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Mel 1 Gabriel Mel de Fontenay Farida Habeeb Writing 140 16 November 2012 Assignment #4 You Cant Judge a Group

by its Coverage: the Bad and the Good in the Policies and Programs of the Black Panther Party During the recent presidential election, Fox News devoted several minutes of airtime to a story about a New Black Panther Party member standing outside a Philadelphia polling place (Weinger 1). The anchors expressed fear and disdain for what was clearly voter intimidation, as Panther Jerry Jackson stood in some kind of semi-military stance outside the polling building (Election Headquarters). Undoubtedly, much of the fear over Jacksons votemonitoring comes from the popular perception of the old Panthers as violent, racist thugs. In reality, however, the Panthers were much more principled and agenda-driven than they are normally given credit for. Initially established by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale to combat police brutality, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense was, at first, a perfectly legitimate response to racism and police violence in America. Despite several drastic measures taken by the group, including armed police patrols and a call for state socialism, the Panthers were perfectly within their first amendment rights to peacefully advocate for social change. While the partys reputation was tarnished by several incidents of unprovoked and excessive violence, considering the partys whole history and agenda, the Black Panthers were mostly justified in their actions to address the racial problems of American society.

Mel 2 Although the Panthers Ten Point Program responded to racism and economic inequality by calling for several drastic programs, it did so peacefully, and so was legitimately protected by the first amendment. The Panthers outcries were justified - and predictable - in a time when, according to a Boise State University study, black household median income was approximately 60% of that of whites (Wolfe 2), thanks, as Huey Newton put it, to the U.S. governments robbery of blacks through slavery. Responding with one of its more radical proposals, the Ten Point Program advocates in point two what would amount to American socialism through full employment by the federal government, emphasising that it is the governments obligation to [guarantee] income... [for] every man [by taking] the means of production... and [placing them] in the community (qtd. in Austin 353). While the rhetoric is admittedly quite extreme, nowhere is violence endorsed as a means to effect change. Rather, this appeal would more accurately be described as political speech and a call for black community members to peaceably assemble to petition their government for a redress of grievances, all of which are specifically protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. In fact, although The Black Panthers criticize our democracy, their right to do so is fundamentally guaranteed by the principle of democracy: that every citizen should be allowed to express his opinion on his government; it would be inconsistent to restrict the Black Panthers democratic right to freedom of speech in the name of defending our idea of democracy. Therefore, while the proposals may, in the readers judgement, be unpopular or backward, their communication is a perfectly legitimate reaction to the failures of American society. Specifically addressing a major barrier to childrens education, the Black Panthers generously implemented the Free Breakfast for Children campaign that would feed poor children before school - an effective and appropriate effort in addressing child hunger, a problem of

Mel 3 economic inequality. Motivated by the saying, breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and recent studies showing that children who eat breakfast perform better in school, the Panthers set out to provide urban black youths with food that they otherwise could not afford or did not have time for. Starting in a single Catholic church in the Fillmore District of San Francisco, the program, according to the Black Panthers official website, eventually expanded to every major city in America where there was a Party chapter (www.blackpantherparty.org). At its largest, the program, with the help of the NAACP and church funds, fed several thousand hungry children before school every day (www.blackpantherparty.org). While the violent side admittedly, a very real side - of the Panthers received ample media attention, very little media recognition was given to the Free Breakfast Program, or, for that matter, to any of the over thirtyfive serve the people programs, as University of Colorado at Boulder ethnic studies professor Ward Churchill called them (Churchill 87), which included, according to the Journal of Negro History, free health clinics, Clothing and Shoe Programs, and the Buses to Prison Program (Harris 4). These unpublicized community efforts by the Panthers show a clear commitment to addressing the pressing issues in black communities through legal and peaceful strategies. While one may object to isolated incidents of unsanctioned Panther violence, and menacing, though non-violent, police patrols, there can hardly be any reasonable objection to the Panthers Free Breakfast campaign and the wide array of other service programs that formed the bulk of the Partys official action platform. These programs, administered and sustained by charitable interests, were a legitimate - and admirable - response to poverty, hunger, disease, and other social consequences of economic inequality in America. Unfortunately, economic difficulty was not the only problem facing blacks; there was still the issue of brutal police dominance and violence. In order to combat these abuses, the

Mel 4 Panthers Ten Point Program justifiably called for armed police patrols, an expressly defensive, and legal, strategy for preventing police abuse. Such a program was long overdue in a time when, according to Wayne State University political scientist Burton Levy, two thirds of the national black population felt that police brutality [was] a major cause of the civil disorder and nearly half of Detroits black population rated the police service as not good or definitely bad.... [referring] to anti-Negro discrimination and mistreatment by police (Levy 2). Subsequently, whenever a policeman made an arrest or questioned a member of the black community, several Panthers would gather with guns drawn to observe the officer. The Panthers, led by Newton, would yell to the brother or sister being questioned to inform them that they didnt have to give [the officer] anything but their name and address, and to other curious onlookers, you have a right to observe an officer carrying out his duty... as long as you stand a reasonable distance away, and you are a reasonable distance (qtd. in Austin 50). When a policeman would, understandably, question the Panthers about their guns, Newton would cite the Second Amendment and assure the officer, albeit rudely, that the guns were for self-defense. Although the patrols may be called drastic or radical, they were completely justified because Newton and the Panthers operated totally legally (the program was, in fact, inspired by Newtons discovery of the gun-wielding law during his law schooling). Even neglecting the programs impressive effectiveness, the police patrols were still worthwhile because they demonstrated an utmost respect for the law; contrary to what one might expect, the Panthers reacted to violence and racism with restraint, trusting in legal means to end the problem. This certainly challenges the popular picture of the Panthers as, according to the New York Times, gun-carrying Negroes who have... become the effective voice of the extreme militancy of Oaklands Negro slum (Turner 1) or as The Guardian put it, a group concerned only with the mindless use of guns to resist police

