In memory of Huey P. Newton, on his 80th birthday
Exemplary discipline and tactical versatility
The BPP’s remarkable discipline under greatest distress should be praised for at least three reasons. First, as we have remarked below, the greatest of unflinching discipline and finesse are required to combat the repressive organs of the reactionary bourgeois state.
Second, most Left groupings today are in great disarray precisely due to lack of discipline, while a minority of sects understand from discipline an unquestioned ideological and strategic purism. The Panthers’ combination of discipline with tactical flexibility, however, was what allowed them to grow exponentially in a short period of time. We shall talk more about this point below.
Third, the precise social layer that the BPP originated out of and sought to organize into a fighting unit is not best known for its discipline. Theorizing about the vanguard party of the proletariat, Lenin emphasized the importance of putting the discipline the proletariat acquires in the workplace to use. There is no equivalent of this in the lumpen-proletariat, and only a partial equivalent of the special social layer between the lumpen and the proletarian proper. By definition, the lives of these social layers’ members are marked by very volatile changes in employment, profession, daily routine, legal status etc. David Hilliard’s pre-Panther times as a father of three at the age of 21 who struggled with holding a job and was steeped in alcoholism, petty hustling, and family problems exemplifies the lives of these layers.
Modern European history is full of examples of these deepest layers of the society going over to the side of reaction. In the post-War United States, however, the racial oppression combined with the class oppression these layers were facing allowed a revolutionary fervor to get a hold of them. The BPP deserves the full credit of becoming the only political entity that had organized these people into a tightly-knit fighting apparatus able to stand against the harshest police measures. This discipline, combined with the Party’s magnetic anti-imperialist vision and community policies, was to have an immensely positive impact on a many individual member’s lives, not least on the leaders themselves.
The Panthers were indeed aware of the difficulty of this task, and therefore rightly admired the initial leading cadre’s (Newton, Seale, Hilliard etc.) mastery over their organization. Bunchy Carter, the founder of the Los Angeles BPP chapter, expressed both the challenge that the initial cadre had faced and his admiration for them in his own fashion:
Niggers who been BAD, niggers who weren’t scared, because they ain’t never knew what scared was, because they been down in these ghettos and they knew to live they had to fight; and so they been able to do that. But I mean to really TAP it, to really TAP IT, to ORGANIZE it, and to direct it into an onslaught, a sortie against the power structure, this is the genius of Huey Newton, this is what Huey Newton did.
Why was this strong discipline necessary? Given the contemporary Left’s contempt towards any type of centralized discipline in the name of “democratism”, this question has an additional relevance today.
We have considered the importance of discipline from a military point of view in our previous sections: opportunities offered by bourgeois legality should be exhausted as much as possible. The seizing of these opportunities should be combined with bold actions that are legitimate in the eyes of the oppressed. This requires adamant discipline under great duress. The same held for the individual Panthers’ attitude in the racist courts of the bourgeois state. Like every good revolutionary, the Panthers sought to use their right to defense in courts not for individual acquittal, but for propagating the Party’s vision. From Huey Newton’s trial for murder (1967) onwards, the Panthers adopted this strategy as one of the main tenets of their propaganda work. This required facing bravely not only racist courts and juries but also the sensationalist media, and through this latter, potentially the entire nation – and under the greatest of legal pressures. Cooked-up evidence, trumped up charges, bails high enough to stretch the limits of legal codes, false witnesses were all “ordinary business” in trials where any Panther member was on the defense. Afeni Shakur, one of the main defendants of the famous “New York 21”, put their approach to their own trial in unequivocal terms:
We can prove that we are innocent. But we wonder does it really matter … We have no respect for your laws, taxes, your gratitude, sincerity, honor and dignity – you have no respect for them yourself. You don’t respect us – thus we don’t respect YOU.
