Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Jim Haskins: Power to the People

Shop Indie Bookstores
It's embarrassing to admit how little I know about the Black Panthers. I live in Oakland, was raised by liberals at liberal private schools, and, if prodded, might have been able to name Huey Newton. I read "The Autobiography of Malcom X" in high school, and probably that was as close as we came to learning about anything less politically correct than Dr Martin Luther King. My education was whitewashed: I got the Booker T. Washington version, all dreams and peace, no guns and infighting. In the politically correct version, civil rights were won, cops didn't die, and there were no drug addicted leaders who went to prison and came out power hungry.  But it didn't all go down like that, and in erasing the Black Panthers and sanitizing the version of the fight for Civil Rights that kids are getting, or cleaning up local history, we're losing a lot.

I think I started my hunt for a book on the Black Panthers after reading about the Party's trip to Sacramento and the Capitol building with their guns when they went to make their statement about the right to bear arms. It's hard to find a good book about the Black Panthers. There are several books by former Party members, but it's hard to know which to pick: the Party split up fairly quickly, and partially due to infighting- even I know that- so any book by a particular member is going to be skewed in that way. There are lots of books about black history or civil rights history or race that include pieces about the Panthers. But I ended up with "Power to the People: The Rise and Fall of the Black Panther Party," by Jim Haskins, even though it was written for young adults, and as far as I can tell, it's one of the few overviews out there. It's a good read, especially for novices like me.

Jim Haskins highlights the very Oakland-ness of the Black Panthers: from the very beginning acknowledging that the Party would have turned out different if Huey Newton had stayed home. He didn't stay home, though, and the Oakland that the Panthers developed in is very recognizable to me: alive with people determined to make a difference, seething with hatred for police, and a government both well-meaning and disastrously incompetent. It became more and more obvious reading "Power to the People" that history really does repeat itself, and that we fail to learn from our mistakes. For example, in 1969, after shootouts between the Panthers and the police, Haskins writes that the Party "would cease to exist altogether if it persisted in challenging the authorities by carrying guns and 'patrolling the pigs.'" From jail, Huey Newton ordered a change in tactics, and the Party moved to some of the other things they were famous for: education, food security, etc. This is very telling: the Panthers were falling apart, leaders were in jail, and nothing was working, so they switched tactics. Certainly, some factions were displeased, but it was an important moment in the Party history. I think about the antagonistic relationship between Occupy Oakland and wonder what could be learned on all sides from this moment, and when the baiting will stop. In the late 1970s, near the end of the movement, violence and financial fraud finished the Panthers off (some names are familiar to Oakland-ers), and even this history is still revealing: funds being siphoned from one place to another, including the use of city contracts, nepotism in hiring practices, and playing politics with the police department.

The Black Panther Party is part of national history, and Oakland history. City Center was made possible by negotiated with (first time) Governor Jerry Brown and the Panthers. Black voter registration, education, and political participation was revolutionized in Oakland and beyond. Erasing it is both racist and historically untenable. For now, "Power to the People" is an accessible step in the remembering direction.