Mel 5 search warrants (Raphael 1). Hardly. In the calm and composed police patrols, the Panthers showed that they, in fact, preferred legal and peaceful strategies for social change. Although they did use strong, sometimes even provocative, language towards the police, their patrol program was an admirable and clearly legitimate strategy for ending police brutality because it showed strength and a willingness to follow the law. As the gun-banning Mulford Act was drafted in an attempt to reestablish police dominance, the Panthers saw their patrol program in danger and led an armed challenge of the bill at the California state assembly. Considering its ineffectiveness and lawlessness, this particular protest was illegitimate. In essence, the Panthers plan was to enter the Assembly chamber, rifles and shotguns drawn, and read a statement of dissent, in the hopes that the bill might be reconsidered by the senators and, perhaps more realistically, protested by a larger, nowalerted audience. Critically, unlike previous party operations, the Mulford protest was clearly and intentionally illegal. Furthermore, the Panthers ominous guns display was not meant to prove a point - only to intimidate. So on a purely legal basis, the protest was completely illegitimate. Unsound in principle, the act cannot be justified on practical grounds either: using the bad-done versus good-accomplished standard, it is clear that very little, if any, good was accomplished the Mulford Act was signed into law shortly thereafter - at the cost of law-breaking and the threat of violence. The bad heavily outweighs the good and therefore invalidates the act from a practical standpoint. To the credit of the Panthers, there may not have been a single effective option: thanks to fear created by what Ohio State University African American Studies professor Curtis J. Austin calls the medias exaggerated paramilitary image that portrayed the groups members as gun-toting thugs, influential senators had the Mulford Act on the floor of the assembly only a few months after the formation of the Party (Austin 89). However, the absence

Mel 6 of an effective option does not excuse the Panthers lawlessness; to the contrary, the lawlessness is worse in light of the fact that it accomplished no good. Not only did they break the law, but they failed to advance their cause and damaged their own public image. Therefore, the state assembly protest was an illegitimate and counterproductive reaction to the unfair Mulford Act. After the Mulford Act, police were once again capable of brutalizing black citizens unchallenged. Feeling powerless and bitter, Huey Newton finally took the Black Panthers antipolice sentiment too far in committing the violent murder of a police officer. While Panther supporters may argue that this was a deviant action by a single, radical individual, the fact that it was committed by a major BPP leader reflects badly on the party. Furthermore, Newtons recklessness offered a bad example for other Panthers who would inevitably find themselves in the same situation: stopped by a racist police officer. In Newtons case, the officer on duty was John Frey, a man, according to investigative journalist Hugh Pearson, known throughout West Oakland [and to Newton] for his extreme brutality toward blacks (Pearson 291). As Frey led Newton towards the police car, Newton took Freys gun and shot him, killing him. Although at first Newton maintained that he was innocent and was eventually released on a technicality, close friend Bob Trivers recalls that Newton was unabashedly proud of this [murder], calling himself The baddest nigger that ever walked,... because had killed a white police officer and gotten away with it (Pearson 291). Clearly, Newtons lawless display was completely contrary to the peaceful and goal-driven methods employed by the Black Panther Party - it illegally ended a problem of violence with more violence, heightening racial tensions and probably making the situation worse, not better. Moreover, his sick pride in the act affirms that it was no accident and set a dangerous precedent for future Panthers. Although it would be significantly worse if it were discovered that the murder was Party-planned and endorsed, Newtons illegitimate, unhelpful

Mel 7 actions as a leader and individual reflect badly on the party. Therefore, the Black Panther Party must be held partially responsible for an unjustified and unprincipled murder. Unfortunately, despite the serve the people programs and the legal police patrols, the ineffective Mulford protest and Newtons murder of John Frey - despite the bad and the good accomplished by the party - thanks to sensationalist media, the Black Panthers will be remembered only as destructive, aimless, and selfish bandits. While several violent outbursts on the part of a few Panthers certainly do undermine the Panthers legitimacy, they should not overshadow all of the good accomplished by the party. Indeed, many of todays activist groups would benefit from the application of Panther programs and insights, not the least of which was a dedication to concrete, simple, and legal solutions to real problems in the community, such as the police patrols and Free Breakfast for Children program, both of which accomplished incredible good for the black community. It is an unfortunate and all too common tragedy when history remembers only the good or only the bad in a group. Whats left often is a hollow and uninteresting picture not nearly so filled with the subtle lessons to be found in historys full complexity. We can learn far more - and be far more interested - if we force ourselves to study the whole man, the whole group, or the whole era, acknowledging, as Wilkie Collins did, that the best men are not consistent in good, and neither are the worst... consistent in evil (Collins).