Black Panthers, Black Lives Matter, and the Politics of Disruption: A Conversation with Joshua Bloom

from the cover of Joshua Bloom’s book

Today, October 15th, marks the 51st anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale.

In order to mark the occasion, I wanted to offer this engaging, wide-ranging conversation about the enduring legacy of the disruptive politics of the Black Panther Party.

For my previous essay: Why Democrats Should Adopt the Black Panthers’ Ten Point Program, I spoke with historian Joshua Bloom, author of Black Against Empire, a definitive account of the history of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.

In our conversation, Bloom analyzed the Panthers’ history of protest and direct action; and he theorized about how the Panthers’ legacy can inform and inspire our present day struggles for civil rights. Due to the limits of length, many of his answers could not be included in the original article. Bloom brought the full force of his intellectual rigor to answer vital questions. He found many instructive lessons in how the Black Panther Party inspired Occupy activists and others, he considered how the party’s legacy informs BlackLivesMatter protests, and how the Panthers ideologically connect to present day organizations, like the Redneck Revolt, anti-fascist, anti-racist, anti-capitalist activists confronting the inextricable braid of racism and classism. Bloom’s answers are fascinating, and he speaks eloquently to our modern moment in the enduring civil rights struggle.

Here are unabridged highlights from Bloom’s thoroughly comprehensive interview. Enjoy.

How did the Black Panthers disrupt “the business as usual” approach of law enforcement? Why was that so key to their success?

There are different kinds of social movements. When people are making claims about oppression, and the limits of society, and trying to envision a different future, and advance that from below, and they’re trying to address power and relative powerlessness and oppression, where does the power come from to do that?

There are forms of power that come about from people coming together, people sharing the same vision, people working together — an organization of people trying to make a dollar out of fifteen cents, you know — finding new ways of doing things that address problems that aren’t necessarily about a fight but are just about working together in ways that are sorta common interest. And so, everybody is doing that all the time. Right? And sometimes people do it really effectively. But you have to also think about the fact that the people with power are doing the same thing all the time, too.

If you think of it, sort of like a race — if you have a race going on, but somebody is starting with a tremendous advantage, and they’re using that advantage to set the rules of the game, not only are they continuing to get ahead just by what they do in the day-to-day running of the race, like, they might not run it any faster than the people on the bottom, right — but they already started way ahead. They started in a position of power. They started in a position specifically of domination and oppression.

You think about slavery, you think about Jim Crow, you think about the historical oppression of black people in the United States, and that doesn’t just go away. Black people, and the Black Panther Party, and the Civil Rights Movement, throughout history, have always been working together to advance common interests. But when you move on to the question of white supremacy you’re starting in a very different place.

When everybody is trying to advance their position, that strategy of developmental power doesn’t always get you ahead. In fact, a lot of times that power is used to set the rules of the game to extend the inequalities. And you see that. Like, if you look at assets. Not income, but assets of black families. The assets of black families have continued to become more unequal. By the year 2000, black families had about a 1/10 of the assets of white families — the median black family and the median white family. By now, it’s twenty times. Just since the year 2000, it’s doubled. And a lot of that is the result of the financial crisis.

But what happened in the financial crisis? Who suffered? Who set the rules of the game? So yeah, developmental work and organizational work––it works, it does work, right. It’s important. And it’s crucial to all these movements, as well as day-to-day life. But the problem is when the games is so slanted and our starting positions are so different it doesn’t always work fast enough.

Then the question becomes: what is the source of power to make a more fundamental redress?

What we see, oftentimes in history, it’s disruption.

It’s making business as usual impossible. That becomes a source of power from below that’s actually very transformative. If you look at the Civil Rights Movement, that’s what the Civil Rights Movement did. It was also doing developmental organizing — people were getting together — but part of what they did is they figured out how to make business as usual impossible. Think about the sit-ins, right? They made it impossible to continue having segregated lunch counters, and segregated water fountains, and segregated public spaces, and segregated interstate busing, and to exclude black people from the vote.

It seems clear that #BlackLivesMatter has picked up this disruptive legacy of the Black Panthers. What connections and similarities do you see between the two social movements?

There’s definitely some connections and similarities. The obvious starting place is a lot of what the Black Panther Party originally organized around was police brutality. And despite the victory of the Civil Rights Movement, and the achievement of formal citizenship rights for black people in the United States, and the formal abolition of caste subordination in Jim Crow, which was a tremendous success in the Civil Rights Movement, lots of forms of institutionalized structural racism persist. Not least among those in experience is policing in the criminal justice system.

