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April 2004
Hear Our Roar: The Black Panther Party, Self-Defense, and Government Violence
The Satya Interview with David Hilliard

 

Photo courtesy of David Hilliard
The Black Panther Party


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 effort.

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 FBI.

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 justice.

Could you start by describing your history with the Black Panther Party?
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 effective?
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 synonymous.

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 America.

Where are we now—what are the major issues to be addressed today?
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 agenda?
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 the fight.

 

 

 


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