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Walking With a Panther: Reflections on the Black Panther Party for Self-defense

The ingrained critical thinking skills and deep cultural analysis that were part and parcel of ‘political education’ aspects of Black Panther training; looking for the bigger picture and the story behind the appearances of what we see.

Walking With a Panther: Reflections on the Black Panther Party for Self-defense

Brother Tarik Haskins will never wish for Wakanda’s warm welcome. He has his reasons, as an original Black Panther, for not being a fan of the Marvel movie’s mania. While many take the film at face value, Haskins ponders its subliminal messages.

“I was shocked at the movie… It opened up with a fratricidal scene,” says Haskins. “There’s a scene where the Black Panther hooks up with a CIA agent and they’re going to take down this bad guy who stole the vibranium… But the CIA, they are heading up the programs to carry out genocide against Black people and so there’s no hooking up between a Black Panther and the CIA, the people who are killing us… Stan Lee studied Black history extensively.”

Haskins’s mindset is not merely conspiracy theorist paranoia, but indicative of the ingrained critical thinking skills and deep cultural analysis that were part and parcel of ‘political education’ aspects of Black Panther training; looking for the bigger picture and the story behind the appearances of what we see.

“Political Education classes were key to everything,” says Sadiki Ojore Olugbala, aka Brother Shep. While many people think of leather jackets, black berets and shotguns, Shep remembers books. Panthers were required to read three hours a day. “Part of that time was reading from Mao Tse-Tung’s [The Little] Red Book, a lot of it was studying [Frantz] Fanon,” says Shep. “We would analyze all of that.” They were also required to study everything in The Black Panther newspaper and view movies such as The Spook Who Sat by the Door and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.

Shep recalls being told to read about ‘dialectical materialism’ during his studies. While looking for larceny in a comic book film may seem extreme to some, the power of symbolism is every serious. “Basically with dialectical materialism, it taught you how to analyze everything in your environment,” says Shep.” Utilizing this revolutionary mindfulness, eating at a restaurant becomes a meditation on where the food comes from, why and how the establishment has been set up and for what ultimate agenda. “Everything you look at, you analyze it and make that connection to how the oppressor utilizes that to stay in control.”

When a 19-year-old Shep joined the Black Panther Party in 1973, it was indicative of the zeitgeist. The United States was bombing Vietnam, there were wars of liberation raging in Africa, and Black Power and Black Nationalist consciousness was everywhere from the movie screens to the streets. “The cultural and political climate was about struggle,” says Shep. “The music was key. You’d hear The Last Poets if you turned on the radio. You could hear Gill Scott Heron if you turned on the radio. And even the popular R&B groups, like The Temptations, people like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, they all were talking about struggle, about politics. The Chi-Lites, everybody had a song… The clothing was revolutionary… dashikis, afros, cornrows… we still made our own medallions with the Black Power fist and the red, black and green. All of that was going on during that particular time.”

In New York City, it was also a pivotal period in youth culture where street organizations formed in opposition to racial oppression and aggression were coming together in major alliances; Black Spades, Ghetto Brothers, Black Pearls, Peacemakers, Savage Skulls, Savage Nomads, Golden Javelins. “They all came together to deal with the White gangs who eventually surrendered and put their colors away,” says Shep. “Unfortunately, after the wars with the White boys, people started fighting each other, but it was a different thing, it was about protecting the community. So, Black Power was still talked about and still seen.”

Returning to the theme of education, it was a book that ultimately convinced Shep to join. “I joined the party after finding out what it was about. We were young. We were told that, even those of us that were in street organizations, you don’t want to deal with the Panthers… those mothaphuck*s are crazy. They shoot and kill cops! But I did some reading in general. In particular, I read a book called Look for Me in the Whirlwind, which was a collective autobiography of the Panther 21 [a group of New York Panthers, including Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur, arrested in 1969 and charged with multiple conspiracies] and… I ran into some Panthers in that book who lived in my neighborhood, so I automatically associated with that.”

Shep obtained a copy of The Black Panther newspaper and wrote to the central headquarters in Oakland stating that he wanted to reopen the then defunct Black Panther office in Harlem on 122nd street and 7th Avenue. Shep did not know that two years earlier, in 1971, there had been a violent political split in the party. He reported to “Seize the Time Records and Books,” a Panther outfit on 96th and Broadway, and joined what was known as the Huey P. Newton faction. The other faction, known primarily as the Black Liberation Army, was mainly underground.