I don’t know if you know Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow. It sort of lays out a clear history and analysis of the expansion of mass incarceration in the last several decades as a new form of racial subordination. So, there’s been some changes in the character of institutionalization. But some of those patterns are very much the same.

BlackLivesMatter is confronting very similar things. You have customary and institutionalized policing of black communities that’s just starkly different than the kind of policing than white people are generally accustomed to in this country. There is a real racial binary in policing and it’s part of how white supremacy is institutionalized and expressed. With BlackLivesMatter the obvious similar starting point is they’re fighting against similar forms of institutionalized racism and brutal policing.

You’ve spoken of Du Bois’ metaphor of a veil that separates white and black America, and how the Black Panthers helped to make that veil visible, and how #BlackLivesMatter and smartphone cameras have allowed people to see through the veil. Now that Americans see the problem, what comes next — in terms of protest, social awareness, and political response?

DuBois’s veil is a powerful analogy. What he basically says is that there two Americas. And that white America doesn’t see the America that black America lives in. Black America has a double consciousness, because it lives in both Black America, and, yet, it also sees and knows well the dominant world of white America.

I think DuBois had a prescient statement on the kind of divide that we have today and the way policing is experienced — many other aspects of social life, also; but it’s really stark in policing. The video evidence — everyone having a smartphone in their pocket — has really exposed that duality. And I think much of white America, and much of non-black America, was surprised and shocked. So that’s like a puncturing of the veil.

Here are these conditions that are so starkly different than ways that most white people, especially middle class white people, are confronted by police. And here’s this video footage of it. What do you do with that? I think that, unfortunately, through destabilizing the myth of racial equality in police enforcement — just like most revelations, and ideas, and basic information, doesn’t, in and of itself, transform the social institutions. It doesn’t change the political priorities, and it doesn’t undo the injustices.

One of the big things recently has been the call for body-cams (for cops), but, then, that depends on who controls those body-cams. Not to say they are a bad thing but they aren’t going to achieve a fundamental redress. So, it’s an open question: Will people be able to use this moment to force a fundamental redress? And I think that’s still the question.

I think the question has obviously changed a good bit with someone like Trump in the presidency, and Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, as opposed to Eric Holder as Attorney General, and Obama as the president, who were actively sort of reaching out to Ferguson and at least saying, “Yeah, something needs to be done about this.” There was at least some sort of recognition and call for transformation. Now, we have Jeff Sessions. And we’re going back to, “Well, maybe we don’t need the Voting Rights Act.” But that doesn’t mean that the moment is over.

I think the big question now, as there is a mobilization against Trump: what does that mobilization look like? First of all. And what role will the Democratic Party play? Is this just about putting the Democrats back in power? Well, mass incarceration grew just as much under the Democrats, if not more than anything else. So, putting the Democrats back in power does not resolves these issues.

And then the other question is: To the extent that there is a broader resistance that is more fundamental — what’s the role of BlackLivesMatter and the struggle for social justice in that? And I don’t think any of those aspects are sort of determined a priori. I think they’re determined open questions. To what extent is there a resistance? To what extent does that resistance go beyond restoring some kind of formal democracy and the Democratic Party to power, but actually redressing more fundamental inequalities? Not just in race, but think about the vast increases in inequality in class over the last three decades in this country. Let alone beating back these basic challenges to women’s rights. And gay rights. The environment, the whole future of the environment. To what extent is there a more fundamental resistance, and to what extent is racism at the center of that? I think those are unsettled questions.

The Panthers are often given credit for being an early advocate for Gay Rights. As well, the Women’s Movement was partly born out of work of a solidarity organization for imprisoned Panther leader Ericka Huggins. Should we give the Black Panthers more credit for their efforts to advance solidarity? Are they an overlooked model for militant yet compassionate resistance and coalition-building on the left?

It’s hard to talk about credit because different people talk so differently about the Party. So I think some people want to look at them as thugs, and I think that’s very short-sighted. They clearly meant a lot to a lot of different people that wasn’t just thuggery. And they mobilized a lot of people, for a lot of reasons that were deeply political. So I think certainly there are lots of people that overlook that. And I think on the other side there’s some amount of cheerleading that ends up being relatively shallow. You wouldn’t want to say, “Oh, the Black Panther Party really sparked the Women’s Rights Movement” because that isn’t true, in any general way.

