The Occupied Times
The Occupied Times (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. The following is the first part of this two-part interview.
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.
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” byStokely 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.
Part 2 to follow.
This interview was published at The Occupied Times.