One thing Doris Thompson’s analysis of Merritt College: Home Of The Black Panthers suggests is the importance of the law-book for the Panthers. According to Thompson, before the Panthers came along the miseducation of black folks promulgated by the school system kept many black folks ignorant of the laws that could theoretically be used to protect and defend their rights. If the Constitution grants a right for a well-regulated militia, the Panthers asked, could we make use of this law as white people are able to? Or will whites once again apply a racial double standard?
The government confirmed the double-standard in its war against the Panthers (while today’s white militias are often still granted government protection). If the government had decided to do away with the Second Amendment all together, their crackdown on the Panthers would have been at least part of a consistent policy. In the subsequent decades, it’s become clear that the government wasn’t afraid of black people with guns as much as they were afraid of organized black people with (unloaded) guns; they feared the well-regulated militia. This fear led them to infiltrate the organization to breed internal mistrust, and encourage black on black crime by any means necessary (as their Hollywood entertainment division pushed Blaxploitation in the 70s and Gangsta Rap since the 90s).
Meanwhile, the most vocal proponents of the right to bear arms today (such as the NRA and white supremacist groups) tend to ignore, or erase, the constitution’s requirement for a well-regulated militia, and argue that it’s a right of the individual; such an interpretation of the law of course leads to more crime in general (white-on-white as well as white-on-black crime). And, in retrospect, it’s clear that the Black Panthers understood the meaning of the second amendment more than today’s most vocal advocates of the right to bear arms. As the movie points out, crime rates decreased when the Panthers patrolled the police with their unloaded guns. Yet, this history is often erased and distorted.
Today’s schools, for the most part, still don’t teach the true meaning of the constitution just like they didn’t in the days before the Black Panthers. This is why—on the rare occasions they bring the Black Panthers up (which they usually don’t, unless pushed), they ignore the importance of the law book—that Huey and the others would read the officers their rights—which was ultimately more the point than the gun. For the Panthers, like Malcolm, understood the relationship between the Law and Brute Force, the Ballot and the Bullet.
In international diplomacy, it is understood that the threat of force can be an effective bargaining tool to bargain from a position of strength. Domestically, the Panthers asked: is the threat of the bullet (as opposed to the bullet itself) the only way to ensure that any victory at the ballot may mean anything? The Panthers put that question to the test and, alas, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that they, and, more broadly, the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s in general proved the large scale impotence of the ballot without some show of collective strength to back it up.
Today, the civil rights act and the voting rights act have been dismantled, and other powerful external forces have caused the fragmentation of the large scale show of strength and unity that characterized the struggles of the 50s and 60s. The lesson that many take from this is that the ballot won’t work, and the bullet won’t work either—so the question emerges—if neither the ballot nor the bullet can effectively unite the black community in the struggle against police brutality, The New Jim Crow and American Apartheid, what can? Certainly body-cameras on police, or even community policing will not be enough. Can boycotts still work? A collective show of strength through the community’s “spending power?” Would it be enough to establish worker owned collectives?
The Panthers had a comprehensive program of demands that understood the need for long-term systemic demands, starting with economics and the importance of education. They fought on many more fronts than patrolling the police. Today, these struggles continue, but they need to be coordinated with each other in a comprehensive program (so the anti-gentrification activists work together in a larger organization with the anti-police brutality activists, for instance—since the two are at root part of the same oppression). In retrospect, perhaps the most enduring legacy of the Panthers was their role as teachers—teachers who showed by doing—and what they have the power to teach is still a threat to the power structure.
Although in many ways the largely women-lead #BlackLivesMatter movement (as well as organizations like #Asians4BlackLives) have learned from the legacy of the Panthers, and speak to today’s issues more effectively, and there is much more to say and do, but I will end with a quote from Charles Hamilton, Stokely Carmichael’s collaborator on the Black power manifesto, from 1971 that I believe is still deeply relevant today: “For blacks to gain control of a significant portion of the electronic media would be the most important single breakthrough in the black struggle, and would justify every bit of time, talent and resources expended toward its achievement.” Today, blacks have even less control of the mass media than they did in 1971, and that is one reason why racism is as at least as bad today as it was then. The white-owned media has been very effective in creating racist stereotypes that often affect people on an unconscious level, and lead to an implicit justification of discriminatory government policies. The question is: how do we act to change this, beyond the ballot or the bullet?