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 – Part 1 / Part 2 and the final part:
OT The time in which the BPP were at their height also saw the beginnings of long restructuring processes that are now much more familiar to us: de-industrialisation, mass incarceration, white flight and gentrification, the growth of “surplus populations” in the urban Global North. The BPP’s social programs were in part a reaction to what they described as a colonial US State (both inside and outside its borders) never caring about black Americans being able to reproduce their own lives. This remains the case now for large sections of black America and for other sections of the Western working class in light of automation & outsourcing. Shouldn’t BPP-style community organising be just as relevant today? Do you see its influence in contemporary organising?
JB In my reading of history in black freedom struggle, and to some extent beyond – looking at labour in the US and a number of other movements, I really think that that piece about development plays out fairly consistently. The movements that really become movements, in a broader transformative way, usually find ways of making ‘business as usual’ impossible. You can’t make sense of the Panthers’ success with the social programs outside of seeing it as a partner to their insurgent practices and the kinds of power that they were able to wield and mobilise. It fell apart very quickly once stripped of those forms of power – which makes it no less central and essential to what they did at their height, it was crucial but not crucial in isolation.
OT At different points in its history, the BPP flirted with electoralism, fielding candidates in both local and national elections. Was an electoral route to social change held as a genuine belief by some within the party or did it speak to opportunism in earlier times of strength, and later, desperation after the organisation began to collapse on a national level?
JB I think you got it right in the way you framed the question. The earlier stuff was a way to build political relations and build reach, they weren’t thinking of any real electoral route. It was more of a symbolic politics. The later stuff – after the split – in Oakland was different. This is the national Party that put down the gun and had a fair amount of political influence still because it had been so influential for years. It was running on fumes but it had a lot of fumes to run on! And so they’re running Bobby Seale for mayor and they’re running Elaine Brown for council and this is also the period in the 70s when black people are starting to win political representation so they’re not that unique in running but they’re able to use the Panther clout. And they lose but they’re trying to win and their idea is to try to take over Oakland and to try to use all of the resources still at their disposal and focus all those fumes right there in Oakland and see what they can accomplish! And, you know, they don’t win those two seats but they do come close and they help to break the Republican machine and to put in Lionel Wilson as the first Democrat and, most importantly, the first black person elected mayor in Oakland. So they do, at that point, take electoral politics pretty seriously. Again, the Party isn’t a movement any more, it’s running on fumes but at that point the electoral politics is much more serious for them.
OT The Black Panthers’ ideology developed over time, as can be seen through the evolution of Huey Newton’s writing as well as the amendments made to their Ten Point Program. A more traditional black nationalist politics became increasingly influenced by Marxist and Maoist ideas. How would you describe the ideological changes that took place within the BPP, and was this solely a top-down process or were rank and file members able to criticise and take part? Did the organisation maintain the desire for an independent state for black people in America? Who were the leading thinkers in the movement, and what past thinkers were most influential on the Panthers?
JB The Party was always eclectic ideologically. It was always practice-driven rather than ideology-driven and it was always diverse so from member to member, leader to leader, and most especially, from chapter to chapter, there were far-reaching fundamental differences. There were certain points on which people always essentially agreed – the central idea of the black community as a constituency and the Black Panther Party as the legitimate representatives of the black community, as part of a global anti-imperialist struggle and the way that the struggle of black people, through the Black Panther Party, linked with these other struggles around the world. That was core to the Party’s intellectual positioning from day one. And some elements of anti-capitalism and Marxism as they helped to set that up. All the details both changed over the course of their history but were also really different from place to place. I mean, even just look at the way people dressed and the names they took, you know, there were strong Garveyite nationalist influences in New York and people wore dashikis and took African names. In Oakland they didn’t do either of those things. They were very much against what they called “Pork-Chop Nationalism” or cultural nationalism. There were some important shifts. I would argue that the biggest shifts came in relation to changes in structure and context. So, how does the Party reinvent itself when it can’t do the armed patrols any more? How does the Party reinvent itself when in fact it’s actually succeeded in building these very strong relations with the New Left and anti-imperialist movements internationally? How does the Party try to reinvent itself when these concessions make sustaining Panther politics and the politics of armed self-defence impossible? There’s a shift to a much more marked Marxism really with Masai Hewitt coming in as the Minister of Education, following George Murray, and he brings in a much sharper Marxist position. Marx was always an important piece of the influence, I’d say if there was one ideological influence that was most important throughout then it was Malcolm X and Malcolm X’s idea of nationalism and this idea of taking care of the black community and doing it by any means necessary. If you look at Malcolm X’s program, I think his is 13 points but the 10 point program [of the Panthers] is drawn very closely from Malcolm X. Revolutionary Action Movement and Max Stanford, who’s much less known, is also very influential and both Bobby and Huey had worked with him; Robert Williams, obviously; Mao, I mean they’re selling the Little Red Book and it’s somewhat incidental early on but it certainly rubs off and it becomes key to their relationship with other constituencies. But it’s never a dogmatic Marxism for the Party as a whole and there are always important differences from moment to moment, leader to leader, from chapter to chapter.