I think, in New Haven, a lot of the radical Women’s Rights Movement did grow, and was deeply influenced by the campaign for justice for Ericka Huggins. But we could overstate that. I think the Party — what I would give them credit for are two pieces that are important to recognize in terms of their alliance building.

One, is more internal to the organization. People sometimes on the “hater” side want to talk about the party as a black separatist organization, or a racist organization, or these kinds of thing, which just completely misunderstands the basic politics of the party. The Party — from day one — was fundamentally about broad alliance-building based on global anti-imperialist politics. And you can’t understand what the Party did — from day one — without understanding that politics.

The only way that the Party was able to resist the intense repression of the local police, and federal government, and to grow, and to sustain their challenge to police brutality with a military challenge, a disruptive challenge, the only way they were able to sustain those kind of disruptive politics and use disruption as a source of power was because they garnered so much support from so many people.

There were moderate black people, who were really chafing at the limit of the Civil Rights Movement successes, and there was the New Left — you know, 80% of Democrats voted to end the war, basically, in 1968; and the Democratic Party establishment said, “Screw you, we’re gonna put in our pro-war platform and pro-war candidate anyway. And we’re gonna beat you in the streets of Chicago like rabble-rousers and we’re going to close you out in front of the convention, and despite the fact you’re the eighty percent of the Democratic constituents that voted.” (laughs)

So, those folks we’re like “We’re being told we’ve got to go die in this war, and if the Black Panther Party can be raided, and if Fred Hampton can be shot in his bed for standing up to the state, then what choice do we have? We’ve gotta support these folks because this is a threat to all of us.” And the Party understood that.

If you look at where the Party chapters grew, a lot of the places had large student movements nearby. They were near big universities with student movements and anti-war movements. That was a really important alliance.

The politics of the party were: “We are the legitimate representatives of the black community, but part and parcel of a global struggle against imperialism. Our enemy, in facing the brutality of the police, is the same as the anti-war movement, facing the brutality of the National Guard. It’s the same as the Vietnamese, facing the imperialism of the US marines.” Those analogies and that idea of a global anti-imperialism — you can not understand the success of the Black Panther Party without understanding those alliances.

So, I think that’s the first point to make. And then, the second point has to do with how we sort of generalize that, and how we bring that type of organizing forward into today. I think the key thing that I wanna say is those tendencies and dynamics cut across history and time and place. There’s a lot that we can learn from them. But the specifics of what the Panthers did to achieve that do not.

If you are interested in building a movement today — whether it’s BlackLivesMatter, or something else which is challenging oppression today — whether it’s racial oppression, or some other form of oppression, if you are looking to disruption as a source of power, you must ask: if we need to stand up and challenge “business as usual,” how are you going to do that and get away with it? How are you going to do that sustained disruption as a source of power for movements, as a source of power from below, as a source for transformation?

To do that, you have to do — in some form or another — what the Panthers did. You have to make your struggle relevant to much broader constituencies. So, that way, when the repression comes, which it will — because that’s what happens when you disrupt shit, and “business as usual;” those authorities are invested in maintaining those relations are going to come and repress you — in those moments, who’s gonna be at your back? Who’s going to stand up and protect you? To succeed in building a movement, to succeed in transforming with power from below, you have to be able to draw those kinds of broader supports. So, the Black Panther Party is very much modeled in those ways.

But, in its particular ways that it drew that support — the kinds of alliances that it built, the kinds of disruption, the kinds of claims, the kinds of targets, the kinds of tactics — none of that is applicable today. It’s not even applicable for BlackLivesMatter. Can you imagine if BlackLivesMatter activists were taking out guns and challenging police with loaded guns? Right there in the street?

In one second, the cops would be like, “You are terrorists, we are either killing you or sending you away permanently.” And lots of people would applaud and say, “yeah, shut those terrorists down!” So, those militant politics are historically specific. The ways the Party achieved disruption and sustained it by building alliances — the claims, the tactics, the targets — those are all historically specific. We can’t expect to emulate the Party in those ways.

