Revolution is Illegal: Revisiting the Panther 21 at 50Roundup
tags: African American history, FBI, radicalism, COINTELPRO, Black Panther Party
Orisanmi Burton is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at American University and a Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. He is completing his first manuscript entitled Tip of the Spear: The Long Attica Rebellion & Prison Pacification in the Empire State.
In a recent open letter to prominent Black hip-hop artists, veterans of the Black Panther Party (BPP) argue that in the midst of a virus that disproportionately kills Black people, and pervasive racist state terror, it is essential that artists and activists foster greater continuity between past and present generations of Black resistance. They write: “much of our history in our people’s struggle has been kept away from you and seemingly unavailable to your generation as you reinvent what was done in the past. Our people’s enemies haven’t changed, circumstances and conditions have. History never repeats itself – but it damn sure can rhyme.”
To revisit the history of the BPP is to experience the rhyme of history. Yet, the refrain is not a pleasant one. Indeed, it would be difficult to argue that circumstances and material conditions have improved for Black people in the time since “Black Lives Matter” and “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” supplanted “Black Power” and “Off the Pigs” as ubiquitous rallying cries of Black struggle. It is a sad reality that the BPP 10-Point Platform and Program is just as applicable today as it was when party founders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seal co-authored it in 1966. Foreshadowing contemporary abolitionist demands, it called for an “immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people,” as well as “freedom for all black men [sic] held in federal, state, county prisons and jails.” Since that time, racist police violence has continued unabated and the U.S. prison system has expanded exponentially.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the persecution of the New York Panther 21, a collection of Black radicals falsely accused of plotting to carry out wanton acts of violence across New York City. The protracted battles that emerged around the 21’s arrest and the trial, as well as the judiciary’s exploitative imposition of bail, the carceral system’s brutal treatment of them, and the struggle to defend the existence of Black radical organization, exposed the extent to which Black communities and the U.S. government were (and are) actively engaged in a form of asymmetrical combat. By reexamining the Panther 21 we can apprehend a dialectic of Black radicalism and racist state repression that exceeds the confines of legally sanctioned means of struggle.
The BPP was scarcely 3 years old and the New York Chapter had not yet reached its first anniversary when the Panther 21 were captured. In that brief time, the chapter had established offices in Harlem, Brooklyn, and Queens. They held regular political education classes and had organized several “survival pending revolution” programs, including a Free Breakfast for Children program, a Liberation School, and a clothing distribution program. They also advocated for tenants’ rights, led an anti-heroin campaign, and participated in efforts to achieve community control over the police, who were seen not as a source of protection, but as an “occupying army” that forcibly confined Black people within a system of colonial domination.
In 1969, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover labelled the BPP “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” That same year, according to scholar Ward Churchill, 24 Panthers were killed by police, scores more were injured, and at least 749 were jailed.1 Hoover’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) essentially constituted a form of undeclared war against the Panthers. In its efforts to forestall radical social transformation, the FBI was not alone. The NYPD housed a secretive anti-subversive unit called the Bureau of Special Services (BOSS), which had planted at least 6 undercover agents within the chapter from its inception. BOSS was known for targeting apolitical subjects who presented as “blank slates” and recruiting them into the organization before they completed police academy training, so as to prevent them from picking up police lingo.
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