Haskins recalls his 1971 initiation into the Party, during the split: “I heard about the Black Panthers while I was in the military… and said that once I got out, I would get in touch with them. So as soon as [that happened] I went to one of the offices.” The office was in a pool room on Brooklyn’s Dekalb Avenue and Haskins received quite a memorable membership entry. “The day that I knocked on the door and a brother named Raheem answered, a police helicopter pulled up in the middle of the street about rooftop level and took our picture. That was my introduction to the Black Panthers… The police got out on the [helicopter] rail and took our picture.”

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense emerged in October of 1966 inspired by the Black Nationalist, Pan-Africanist and armed resistance spirit of the teachings of El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz [Malcolm X]. Its founders, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, adopted the Black Panther imagery promoted by Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leader and Black Power proponent, Stokely Carmichael [Kwame Ture] and organized against police brutality utilizing armed street patrols. They created a 10-point platform of their ideals and objectives and began a quest for the socio-economic and political freedom of oppressed and primarily Black people.

Although in Spring of 1966, under the auspices of SNCC, the Black Panther imagery was utilized in New York by community-based activists focused on education equality, a chapter with official connections to the party in Oakland did not occur in New York until 1968. That year, the name of the organization was shortened to The Black Panther Party and membership significantly increased after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., which caused dissatisfaction in the Black community with non-violent philosophy. Membership reportedly peaked in 1970 before declining in no small measure due to incessant orchestrated attacks from the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.

“We saw, obviously, in the wake of the Nixon era, after the party had mostly been neutralized, that they were right to be paranoid and to call into question the violence of the state. They were absolutely right,” says author and educator Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a professor of history, race and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. “We moved from the Nixon era to the Reagan era to the era of Clinton, building the biggest prison system the world has ever known, which was itself an anti-Black radical project. It wasn’t just in the name of the war on crime and the war on drugs. It was a war on dissent, and a war on poor people to question a nation that systematically gave privileges to the affluent and White, and withheld them from the Black and Brown.”

It was a very troubling time. “I joined right in the middle of the split when we were being hunted and killed,” says Shep. The FBI’s COINTELPRO program to neutralize the Party had done its work so effectively that Panthers did not only have to be wary of law enforcement, they had to be on point against Panthers on the other side of the split. “Huey had hit squads that were killing Panthers because he got into the drug thing. The FBI was in all of this; CIA too. They were in everything.” Shep was responsible for distributing The Black Panther newspaper throughout the east coast. He also organized students at Hunter College, effectively utilizing the Black student union as a proxy for the Black Panther Party. Distributing the paper was quite a task as it was sabotaged by both the authorities and opposing factions of the Black Panther Party. But there was always joy along with the pain. During the struggle, Shep says that it was the love of the people that kept him going.

That love lasts to this very day. A writer walked with these Panthers in October of 2018 during a tour of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture’s Black Power! exhibit. It was interesting to see the faces of an entire room of young Black teenagers light up when they learned that original Black Panthers were right in front of their eyes. The impact the Black Panther Party has had is immense. Muhammad, a former director of the Schomburg, thinks the legacy of the Black Panther Party is holding up pretty well: “We have so much wonderful scholarship on the party that moves it out of the critique by mostly White journalists who saw it as a corruption of the Civil Rights movement’s heroic nonviolent leadership—like Dr. King—and that was always a false narrative. The most iconic images of Black men with guns challenging open-carry laws and police brutality in California were short-lived stages of the Black Panther Party.”

Indeed, the most enduring legacy of the Black Panther Party, aside from its emphasis on education, were the social programs it created. “They were feeding the people and the breakfast program came out of that,” says legendary poet, historian and educator Abiodun Oyewole of The Last Poets. “[FBI Director] J. Edgar Hoover went ballistic; he said, ‘Well, that’s the most dangerous thing they could do is feed the people, feeding the people means that they will have the people’s ears and hearts and minds.’” Oyewole had personal connections to the party as an inspiration to them and in addition to utilizing the Black Panthers as security, Oyewole’s fellow Last Poet, Felipe Luciano, was a founder of the Black Panther-inspired Young Lords Party in New York.

In addition to the free children’s breakfast programs, the Panthers set up health clinics, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, after-school programs and sickle-cell disease testing. Some of these programs, such as health clinics and breakfast programs for children, were adopted by the government without credit to the Panthers as the genesis of the initiatives. The Black Panther Party popularized wellness as a matter of social justice to an extent that still influences public health policy to this very day.

