A short but very telling footage of J.Edgar Hoover being interviewed with regard to the Black Panthers captures him saying, “justice is merely incidental to law and order.” This attitude, which arguably prevailed among many American law and order officials at the time, succinctly underscores the difference between what the Black Panthers wanted to say and what the FBI, judges, and local police stations wanted to say. For Stanley Johnson, this fundamental difference in language and point of view led to the BPP’s demise.
The Black Panther Party for Self Defense was formed in 1966 in Oakland, California. The BPP, as with other social justice groups of the time (such as the SCLC, the NAACP, and the Black Muslims), wanted to have a meaningful conversation and both immediate and long-term solutions to high unemployment, bad housing, police brutality, poor health care, and inferior educational opportunities within the Black community. Their two-pronged approach included a domestic form of activism in their survival programs, where social institutions were developed within the community (the film highlights in particular their breakfast program for young children); it also included the public activism for which the BPP was to be well-known, including an electrifying but peaceful armed march on the State Capitol in Sacramento; demonstrations to free the charismatic leader Huey P. Newton; and various other protests and gatherings all over the United States. The federal and local response to this organizing was of the public kind, with raids of questionable legality and brutal violence; and also, of the more invisible kind, in the form of spying and sowing internal divisions within the organization.
In short, the Black Panthers wanted justice, and the government wanted to preserve law and order, particularly as myriad social justice movements of the 1960s started to dismantle the master’s house. For the BPP, justice was about the equal application of the law and civic order for all; for the officials, law and order was about putting activists to justice. These were two vastly different and one-sided conversations, different conceptions of what constituted a civil society. In many ways, there could never be a real and peaceful conversation, as the social and cultural tensions which had simmered since the end of the Civil War seemed to be beyond dialogue. The film captures the frustration of individuals as well as our collective historical frustration of the way in which all of this violently unfolded. It also serves as a grave reminder that though we have come a long way since then in terms of civil rights, we still have a longer way to go.
The Black Panthers; Vanguard of the Revolution, dir. Stanley Nelson, 113 min. Firelight Films et al., 2015. Opens today in San Francisco.