The Black Panther Party Has Never Been More Popular. But Actual Black Panthers Have Been ForgottenBreaking News
tags: film, African American history, COINTELPRO, popular culture, Black Panther Party, radical history
On October 7, 2020, Jalil Muntaqim exited the Sullivan Correctional Facility in upstate New York a free man. A member of the Black Panther Party and its more militant, clandestine offshoot, the Black Liberation Army, Muntaqim was 19 years old at the time of his 1971 arrest, which was followed by his conviction three years later for the murder of two NYPD police officers, Waverly Jones and Joseph Piagentini. After nearly a half-century behind bars and over a dozen parole requests, Muntaqim’s parole was approved last September, one month before his sixty-ninth birthday.
The country has undergone considerable changes during Muntaqim’s 49-year incarceration, not the least of which being the widespread popularity, veneration, and commodification of the Black Panther Party. The examples abound: Beyoncé’s 2016 Super Bowl performance, in which the singer and her dancers dressed in Panther-influenced attire; the Marvel superhero film Black Panther; the Black Panther Party graphic novel; the Levi’s “Black History Month” collection, featuring hoodies and T-shirts emblazoned with “Black Panther graphics”; and, of course, the Oscar-nominated film Judas and the Black Messiah, a dramatized retelling of the 1969 police murder of Illinois Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton.
But what do veteran Panthers—some of whom are now at an advanced age and fighting to make ends meet after spending more than half their lives in prison—think of this recent boom in artistic and commercial interest?
“They exploit the name and the legacy of the Black Panther Party,” Muntaqim told me, “without any credence or any true thought to the idea of those who are still suffering from Cointelpro convictions, and those of us who are elderly now and suffer from age and without any means of surviving. Our circumstances, in terms of being exploited in the name of the Black Panther Party, are horrendous.”
The U.S. Counterintelligence Program, or Cointelpro, was a notorious FBI operation that employed covert and illegal means to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” alleged subversive political organizations throughout the 1950s and ’60s. Led by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Cointelpro targeted Communist and socialist organizations, the American Indian Movement, Puerto Rican independence groups, Vietnam War protesters, and such leaders as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. But by the late ’60s, Hoover’s FBI had zealously directed its energy toward destroying what it deemed “militant black nationalist groups,” particularly the Black Panther Party.