Wednesday, January 16, 2013


'In October of 1966, in Oakland California, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The Panthers practiced militant self-defense of minority communities against the U.S. government, and fought to establish revolutionary socialism through mass organizing and community based programs. The party was one of the first organizations in U.S. history to militantly struggle for ethnic minority and working class emancipation — a party whose agenda was the revolutionary establishment of real economic, social, and political equality across gender and color lines'.1

>>The Panthers' ten-point plan, 'What We Want' can be found here.

The Breakfast Program
This free breakfast for school children program was set up in Berkeley 1968 by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton. It was the first significant communty program organised by the Panthers, and perhaps the most significant.

After a few months spreading to churches, community centres and auditoriums in Berkeley, San Francisco and Oakland, it was announced that the program would be set up across the US.

The Breakfast Program has already been initiated in several chapters, and our love for the masses makes us realize that it must continue permanently and be a national program. But we need your help and that means money, food, and time. We want to turn the programs over to the community, but without your efforts and support we cannot.“
- The Black Panther, 19692

Serving Broadly
By the end of 1969 free breakfast was served in 19 cities, under the sponsorship of the national headquarters and twenty-three local affiliates. More than 20.000 children received full free breakfast (bread, bacon, eggs, grits) before going to their grade or junior high school.3 While programs operated in predominantly black neigbourhoods, the program also fed children of other groups, even operating in a partly middle-class neigbourhood in Seattle. It was also used to raise public consciousness about hunger and poverty in America, and the importance of nutrition for learning.
[there are] millions of people who are living below subsistence; welfare mothers, poor white people, Mexican-Americans, Chicano peoples, Latinos, and black people.“

- Bobby Seale4

The breakfasts often started off in churches, and spread into community centres and schools. The aim was to eventually hand over the programs to the communities.
"Black preachers have got to stop preaching about a kingdom in the hereafter which is a “land flowing with milk and honey” ... We must deal with concrete conditions and survival in this life! The Black Panther Party .. has merely put into operation the survival program that the Church should have been doing anyway. The efforts of the BPP are consistent with what God wants."
- Father Earl Neil, Episcopal Church prist of Oakland.5

Donations and funding
In their early Marxist period, the BPP went from taking a purist stance against taking donations from black capitalists to a more pragmatic approach.

Donations for the program, which cut into small profit margins, was achieved through the goodwill of businesses, but also some measure of pressure or even coercion: leafletting and threats of boycott.

This program is run through donations of concerned people and the avaricious businessmen that pinch selfishly a little to the program. We say that this is not enough, especially from those that thrive off the Black Community like leeches. All of the avaricious businessmen have their factories etc. centered in our communities and even most of the people that work in these sweat shops are members of the oppressed masses.“
The Black Panther, 19696

BPP tried to recruit welfare mothers, grandmothers, and guardians in the black community, to prepare and serve breakfasts. It was organized and run primarily by the members of the BPP.

One woman who volunteered at St. Augustine Episcopal Church breakfast program remembered,
I didn't know the people in the room. I got off on just washing dishes... because to me it was so invigorating just to be part of it. It was so uplifting“7

The Breakfast Program was also used to raise public consciousness about hunger and poverty in America, and the importance of nutrition for learning. The program was also used to teach children the philosophies and practices black liberation and class struggle. On example was the use of the 'Black Child's Pledge':

I pledge allegiance to my Black People.
I pledge to develop my mind and body to the greatest extent possible.
I will learn all that I can in order to give my best to my People in their struggle for liberation.
I will keep myself physically fit, building a strong body free from drugs and other substances which weaken me and make me less capable of protecting myself, my family and my Black brothers and sisters.
I will unselfishly share my knowledge and understanding with them in order to bring about change more quickly.
I will discipline myself to direct my energies thoughtfully and constructively rather than wasting them in idle hatred.
- Shirley Williams8

Community embeddedness
The original vision of the Party was to develop a lifeline to the people by serving their needs and defending them against the oppressors, who come to the community in many forms, from armed police to capitalist exploiters. We knew that this strategy would raise the consciousness of the people and also give us their support. Then if we were driven underground ... the people would support us and defend us.“
Huey P. Newton

From Serve the People Programs to Survival Programs
The BPP eventually founded more than 60 different Serve The People Programs (called Survival Programs from 1971). Many of these programs were outgrowths of the party's exposure to pressing needs of community residents when feeding poor children.

