What We Want, What We Believe

AK Press and the Roz Payne Archives
The Black Panther Party Library

It might be too easy to use Forrest Gump as the yardstick of bad American history, but no matter, it’s a tool just lying there, begging to be used. Robert Zemeckis’s film follows its dopey, lovable protagonist into the headquarters of the Washington DC chapter of the Black Panthers, where the Black radicals waste no time in deriding his “white ass” and assailing him with an angry, didactic dose of political rhetoric. After a scuffle in defense of his eternal beloved, Jenny, Gump sheepishly apologizes. “I’m sorry I had to fight in the middle of your Black Panther party.”

The average white American has the sense to get the joke: the Black Panther Party was an organization, not a celebration. Unfortunately, what they probably don’t get is not a joke at all, but a most dangerous – and all too typical – lie: this den of Panthers is one of violent caricatures, for in Forest Gump, as in American history in general, the Panthers are the ones the violence is being done to. Founded in 1967 and for all intents and purposes gone by 1975, the Black Panther Party had a short and furious existence, and more than thirty years later remains one of the most important and misunderstood organizations of the 20th century. Thankfully, with the release of What We Want, What We Believe: The Black Panther Library by AK Press and the Roz Payne Archives, more than twelve hours of film and video footage are now readily available to assist in sifting out the true Panther legacy: one of inspiring audacity, dissent, and lessons in movement building indispensable to the struggle for a better world.

Consider it a crash course in Panther history – all manner of material is gathered over four discs, from interviews with former Panthers, to the 35th Anniversary event of the Party, to scholarly academic conferences on Panther history. Countless interviewers - including several FBI agents themselves - testify, that the Party was targeted to be destroyed - in FBI parlance, “disrupted” and “neutralized” by one of the most violent campaigns of government repression in US history. Nevertheless, the history we learn in schools has, not surprisingly, been written by the victors. For instance, it’s not uncommon to still hear the Party referred to as a Black equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan – an anti-white, terrorist group hell bent on race war. Yet nothing could have been further from the truth: of the many Black power groups of the late 1960s and 1970s, the Panthers might even be distinguished by their willingness to ally with white organizations, especially students.

But it’s not their relationship to white people that makes the Panthers important; it was their relationship to the Black community they aspired to organize. The Panthers were masters at capturing media attention, but only in order to attract people - primarily young people - to their cause. As a result, their model of organizing – strong, straight-talking rhetoric mixed with community-organizing, education and service programs – spread like prairie fire. Less than a year after their founding in Oakland, CA in 1967, the Panthers had chapters across the country – in Chicago, Lousiana, New York and elsewhere – each with its own regional specifics. This in turn inspired Chicanos (the Brown Berets), Puerto Ricans (Young Lords), Native Americans (the American Indian Movement), and even poor whites (the Young Patriots) to take on similar endeavors. Clearly illustrating the Panthers’ savvy media skills – and comprising the centerpiece of What We Want, What We Believe – are three films, used for educational and recruitment purposes, that the Panthers produced in conjunction with the radical Newsreel film collective.

What makes What We Want, What We Believe so unique is its presentation of raw historical material, like the Newsreel films, rather than recycling them truncated into a documentary format. In fact, one could edit countless documentary films out of the materials here. Footage like this is usually locked away in video libraries or archives, inaccessible to folks without academic credentials. Not only does What We Want present these materials, it refuses to clean them up for the sake of one safe interpretation of Panther history.

For this reason, those wishing for a more entertaining, narrative introduction to the Panthers are likely to be disappointed by the four disc-set; the countless interviews are always interesting and informational, but may get dull and monotonous to someone less familiar with the Panthers. For the casual viewer, a better starting point would be the film Passin’ It On, which deals with the case of Dhruba Bin Wahad, a New York Panther wrongfully imprisoned for over a decade as a result of FBI malfeasance; or Lee Lew-Lee’s All Power to the People! The Black Panther Party and Beyond, a more encompassing, but more a hard to find, three-hour documentary on the Panther experience.

Leaving the material relatively unedited has its advantage, because the collection to refuses flatten out contradictions and disagreements, allowing the viewer to formulate their own opinions, views on what the Panther legacy truly is. After all, for all their strengths and innovations, the Panthers were far from perfect – as with many other organizations of the Sixties and Seventies, they struggled with sexism, strict hierarchies, susceptibility to government infiltration, and many other problems. But none of these problems is enough to dismiss them entirely, or roll them up into stereotypes ala Gump – indeed, their experience, in all its complexity, leaves us all the more to learn and apply today.

Surely we don’t need another Katrina-sized reminder that racism is still bedrock Americana. As an organizer with the Jericho Movement points at the event comemorating the 35th Anniversary of the Party, many Panthers still sit in prison today: Jalil Muntaqim, Sundiata Acoli, Mutulu Shakur, Ojore Lutalo, the list goes on – and as the Panther legacy reminds us, the struggle does too.

November 26, 2006