Fear of a Black Panther

by The North Star on July 24, 2012

By Sam Anderson (in response to Louis Proyect’s “Party Building for the 21st Century“)

I think the FBI’s counter-intelligence program (COINTELPRO) terror campaign against the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP), Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and other progressive and revolutionary organizations was a little more complex than a simple response to a successful Panther’s free breakfast program.

Being one of the original founders of the post Lowndes County, Alabama Freedom Organization BPP in Harlem in the spring of 1966, I know first hand that FBI director Herbert Hoover’s (and hence, the U.S. ruling class’) intent was to destroy the growing organizing and education capabilities of young Black activists within the Black working class. Hoover (and his class sponsors) began to fear this development when SNCC initiated successful Freedom Schools in 1965 in the South (where they also offered a free breakfast).

In addition, by the summer of 1965, SNCC embraced Malcolm X’s understanding of the Viet Nam War and began to organize southern Black teens not to go into the military and the resist the draft. At the same time, SNCC began to build a political organization independent of the ruling class’s “liberal” facade called the Democratic Party. They had learned the harsh lessons of racism and ruling class collaboration the year before at the 1964 Atlantic City Democratic Party Convention.

So in 1965, SNCC leadership set out to enter electoral politics as an independent Black force and strategically chose Lowndes County, Alabama because of its majority Black populace. They chose the Black Panther as a powerful symbol to counter the Dixiecrats’ rooster. The symbol and their grassroots organizing work resonated with many young Northern Black activists, and we in NYC (in Harlem) were connected to SNCC (I was a member along with two other founders of the original BPP members in Harlem that Spring of 1966) and felt that we were extending the SNCC work in Alabama into a more urban and revolutionary Black nationalist way.

Please also note that from 1965 onwards one of the most feared-by-Hoover Black clandestine organizations had members within SNCC and helped form the Harlem BPP: the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM). This was another piece to the ramping up of COINTELPRO in 1966 and beyond.

The Panther breakfast program that evolved from this was a powerful threat to the policy of destabilizing Black communities through miseducation, the atomization of families, and police intimidation and terror. The breakfast program provided the following:

  • political/cultural education about Black folk, current events, and the world for young Black men and women.
  • young Black men and women who study, discuss and analyze as role models.
  • young Black men and women who are not fearful of police terror.
  • young Black men and women who respect each other (the struggle against sexism was an open and principled one).

Most Black adults supported the BPP, SNCC, Republic of New Africa, and the Nation of Islam. The support was wide-ranging, with most embracing the political and cultural discourse these groups were laying out. This was for

FBI fails to discredit King as a communist in an attempt to isolate him from the Black masses.

Hoover and his handlers another danger: the radical/progressive Black organizations and individuals were not disdained by the majority of ordinary Black folk despite the disinformation campaign.

But I go on too long here. Just remember this: the success of the Panther’s free breakfast program was just the tip of the Black radical iceberg that Hoover and the national security state knew existed. And they had to find a way of melting that iceberg and erase its historical existence.

Enter even more sophisticated pys-ops programs, the use of the media monopoly, and the grooming of two generations of petty-bourgeois black elected officials, poverticians, hustling preachers, and ebony-towered “negro” intellectuals fronting for their racist elite benefactors.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Ismael July 24, 2012 at 11:38 pm

Does mixing political organizing with the provision of basic services, like a breakfast, have a role to play today as part of a larger project of socialist renewal? If so, how? What would it look like?

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David Berger July 27, 2012 at 1:11 pm

Mixing political organizing with services does not work. You end up doing social work. I seriously question Sam Anderson’s statement that the FBI was afraid of the Panthers because of the free breakfast program and the attendant political activity.

My observations of Black Panther activity in the Sixties, when I worked with them in New York, has lead me to believe that there was far more PR than substance in the free breakfast program and that, with the possible exception of Oakland, the Panthers were never able to develop roots. This was because of their emphasis on various aspects of what was then called community organizating. The Panthers consciously and systematically avoided any serious commitment to working class organizing in the workplace, unlike other Black groups such as DRUM.

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Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp July 29, 2012 at 3:19 pm

It worked in Zuccotti Park.

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David Berger July 29, 2012 at 10:34 pm

With reamrks like that Binh, I thing you ought to take up a career as a comedian.

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Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp July 29, 2012 at 11:31 pm

The only thing funnier is your contention that the Panthers “were never able to develop roots.”

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David Berger July 30, 2012 at 6:14 am

Would you care to elaborate on how the Panthers were able to develop concrete, working roots in the Black community. I’m not talking about sympathy or interest, I’m talking about organized groups capable of taking or leading actions over a period of time.