  • Sustenance
    • People's Free Clothing Program
    • Free Shoes Program
    • Clothes donations for school kids and teenagers.
  • Health
    • Free medical clinics
    • Community Health Classes
    • Drug/Alcohol Abuse Awareness Program
    • The People's Sickle Anemia Reasarch Foundation9
  • Criminal Justice
    • Free Bussing to Prisons program
    • Free Commisary for Prisoners
    • Legal Aid education
    • Free legal assistance.
  • Education
    • Liberation schools
    • Black Student Alliance
    • Child Development Center10

Guerrilla vanguard and community service
„They're not reform programs; they're actually revolutionary community programs. A revolutionary program is one set forth by revolutionaries, by those who want to change the existing system to a better system. A reform program is set up by the existing exploitative sustem as an appeasing handout to fool the people and keep them quiet“ 
- Bobby Seal
The programs ... are meant to meet the needs of the community until we all can move to change social conditions that make it impossible for the people to afford the things they need and desire.“
- BPP official

Arguably the strenght of the BPP was to combine militant, and often armed, political work with community service. In effect the BPP formed a state within the state providing welfare and security where the US government failed or refused to engage. But the strenght of the BPP was also its latent weakness under pressure, when priorities had to be made, and when different models of organzing started to clash.

The members of the BPP are oxens to be ridden by the people' getting up at 6AM to prepare breakfast.“
Huey Newton

The Black Panther Movement was never a mass activity. We were a vanguard organisation with rigid entry standards, rules and regulations“.
Edridge Cleaver.

>>You can find the BPP's internal rules and ethical guidelines here.

FBI and the repression: Breakfast as a threat to national security
On Sept. 8, 1969, armed police raided the Watts breakfast program.This raid accorded with an early 1969 FBI directive to "eradicate [the BPP's] serve the people programs."

On May 15, 1969, in an internal memo, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover wrote:
"The Breakfast for Children Program B represents the best and most influential activity going for the BPP and, as such, is potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities B to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for."

FBIs COINTELPRO seriously disrupted the BPPs efforts in general, and the breakfast program in particular, and aggravated the contradictions within the party. Several party members were killed by the police, amongst them the leader of the Chicago chapter, Fred Hampton.11

Huey P. Newton's assessment, 1980
While the FBI rationalized that it took these neutralizing steps against the BPP in order to curb its violent propensities, the truth is that what the bureau felt most threatening were survival programs providing free breakfasts to school children and other constructive services. No single feature of the Panthers made them so feared or disliked by the government; many organizations possessed either a revolutionary ideology, community service, or a willingness to engage in legal struggle to achieve their goals. It was the combination of all of these features, pitched to a group that had been historically and systematically excluded from full participation in democratic capitalist America, that made the Party different, and dangerously so.“12
Huey P. Newton

You can find the slideshow that goes with this presentation here

Notes to the presentation:
2 The BPP's newspaper, the Black Panther Community News Service, started in 1967, and was a weekly from 1968 to 1978. Weekly circulation in 1970 surpassed 125.000 copies.
3 Rod Bush, We Are Not What We Seem, p.201. 
7 Abron, p.183
9 A rare decease that mostly affects people of African descent. In a BPP attacked the US government and corporate sector for refusing to research it, and itself revolutionised the treatment of the decease. Abron, p.184
11 The wikipedia article on Hampton is recommendable:
12 War Against the Panthers – a Study of Repression in America, Huey P. Newton's doctoral dissertation.

Discussion notes - Questions asked and answered in common by the participants

How soon after the beginning of the party were these programs launched. How strong was the party? The question of how much people power you need to start this kind of program.