OT The impression we get from the book regarding how gender and sexuality were conceived, constructed and experienced within the BPP is somewhat mixed. The history of the Panthers is full of strong, influential women like Elaine Brown and Ericka Huggins but it seems misogyny was commonplace, and activities and responsibilities remained highly gendered. You also mention that the BPP’s leadership became the first national black organisation to support gay rights. How genuine would you say these stances of the party were? How alive were these struggles within the Party? Was there an internal process whereby many Party members’ views and behaviours changed over time?
JB In a nutshell, people like to paint it in these stark caricature terms. Either the Party was sort of the “vanguard” of Women’s Liberation, Gay Liberation and was all about gender equality and pro-feminist and all these things. Or, the Party was, in Michele Wallace’s rendering, all about black macho and the degradation of black women and all these kinds of things. Neither of those is accurate. What’s actually clear is that the Party was growing out of a context and a milieu in which patriarchy was the water and the air! And continues to be today! All you have to do is open up the New York Times each day and see the white men in suits on the front page and the women in underwear on page 2 selling rings and perfume or whatever. The Black Panther Party was also imbued with a couple of particular kinds of patriarchy from the start. One, being rooted in the particular forms that gender relations took in black nationalism. So there were very strident kinds of patriarchy, for example in US organisation [cultural nationalist grouping contemporary to the BPP in California] when you think about Kwanzaa and Ron Karenga and stuff. Very strident nationalist gender politics there, much more so than the Party ever had. And particularly the way that the Party’s early liberation struggle was a gendered, masculinised freedom. This idea of the reassertion of black masculinity was pretty crucial to early Party politics. And most of the early Panthers, never all, but most of the first rounds of Party members and constituents were men. What happened was pretty quickly those gender dynamics, in terms of the composition of the Party, shifted first. So women became much more influential and by the time ‘69 comes around the Party’s growing in influence nationally and globally, women are doing most of the Party work and running not only the service programs but also running a lot of the most successful chapters and taking leadership positions and all kinds of things. And what happens is really driven by those women. The Party struggles over those issues [gender] in a very front and centre way from pretty early on. If you read the papers [the Party newspaper] from the first year, starting in ‘67 there are discussions about gender issues in a very diverse and eclectic but in-your-face way. Written by women, some by men, tangling with these issues about gender and so those discussions are ongoing and there are moments when they really burst out like with the July ‘69 United Front Against Fascism conference when a group of women organised and some of them ended up walking out and there are challenges to keynote speakers and all kinds of forceful interventions around gender. Huey Newton is always clear and becomes more and more clear that he sees gender oppression as a central form of oppression – now how well is that articulated in some coherent way? I don’t know that you could really say: ‘well here’s how you locate gender oppression vis a vis race and class oppression, etc. But those issues are entangled both in terms of organisational dynamics and in terms of broader struggle. So you think of the Civil Rights Movement as giving birth to many parts of the Women’s Movement but you look at some cities like New Haven [Connecticut] where the Ericka Huggins mobilisations were actually where the Women’s Movement in New Haven was born. It wasn’t born out of the Civil Rights Movement, it was born out of a solidarity organisation for Ericka Huggins [imprisoned Panther leader]. So there are very important political and direct organisational relations, there are important discussions, there are important questions about how gender plays out within the organisation with people on all sides of these issues and I don’t know that you can pin it down more than that. It was a very eclectic and live process where the question is given a fair amount of attention. I mean the Party officially endorsed and supported Gay Liberation, for example, way in advance of any major national black political organisation that I’m aware of.
