When we think about the Declaration of Independence, we associate it with life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and unalienable rights but completely disregard important statements like this on “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security” (Declaration of Independence 1776) Reading this makes you wonder do we live in a free country? Are powerful people taking advantage of their power and using it to prevent people from pursuing happiness and liberty. Now and even back then groups like the black community have always been marginalized and kept from that freedom we so called have.
We all know that there is a cruel history of slavery and brutality against black people and yes, slavery was abolished but just because it was abolished does not mean the prejudice many people hold were gone as well. This prejudice prevented the black community from the opportunities they deserved such as the opportunity to hold a well-paying job, obtain decent housing, or even attain an education. More importantly, they did not have justice nor peace. This abuse of power and discriminatory treatment went on for too long. Luckily, the Black Panther Party acknowledged every single section of the Declaration and made sure to expose the unfair treatment the black community was receiving by the government. They took the abstracts very seriously as everyone should, and they were determined to “throw off such government” (Declaration of Independence 1776).
The Black Panther party was a group of people who fought for their rights and demanded equality back in the 60’s. Schools today don’t usually do much to teach this part of history to students as many people portray their ways of protesting as rebellious and obnoxious. Although, the way they protested was scandalous and at times inappropriate, we should take into consideration why they were reacting that way. The environment they lived in and unfair treatment they received definitely played important roles in the way the Black Panthers approached issues.
The black panthers were started by two young African American students at the Merritt College in Oakland, California. Their names were Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. However, it all began with the Negro History Fact group. This group was created when they realized African Americans were not being represented in the “Pioneers Day” celebration at their college. Thanks to this group they were able to get the college to offer courses on black history as well as make it a welcoming environment for their people (Black Panthers 2017). They looked up to black leaders that fought for their rights such as Malcolm X.
When Malcolm X was murdered they decided to expand their group and called it the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. Seale’s reaction to Malcolm’s death was the one that stood out to me the most as it was tempestuous. Authors Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr. described it this way, “Bobby’s rage overflowed. He gathered six bricks from his mother’s garden, broke them in half, and stood in wait at the corner, hurling bricks at the cars of any whites he saw passing by. “I’ll make my own self into a motherfucking Malcolm X,” he swore, “and if they want to kill me, they’ll have to kill me” (Bloom, Martin 2016).
Seeing that one of the persons they looked up to the most was killed angered them and motivated them to be the new leaders for their people.
The Black Panthers did an amazing job gathering supporters. They fought for social justice. It was tough but they knew that Malcolm X was not there anymore, therefore they had to speak up. They studied the Declaration of Independence and educated themselves in order to not be the victims of oppression. According to them, “The Black Panther Party is an armed body for carrying out the political tasks of revolution. We should not confine ourselves merely to fighting. But we must also shoulder such important tasks as doing propaganda among the people, organizing the people, arming the people,and helping them to establish revolutionary political power for Black people. Without those objectives fighting loses its meaning and the Black Panther Party loses the reason for its existence” (Foner 22).
Therefore, they organized protests and created programs to help their community during the civil rights movement. Unfortunately, although the civil rights movement strived to help the African American community, the government still found ways to deliberately discriminate people of color. During the civil rights movement, white conservatives blamed African Americans for the increase in crime in order to keep them at a lower class level than them. They even said that Philadelphia and Rochester were “victims of their own generosity” since they were the ones that welcomed them to begin with (Alexander 42). The government was frightened when they realized the Black Panthers were gathering so much supporters and were willing to do anything to overthrow them. Therefore, they used cruel tactics to control them.
One of those tactics was the war on drugs. Richard Nixon was the president at the time and he allowed officers and other government official to participate in illegal behavior in order to break down organizations like the Black Panthers. As I mentioned before, the Declaration of independence mentions that no person should have so much power that they can use to oppress another group, which is exactly what Nixon was doing. His aide commented on Nixon’s war on drugs saying, “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did” (Humphrey 2017)
Not only were they controlled using the criminalization tactic but were killed by officers as well. The Denzil Dowell case was one that impacted the black community the most. Denzil Washington was a 22 year old, black construction worker who was killed by North Richmond police officers. According to police officers, Dowell was caught stealing from a liquor store and refused to surrender, he was shot once in the back and the head. However, the examiner confirmed that Dowell’s body has six bullet holes. When the case went to trial, an all white jury decided the homicide was justifiable. This angered the community. Seale and Newton knew that cases like these happened all the time. Therefore, they continued following police officers to make sure black people were treated fairly. They carried guns and the California penal code just in case they were to confront officers about their behavior. They took Dowell’s case very seriously, so they took it upon themselves to have their own investigation about the case as well as rallying for justice. As they were doing that they were able to see how the officers forced themselves into the Dowell’s home without a search warrant. This was the breaking point for Newton. He grabbed his shotgun and demanded the officers to get out (Wasserman 2015).
After hearing about this incident many people gathered together and grabbed their guns and blocked off the street to protest. Government officials were shaken and decided the only way to stop them would be to create a law that prohibited people from displaying/carrying weapons in public. This was called the Mulford Act. The panthers were furious as many of them believed taking arms was the only way they would be able to change the situation. One of the members (followers) said, “As far as I’m concerned it’s beautiful that we finally got an organization that don’t walk around singing. I’m not for all this talking stuff. When things start happening I’ll be ready to die if that’s necessary and it’s important that we have somebody around to organize us” (Wasserman 2015).
Although, Newton, Seale and their supporters liked protesting with guns they knew that they had to do what was best for their people. According to them, “This type of thing must be halted, because we must survive this evil government and build a new one fit for the service of all people” (Foner 168).
To them a fair government does not consist of police officers that, “are not of that community cannot understand its problems and do not identify with it and it’s needs. Their ignorance of the community leads them to deal with it through violence and gives an official stamp of approval to the idea that white racist violence is an appropriate response to the needs and demands of the Black community” (Foner 178).
Furthermore, they believed that the money that is used for wars should instead be used to fix the housing for people that live in the “ghetto”. In addition, “Adequate jobs and services must be provided to all ghetto residents, and these must be turned over to the cooperative control of the ghetto residents” (Foner 178). Lastly, they demanded that the control of courts and schools of the Black community be turned over to their community because according to them, they are the only one who truly understand their struggles.
Although, they could no longer protest with weapons they made sure they did not abandon the community and created programs that would alleviate some of the issues the government wasn’t willing to acknowledge. Until the government agreed to fulfill their demands, they worked in programs such as the Free Breakfast for Children program. This program ensured that every kid was fed and received the nutrients they needed. In addition they opened Liberation schools which focused on giving the children a high level of education as well as teaching them that “It is the destruction of the ruling class that oppresses and exploits the poor” (Foner 170) and that they do not have to tolerate that treatment. Lastly, they also provided medical services for the community, where they would treat about 100 patients per week.
Although, the Black Panther Party did a lot for the Black community, such as risking their lives and creating programs, they eventually fell apart. Many believe the government played a role in this (Baggins 2002). However, this does not change the fact that even though they might have seemed threatening they genuinely wanted to help their community.
In conclusion, race and class have always been topics that are controversial. Unfortunately, to this day negative perspectives about them are relevant and have caused many disagreements in the country. People tend to believe that race and class define who should be treated equality and who shouldn’t, and this is not right. However, just like there are people who discriminate people based on their class and race there are also people who continually fight to educate others about their rights and how to exercise them. A great example of this was the Black Panther Party and that is how they should be remembered.