[sixties-l] BPP and the logic of disintegration

From: Jvaron@aol.com
Date: Tue Jun 13 2000 - 17:44:46 CUT

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    Dear all,

    A friend had warned me that in its last incarnation the list, though often
    wonderful, degenerated into shrill exchanges between David Horrowitz and
    those defending the left. Sadly, we seem on the same downward slope, and I'd
    hate to see this forum crash and burn in an inferno of ad hominum attacks and
    unresolvable conflicts.

    Given the above, forgive my naming names below; I offer not a critique of
    character, but an assessment (subjective, no doubt) of the affect and effect
    of certain interventions: Mr. Horrowitz, you seem to me more intent on
    inciting and on annoying, than on provoking thought or the kind of critical
    reconsideration of the left you presumably seek. You exude an
    "am-I-the-only-one-who-sees-the-light?!!" kind of righteousness, and seem to
    assume that your interlocutors are insincere, uninformed, naive, or duped.
    You get a reponse consistent with the ungracious tone of your comments and, I
    fear, interpret people's (justifiable) defensiveness as further signs of how
    persecuted you are. Whatever your political experience and knowledge base,
    your mode of discourse seems rather unproductive.

    Now, some consideration of substance (never separable from the medium). I
    read Pearson's book several years back and found it disturbing. Yes, the
    book has been strongly criticized for being factually suspect, one-sided, and
    mean-spirited. It is rather indulgent, particularly when he asserts some
    kind of cosmic connection to Huey Newton because they were both given the
    same bummer of a first name by their parents and suffered (Hugh conjectures)
    low self-esteem as a result (however bizarre, this is a thread in Pearson's

    But I recall thinking that even if HALF of what Pearson alleges is true, then
    there was something terribly flawed about at least certain of the Panthers.
    Especially jarring are Huey's murders, his unprovoked attack on his tailor,
    and the strong possibility that he indeed killed the California
    Highwaypatrolman Frye, for which he was sent to jail and put on trial, all
    the while claiming his innocence and rallying an international movement to
    "Free Huey!" It was also disconcerting to learn that, despite the Panthers'
    "Serve the People" ethic, Pearson could find little evidence that the
    Panthers effectively ran (m)any community-based service programs in the 60s,
    and that such progarms, to the extent that they existed at all, left few or
    no traces. I have no way of independently affirming or contradicting these
    allegations; at least some seem plausible as Pearson states them.

    The Pearson book is indeed very poor as a work of history; it is recklessly
    thin on context and gives little sense of the forms of adversity the
    Panthers' faced or the daily hazards and kinds of emotional and psychological
    damage that, I assume, infuse communities condemned to poverty and
    hopelessness. So I draw a very different set of conclusions than Pearson,
    who blames the Panthers for, above all, promoting and perpetuting what he
    sees as the myth that to be an "authentic" black man you have to be poor,
    from the streets, undereducated, hostile to police, self-destructive, etc.
    (He made this point very strongly in an essay he wrote for the Brown Alumni
    Monthly -- he is indeed an alumn -- shortly after publication of his book).
    One key to understanding Pearson is, I think, to recognize that he is
    struggling with his own sense of black identity as a middle-class (or
    higher), well-educated black man who does not relate, existentially, to the
    aspects of the black experience the Panthers represented and which he feels
    are over-represented in rap, film, literature, etc.. He further alleges
    that this myth encourages black underacheivement and a "blame society first"
    attitude, while invalidating his own "blackness." These inner conflicts, it
    seems, radically shaped his portrayal of the Panthers and account, at least
    in part, for his evident resentment of them. The issues Pearson at least
    implicitly raises are by no means trivial -- they have to do with class
    divisions within black America, representational struggles over black
    identity, the meaning of racial solidarity, black self-perceptions, and the
    images of blacks (as athletes or gangsters) that the white media favors. But
    they distort, I think, his approach to the history and meaning of the BPP.

    For me, one lesson from what Pearson discusses (and this is not to agree with
    him) is that a movement hurts itself greatly when it loses a sense of
    integrity -- misleads its followers and those who, in good faith, attribute
    to it qualities of heroism, strength, and the capacity to speak truth to
    power that it does not fully posses. A lot of people -- black, white,
    European, Afircan -- went to the matt in defending Huey and repeating as
    gospel his contention that he was framed for Frye's murder; if he indeed
    killed Frye, it's a horrible thing to project the illusion of innocence -- if
    leaders can't be trustred in some basic sense, then they are bound to lead
    people and movements astray.

    Yes, morality is likely relative, not absolute. The governement lied about
    the Panthers (recall the Chicago police initially claiming that Hampton, et.
    al. had provoked a gunfight in hopes of covering up what was a cold-blooded
    assasination). There was no accountability on the other side -- no murder 1
    charges and life terms for the Chicago police, who were incontrovertibly
    guilty. Perhaps all's fair, as they say, in love and war. And there are
    countless instances when blacks in America have been framed, railroaded by
    white juries, lynched by racist mobs based on entirely bogus claims of some
    transgression. Neither the Panthers nor the FBI/police "played fair," and
    when survival is at stake, "the truth" suffers. Propaganda is another weapon
    in war, and there's no sense in which the Panthers, in principle, should not
    have had access to the same arsenal as the government.

    But when you lose your integrity -- lie about killing, conceal private and
    pathological forms of violence that infect your movement -- you lose some of
    your humanity and undermine your very claim to represent the promise of a
    more just and humane society. It comes back to haunt you. The Panthers, by
    some indeterminate quotients, were destroyed from without, but also did
    themselves in. I can't help but think that if they had been more deeply
    dedicated to their own ideals -- and I don't mean to demean their efforts,
    insist that this would have been easy, discount their sacrifice, or minimize
    the extent to which they were terrorized by the government -- they would have
    been more successful, had more followers, made more of a difference.

