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The Black Panther Party & The Politics Of Racism

A decade of war and occupation in the Middle-East, six years and counting of dispossession and apartheid through the Northern Territory Intervention and an asylum policy that has grown more and more sickening shows that racism is still well and truly entrenched in Australia. Things are no better overseas, thus the need for agitation and active resistance to racist oppression is clear.

2013 will mark the historic occasion of the first Australian visit of a member of the Black Panther Party in over twenty years. Billy X Jennings, one of the Party’s most prominent members will be coming to Melbourne to speak alongside such guests as legendary Indigenous activist Gary Foley and author and documentarian John Pilger at the Marxism 2013 conference.

The Black Panther Party was formed in 1966 by students Huey P Newton and Bobby Seale. The party oriented explicitly towards self-defence and, in the context of the civil rights movement, mass riots in ghettos, a burgeoning anti-Vietnam war movement and widespread radicalisation in society. It grew rapidly, within three years had a membership of 5,000, within five years the party paper had a circulation of 250,000. The party developed literacy and healthcare programs, provided meals for over 10,000 poor black children and, most famously, armed its members who tailed the police, providing surveillance against police brutality.

In the context of the civil rights movemnet The Panthers are often contrasted with Martin Luther King, depicted as militant radicals, only interested in violence, completely at odds with King’s pacifism. This contrast only occurred relatively recently, for at the time both the Panther movement and King were vilified in often indistinguishable ways. The FBI called the Panthers “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country”, while on the occasion of King’s renowned I Have A Dream speech, the bureau dubbed him “the most dangerous negro in the future of this country”. King’s assassination was echoed in the state murders and imprisonments of dozens of leading Black Panther members, often on fabricated charges. Many were killed by police while they slept in their homes and many are still in prison today.

More importantly, King and the Panthers came to the same understanding of how racism had to be fought. Each saw its origins in the fundamental inequalities of capitalism, a system centred on the exploitation of workers by the ruling elite. King famously said “the problem of racism, the problem of exploitation and the problem of war are all tied together. They are the triple evils that are interrelated”. While the Panthers were revolutionary from the beginning, Bobby Seale in his book Seize the Time most eloquently summarizing their position.

“We do not fight racism with racism. We fight racism with solidarity. We do not fight exploitative capitalism with black capitalism. We fight capitalism with basic socialism. And we do not fight imperialism with more imperialism. We fight imperialism with proletarian internationalism.”

The Black Panthers’ uncompromising opposition to the Vietnam War, collaboration with worker’s organisations (such as the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement) and the solidarity shown with the mobilisation of oppressed groups, such as the barely beginning gay liberation movement, all drew from this fundamental understanding. All oppressed peoples share a common struggle, and that the divisions between them come from the ruling class that oppresses them.

In a recent interview, Jennings, in response to the question of whether the fight against racism had progressed since the early seventies, stated “Not at all. We’ve taken steps back. Even civil rights, which were new at that time — affirmative action, the Bakke decision, things that people fought for — they’ve been thrown away.” State attacks on the other hand have been unremitting. The rate of African American deaths in custody has grown to eclipse the rate of lynchings in the 1860s. In Australia, in the wake of the much publicised Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody 20 years ago, the rate of such deaths has risen. Over 200 Indigenous Australians have been killed by the police, without a charge having ever been laid, aboriginal children are 23 times more likely to be arrested than non-Aboriginal children, the rate of incarceration of Aboriginal women increased by 20% last year, and Indigenous Australians have a life expectancy seventeen years less than non-Indigenous Australians.

The repulsiveness of these statistics must be a spur for action against racism. Racism is not something that just exists in people’s heads; it is a form of oppression, institutionalised and ingrained in the means and mechanisms through which capitalism functions. The politics of rebellion and revolt are still the politics of all those looking to colostomize the bigotry of the system and the manner in which we fight is bourn forwards to us in the struggles of the past.

The Marxism 2013 conference is being held from 28th-31st of March. For information about the conference and a full list of speakers go to www.marxismconference.org

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