OT Was there a sense of trajectory to the internal debates and discussions? Was there a sense that over the period of time that the Party’s at its height that these discussion are being won or lost, or that people’s minds are being changed?
JB It’s not black and white but there’s progress, for sure. There’s definitely progress. And I would say progress well in advance of the rate in society in general. Does that mean that there’s victory?! NO. But is there progress? Yes.
OT The Black Panther, the Party’s newspaper, played a central role in the movement. It provided information of relevance about local, national and international struggles. It was also used as a powerful propaganda tool against the state and for internal discipline within the Party (increasingly for its announcements of Party members being purged!) You mention in the book that its circulation reached 150,000. Could you tell us a bit about the paper: who made it, how it was organised, its regularity and how tightly controlled it was by the leadership? We are also interested in the role that images, graphics, posters and the iconic visuals of Emory Douglas played in the BPP’s self-representation and how this helped the BPP to communicate the struggle to a wider audience?
JB The newspaper was key because it allowed the Party, and was the vehicle through which the Party, really spoke for itself. The Party didn’t let anybody speak for it and saw itself as the legitimate representative of the black community and as part of this global movement against imperialism and both those kinds of identities were really reflected centrally through the newspaper. The newspaper was a key source of revenue, probably the key source of revenue, and it was also the way the Party presented itself to the world. And it wasn’t just nationally Party leaders or local Party members, there were all sorts of colourful and personal and individual eccentric stories. People just wrote – some of whom were barely literate and others who were very very literate – just wrote their own stuff and all of that went into the paper and images and stories, everything. So it was this place where the Party would express but also a place where a lot of the allies spoke, both international allies and domestic ones. So it was very rich.
OT The sheer extent of COINTELPRO infiltration, agents provocateurs and state-sanctioned murder of Panthers only became known years after the Party’s demise, though the campaign of vilification and repression by the US government was clear to Panthers at the time. Today in the UK, as in the US, the state is widening its conceptions of ‘extremists’ and ‘terrorists’, continuing to criminalise those who organise against state oppression – many groups can now find themselves caught up in the discourse of ‘extremism’ when acting against the arbitrary ideal of British or American ‘values’. How did the Panthers cope with the widespread propaganda offensive against them? To what extent did heavy state repression galvanise support for the BPP and was it state infiltration that was more damaging? What lessons should contemporary movements learn from state interference with the BPP?
JB You’re absolutely right, the infiltration was more damaging than the direct attacks. The more the state came head on, the more [the Party] grew support. And the more that the state could vilify the Party through agents provocateurs and infiltration, it was harder for the Party to resist those forms of repression. That said, I want to re-emphasise the basic dynamic by which the Party was able to grow its tremendous influence and that was that it created a politics that leveraged much broader political divisions between countries like Algeria, Cuba, China and Vietnam and the United States on the one hand, moderate black America and the US on the other, antiwar and draft resistance America and the US on a third. It developed a politics that leveraged all those cleavages in ways that the harder the state came, the more those other broader constituencies were threatened. So repression of every sort and any sort – you know, people saw through the provocateurs, people didn’t believe the state that Bobby Seale ordered the killing of Alex Rackley because the state was so clearly trying to crush the Party and that was so threatening to so many people. Those are the main lessons for today: it all comes down to practices that make ‘business as usual’ impossible in ways that when the state represses you, whether it’s infiltration and provocateurs or direct guns blazing repression, that repression is threatening to those broader constituencies and repression generates more mobilisation instead of de-escalation.