The Panther leaders showed the same tremendous courage and discipline as much as the rank-and-file to set an example. Chairman Bobby Seale gave the most dramatic example in 1968 when he was put on trial in the aftermath of the 1968 Chicago Revolt. The court didn’t spare any blows to break him: Seale’s case was severed from the other seven defendants, his request to defend himself (since his lawyer was having a surgery at the moment) was denied, he was tied to his chair and gagged upon insisting on requesting to defend himself. Even tied up and gagged, Seale did not break, and kept on shaking his chair and making loud noises to protest. “They dragged me into this case”, he later spoke from prison, “they put me as one of the defendants there, and literally, overtly, fascistically, piggishly, and racistly denied me my basic constitutional rights”.
However, military or legal confrontations with the repressive forces of the bourgeois state constitute only the negative side of the equation. The Panthers required the same energetic discipline in the various community services they performed as well. Free Breakfast programs, food and clothing give-aways, free clinics required tremendous amount of planning, logistical and financial coordination, and careful implementation around the clock. One of the early articles about the Free Breakfast for Children Program described the Herculean tasks each Panther had to take on and implement effectively:
Panthers working the breakfast program get out of bed at approximately 6 a.m. every school day. They set tables, clean facilities, cook and prepare the food, they direct traffic to see that the children cross the streets safely. After a day’s breakfast has been completed, the Panthers attend to the constant task of procuring food from the merchants who do business in the community, to see that the program is constantly supplied with necessary food.
It is evident what great self-sacrifice, dedication, and precise operating all this requires.
Finally, the very structure of the Panther organization was premised on full-time dedication and intelligent allocation of resources. The Panther members lived in communal housing units, dedicated their entire time to training and/or Party tasks, kept up with physical training, engaged in political discussion, and received a meager living stipend to fulfill their basic needs. The Party’s Field Marshal Don Cox recounts this living arrangement in the Panther office in San Francisco in the following words:
This experience in collective living was necessitated both by the struggle and by the need to provide our own security. It also turned out that just the simple act of shopping for and preparing food was enough to revolutionize our way of thinking and doing things … Imagine taking junkies, dudes just out of the point, and lumpen types from the ghetto and putting them in the kitchen to cook and clean up. I’ll just say this: whenever a pad was abandoned, for whatever reason, it was no longer fit for human habitation.
In the US, where the so-called “single family housing” is the prevalent form of dwelling, one can only imagine the difficulties encountered in this type of living situation, especially given the gendered dynamic of most housework. Cox found it was necessary to call a meeting and impose discipline based on constant criticism and self-criticism to keep the office/house running. About a year later, he saw a remarkable change in the attitudes of his comrades:
When I walked into the Page Street pad where the members of the group were living,my eyes watered up, but this time with tears of joy. Everything was neat as a pin, and everything was in its proper place. The reality represented a revolutionary change in the way my comrades had begun to live their daily lives with those around them.
Individualistic and sexist habits were broken, discipline was internalized, and the Party office was up and running. Cox took this improvement to mean that “the day of victory was a little bit closer.”
Besides paying the membership their living stipend, the Party had to include the material for the printing and distribution of the Black Panther paper, the rent and upkeep of offices, legal aid and bail for arrested Panthers, and the purchase and upkeep of weapons. The Party did not have an income other than donations, sales of the paper, and individual sacrifices of the rank-and-file (as we shall see later, this model had its own weaknesses). Therefore, beyond the dedication and clockwork discipline of the individual rank-and-file members, the Party as a whole had to internalize and implement these values into its entire structure from top to bottom if it were to function smoothly. . Despite heavy repression, constant raids and slanders, and not infrequent internal unruly elements, the Party was able run its operations effectively until 1971.
