Astrid Swan and Nick Triani see parallels with the here and now as they review Stanley Nelson Jr.’s important Black Panthers documentary.
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is an extraordinary documentary on the Black Panther Party that was formed by black activist youth in 1960s USA. It is a must-see right now. The film contextualizes the Black Panther Party, from its beginnings to its struggles, changes and its legacy. This film builds on archive material, oral histories, research and it interviews party members, historians, FBI agents and members of the US police force. The documentary weaves together the volatile political atmosphere of the 1960s in the US, and the African American experiences of violence and targeting, to show why and how the Party took form, but also to show its internal struggles and infiltration by the FBI.
This documentary deserves your attention now, because racist oppression is not a thing of the past. Not anywhere, especially in the US or European countries. And even though the context in Finland looks different, the problems with the police force and racism are acute and real. After seeing this documentary, I would love to know more about what happened in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s in black activism in the US and how the past relates to Black Lives Matter and the continuing police brutality in the US. I will be looking for this information, and hopefully there’s a documentary in the making.
This documentary deserves your attention now, because racist oppression is not a thing of the past.
What appears crucial to me after watching The Black Panthers is the multi-faceted set-up the Party had, because it had many different aims and strategies. The reputation and popular image of the Black Panther Party is that of very stylish gun-carrying black men who turned into violent, dangerous radicals. This image serves to dismiss the societal influence the party aimed to have. The reality is that the Party was much more than the stereotype or the image portrayed in Forrest Gump. There were loads of women as members and the Party started many community outreach projects that aimed at feeding and caring for black children, health care for adults and so on. The revolutionary organization was an activist movement and a collective, which was both an amazing thing and a strain when individual and different-minded leaders argued amongst each other. There was difficulty in establishing a structure due to individual members but largely due to government-lead infiltration and very public assassinations and incarceration of members.
I have been enjoying Rebecca Solnit’s – the by now quite old, yet once again timely book – Hope in the Dark (2003) about activism and its potential for societal change. She makes the great point that activism doesn’t have to aim at perfect results, complete change or a revolution whereby everything changes. Activism is important and very possible life-altering even when it appears to fail. Solnit writes: “The term ‘politics of prefiguration’ has long been used to describe the idea that if you embody what you aspire to, you have already succeeded. That is to say, if your activism is already democratic, peaceful, creative, then in one small corner of the world these things have triumphed. Activism in this model, is not only a toolbox to change things but a home in which to take up residence and live according to your beliefs, even if it’s a temporary and local place […]” (81). So, you know, I choose hope.
I’ve been consumed by the UK General Election that’s been slowly unfolding this last month or so. What’s been totally astonishing (but not really surprising to me), has been Jeremy Corbyn’s fight back, his repositioning of the Labour Party as the party of the people, free of neo-liberal dogma. If the Labour Party merely stop Theresa May’s dull and predictable government achieving dominance in parliament, it would be some kind of victory. Thursday will bare the truth if real progress has been made. But this UK election, fought against a backdrop of increasing terrorist incident, has brought out the anger festering beneath the surface of the British working people, a workforce that increasingly rely on foodbanks to feed themselves whilst under-funded social services can’t take the demand. In short, much against May’s supposed ‘steady hand’, a revolution is happening about the kind of discussion the UK needs to be having as regards its political process – and it’s happening during a general election. Like Bernie Sanders in the USA, Corbyn has reframed the political debate, taking it away from the spin doctors and returning instead a refreshing honesty to the discussion on how we should live and how the UK could be governed.
Of course, May’s Conservatives have stolen an opportunist march on the withering UKIP, and repositioned themselves as a right of centre nationalist party, heading the Brexit march to oblivion and using the kind of anti-foreigner rhetoric that so framed the Referendum campaign last year. Many Conservatives would not have noticed this subtle repositioning, but that is what they now represent. Racism, anti-muslim sentiment and good old-fashioned ‘blame the foreigner’ rhetoric remain prevalent. As this good cop/bad cop scenario plays out in the UK, Donald Trump condemns the world to more uncontrolled pollution, whilst using last weekend’s London terrorist attack as a new excuse to roll out his muslim travel ban (sigh). Meanwhile in Finland, diversity continues to be misrepresented and divisive. Among the usual white-wash it was a surprise to me that the online magazine Long Play published an article that revealed the Finnish police’s racial profiling practices. This last week has also felt like a repositioning of Finnish white male privilege online, at least amongst some of my friends on social media and the way they discuss diversity. Perhaps those ‘friends’ should listen here to get a better understanding of the challenges racialized people face even getting heard above the ‘white noise’. Sadly, these attitudes are inherent everywhere, and divisive talk and opinion goes so unchallenged in these ‘anything goes’ times.
Racism, anti-muslim sentiment and good old-fashioned ‘blame the foreigner’ rhetoric remain prevalent.
With such timing, watching Stanley Nelson Jr.’s Black Panthers documentary reveals what we’ve perhaps been missing in today’s landscape, a genuine militant, anti-establishment political outlet for black people. What Nelson’s documentary ably displays was a willingness for the Black Panthers to reach out to a black American community that was under the establishment kosh (literally) – and once that community was on board a relatively broad movement was born. Yes, it was violent, but the Black Panthers offered a genuine voice for black people at a time of unwarranted oppression – their Breakfast programme and other social initiatives were testament to this. As the party evolved it started to offer a powerful outlet for black women to express themselves (radical even for the late 1960s) – and basically those women from behind the scenes started running the party as many of the initial founders of the BPs ended up in prison, exiled or murdered. A variety of talking heads who were there talk us through the various incarnations and ultimate unraveling of the party. A combination of ego, police and government interference and drug problems ultimately brought the party to its knees. But Nelson shows us enough of how the Black Panthers (master media operators) not only infiltrated the mainstream and created a look to inspire a whole fashion conscious generation, but more importantly shook up the establishment. The Black Panthers cause was often blighted by unjustified violence. The police/FBI raid and shootout at Panther leader Fred Hampton’s Chicago home in 1969 is vividly recounted. But Nelson’s film also demonstrates how the movement eventually entered more conventional political routes – especially in trying to get founder Bobby Seale elected as Mayor of Oakland, California in 1973. The legacy of the Black Panthers – one that can be seen in the Black Lives Matter movement today – is that sometimes standing up to your oppressors with whatever means, even when all the talking is done – is the the only way to respond. Nelson’s film is a valuable and essential document of turbulent times and events that we sadly never seem to learn from.
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