black Power. What isn’t clear is, what the hell does that mean? But it’s a symbol in which there’s lots of room for the more militant challenges. So the Party comes into that context as the Civil Rights Movement is falling apart, there are young black people in cities all across the country asking this Black Power question: how do we do in the North and the West, and in the cities of the South as well, what the Civil Rights Movement did to Jim Crow? How do we fight economic exclusion, political exclusion? How do we build power? And a lot of people are exploring the role of violence in those processes. Nobody really has an answer. The Panthers develop an answer that for several years is the best answer out there and is able to sustain disruption as a source of power, especially through this armed self-defence politics. And so they very much tap into and build on [the work] of people who had been doing that, whether that’s Robert Williams or some of the rhetoric of Malcolm X, the Deacons for Defence, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization that actually was arming themselves – and that’s where the Black Panther symbol and name came from. So in the same way that the Civil Rights Movement put nonviolence and direct action on the table for everyone – well beyond black freedom struggle, right? Think about the Women’s Movement, Environmental Movement, etc. – the Panthers, by succeeding in sustaining disruption through this armed revolutionary practice, put revolution and put militancy on the table for many many people, both in Black America and beyond. So that I think answers the question of both how they drew on and how they contributed to. The second part of the question was how much the disagreement was there [within the party over violence] and did it contribute to the split? It didn’t, it didn’t really contribute to the split. I think the split crystallised in those terms, if you look earlier though – pre-split – look at Huey Newton when he comes out of prison in August of 1970, six months before the split, and in his first speech out of prison and he’s saying, just like Cleaver: urban guerrilla warfare, all the same stuff. And then pretty quickly he has to deal with the realities of managing an organisation and he moves very quickly to David Hilliard’s [caretaker leader of BPP in the absence of Newton, Seale and Cleaver] position, who’s been trying to deal with the funders, the supporters, the media, and everybody else and he says….uhhhh… “Survival Pending Revolution!” So there’s an organisational dynamic which is very real which is that the Party’s strength and power come from the ambiguity of that position and so long as there are large constituencies who will turn out to support the Panthers in the face of the heavy repression, the Party can sustain that ambiguity, they can say “hey, we’re not directing any violence” but “we got the right to defend ourselves” so what does that mean? That means basically, essentially, implicitly, read through the lines, “I mean we’re creating the conditions for all these armed confrontations with police”, right? But are they saying that in public? No, not really. I mean they have cartoons saying it but it’s not like the Party is out there saying “OK, go attack these people and go attack those people” and, you know, organising…no! The Party doesn’t get into that at all. And in fact the relations with a lot of the allies are pretty different and the organisation nationally has to be very careful about how it caters to that. So some of those splits crystallise in the organisation because, in part, a lot of the people on the ground – they’re not worried about those dynamics and they’re fighting for liberation and they take that rhetoric seriously which is why you have these armed confrontations with the police so some of that’s implicit all along but it hardens as the organisation gets more influential, as it gets bigger and, simultaneously, as the conditions under which those practices thrive get scaled back and there are concessions, right? I mean, it’s Nixon who’s repealing the draft and “Vietnamization” and winding back the war, it’s Nixon who’s doing the “Philadelphia Plan” and Affirmative Action and you have this growth in political representation of blacks, you have growth in the integration of police forces and departments, you have gaining access to elite programs and higher education, so all of these things are happening and diplomatic relations are opening between the US and Algeria, and China, etc. So all these concessions are being made to the broader destabilising movement of which the Panthers are a central and important part – but certainly not the only part, just one piece – all these much broader concessions are being made which make it harder and harder and harder to appeal to constituencies who have other ways out, who have institutionalised ways out. At the same time, the Party’s become more influential and it’s gotten bigger so you have these splits growing, crystallising between national leadership that has to maintain an ever-harder friendly relationship with these allies and supporters and the local constituents who are facing the same conditions they were facing all along. So that’s where the split comes from. Is there a hard ideological division that drives it between violence and not? No, on a deeper level none of those folks really fundamentally disagreed ideologically. I mean, there are all kinds of diversities within the Party but it’s not like there’s a strong ideological position that’s really codified until organisationally it splits and then those positions harden…and the reality is neither of those positions in isolation works, never did, never did.