I had direct contact with the Panthers in New York. As far as I know, they were never able to organize an ongoing group that had any connection with the Black community. They led and/or organized no actions that I know of.

Do not confuse popularity, notoriety or PR with actual leadership.

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Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp July 30, 2012 at 6:13 pm

Oh you mean like Occupy?

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Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp July 30, 2012 at 11:46 am

Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt also combine politics and services very effectively.

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David Berger July 30, 2012 at 9:07 pm

If you are trying to compare Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood with the Black Panthers, you definitely need to consider a career in stand-up.

But to take the issues seriously, providing services in the community is a dead end for revolutionaries. The Panthers got nowhere with it, nor did any other community organizing group. What ends up is that you “provide services” for people, who then treat you as a source of those services rather than as revolutionaries. Does anyone really believe that the Panthers recruited or mobilized with their free breakfast program?

For a White program, google ERAP. I was involved in the rent strikes organized in NYC in the mid-60s. What we ended up being is lawyers and advocates for tenants. The organization was CORE and we were not even able to recruit to CORE, which was far from revolutionary that way.

As to Occupy, if anyone thinks that Zuccotti Park was a successful revolutionary example, one to be duplicated, I suggest they go out and try it.

David Berger

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Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp July 31, 2012 at 12:21 am

I never compared MB, Hezbollah, and the BPP. I merely gave examples of where combining politics with services has worked to create real roots among the oppressed and exploited. Perhaps it’s something Egypt’s Revolutionary Socialists could learn to do in their work; thus far they have not been able to spread their influence far and wide and their membership has hovered around 1,500 or so for the past 1-2 years.

It’s funny that you think Zuccotti was some sort of failure given that the OWS Labor Outreach Committee you are part of wouldn’t exist without it. Clearly they did something right.

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David Berger July 31, 2012 at 11:34 am

Your phrase was: “Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt also combine politics and services very effectively.” implies that the Panthers could have imitated them or should have, but let’s let that drop.

I think that Zuccotti was a failure if you think that it provided some kind of combination of politics and services. Politically, it was a success. As a provider of services, it was dependent on “the kindness of strangers” to make donations and lasted two months.

And, since you bring it up, the Labor Outreach Committee does descend from Zuccotti and wouldn’t exist without it and is an ongoing success. At some point, you’re going to have to justify your titular references to the OWS Class War Camp, which apparently has not met for months, has no listserv, does not seem to have a decision-making structure and exists solely to support a radio broadcast on WBAI at 3:00 AM once a week. (The last show I listened to featured a drunken poet, which is not a common notion of a class warrior.)

David Berger

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Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp August 28, 2012 at 12:22 pm

“(The last show I listened to featured a drunken poet, which is not a common notion of a class warrior.)”

The RSDLP’s Pravda newspaper almost always had poems (http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2011/07/16/bolshevik-newspapers-myth-and-reality/) and plenty of their workers got drunk and sang revolutionary songs.

If your idea of a revolutionary movement is one where people spend all their time in meetings arguing about the wording of statements and how many times to make reference to “the working class,” count me out.

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David Berger August 28, 2012 at 12:30 pm

Frankly, Binh, you can justify what you’re doing all you want. But as far as anyone I know of in OWS is concerned, the Class War Camp no longer exists. When do you meet? How do you decide what is to be on your radio show. Do you have a listserv?

During the lock-out of the Con Ed workers, surely an example of class war, did you cover it on your show? I hope you did? Are you covering the ongoing struggles in the CWA, the TWU, the Laundry Workers Labor Center, etc.?

My idea of a revolutionary movement involves, among other things, active participation in class struggle. I’m not aware, for example, that the Labor Outreach Committee of OWS, which you once derided as a “red ghetto,” spends much time on wording of statements, etc. It spends most of its time being involved in the struggles that you seem to be avoiding.

David Berger

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Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp August 28, 2012 at 1:48 pm

Folks from CWC were at the Union Square rally under the Occupy banners and participate in CWA and other solidarity actions. Just because you didn’t see it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

CWC is not a democratic centralist group where everything individual members do is argued about, debated, voted on, and then strictly implemented by all members.

I’m certainly not about to disclose all the ins and outs of CWC to someone who continually makes hostile comments about topics and initiatives he knows nothing about. You’ll have to build a better relationship with someone else in CWC. Good luck with that.

Active participation in the class struggle requires that we not limit ourselves to the Labor Outreach Committee, which is what you advocate. If every socialist in OWS dropped what they were doing and joined LOC, then yes, it would be a red ghetto. That’s not deriding what LOC does, it’s deriding the strategy you advocate. Big difference.

