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Our Roar: The Black Panther Party, Self-Defense, and Government
Violence The Satya Interview with David
Photo courtesy of David Hilliard
Almost everyone today has heard of the Black
Panther Party and is familiar with its premise, the armed struggle
for racial equality. “By any means necessary” was
indeed the token phrase of the Party, which in founder and leader
Huey Newton’s words, was “going to be the personification
of Malcolm [X]’s dreams.” Not as widely known, however,
is the full story behind the Black Panthers, who were about a
lot more than a simple show of force.
The changes they demanded as necessary in order to achieve justice
in the U.S. were articulated in their Ten Point Program, which
included basic things like decent housing, education, employment,
and free healthcare, as well as broader demands such as people’s
control of modern technology, the “power to determine the
destiny of our black and oppressed communities,” and “an
immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people,
other people of color, all oppressed people inside the U.S.”
The Party was founded on the premise that the history of slavery
in this country created a societal framework for racial inequality,
which persisted—though illegal—unpunished by the state.
This notion, to recognize the need for a response of self-defense
proportionate to the dominant culture’s violence against
non-whites, emerged alongside other socially significant events
of the time—Malcom X’s assassination, the black uprising
in Watts, the momentum built by MLK, etc. So, in 1966, Huey Newton
and some of his friends, including Bobby Seale and David Hilliard,
decided to take on the battle themselves, and established the
organization behind the first armed struggle in the civil rights
What started out as a few friends gathering together exploded
into a Party with a membership of a couple thousand, as people
were drawn to the vision it disseminated. Their motto, “Power
to the People!” caught on quick as a standard catchphrase
in 1960s America. What Black Panthers managed to achieve included
the establishment of positive, solution-oriented social programs—some
of which are still in place today—such as the Breakfast
for Children program, which fed free, hot, nutritious breakfasts
to underprivileged children, and Seniors Against a Fearful Environment
(SAFE) to provide senior citizens with free transportation to
community banks every month. Other examples: a medical clinic,
free community employment services, and cooperative programs for
both housing and food.
An end to police brutality was not only one of the primary demands
of the Panthers, it was also the fundamental inspiration for the
Party’s platform, self-defense against racist violence and
oppression, as well as its very title—the panther, by nature,
does not initiate attack, but will always attack when threatened.
The Black Panther Party lasted ten years, with a decline it attributes
in large part to the battle it fought against the state, having
been asserted the number one threat to internal security by the
To learn more about Black Panther history, its founding members,
or to read the Ten Point Program, visit www.blackpanther.org.
The Huey P. Newton Reader and the autobiographies of
some of the Party’s major players—Bobby Seale, David
Hilliard, Angela Davis—are also great resources, and Black
Panthers for Beginners by Herb Boyd is a great ‘comic
book’-like primer. —R.C.
David Hilliard was a founding member
and Chief of Staff of the Black Panther Party (BPP), one of the most
prominent social movements to have risen out of the politically charged
1960s. His life, then and now, has been wholeheartedly dedicated to
the fight against social injustice, police brutality in particular.
He was fiercely loyal to the Party while it lasted, a period of ten
years, and has since founded the Huey P. Newton Foundation to preserve
the history of the Party and the intellectual legacy of its founder.
In his autobiography, This Side of Glory (Little Brown &
Co, 1994), Hilliard documents the creation and history of the Black
Panther Party and his own life experiences that led him to become active
in social issues in the first place, primarily in the struggle for racial
equality. Here, Hilliard discusses with Rachel Cernansky
some of the Black Panthers’ story, his thoughts on the tactics
they used, and what he thinks of today’s struggles for social
Could you start by describing your history with the Black Panther
I’m one of the founding members. I began my organizing with the
Black Panther Party in 1966 here in Oakland, CA. Huey Newton, the leader
of our movement, and I were childhood friends. All around us was this
social unrest—it was sort of the spirit of the time. So it wasn’t
a hard decision, when Huey Newton asked if I would join this new self-defense
organization to counter rampant police abuses such as murder and brutality,
in our communities. There was the Civil Rights movement, with children
being bombed in the church in Birmingham and women being beaten during
the freedom marches. Malcolm X was killed in 1965, and I’d witnessed
Watts and the burning of the communities in LA, and the rebellions in
Newark, NJ. There was a war raging in Vietnam. I was ready to do something
and immediately joined with him and Bobby Seale.
How do you define self-defense?
I think it’s pretty easy to define self-defense in connection
with preservation of one’s life. Life is very precious. It’s
a social contract. We’re guaranteed through the Constitution a
right to defend ourselves against unjust, perpetrated violence, and
a right to human dignity. Certainly, the self-defense of the victim
is not the same as the violence of the oppressor.
We used to make a parallel to people who considered themselves pacifists:
If someone broke into your home and began raping your wife and children
and you had a gun or a knife, would you just sit there and allow that
to happen? We know what the response would be. So we were responding
in self-defense to America’s violence: bombings of our people,
killing us with impunity, George Wallace saying “segregation today,
segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
Looking back, do you think Black Panther tactics were effective
and successful means for social change?
