The specter of the 1960s hung over the 2016 presidential election like a shroud, as Donald Trump embraced Richard Nixon’s law-and-order rhetoric, speculation bubbled again about Hillary Clinton’s relationship to the community organizer Saul Alinsky, and observers tensed for the possibility of violent clashes at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. And now that Trump, a man with Nixon’s capacity to hold a grudge but utterly lacking Nixon’s experience in government, has been elected president, it’s time to take a clear-eyed look at the radical movements of Nixon’s era, particularly the Black Panthers, and to take inspiration, as well as caution, from their experiences.
In the wake of Trump’s election, organizations including Planned Parenthood, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Sierra Club have seen surges in donations from citizens who want to make sure that vital work continues even if federal policy changes drastically. Advocacy remains critically important, of course, but the Black Panthers also provide a powerful reminder of how valuable it is to meet the immediate needs of vulnerable people.
One of the reasons Stanley Nelson’s extraordinary documentary “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” is so powerful is that it restores the Black Panther Party’s social programs to their rightful place in the organization’s history. Though Black Panthers such as the exiled Eldridge Cleaver would later deride efforts like the party’s free school breakfast program as minor fixes, those efforts filled a gap and helped build solidarity.
“We were showing love for our people,” Panther David Lemieux explained. “If you have a child, if you know these people are going to feed my child in the morning, that’s a big deal.”
The survival programs, as they were known, served two other immediate needs in addition to getting food and medical care to people who desperately needed both. They provided the constituency for the voter registration and turnout operation that almost propelled Bobby Seale to victory in the 1973 Oakland, Calif., mayoral race. And a focus on economic and material needs helped the Panthers organize in Northern cities, where housing segregation, jobs and access to health care remained pressing issues.
Those Panther organizing efforts weren’t limited to black Americans.
One of the bitterest parts of looking back into the history of American radicalism is imagining what Illinois Black Panther party chairman Fred Hampton might have been had he not been killed by a police tactical unit in 1969 at age 20. At the time of his death, Hampton was organizing a multi-racial political coalition that included members of the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican nationalist organization, the Native American Housing Committee and the Young Patriots Organization, which worked with white migrants from Appalachia — members of the sorts of communities J.D. Vance explored in his memoir “Hillbilly Elegy,” which has been embraced as a sort of diagnostic manual for Trump voters.
In “The Black Panthers,” Nelson included footage of one of those coalition meetings, which lingers on a middle-aged white man declaring “I’ll stick with the Black Panthers if they’ll stick with me, and I know they will.” It’s a scene that carries with it the terrible sting of a foreclosed opportunity.
Other radical ideas from the era have evolved, and perhaps improved with age. Cellphones with cameras have replaced the rifles the Black Panthers used to carry and display when they patrolled the streets, looking out for incidents of police misconduct. Phones may not have the advantage of acting as a reminder that African Americans have Second Amendment rights, too. But they are distinctly useful for producing visceral video records or allowing Americans to stream misconduct and violence as they occur. The Panthers may have been first to let the police know that they personally were watching, but everyone with a cellphone who makes sure the police know that the whole world will soon be watching, too, is a descendant of the party in this small way.
Studying the Black Panthers’ history provides plenty of cautionary notes, too.
Anyone contemplating violent resistance to a Trump administration might be wise to consider a formulation from former Weatherman Mark Rudd, who noted in the documentary “The Weather Underground” that “Americans are taught, again and again and from a very early age, that all violence which is not sanctioned by the government is either criminal or mentally ill.”
That diagnosis makes it harder for Americans to see even acts of self-defense as legitimate, and it’s used to justify extreme uses of force by the government, as was the case with the law enforcement raid that killed Hampton. And it also makes radicals powerful targets, what Nixon described as “the same thugs and hoodlums that have always plagued the good people.”
There can be a real vanity to calls to violence, too. In “The Weather Underground,” watching an unnamed Black Panther dismiss the Days of Rage as “anarchistic, opportunistic, individualistic, it’s chauvinistic, and it’s Custeristic” is both brutal and entirely correct. “Leaders take people into situations where the people can be massacred, and they call that revolution?” he asks. “It’s nothing but child’s play. It’s folly. We think these people may be sincere, but they’re misguided, they’re muddleheads, and they’re scatterbrains.”
And there are internal risks to an organization that makes shows of force or uses violent rhetoric. “You were always upping the ante,” one Black Panther told Stanley Nelson of the party’s anti-police sentiments. That’s a quick route to a place a movement itself didn’t intend to go.
It’s easy to dismiss movements because they didn’t bring about the revolutions they foretold, or because they made choices that rendered them vulnerable to infighting and government suppression. But in the face of apocalyptic reactions to the present moment, it’s vital to remember that many of the Black Panthers survived an American cataclysm of their own. Throwing out their most powerful insights along with their mistakes would only impoverish our thinking about the future.