How were the Panthers able to accomplish this? As we will see later, the ranks did break on numerous occasions to the detriment of the organization as a whole. Nonetheless, as we have seen, the Party was to implement great discipline in its first five years. In the initial stages, when the BPP was still a local organization restricted to the San Francisco Bay Area, the leading cadre could conduct intensive face-to-face legal, physical, and ideological training, not only exposing the recruits to the 10-Point Program and the Party’s ideological sources but also instilling unity among its ranks. David Hilliard recounts how Huey Newton went at great lengths in 1967 to prepare a cadre of 30 Panthers, led by Bobby Seale, for their dramatic entrance into the California Capitol building in Sacramento while the State Assembly was in session for voting for a gun control law that would outlaw the BPP’s police patrols:
Upon giving Bobby his instructions, Huey stressed that his main purpose was to deliver a message to the people. In doing so, Huey said, if Bobby was fired upon, he should shoot back … [But] he was not to take the offensive unless there was imminent danger. If they attempted to arrest him, he was to take the arrest …
Despite some confusion inside the building, the Panthers maintained their discipline, accepted their arrests when they had to, but refused to give up their weapons otherwise.
But as the organization grew nation-wide in the next two years, it became necessary to implement a centralized mechanism to ensure rank-and-file discipline. The Party then issued a document called “Rules of the Black Panther Party”. These covered basic rules of conduct (“Speak politely”, “Pay fairly for what you bought”) to political and financial reports to the Central Committee (points 14-15, 20, 26) and political education classes (point 18). This last was important not only for ideological unity within the Party (emphasized in point 25) but also to close the ranks of the Party by making individual members in a given area well-acquainted with one another. Of special importance were points 1 through 3 as well as point 5. The first three banned the use of any and all types of drugs on duty, while point 5 specified the rules for using the gun. Possession of drugs, or allegation thereof, was one of the primary tactics the police used for jailing up Black men. The proper use of guns in armed confrontations and the use of legality, as we have seen, was a delicate issue that the BPP had mastered. Therefore, both elements were important to protect the rank-and-file from arrest.
Importantly, this document was published together with the famous 10-Point Program in every single issue of The Black Panther. This allowed the Party to hold accountable its members to the community and, equally vitally, to the police and the courts. If a member was behaving unruly towards the community they were serving to, the community could report it (although we have not come across this use of the document). When the government trumped up charges against the Panthers based on the unruly behavior of one or several members, the Party could dissociate itself by citing their own rules of conduct. Whoever went against the rules ran the risk of expulsion, and the names of expelled members were announced on the newspaper, so that they could not keep on with what they had been doing under the Party’s name.
Just how seriously the Panther leadership took the matter of disciplining the cadre is evident from their decision to freeze the acceptance of new members in early 1969, the year when the Panthers began to face serious repression not just by the police but also the COINTELPRO of J. Edgar Hoover. This refusal to grow further as many members were being targeted, jailed, or killed might seem counterintuitive. However, it in fact was a measure precisely against such repression. Bobby Seale explained the decision in a press conference with the following words: “We are turning inward to tighten security, [to] get rid of agents and provocateurs and to promote political education among those who have joined the Panthers but still don’t understand what we’re all about”. Instead of expanding its base wider, that is, the Party chose to close its ranks tight both organizationally and ideologically against the menacing enemy. Just how necessary, but at the same time insufficient, this tightening of discipline in the Party ranks was happened to be proven at the end of the year, when an FBI informant who had infiltrated into the Chicago chapter made it possible for the Chicago police to raid in and kill Fred Hampton in his sleep.
It was thanks to this strict discipline that the Party could show the greatest flexibility of tactics in dealing with repression and drawing on community support. With the passing of the gun control bill in California that practically outlawed the Panthers’ patrolling of the police and Huey Newton’s arrest on murder charges, both in 1968, it became evident to the Party that an exclusive emphasis on self-defense would hit a dead-end. Sheer negativity, that is, theoretical and practical critique of the racist capitalist system, was not enough, not the least because of the Goliath-like might of the enemy. Aspects of the 10-Point Program were to be implemented in areas where the Party was strong. And these areas, in turn, consisted of the inner-city ghettos and slums, where the Black poor were concentrated, and where the social services the Party was to provide were needed most desperately.