I think that we helped promote social change in this country. We did
not have the complete and total answer, but our programs are still around.
Many have become public policy, like universal healthcare; breakfast
for children programs—feeding economically disadvantaged children
hot nutritious breakfasts; our senior transportation programs; our demonstrations
through colleges and academia to add ethnic studies programs. So absolutely
we influenced social change.
The change that was envisioned?
Well, revolution is not a conclusion. It’s not an act, it’s
a process. The BPP realized it could not change society itself, it takes
the masses of the people, and it’s a long, protracted struggle.
Our organization lasted ten years. And it was one of the most assailed.
We were the target of the most vicious FBI oppression of political organizations:
out of nearly 300 targets of attack, 79 percent were against our movement.
We were driven into exile, some 40 are still in prison, 28 of us were
murdered—so no, we didn’t change America, but we did our
best, we made great sacrifices, more than anybody else in the Civil
Rights movement. But struggle is a continuum. We didn’t make the
revolution, we promoted the process. By giving our lives.
Is there anything you would do differently?
I think that earlier on there could have been much more emphasis on
our [social service] programs, where we didn’t get into confrontation
with the police—but only because I’m seeing this in retrospect.
It’s not that we had much of a choice. The government was not
protecting us, and we were trying to live with some dignity and respect.
We were an economic development model, trying to deliver basic services
to our people. But that was frustrated by the attacks of the police
and U.S. government.
So the government you’d say was the biggest obstacle?
Yes it was. The government is what [led] decisively, directly to the
destruction of our BPP. Huey Newton, a Ph.D. from UC Santa Cruz, wrote
his dissertation on “The FBI’s War Against the Black Panther
Party and a Study of Repression in America.” We were totally destroyed
by J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon’s armed administration. We
were targeted as the #1 threat to the internal security of America.
We were painted by design as terrorists, criminals, thugs, and the government
effectively neutralized and wiped out our movement. We were no match
for the most powerful nation in the world.
The Party attributes that “#1 threat” claim by the
FBI to the fact that its ideals and activities were so radical. Would
you say those played equally in creating that perceived threat? Or was
one more powerful than the other, the ideals or the activities?
Well, when you study the FBI documents, one of the most hated programs
was the breakfast for children program. It was assaulted. They would
break into our offices and destroy the food to dissuade and turn the
support base we had for feeding disadvantaged children. So yes, our
ideals I think were what the FBI, the government, hated so much.
On the other hand, we called for full employment for our people. We
were able to give free healthcare in NY State—in Harlem, Bedford
Stuyvesant, Mt. Vernon, the Bronx—when the government was unable
to. We showed that there had to be some changes in how the economy and
its priorities were delivered—obviously it was not about human
services, but more about militarization, police presence, prisons.
Have your beliefs changed regarding what means are and are not
I think we were pretty much on point, in terms of our ideals. And when
you look around you see that America is still the most violent government,
sponsoring state terror against people around the world—in Iraq,
Cuba, Africa, the Middle East. I think that should answer your question.
People have a right to do anything they can to ensure another day of
life. America is a government that represses people and their most basic
needs for their own personal [and] corporate greed. So this whole idea
about trying to put the weight on people who defend their lives is a
bit naïve. I think that criticism should go towards the government
that has made America the most hated country in the world—and
the most dangerous, for that matter.
There’s a lot of people who agree with you on that. Let’s
shift though to conflicts within American society in particular; do
you feel it’s more accurate today to describe them as divided
along race or along class lines?
Well it’s both. No doubt racism is a big big part of it. We have
yet to deal with the issue of race in this country, given the fact that
if you examine the economic and housing situations in our communities,
if you look at jobs, at the discrimination against people from the Middle
East. The issues have not been resolved. If you look at the way Hispanics
are treated, at the way women are treated in this country, then you
get an idea that America is still a very racist, hierarchical system.
But of course the issue also has to do with class. Class and race are
I’m curious about your response to a criticism I’m
sure you’ve encountered, a notion many individuals have—that
certain social injustices, including racial disparity and hate, stem
from stereotypes, which the aggressive “by any means necessary”
approach would seem to feed. What are your thoughts on this?
I think that question is inane. Again, I think to make the victim the
criminal and the criminal the victim is a very warped way of looking
at justice. People have to accept that America’s been the most
violent country in the world, and anybody responding in a way that gives
them another day of life, that is self-defense. The response of the
victim [should be] to throw off the bonds of oppression and subjugation
in any way they deem necessary. The murder, brutality, imprisonment,
the denial of basic education, of basic human rights, unemployment—that
is much more violent than somebody defending themselves against some
racists. Victims have a right to defend themselves and we should not
apologize for that.
It’s just helpful to hear a Panther member’s response to
an argument that seems to be recited so often—and often as an
excuse to disregard the underlying message.