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David Berger August 29, 2012 at 1:19 am

Pham Binh: Folks from CWC were at the Union Square rally under the Occupy banners and participate in CWA and other solidarity actions. Just because you didn’t see it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

David Berger: A few people showing up at a rally, without identifying banners, literature, etc., is hardly class war. In addition, how was the decision to participate made? Did you call a meeting and vote on it? DId you discuss it online? Also, was the Class War Camp part of the organizing of the various labor rallies this summer? Meetings and phone conferences took place between union people, community organizations and OWS? Were you there?

Pham Binh: CWC is not a democratic centralist group where everything individual members do is argued about, debated, voted on, and then strictly implemented by all members.

David Berger: Neither is the Labor Outreach Committee, so why bring it up? And, since you brought up voting, do you have something against an alleged part of OWS voting on its own policy and actions?

Pham Binh: I’m certainly not about to disclose all the ins and outs of CWC to someone who continually makes hostile comments about topics and initiatives he knows nothing about. You’ll have to build a better relationship with someone else in CWC. Good luck with that.

David Berger: So you’re on record as being willing to exclude a fellow member of OWS from you meetings. Now that’s what I call Marxism.

Pham Biunh: Active participation in the class struggle requires that we not limit ourselves to the Labor Outreach Committee, which is what you advocate.

David Berger: Learn to read or make up a better fantasy. I have never advocated that.

Pham Binh: If every socialist in OWS dropped what they were doing and joined LOC, then yes, it would be a red ghetto.

David Berger; But that hasn’t happened, so why bring it up. Socialist members of LOC are involved in many activities besides OWS.

Pham Binh: That’s not deriding what LOC does

David Berger: No, it’s distorting what it does.

Pham Binh: it’s deriding the strategy you advocate. Big difference.

David Berger: Since you’ve distorted what I’ve written, what difference does it make. I still maintain that the Class War Camp does not seem to exist as a functioning organization in any manner that can be recognized. It does not seem to hold meetings, does not seem to engage in democratic decision making and does not seem to engage in collective action.

Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp August 14, 2012 at 11:54 am

SYRIZA apparently also runs kitchens as part of its political work:
http://socialistworker.org/2012/08/14/syriza-builds-for-the-future

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Arthur July 28, 2012 at 1:29 am

I’m not sure either way. I cannot see how it would work at the moment, but as we head into a major depression people end up having to organize various “survival” activities and that needs to be linked with political organizing.

One feature of the eclipse of the left in advanced countries is that it initially organized a wide network of support and survival activities including health and unemployment insurance, consumer and producer coops as well as trade unions, tenants organizations, sports and social clubs, libraries etc. Later these either developed into a bureaucratic apparatus (eg huge German Social Democratic Party) and/or were coopted funded and ultimately incorporated by the state (modern welfare state with mass pauperization dependent on state assistance seen as “socialist” rather than product of moribund capitalism as predicted and described by Marx in Capital).

Certainly organizing that stuff didn’t solve the problem – ie the Social Democrats became a bourgeois party. But neither has not organizing it solved anything.

Its interesting that some of the islamist movements like Hezbollah and Muslim Brotherhood have a mass base closely related to this sort of work.

Anyway we have to end up being able to organize production in large scale industry. Learning how to organize productive activities on a small scale ought to assist in that orientation (though of course there will also be efforts to use such energies as a distraction and substitute from taking political power and control of large scale industry).

Greenies are often keen on vegetable gardening and the like. It would be important to figure out how to shift their orientation to one of contributing to productive activities that are part of a movement for taking power in a modern industrial society rather than their current desire to escape from modern industry towards a “simpler” lifestyle (wasting peoples lives on primitive production techniques instead of celebrating the elimination of useless work).

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David Berger August 14, 2012 at 12:33 pm

In my opinion, co-ops, producer or consumer gardens, etc., have little or nothing to do with revolutionary politics. As I’ve stated elsewhere, you end up doing social work, and you do not recruite. The Panthers, contrary to myth, did not recruit from their free greakfast programs.

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Luz March 13, 2013 at 1:37 pm

Herbert Hoover was never the director of the FBI… I think you mean J. Edgar.

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[email protected] January 25, 2014 at 11:45 pm

The devotion, the strength, and the sacrifice of the Black Panthers will always be appreciated by me. Their programs and community activism will always be respected by me. Their actions and their courage are appreciated by me too. I salute their legacy as a Black Brother.

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