Muhammad cites the unifying work of Fred Hampton in Chicago and how his early “rainbow coalition” united Blacks, Whites, Chicanos and Puerto Ricans “as a way of challenging a repressive state apparatus both in Chicago and across the nation.” He also speaks about the role of women in the party. “The party itself, as complicated as it was, did have Kathleen Cleaver and Elaine Brown and Ericka Huggins, significant Black female leadership, which often gets minimized in critiques of the party’s hyper-masculinity. It was more of a both/and than an either/or.”

The Black Panther party impacted all strata of society, from the disenfranchised ghetto dwellers to Hollywood elites and rock star entertainers. “There were a couple of instances where [Jimi] Hendrix exposed us to his knowledge of The Black Panther Party and his respect, for that matter, for The Black Panther Party,” says “Ghettofighter” Taharqa Aleem, a longtime Hendrix associate and collaborator. “There was one scenario where we were walking together and we were approached by someone selling The Black Panther newspaper and Jimi was very excited about getting a copy.” Aleem says that he and his late twin brother, Tunde-Ra, then known as the Allen Twins, were very street-oriented at the time and Hendrix helped hip them to other realities with how he interacted with the Black Panthers.

“To a certain degree, he opened our mind to the political situation at the time,” says Aleem. “He was very aware of it and he purchased a paper.” While Hendrix purchased a paper, the twins did not. They queried Hendrix about his interest, whereupon he expressed his insights and admiration. “Hendrix was definitely conscious of it and as a matter of fact [the Panthers] even approached him later on to do a concert, [which] he did at Manhattan Center,” says Aleem. Hendrix performed several songs at the Manhattan Center Black Panther benefit concert in 1969. He showed further commitment to the Black community with a Harlem street corner concert September of that year at 139th Street and Lenox Avenue.

The New York Chapter of The Black Panther Party was also involved in the music industry through its affiliated Fair Play Committee. Aleem recalls working with the committee and him and his brother’s dealings with Mookie Jackson, a conscious man with street connections who was part of orchestrating the committee as well as Hendrix’s Manhattan Center concert. “Their objective was to open up opportunities for Black entrepreneurs in the music industry. At that time, we were not getting any response from radio stations. Radio stations were catering to major companies,” says Aleem. “Fair Play Committee was committed to dealing with that matter and reversing the policies… We were able to turn that situation around, getting a lot of the major radio stations that were in our community to play independent music.”

Aleem also articulates that the Black Panther Party served as a gateway consciousness to many, inspiring them to pursue various degrees of enlightenment. “People who were being exposed to the Black Panther Party and what they were doing. I think that bought a spiritual and political consciousness that ultimately led to decisions that had to be made; decisions we weren’t thinking about in the past.” Aleem says they changed street hustlers with a savage mentality into more culturally aware and productive members of Black society. “They made us more politically savvy, more conscious of what should be done for the community, what is being done to the community, what’s important and what is not.” That level of awareness inspired the Aleems to seek out the Nation of Islam and eventually the priesthood and God consciousness of ancient Egyptian or Kemetic sciences.

Today Shep and Tarik continue the work of The Black Panther Party in their activism fighting for the rights and release of Panther political prisoners held a half a century later in America’s correctional facilities. Many former Panthers are still rotting away in prisons, subject to medical neglect and iatrogenic practices at the hands of what Shep calls ‘quack doctors.’ The duo organizes anti-police terror campaigns and advocate community control over law enforcement. They seek to connect with the youth and bring the political awareness and cultural consciousness embedded within them to the street organizations of today. They work under the auspices of the Universal Zulu Nation, advancing Panther principles in a similar fashion to how Shep operated out of Hunter in the past. They see culture as a revolutionary weapon and their International Hip Hop for Humanity project organizes touring performers to educate, uplift and empower utilizing the creative arts. The initiative intends to make a unifying appearance in Cuba in the summer of 2019.

While “Wakanda Forever” may be a popular slogan, the Black Panther Party’s impact is arguably just as enduring.  “The legacy of so much of the self-help and community-based work has reemerged today as the basis of the movement of Black Lives, which shares in so much of their policy platform with the tenets of the Black Panther party and their fundamental commitment to community-based leadership as the starting point for policy and change,” says Muhammad. “They also learned, these young activists today, how to disrupt the toxic masculinity and patriarchy of the Black Panther Party… They’re borrowing, and have learned from the Black Panthers… That movement remains a cornerstone of social movement-building in the 21st century.”