…But, if we step back and think about it more generally — the kind of problem they were solving, and the kind of question they were asking, because they were asking it — if you read the memoirs, you see they were looking really hard at the Civil Rights Movement, and they saw how the Civil Rights Movement was doing these things. But they knew they couldn’t do what the Civil Rights Movement activists did. So Bobby Seale and Huey Newton were really intentional about trying to figure out how do we do something like the Civil Rights Movement that can use power as a source of disruption in the North. And they came up with the Black Panther Party, building on other stuff. And the situation is very much the same for BlackLivesMatter.

How does BlackLivesMatter build a new sort of cultural technology of insurgency? A way to disrupt “business as usual” and sustain that as a source of power for racial justice? How do you do that today? Nobody quite yet knows. I think we’ve seen sparks of it in BlackLivesMatter. But it has not broken through in the same way that it did in the Civil Rights Movement, or even the Black Panther Party.

Have you heard of the Redneck Revolt Movement? The anti-fascist, anti-capitalist, anti-racist group that’s calling for white people to dismantle white supremacy and white privilege as a class-based call for solidarity? It reminds me of Fred Hampton reaching out to The Young Patriots. The Redneck Revolt is, presently, trying to get past the skin of racism and look at the bone structure of our society, to see how classism is hidden behind racism. Do you find any hopes that there can be a conversation about classism and racism being inseparably linked?

I think absolutely there are possibilities for those kind of alliances. A couple comments: one is I don’t think it’s class instead of race. And I know, that’s not what you’re saying. I think some people do. And it’s important to make that distinction.

I think race has its own pattern, its own trajectory. Race and class are both powerful social forms of organization, and have their own dynamics. And white supremacy is real as a structural form of power. And it can not be addressed in a color-blind way. That’s an insightful point that you made — in some ways white people are affected adversely by racism — racism does reify and support class exploitation. That’s absolutely true.

Conversely, there’s also pay-offs to white privilege. Lots of studies have been done on that. And it’s real. The pay-off is there. That’s what Trump’s constituencies are betting on. They’re betting on, “Hey, we may be getting screwed, but if we can shift some of this screwed-ness over to those black folks, and those immigrants, and those Muslims, then at least maybe we’ll get a little more breathing room.” You can’t dismiss that. I think it’s important to recognize that race has its own power.

The other piece of the question was: How do you build that? How do you that effectively? Again, I think there are those two kinds of power from below.

There’s developmental power and there’s insurgent power. There’s developmental mobilization and there’s insurgent mobilization, and they’re both important. And they both go hand-in-hand in many instances.

There are ways of doing effective developmental organization. If you say, “I want to do the organizing work, I want to get people together, I want to find ways of building common cause,” there are more effective ways of doing it and there are less effective ways. And again, that’s not historically determined. You can’t just copy what someone else did in a different moment and have it work. You have to understand your environment — and a lot of it is about trial and error. Nobody invents it in a vacuum. It always grows out of lots of people trying.

The other source is this insurgent power. It’s in some ways rarer and harder, but in many, if not most, big transformative historical moments, when people do transform society in stark ways from below, it happens from from developing those kind of insurgent movements that can sustain disruption as a source of power. And do so by specifically drawing those kinds of common cause.

Then the question becomes: What can you do that stands up to power? What can you do that makes “business as usual” impossible? What can you do that gives you the power to negotiate and the leverage to negotiate in a way that draws these broader constituencies to the table?

So, if you have white poor folks in West Virginia, who are mobilizing and want to build common cause — with BlackLIvesMatter for example — what can they do that would address their own issues that would stand up to powers acting against them? Let’s say, they’re losing their homes. What could they do that would stand up to the banks? That would be speaking of their repression? And would be seen as a threat by black folks, too? And specifically, BlackLivesMatter. What can BlackLivesMatter do that when the repression comes down folks who are struggling economically, and maybe even voted for Trump, but will see the response as a threat to their interest as well? What will they see as repression and a threat to their interests as well? I don’t think you can figure these things out in the abstract. I’ve been trying to figure out what is working. I think we see some moments. I wanna look a lot closer at Minneapolis.

Think about Ferguson. In Ferguson, there was no video. We don’t have any video of Michael Brown getting killed. So you think about it: why Ferguson? A part of is it that Eric Garner was killed a month earlier. There is a video of Eric Garner getting killed. So, part of it is there is some kind of cumulative effect. But these police killings have been, basically, going on every day for decades. So what happened in Ferguson?