    Looking at the sweep of the history of the left this century, there has been
    far too much inhumanity, too much righteousness and the appropriation of
    power based on bad (or good) ideas badly applied and with no accountability.
    OK, Stalkinism is exemplary of this, and the left is by no means reducible to
    Stalinism; but, in the current era of virtually unopposed mutli-national
    capitalism, it seems that we are paying, globally and collectively, a very
    high price for the sins committed in the name of socialism, revolutionary
    anti-imperialism, liberation, and the like. My main "complaint" of the 60s
    generation as one who "missed" the 60s has nothing to do with some people
    becoming Yuppie sell-outs, or the self-indulgence, or the cloying refusal of
    some boomers to accept growing older (one CAN do this, while remaining
    "forever young" in spirit and heart). Rather, it is that people on the left
    did not more lovingly and vigilently protect their own ideals and preserve
    the integrity of their own movement. The dogmatism, egotism, righteousness,
    backbiting, compromise of values, no-nothingism -- all so pronounced in the
    very late 60s -- had dire consequences. Historical opportunities like the
    60s don't come around often. All the acheivements of the era that Brent
    Green so eloquently ennumerated are to be celebrated and cherished. And yet
    I still wish that the movement could have had it together enough to have been
    more successful, to have changed more, done more, and lasted longer. That's
    more a compliment than an indictment, but one tinged with a measure of
    sadness that certain opportunities were needlessly missed. The 60s, then,
    are for me at once a source of inspiration, an object of a kind of reverance,
    and a cautionary tale about the hazards of radical protest.

    Back to the Panthers. I don't mean to single them out or to equate their
    limitations with the worst of what the left has historically done. Every
    subset of the movement had serious problems, progressive as well as
    regressive qualities. It is, rather, to say that the Panthers should neither
    be naively lionized nor demonized -- something, it seems, almost no one on
    the list (save Horrowitz) is interested in doing.

    I'll stress a few points. Neither the BPP nor the Black Power movement as a
    whole should be judged solely on the basis of the pathologies of some of
    their leaders, or the fratricidal violence of the late 60s and early 70s, or
    the possibility that some used politics as a pretext for conventional forms
    of crime. That is an absurd position.

     I would emphasize that in America so much of politics is symbolic or
    "cultural," such that image-making, speech, and symbol-making have
    substantive political "content." The Panthers represented a spirit of
    defiance that some people, especially poor, urban blacks, found inspiring.
    This came across in their 10-point program, their dress, their carrying guns
    into the CA state capitol, threatening retaliatory violence, making
    incendiary (and often rhetorically beautiful) speeches, and the like. They
    seemed to give people hope, a voice, a sense of purpose, validation, and a
    framework for understanding seemingly personal frustrations and struggles in
    political terms.

    How many lives were impacted in positive ways by the Panthers, over and above
    those who were actual members? Who knows. But things like pride,
    self-respect, dignity, leaps in consciousness, and the like are REAL, even if
    intangible. And I would bet that a lot of people enthralled by the Panthers
    in the late 60s became and still are community activists. Moreover, the
    Panthers identified many of the social roots behind the state of Black
    America in the 60s. What did they "demand"? Education, food, jobs, autonomy
    as communities, accountability, and the right of self-defense against
    predatory and racist police. The white power structure, I think, felt
    threatened by the SUBSTANCE of their message, insofar as it called for a
    radical redistribution of economic, political and cultural power. In the
    wake of urban riots, government commissions themselves -- most notably the
    Kerner Commision -- concluded that the "civil unrest" in black communities
    was rooted in forms of social inequality, and that black violence -- in riots
    or in other forms -- would continue if the systemic problems weren't
    addressed through a massive commitment of government resources and the
    radical reorganization of police departments. For Horrowitz to say "why
    would you want to attack police who are there to protect your community from
    predators" by way of dismissing the Panthers' actions against the Oakland PD
    is off-base. Even government-hired analysts under Johnson/Nixon conceded
    that urban black hatred of police had merit and that rioting ("Why would you
    want to burn down your own neighborhood?" -- I can imagine Horrowitz mouthing
    this fatuous line) was an understandable, if tragic, expression of a
    justifiable rage. For the Panthers merely to ARTICULATE their very sane
    demands -- in a certain context and with a certain bravura and insistence --
    is politically significant. The 10-point program is an enduringly valuable
    template of what is and needs to be done, a bottom-line expression of basic
    goals that, if unmet, will continually reveal the great failure of our
    potentially great society.

    To close, one anecdote: Shortly after reading the Pearson book I saw David
    Hilliard (one time BPP Chairman) speak at Stanford. I asked him, with a
    disturbing image of Huey Newton in mind, the simple question "What do you
    think of Huey?" He answered (something like) "Huey was a genius!" (to my
    surprise) and continued, "Why was he a genius? Because he came up with the
    10-point program. And how did he do that? He went to the community, he went
    to the people, and asked them 'What do you want, what do you need?' and they
    told him. Huey didn't write that, the people did. But Huey was their
    messanger. In a couple of years thousands and thousands of blacks were
    rallying behind the BPP program, working hard to fight oppression, to have
    control over their lives."

    His answer did make me think. The "genius" of a leader can indeed be serving
    as a voice for a much larger community (and my sense, without meaning to
    indulge stereotypes, is that this aspect of leadership is very pronounced
    within African-American culture; MLK had the same quality). In this model,
    Huey the individual is not so important, save for his powers of articulation
    and willingness to be a potent symbol of an "in-your-face" form of black
    pride. OK, so he was a highly flawed, or even demonic, "genius." But his
    true power came from the community he represented, and it's no small feat to
    give expression and shape to collective desires and dreams.

    Peace, Jeremy

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