A banner for the lowndes county freedom organization, the original Black Panther Party.
A banner for the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, the original Black Panther Party.

55 Years Since the Black Panther Party & We Still Affirm Our Right to Defend our Communities

In 2021, thousands of Africans are routinely and consistently subjected to state sponsored and supported violence, death, and intimidation. By state sponsored we mean tax dollar supported police agencies and their surrogates and supporters (or imitators). Police terrorism is a serious issue today in the Americas from Alaska down through South America. It happens against us in Australia and all throughout Europe. And this state violence isn’t just targeted against Africans. It’s equally aimed at our Indigenous families of the Western Hemisphere (that includes all people who are referred to as Latinx), and increasingly, poor working class Europeans (Whites) are affected by state violence which has one objective; preventing all of us from expressing our will to resist empire.

In addition to police, we are also forced to combat other forms of state sanctioned violence: environmental racism, lack of community infrastructure, poverty, elevated rates of illness and disease, mass deportation, food apartheid, and compounded on top of all this in 2020, a global viral pandemic. Throughout the duration of this pandemic, African and other colonized people have been essentially left to fend for themselves. With our already estranged relationships to medical care in this country, we continue to suffer while the fight for a universal healthcare system has all but been abandoned, and watched as the election of Joseph Biden killed what hopes still existed for monthly stimulus checks. From coast to coast, organizations have been left to pick up the pieces and figure out how to keep their communities alive. 

The Black Panther Party for Self Defense (BPP) was founded in Oakland, California, in October of 1966 amidst a pandemic of their own. It was formed as an expression by African people to stand up against police terrorism. Huey P. Newton, the co-founder of the BPP along with Bobby Seale, expressed in his autobiography “Revolutionary Suicide” that the BPP was inspired in part by the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. The Lowndes County organization was a project of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee that sought to create political power for the oppressed community of Lowndes County, Southern Alabama. In fact, violence against Africans in Lowndes County by the Ku Klux Klan and other racist elements was so consistent that the county carried the name “bloody Lowndes.”  And, since eight out of ten Africans in the county lacked the ability to read, the organization created the Black Panther as a symbol to galvanize the community. This action caused the party to be more popularly known as the Black Panther Party and the need for the party to have an armed presence to repel white supremacists created the blueprint that Newton says influenced his thinking for what was needed in Oakland to combat police repression. 

The Oakland BPP started out as a handful of young Africans who were fed up with this state repression. Their method of addressing this problem wasn’t to vote, lobby, or protest, but to organize armed patrols where they would confront police and make sure Africans being terrorized by police knew their “rights” as it related to laws on the books. The BPP of course grew into a national and ultimately an international organization that carried forward many important lessons regarding self determination and forward progress. In recent years, in light of many younger people studying the Panther history and becoming inspired by that work, there has been a concerted effort by agents of imperialism to denounce the Panther’s legacy by attempting to discredit the courageous work they did. Nothing our enemies say can discredit the brave example the BPP demonstrated for us. Whatever errors the BPP, and all of its leaders made, those errors paled in comparison to the brutal repression they organized against. By the same token, we cannot be confused to the point where we let our enemies attempt to compare a few token random killings of a handful of police officers to the institutionalized and systematic murder of thousands upon thousands of Africans, Indigenous, and all poor working people all over the world. We refuse to be intimidated by this cowardly and unscientific effort to further devalue the lives of our people. Capitalism and white supremacy have created conditions where state terrorism has killed millions of Africans. Countless police and individual Europeans have historically been emboldened to go out and kill us at will with very little due process and consequences. And our enemies are trying to compare that traumatic history to a few random cases of people shooting police who have this long history of shooting us. Make note of the fact the killings of police have been random and unconnected to anything organized, yet, these people are shooting at police. In other words, if the police were not systematically brutalizing African people, those shootings wouldn’t be taking place whereas state terrorism targets Africans and others for no reason other than to uphold its control over the Africans masses and our right to resist their illegal dominance over our lives. So, if you are concerned about the safety of police, then do work to stop them from brutalizing us. It doesn’t take an advanced degree to figure that out, but this will fall on deaf ears as it relates to our enemies because they have no interest in justice.

So, while they lower their disgusting flags and continue to try and convince everyone that police agencies are honored and should be respected, we will continue to talk to our communities about our storied traditions of battling police and all state sponsored terrorism against our people. That means in light of all that is going on, we should declare 2016 the year of the spirit of the Black Panther Party. We should honor all the Panthers who have fallen and we should certainly honor those who are still here with us. We should learn more about aspects of the Panther’s history that are not as evident. I’m talking about the Panthers who came from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, strengthened the BPP, and then moved on to Pan-Africanism, primarily to make contributions within the All African People’s Revolutionary Party. Many of them have gone on to the spirit world, but several of them are still with us and still fighting against empire. I’m talking about people like Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), Bob Brown, David Brothers, Seku (Chico) Neblett, Mukassa (Willie) Ricks, and many others. 

During a year where so many of our people have been abandoned and are looking for direction, we must ask ourselves how might the Black Panther Party grappled with the coronavirus pandemic? How would an organization that looked at the pandemics of their time— dope, illiteracy, police terror, etc., approach supporting communities who desperately need health care that is being withheld from them. How would chapters of the Party design their own methods of contact tracing and food distribution? How would the Panthers address a state that was allowed to send our children back to school while the transmission of the virus was at its peak? In what ways have we continued their legacy and where are areas that we could improve? 

Here’s to upholding the legacy of the Black Panther Party with respect and integrity. Here’s to acknowledging their errors, but most importantly, honoring their contributions the only way that matters; by getting involved in organizations and continuing to build upon the work they did for us. If you understand the last statement, the reason is because you realize that in spite of the obstacles we face today, which are huge, we still have more to work with than Huey and Bobby had. More than Kwame (Stokely) had. More than Elaine and Ruby and Carmen, and Amilcar and Sekou. Those of them still living are very willing to help us fill in the blanks. I know this because I have benefited from being able to spend time in person with Assata Shakur, Elaine Brown, Geronimo Ji Jaga (Pratt), Kwame Ture, Bob Brown, Seku Neblett, Mukassa Ricks, Akinsanya Kambon, and others. Make 2021 the year of the Panther and demonstrate that by coming out as an organized Panther. And if you don’t want to be a Panther, be a Panther Cub, a Cougar, a Lion, a Bear, whatever raises your voice to contribute towards an organized voice that will ultimately take down this vicious, rabid, beast, who’s appetite for consuming humanity will never be quenched until we put it down, once and for all.

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Ahjamu Umi is revolutionary organizer with the All African People's Revolutionary Party, adviser, and liberation literature author.