The programs started about two years after the party was founded. The BPP was formed in a period of intense politizisation, after the murder of Malcolm X, in the slipstream or at the height of the civil rights movement. So they grew very quickly under these special circumstances. 

How do the programs live on today? Which ones did the state take on?
It's hard to get an overview of that. A lot of breakfast programs are today run by the state, sometimes churches, or NGOs. Many other programs have been also been institutionalised and mainstreamed. The 60 programs mentioned happened in cross the US in many different states and cities; to understand the contitutions of the programs one has to look at those specific places.

This approach to build a state within the state, and this name 'party' – what to do with that? Do we need to build a better state within the state? Or can we do otherwise? Can we defend the idea of a highly disciplined party?

Given the context of police brutality, crime ridden communities, and the need for self-defence, and to project self-confidence and self-organised order. Hard to be grassroots, libertarian or hippie in that context? To appreciate the BPP in their context it's important to impose on them our standards of our context and experience; political organisation is not about abstract principles of organisation or ethics.

What's the relation of the BPP to Mao's China, and the cultural revolution?

They were in some sense 'Statist', but with a big 'but'; cultural revolutionist statist, as this was understood from the US in a very mediated and somewhat romanticised way, maybe.

Could people start breakfast programs without asking the party leadership?

It's clear that people had to go through the party structure to do stuff, also to draw on resources, use the name, etc. BPP was hierarchical, but not in the petrified way. It was very mobile, changing all the time. People with talent and initiative moved up the hierarchy quickly. 

Theres's something quite statist in some of the ideas: healthy strong male bodies...

This reminded me of my grandfather speaking of the socialist party in Vienna in the 30s. Not to drink and smoke, to do a lot of work for the party in the community. This makes a lot of sense in a context where drugs and alcohol are real problems in the families, and violence. And where drugs were actively used to destroy the communities. So maybe it wasn't strict in a purely negative way.
I experienced the same when I began being active, people said not to be drunk on demos, to stay clear in the head, not make yourself stupid.

This is super interesting in the context of 1968, where the standard body was intoxicated.

It's very disciplinary in a strange sense, also when it comes to gender norms... but what they did is really interesting, and was very important. Also this building of state structures is why they became so dangerous to the FBI, so this is interesting.
But there is something problematic about projecting these strong male bodies... very normative...

It's interesting how many women were part of the BPP, how they marched in line with the men, themselves become 'masculine', strong, disciplined, militant. There was a lot of female empowerment, through the adoption of typical masculine features, it seems.

In a way that's slightly incongruent to our sensibilities, we have to note that the leadership of the BPP was a classical 'enlightend leadership'. Precisely because it was hierarchical they could force through gender equality against the norms of many of their members. They said: the fight against sexism and patriachy is a part of the class struggle. They also took a very progressive position on homosexuality, something which was generally frowned upon in black communities. It's a little weird to see this top-down enforcement of progressive norms. Gender mainstreaming :)

Well, we see this in almost every guerrila organisation. These are not political collectives, but armed parties, with military training, attacking police stations with machine gunds, etc. On youtube there's a very interesting long interview-film about gender in black power, not just in the BPP.
They also questioned other guerrila groups, in Columbia, and the PPK in Kurdistan. Looking at the organisations they are as hiearchical and authoritarian as the normal society around them, and despite this (without making the problems with these organisations smaller) we find a much higher politicisation of gender roles than in ther surrounding societies. Often, however the gendered division of labour remains in the guerilla group; they tend to change later than other gendered power relations....

Angela Davies and Cathleen Cleaver were both very significant in the BPP.

The importance of doing community work or building a common in a way that's antagonistic in itself. Not as a matter of ideology, but as a matter of where or how you do it. E.g. occuping a place you're not supposed to be. To make clear social conflicts, without just staging them in slogans, and to test the system, what room is there to move, to learn how does the police, government react, to be forced to learn the law... etc.



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