OT Some of the BPP’s great successes were its social programs. Local community organising to provide free food, clothes and other basic needs. Can you tell us a bit more about how these worked on a local and national level? For example, how did the BPP manage to grow and sustain this organising, how did they get people involved, and how was the BPP able to cultivate the powerful idea that people were part of the movement and had a stake in it?

JB The social programs were a crucial component of what the Panther practices did. I mean, they embodied this idea of local self-governance, they were very appealing to allies, they gave the constituencies a core daily activity from ‘69 (when they really started) and onward through 1970 and certainly after the Party falls apart and the little remaining thing in Oakland and a few other places. They’re the key day-to-day activity, they build, I mean, people can send their kids somewhere and they appreciate that, you know, so they build support from the community and the constituency and all these things. But they never build the Party. Those are institutional and developmental processes and the problem is is that the party doesn’t have any access to resources to do that kind of thing any more than anybody else without the revolutionary ideology and any of these other things. The only way that they can drive that dynamic is because they have the power of disruption, from the insurrectionary armed self-defence. So it’s because they’re at the centre stage – and they’ve got all kinds of attention and all kinds of political support and all kinds of money and all kinds of lawyers and all kinds of power that’s coming from making ‘business as usual’ impossible and being emblematic of what Black Power means and being the revolutionary reference point for so many black and non-black activists nationally and internationally – that they’re able to draw the kinds of resources to even be able to do these programs on any significant scale. Once you separate the two and you say “Survival Pending Revolution” and “we’re gonna put down our guns and we’re gonna do social democracy” they’re no more influential than any other community group except that there’s some sort of residual momentum and resources and fame and connections and those kinds of things. And conversely, shooting it out and saying “we’re gonna have guerrilla warfare now” that was just suicidal and just completely unrealistic to the moment. So once those two politics are no longer…once it’s no longer possible to sustain that marriage between an appeal to allies and a politics that can draw much broader support – especially organised around those community programs – once that can no longer be wedded to what’s called ‘the politics of armed self-defence’ and the creation of all these armed confrontations across the country, once those two cannot be kept together anymore because the political context has gotten so much harder to sustain that, you know with all these concessions, neither is viable. So are social programs a panacea for movements? No, they’re not. Are they a wise and important piece of constituency-building and of alliance-building and of community service and a basis for some kind of proto-local governance when combined with some kind of real insurgent power? They certainly were in the Party’s case and I don’t see why they couldn’t be in another. But I don’t think that, in isolation, they’re anything different than your average non-profit organisation.

OT Do you think that if the atmosphere of the social program is a politicised one and if the requisitioning of the donations that fund it are confrontational in the way that they were for the Panthers, do you not think that that is something more than an NGO?

JB But I think the Party can sustain that because it is something different politically. So how do you leverage those kinds of resources? Unless you’re just gangsterish, right? Which is some of what happened in Oakland post-’71 – there was a complicated mix of things and I don’t want to reduce it to any one dynamic but some of the extortion kind of relations with the sources of resources and revenue that ran the programs in Oakland were what you have when you don’t really have a movement that’s tied to those kinds of relations. People get it all backwards and think that the press coverage drove the growth of the Party – the relationship temporally was the opposite: the Party grew and then the press coverage followed. But at its height the Party had three stories a day in the New York Times, on average. Which is a greater rate than the height of the Civil Rights Movement for any Civil Rights organisation. It was the centre of a lot of what was going on politically in the United States. So when you have that kind of influence, which is derived in large part from these armed confrontations with the police and the way that those are situated politically, then you have a different kind of leverage to bring in those resources. Once people don’t see you as the centre of what’s happening politically, on any broad scale, then where does that leverage really come from?

The interview is continued here

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