We already spoke of the Free Breakfast for Children program, the Party’s single most popular and enduring program throughout its existence. What we need to emphasize here is the political-ideological grounds upon which the Breakfast program was erected. The Panthers distinguished themselves as clearly as possible from ordinary charity organizations or government welfare programs. Feeding hundreds of thousands of kids – and sometimes their parents – neglected by the welfare offices and humiliated by charity organizations, the BPP sought to instill its revolutionary ideology in the recipients. Its primary goal was not to simply hand out charity, but to actually make sure that the basic needs of the community were fulfilled and the community grew to be self-sufficient. “The Free Breakfast for Children program is a socialistic program designed to serve the people”, read an article on the program in The Black Panther. “All institutions in a society should be designed to serve the masses, not just a ‘chosen few’. In America, this program is revolutionary”. Huey Newton was later to theorize the program as one tool in the “survival kit” that was the 10-Point Program, needed for existence until the “total transformation”, i.e. socialist revolution, was achieved: “It is necessary for our children to grow up healthy with functional and creative minds. They cannot do this unless they can get the correct nutrition.”
Various other services, from pocket legal aid to free healthcare and busing programs, were initiated in several chapters of the party. Unlike the breakfast program, most of these programs unfortunately proved to be short-lived. Nonetheless, the guiding thread of all programs was the same as that of the Free Breakfast Program: survival until the revolution arrives. If the racist-capitalist state was not about to fulfill the basic needs of the poor Black community, then it was up to its “vanguard” to serve by example so that the community learned how to be self-reliant. This position stemmed from the transitional nature of the 10-Point Program. “A Ten-Point Program is not revolutionary in itself”, reflected Huey Newton, in the speech we cited above, “nor is it reformist. It is a survival program.” Fred Hampton similarly emphasized the importance of the cumulative impact of the programs in revolutionary terms: “First you have free breakfast, then you have free medical care, then you have free bus rides, and soon you have FREEDOM!”
Two of these programs are particularly important to emphasize. The first is the BPP’s program to fight against drug addiction. Like many poor and oppressed communities around the world, substance abuse has been a real issue among poor Blacks, not in the least including several Panther leaders such as Huey Newton himself. We have already mentioned above the legal problems this social and medical question has caused for a many individual Black person. The Party took it into its hands the task to combat this, albeit with limited resources. Often led by former drug addicts, this program became a tool for the Party not only to cleanse its body of cadres and supporters from this ailment but also to emphasize the socio-political reasons behind it. “Capitalism plus dope equals genocide”, as the Boston chapter put it unequivocally. In today’s American Left, where the line between the de-criminalization of substance abuse and pro-drug advocacy is really blurred, the Panthers’ rightly strict stance – especially against the background of Huey Newton’s tragic personal demise – should evoke second thoughts.
The second is the Party’s emphasis on sickle cell anemia, an illness that ran rampant among Black communities across the nation but had received little attention, both in terms of medical research and therapeutic practice. The Panthers almost single-handedly changed this situation by advocating for more research through its Sickle Cell Anemia Research Foundation.
The Panthers themselves were not the only ones to emphasize the potentially explosive and revolutionary impact of their social programs. Their enemies, and specifically Hoover’s FBI, were also quick to understand the danger these programs constituted for the oppressive system. Hoover himself saw the Free Breakfast Program dangerous, since it effectively drew support not only from Black nationalist militants but also “uninformed whites and moderate blacks”, whereas the COINTELPRO’s primary concern was to “keep this group [the BPP] isolated from the moderate black and white community”. Accordingly, these programs were targeted as much as the individual Panther militants. Especially the Breakfast Program faced gangster-like raids, random arrests during service, destruction of donated food, and terrorization of the program’s recipients. Nonetheless, the Party was able to ensure the survival of many of its social programs until its great split in 1971. If the popularity of these programs was one condition that made their survival possible in the face of severe repression, the Panthers’ discipline and precision in implementing them was another.
A special and politically illuminating area where the Panthers showed incredible resilience and tactical versatility was their political alliances with other radical groups, which we shall turn to in our next section.