‘I don’t know what Black Lives Matter does, so I can’t tell you how it compares to what the Black Panther Party was. I know what the BPP was. I know the lives we lost, the struggle we put into place, the efforts we made, the assaults on us by the police and government – I know all that. I don’t know what Black Lives Matter does. So if you can tell me, I’ll give you my thoughts.’
So says Elaine Brown, activist, singer and former chairwoman of the Black Panther Party, talking to me from her home in Oakland, California. She doesn’t like my question. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party, a revolutionary, socialist, black-power organisation formed in Oakland by then college students Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. And, as journalists scrabble to pen pieces about ‘what’s changed’, cack-handed comparisons abound.
I ask Brown about Black Lives Matter, the movement that erupted in the wake of the shooting of Mike Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. This nebulous hashtag-come-protest movement has been compared – both by its supporters and detractors – with the BPP; it’s either hailed as a continuation of the struggle or slammed as a resurgence in ‘divisive’, ‘militant’ black nationalism. Talking to Brown it becomes clear that both sides give BLM too much credit.
‘There is no comparison’, she says. ‘The next wave of young people running out here, who are complaining and protesting about the murders of young black men and women by the police all over the country, they will protest but they will not rise up in an organised fashion, with an agenda, to create revolutionary change… We advocated community self-defence organisations to be formed, so that we would not be assaulted by the police, so that we would bear arms and assume our human rights.’
When it first formed, armed BPP members patrolled Oakland neighbourhoods – in their iconic blue-shirt, leather jacket, black beret combo – to keep an eye on the police. They were caricatured as violent militants, but they were standing up for rights as old as the Constitution itself. Newton, a law student, made himself an expert on gun law. Whenever the cops piped up, he’d blast them with the Second Amendment, Supreme Court judgements, chapter and verse: ‘I will observe you carrying out your duties whether you like it or not!’
The party’s first members were the sons and daughters of Southern blacks who went to the north to find a better life only to be funnelled into ghettos, plagued by intense poverty and embattled by racist police. But the decision to pick up the gun was not just a last resort, or a bolshie appeal to the ‘brothers on the block’ Newton dreamed of radicalising. It reflected an insistence on self-determination, as well as self-defence. The Black Panthers didn’t just want their communities to be better treated better by the authorities – they wanted to wrest back control of them.
This steely spirit seems lost on the Black Lives Matter agitators of today. BLM, formed by academics Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, has little of BPP’s assertive spirit. The Movement for Black Lives, a BLM offshoot launched in August this year, posits itself in ‘the legacy of our ancestors who pushed for reparations, black self-determination and community control’. But BLM’s unofficial slogans – ‘hands up, don’t shoot’, ‘stop killing us’ – strike a far more defensive, pleading tone.
‘This to me is a plantation mentality’, says Brown. ‘It smacks of “master, if you would just treat me right”. And it has nothing to do with self-determination, empowerment and a sense of justice, or anything else.’ When, in 1967, the California state legislature was tabling a bill banning the open carry of firearms – in direct response to the Panther patrols – Newton and Seale led an armed delegation to the State Capitol. One need only contrast that to BLM protests in the wake of police shootings – where they host ‘die-ins’ – to see the chasm between the two movements.
BLM’s appeals for sympathy, for protection, have enjoyed a good hearing from the establishment. Through his COINTELPRO programme, then FBI director J Edgar Hoover carried out assassinations of Panther leaders and fomented civil war between Huey Newton loyalists and followers of the party’s flash-talking ‘minister of information’, Eldridge Cleaver. By contrast, BLM leaders have received funding from billionaire Democratic donors and had meetings with Hillary Clinton. ‘I was ashamed of them for asking that racist warmonger what she thought of black people’, Brown says.
One of those who met with Hillary was DeRay McKesson, a former educational official and prolific tweeter who has become the de facto figurehead of the BLM movement. In April, he became the first BLMer to test his politics at the ballot box, when he ran for mayor Baltimore. (He came sixth in the city’s Democratic primary, taking just 2.5 per cent of the vote.) The clean-cut 31-year-old – never seen out of his blue Patagonia vest – tells me that the next stage for BLM is putting its ideas into practice. But it’s hard to discern what those ideas are.