Well the Party believed in dignity and respect, and most of all in the
sanctity of human life. That’s why we had these service programs,
doing ‘un-American’ things like giving seniors free medical
care, supporting our kids and working with Latinos and Asians. We were
the first organization in the 60s and 70s to have an alliance with the
gay rights movement. We were a human rights movement. It had nothing
to do with race, we were trying to move mankind to a higher manifestation,
to make this world a better place.
What was the role of women in the BPP?
Women were not our lesser half, they were not our better half. They
were the other half of our movement. They held up 50 percent of the
sky. Women were sent to prison, women were attacked. They had no more
rights than black men did under this system of oppression and racial
subjugation. We were all in the same struggle and still are. Black men
are not free until black women are free, and vice versa.
People brought sexist attitudes from the larger society into our movement,
and we tried to deal with that. Our BPP was the only civil rights organization
at the time where women were actually in leadership. Audrea Jones founded
our chapter in Boston; Frances Carter founded our movement in Bridgeport
and New Haven; Ericka Huggins was the leader of our movement in LA along
with Elaine Brown, who became the foremost leader of our movement in
Where are we now—what are the major issues to be addressed
We’re in pretty much the same place we were 40 years ago. We’re
involved in a war, Bush’s personal war, where our young men and
women are losing their lives on a daily basis. Our communities in many
cases are overwrought with homelessness. The schools are a total dismal
failure. The prisons are bursting at the seams with African Americans
and other minorities.
There’s a lot of work to be done, and the issues we addressed
in our heyday are still at the forefront of struggle; so in a lot of
ways they are the same issues we were always fighting for. People defending
animal rights, environmental issues, wild salmon vs. farm-raised salmon,
the right to have food on the planet, those were issues that were going
on in the 70s.
Do you see connections between all of those issues?
Absolutely. It’s a continuum. There’s a generation [now]
that does not know this history because it’s obscured in a lot
of ways. But given the technological advantages that we have now, with
the Internet and all of the massive access to information, there’s
just no reason people should not know about these struggles. And I think
that is the forefront of this generation’s struggle: to begin
to control the means of technology. Technology belongs to the people
and should be used to raise everybody to a higher manifestation of living
and a decent life—not for the benefit of a few multinational corporations.
I think we’re on the right track to arriving at what Huey Newton
called a ‘revolutionary intercommunalism,’ within [which]
the whole world will belong to the people. And we’ll have a culture
that’s essentially human.
You mentioned animal rights. Was that ever a part of the BPP
Well our agenda was to understand the sanctity of life, for all sentient
beings. Everything is interconnected and the death of any man, woman,
thing, diminishes us all. Huey Newton was a Buddhist; he taught us about
Taoism and Buddhism and the principles of the Samurai warriors, and
we lived by some of the Eastern philosophies of Krishnamurti. Vegetarianism
was a big thing in our BPP. Our school was vegetarian [and the] children
were on a vegetarian diet.
Do you see any movement that’s making progress today?
Yes, I’m impressed with the animal rights movement and with people
fighting for environmentalism. I’m impressed with the sustainable
economy movement and the young people who were in Seattle, and who opposed
Bush’s war and multinational corporations in Mexico most recently.
I’m involved with and support the anti-war movement. I support
the gay rights movement. I try to stay abreast of what the issues are.
What do you see as the role of young people today?
The role of young people is to take control of their own destiny and
get rid of these old, greedy, selfish, anti-human politicians and administrators
who want to own all the resources of the world for their own personal
aggrandizement. It’s their role to make the world a better place
for people in the Middle East, in Africa, in Asia. Because the world
belongs to the people, and we need to understand that places distant
are part of the world community. We should be involved in all the struggles
of the world, because the world’s resources belong to all of us.
It’s this generation’s charge to be about the business of
joining with the world and having one struggle, a commonality of economics.
Then we will all live at a higher manifestation [and] all of our basic
needs would be taken care of.
What are your thoughts on what role violence—or specifically,
self-defense—can or should play in that struggle?
I think the survival of the species should be our number one priority.
We are the peacemakers. We want an end to all war, we want an abolition
to the violence of man against man, and the only way to do that I think
is to wage revolutionary war—to confront unjust violence with
the just violence of salvation so that we all survive. Put down the
disturbers of the peace, and in order to do that, one has to sometimes
counter unjust violence with revolutionary violence.
What advice would you have for people who want to see that happen?
I think people should just prepare themselves and study history. They
should be very aware that when you try to take control of your lives
and change [this] system, you’re going to meet resistance.
Are you hopeful for the future?
I’m an eternal optimist, yes. I must be. It’s what motivates
me. And I see great things happening—with youth and people all
around the world, gloriously fighting. And we are part of that struggle
because the death of any man or woman diminishes us all because we’re
all connected. It’s not like what happens in Africa or in the
Middle East is not our concern—of course it’s our concern.
And I’m trying to make my commitment; I haven’t given up