Review of “Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party”

Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party by Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin is the first deep archival work that truly showcases the Black Panthers brief but pivotal role in the African-American freedom struggle, the black power movement and the New Left movements in America. While the Panthers were only an effective political machine for a mere four years, this account shows how and why they were able to attract so many under its banner despite being intensively repressed by the FBI and there being a variety of other organizations which politically radical blacks could join.

The opening chapters provide an on the ground account of the Oakland /Bay Area political and cultural scene through Bobby Seale’s and Huey Newton’s engagement with them. The organizations that would influence and be influenced by the Panthers included black nationalists, U.S. socialists, third-world communists, cultural uplift organizations, New Left groups and the government through the form of social work programs. It was their militant anti-imperialism that separated them from other organizations. Following Malcolm X’s views that the U.S. police force was akin to the troops of a colonial empire, they organized patrols to monitor the police’s activity in the community while openly armed and actively courted the “brother on the street” to become involved. At this time the organization was called the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, a name that would be shortened following the expansion of social services provided and their rapid expansion into cities with large black populations.

I found it amusing that one of the Party’s early and vehement supporters mentioned several times in the book is Bob Avakian – the not yet founder of the Revolutionary Communist Party. More interesting yet is the descriptions of the organizational conflicts brought about after the Party’s spread following the California Courthouse Incident. The extensive archival work depicts a variety of factors constraining and supporting the party’s goals – be it police suppression and infiltration, or the coalition style politics that was able to support their goals.

Some of the more interesting things revealed to me in the book was the existence of an organization similar to the one that Happy runs in Unraveling in Chicago. In the chapter on the State’s assassination of Fred Hampton the authors describe the existence of a militant gang that also offered some social services and had members that would adjudicate conflict between members extra-judicially. They describe a scene wherein Fred Hampton tries to talk to their leader in an attempt for them to merge. As the FBI had started a rumor that the Panthers were going to kill their leadership if they didn’t join the tense scene of around 100 armed and militant gangsters coming into what was supposed to be an amiable meeting is very dramatic.

The closing chapters describe the changing national and international dynamics that lead to the decline of the Panthers. On the international scene the countries that had previously recognized the Party – anti-colonialist, revolutionary, socialist governments – soon adjusted their policies to engage with the United States Government. China, which had once welcomed the Panthers as a proto-government, soon broke off discussions with them. Cuba, which had spoken of using farms their nation as a training ground for revolutionary fighters and supported consciousness raising activities such as radio shows and publication of books such as Negroes with Guns, soon drastically limited the ability of those seeking shelter – such as Assata Shakur – so that the relationship with the United States would be better. Same so for Algeria, which had one seen itself and acted as if it were the leader of pan-African revolutionary movements but then had to deal with the more banal activities of governing.

Additionally much of the impetus for liberal coalitions to support the organization was taken away as the government started to concede a number of the demands of the Panthers. As the number of young Americans getting drafted fell dramatically, the numbers of those dying in Vietnam fell and the beginning of Nixon’s policy of “Vietnamization” – or turning responsibility for fighting primarily over to the South Vietnamese – those in the Anti-Draft Camp started to back off. As the government started to institute quotas for government hiring and black unemployment decreased, criticism of the state as explicitly racist became more difficult.

Lastly the split between Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver was of a quality that made it difficult for current members want to stay in and outside members not to view as cause for delegitimization as a movement. Party debates are one thing, but the rhetoric turned to broad purges and internecine assassinations between the Newton/Cleaver cliques. Rather than debate the merits of Social Democratic politics, advocated by Newton, versus forming an insurgency, advocated by Eldridge, Netwon’s expulsions of those against his position inflamed tensions. This is likely because a number of the high ranking members that had been supporting Newton’s release through a wide variety of actions now saw their work as towards someone that they now fundamentally disagreed with.

After the Party has been dismantled, there is a brief account of Newton’s new life as an Oakland Mafioso. While the book clearly is focused on the Panther’s, given that Free Huey! was an international slogan and major pursuit of the rank and file membership I would have liked to have learned a little more about this. I recognize the author’s claim that those who have fixated on it seem to extend Tom Wolfe’s criticism ex-post facto in such a way as to delegitimize the Panther’s in some fashion, but I am more interested in it as a case of what sort of enterprises are formed when political aspirations are difficult to form – a la the Chicago gang mentioned earlier.