I think one of the things that’s interesting, and important, even though there’s much more organization on the ground in New York, and New York is really a case of success, but if you look at the arc and trajectory of mobilization, that mobilization fades out pretty quick, relative to what happens in Ferguson. The level, and the intensity, and the sustained mobilization, and the transformation of the politics in Ferguson is vastly grander and more influential than what happens in New York. And it’s not like those folks were super-organized. That’s not what’s going on. So what is going on?

I have a hypothesis about that. I haven’t systematically analyzed this. But I think what you see happening in Ferguson is that Ferguson is more like the old Civil Rights Movement. And the situation is more like the classic Jim Crow. Two-thirds of the population is black. And people aren’t allowed to vote, basically. They can vote, but the white machines aren’t putting up any black candidates. So, you have a complete exclusion from institutionalized political power.

This is telling because if you look at the voting, people like to say, “Oh, black people don’t have any elected representatives because they didn’t vote,” but that’s not true. If you look at the vote in the national elections in Ferguson, the black districts vote at a higher rate than the white districts. More black people vote in the national elections in Ferguson, proportionally, a higher percentage of black people in Ferguson vote in the national elections than white people. But if you look at the local elections in Ferguson, they all stay home. Why?

They all stay home because there’s no candidates on the damn ballot that are representing them. Because the machines close the black people out. And it’s those same machines that are policing them and ticketing them, and doing this “ticketing as taxation,” and running them into the ground. And so, the idea of black people organizing, they’re not even allowed to march. They’re not allowed to have free speech. So what you get in Ferguson is a Jim Crow-like situation.

When attention gets called to these issues, it’s exposed, and the response to non-violent protest and some effort at political participation is met by the local authorities who are like, “Uh-huh, you don’t participate in politics here. Sorry. So when you try to have a protest we’re going to bring in tanks and machine guns and shut your ass down.” I think what happens is everyone sees that. So what you get in Ferguson is a Jim Crow-like, Civil Rights-like, situation where basic non-violent political motivation is a complete disruption of the established political order. You don’t have to throw Molotov cocktails — although some of that happens, too — you don’t have to throw Molotov cocktails in Ferguson to be disrupting businesses as usual. You just have to march in the street with a sign that says: Justice for Michael Brown. And they bring out the tanks and machine guns.

And so, if I had to guess how do you build a real movement and bring black and white and Latino and Asian, gay and straight, rich and poor, local and national together for racial justice, one of the ways that I would do it is to look for those places like Ferguson. I would organize non-violent rallies for justice against police killings. I would push the issue. I would use the resources I have and organizational power that I have to push this issue in places where black people are denied basic political participation. Because in those situations, basic political participation is disruptive. And it can be sustained. That disruption can be sustained because there are a ton of people nationally who are going to oppose tanks and machine guns being used against people who are trying to express that policing should be racially just. That’s one part of the strategy: try to build Ferguson-like campaigns in Ferguson-like places.

The second piece is the question: how do you develop insurgent practices that advance this kind of mobilization in places like New York? I don’t know; but I think some of the answers are probably to be found in places like Minneapolis. Because part of what happened around Jamar Clark was there were relatively civil responses to the movement from authorities but the movement was able to push these issues to the point that it escalated, and then blew up, and then it was a thing. Then you had a much more intense mobilization in Minneapolis than in a lot of other cities that are relatively liberal. And I think part of it had to do with the fact that — what was partly borrowed from Occupy — they set-up an encampment outside of the police station.

When you make the police the target and you’re calling for police accountability it’s hard to repress because it’s not just free speech. But you’d probably get killed if you tried to do that in Ferguson. But it’s not that far from free speech, come on. These are the police. They’re supposed to be public officers. We’re trying to ask for some kind of accountability. They’ve just killed somebody. So, it’s not that far from free speech to takeover a police station, or camp outside a police station. So what happens when you do that?

As we saw with Occupy, once the movement starts claiming space, it’s very threatening. Not because, in and of itself is it a problem, but because those become incubators for other kinds of mobilizations. That’s what we saw in Occupy, and I think that’s what we saw in Minneapolis. I haven’t fully worked out this analysis yet, these are all hypotheticals, but if I had to sort of say: what do I think the challenges are for building something like BlackLivesMatter that takes protest to a whole ‘nother level, and really builds power and influence from below? That’s what I would look to do. I’d recognize the difference between Ferguson and New York, and look for Ferguson-like places, and try to build Ferguson-like mobilizations. I would try to find the places like Minneapolis that were more New York-like and try to figure out how to sustain disruption as a source of power.

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