The Black Panther Party: Freedom Fighters or Radicalists?
The Black Panther Party was a political organization in the United States during the 1960s-1980s. Labelled the greatest threat to internal security by the FBI, the Party was primarily focused on monitoring police officer behaviour through Panther Patrols and running community survival programs.
How a group of people experience the law will undeniably affect both their compliance and resistance to the law (Fritsvold, 2009). The creation and expansion of the Black Panther Party (the BPP or the Party) was determined by the Party’s experience with the law, government authority, and the overarching social unrest during the 1960s-1980s in the United States.
The Party was labeled a black extremist organization by the FBI and the greatest threat to the internal security of the country (Hoover, 1969). Focusing on the early years of the Party’s establishment, it’s useful to analyze the Black Panther Party through one of Beck’s (2008) social movement theories: the tripartite model, and Fritsvold’s (2009) framework of the legal consciousness.
Tripartite Model (Beck, 2008)
Organization & Resources
Well-established in Oakland, California by the late 1960s, the BPP spread throughout the nation with branches in 68 cities (Harris, 2015). The Party organized initially with strong central leadership and clear intentions for the Party’s mobilization.
The Black Panther, a weekly newspaper produced by the BPP in the Bay Area, was the economic backbone to the Party (Lipsky, 2019). As the Party’s main publication, it disseminated information about the Party’s principles, goals, and activities (Bloom & Martin, 2012). This publication legitimized the voice of the Party through a reliable distribution method and reached 150,000 readers (Harris, 2015).
Images of the Black Panthers demonstrating outside California’s capitol building equally led to a wave of Party recruitment (Scott, 2015). Dressed in black leather jackets, black berets, and openly carrying loaded rifles into the State’s capitol, sent a provocative and powerful message to the nation: black power had organized to threaten society’s white power structure.
With blatant condemnation for the existing political system, the BPP gained even further traction due to the chaotic political and social environment at the time. The Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam War opposition, and widespread racially targeted police aggression were a few of the elements commonly leading to mobilization opportunities (Bloom & Martin, 2012).
These opportunities to organize also helped maintain the Party’s platform. By 1968, the majority of the BPP membership was dedicated to community survival programs, such as the free children’s breakfast program and community-based health clinics (Nelson, 2016).
The children’s breakfast program not only fed an estimated ten thousand children free breakfast every day across America, it also provided Party members meaningful ways to strengthen their communities (Bloom & Martin, 2012). These survival programs also brazenly exposed clear structural racism and the government’s inadequate response to poverty in America (Meister, 2017).
A movement frames itself by the way in which their message is presented to their support platform (Beck, 2008). The BPP employed a variety of framing approaches. The BPP strategically leveraged the media’s interest in confrontation and deliberately demonstrated in an aggressive (but legal) style to catch public attention. Founding member Bobby Seal commented after the Party marched into California state’s capitol building, ‘News of the existence of the Party went all around the world’ (Seale, 1991 p 177).
Legal Consciousness (Fritsvold, 2009)
A person’s legal consciousness is malleable and is directly impacted by their individual experience with the law (Fritzvold, 2009). The BPP’s legal consciousness was undeniably multifaceted. With competing interests, such as focusing on survival programs versus realizing Black Visibility (Meister, 2017), some members and BPP chapters would prioritize and sustain certain elements of the party’s platform more than others. For example, the BPP Seattle branch maintained the children’s free breakfast program much longer than many others (Nelson, 2016). Differing levels of legal consciousness arguably changed throughout the party’s tenure.
The BPP navigated within the law using their acute knowledge of the law, and particularly the open carry gun laws in California. The Party legally leveraged the law for their own gain by openly carrying loaded rifles while following police officers to monitor often racially motivated traffic stops (Morgan, 2018). These were also known as the Black Panther Police Patrols.
In 1967, Party members legally marched into California state’s capitol building with loaded shotguns to protest a newly proposed state bill, the Mulford Act, which would prohibit the public carry of loaded firearms (Morgan, 2018). The media referred to it as ‘The Panther Bill,’ and Ronald Reagan, California’s state governor, signed the bill into law with his statement, ‘There’s no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons’ (Olney, 2018).
Prior to the government changing the law, both the BPP Police Patrols and open carry public protests were well within the limits of the law, even if it was controversial.
The Black Panther Party’s legal consciousness overlapped with Ewick and Silbey’s (1998) against the law level for the majority of the Party’s duration and platform. It was precisely the group’s original motivations to mobilize that contributed to this legal consciousness: racially driven police violence, racist capitalism, and overarching racial violence throughout society (Nelson, 2016). Each of these elements supported the Party’s ideology that the law was not structured for them.
The Party also mobilized within Fritsvold’s (2009) under the law legal consciousness. Not only was the law put in practice for the primary benefit of white Americans, but it also perpetuated and protected continued injustices against the black population. From this position, especially as the Party evolved into the later years of prominence, the group became increasingly motivated to use whatever resources necessary, including overt violence, to challenge the social order (Scott, 2015).
The BPP tested the limits of state power by tactfully exposing their weak spots through their injustices. By policing the police, they called attention to racially targeted and aggressive traffic stops. By creating community survival programs, they highlighted the government’s blatant neglect of poverty-stricken black communities. It is this room for resistance and autonomy that allows for power struggles in a legally plural society (Merry, 1988).
Were the Black Panthers extremists, radicalists, or freedom fighters?
Social movement theories and the legal consciousness model can help unpack the complicated and multifaceted reality of social movements.