The other day I watched a PBS documentary about the Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. There’s an excellent hour-long Democracy Now special here with the director Stanley Nelson, and the Black Panthers’ communications secretary Kathleen Cleaver.
I’m sort of ashamed to admit that I didn’t know that much about the Black Panthers, beyond the iconography of hair and jackets and guns, and the black power salute, until T told me about their community programmes (which he’d found out about at an exhibition at Urbis in Manchester, now turned into the football museum). The Black Panthers were not just about guns and intimidating the police doing stop and search, they were a truly revolutionary organisation: they translated their explicitly revolutionary analysis of power and oppression into community-run breakfast clubs for kids. They addressed gender roles, valuing the roles that women played and making a commitment to challenging and visibly reversing gender stereotypes by showing women with guns and men cooking in community kitchens. Black Panther writers and artists made the literary case for revolution, and created iconographic images and their own original ‘social realism’ imagery of Black people engaged in revolutionary work. They had a pretty comprehensive organising structure, and a revolutionary newspaper with a wide circulation that aimed to “reach the parts the organisation cannot reach”.
Filled with original footage of rallies, marches, meetings, and the hard work of daily community maintenance, I was gripped by the film. So that, although I knew how it would end, the story it tells is so inspiring, moment to moment, and he passion of the surviving Black Panthers who are interviews in the film is so alive, even today, that I kept hoping for a different conclusion. But in the end the FBI won.
For me the most inspirational moment in the film is in footage of Fred Hampton, head of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers (aged only 22!), speaking to various meetings. Fred was a revolutionary. At meetings he liked to encourage the audience to get in touch with their potential to make change by practicing the Black Power salute and calling out together: “I am a revolutionary! I am a revolutionary! I am a revolutionary!” (This works great magic – I urge you to try it.)
In one segment of grainy film, Fred stands up and says: “People will be divisive and say, ‘I’m Black and I hate White people; I’m White and I hate Black people; I’m Latin American and I hate Hillbillies; I’m a Hillbilly and I hate Indians. So we fight amongst each other!’ The Black Panther party say, ‘We don’t care what anybody says – we don’t think you fight fire with fire, we say you fight fire with water pistols; you don’t fight racism with racism, we gonna fight it with solidarity.'” It was this call for racial unity, especially when taken to white working class communities, that finally brought the FBI down on the Black Panthers, out of fear that the people, united, might actually be undefeatable. It was what made Fred Hampden the target for what might be the most brutal (and crude) political assassination by the police ever carried out on American soil.
In his rallying cry “you don’t fight fire with fire, you don’t fight racism with racism”, I heard an ancient echo. A few days later I found these words in the Dhammapada:
Hatred never ends with hatred / By non-hatred alone does it end. This is an ancient truth.” (5)
Wisdom is truth that cannot be traced to an original source – it will pop out just at the moment and right in the place it is most needed. All that is required for us to hear it is for a channel to open – and a mouthpiece to speak it out. For a moment in 1968 that was Fred Hampton.
But wisdom has to be put into practice for change to come about.
Zen teacher Gil Fronsdal translates the next verse of the Dhammapadda like this:
Many do not realize that / We here must die. / For those who realise this, / Quarrels end.” (6)
Solidarity is a wisdom practice. It has the power to change everything – if you’re doing it right.