By MURPHY BROWNE
In a pre-dawn raid on April 2, 1969, the police arrested 21 members of the Black Panther Party of New York. The “New York 21″ were charged with conspiracy to bomb police stations, department stores, the New York City subway and the New York Botanical Garden.
The Black Panther Party for Self Defense (BPP) was founded in Oakland, California in 1966 by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale who were students at Merritt College, Oakland, California. One of its most famous members was Dr. Angela Davis. The BPP was founded in the wake of the assassination of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (May 19, 1925 – February 21, 1965).
The younger generation of African-Americans was not satisfied with the previous decade’s leadership advocating non-violence. They had experienced violence at the hands of White Americans, witnessed or seen images on television of nonviolent African-American men, women and children demonstrators being water hosed, beaten and jailed by White police, spat on and brutalized by White Americans merely for protesting social injustices.
Jamil abdullah Al-Amin, who became a member of the BPP in 1968, wrote in his 1969 autobiography: “I had been born in ‘America, the land of the free’. To ensure my country’s freedom, my father was somewhere fighting, for this was a year of the second war to end all wars – World War II. This was October 4, 1943, and victory was in the air.
“The world would now be safe for democracy. But who would ensure my freedom? Who would make democracy safe for Black people? America recognized long ago what Negroes now examine in disbelief: every Black birth in America is political. With each new birth comes a potential challenge to the existing order. Each new generation brings forth untested militancy.”
Even before the founding of the BPP, young urban African-Americans rejected non-violence as a tactic to gain their Civil Rights. This was evident in protests like the Watts Uprising in Watts (Los Angeles), California (August 11 – 17, 1965) in reaction to police brutality.
The Watts Uprising triggered similar responses to oppression and, by 1967, there had been more than 100 major African-American urban uprisings in cities across the USA. The two largest occurred in July 1967 in Newark, New Jersey (July 14 – 17) and Detroit, Michigan (July 23 – 27). (The first African-American mass uprising in Detroit took place on June 17, 1833 during the rescue from re-enslavement of Thornton Blackburn, who with his wife Lucie became Toronto’s first taxi cab owners in 1837.)
The BPP did more than physically defend African-Americans against state violence, organized (Ku Klux Klan, White League, Red Shirts etc.) and individual White violence. Their 10-point plan outlined their demands (http://www.blackpanther.org/TenPoint.htm) including employment, decent housing, relevant education and an immediate end to police brutality. These demands, the rights of any American citizen, were met with hostile reaction from the government and many White Americans including the media.
Then Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover, described the Panthers as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country”. In the attempt to destroy the BPP, the FBI unleashed a smear campaign of misinformation, ably assisted by the White media.
Hoover had been attempting since his early days at the FBI to prevent the rise of what he called “a Black Messiah” to ensure that the masses of African-Americans would not rise above the state of third-class citizens in the country where their ancestors’ blood, sweat and tears had contributed to the wealth that White people in America could take for granted. In the 1980s Susan McIntosh, a White professor, documented the privileges that White Americans enjoy based on the colour of their skin. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DRnoddGTMTY)
Hoover focused on destroying anyone who he thought could be the “Black Messiah.” Beginning with the Honorable Marcus Mosiah Garvey in 1919, Hoover focused on destroying the lives, credibility and reputation of Africans who were leaders or potential leaders of the masses including El Hajj Malik El Shabazz, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and many members of the BPP.
The members of the BPP, recognizing that their role as defenders of the people entailed more than protection against police brutality, established survival programs which included free breakfast programs, free medical clinics with Sickle Cell Anemia testing, grocery giveaways, the manufacture and distribution of free shoes, schools and other education programs, senior transport and service programs, free bussing to prisons and prisoner support and legal aid programs.
The BPP received international support from Pan Africanists including Guyanese historian Walter Rodney who wrote about the killing of a BPP member in November 1971: “To most readers in this continent, starved of authentic information by the imperialist news agencies, the name of George Jackson is either unfamiliar or just a name. George Jackson was jailed ostensibly for stealing 70 dollars.
“He was given a sentence of one year to life because he was Black, and he was kept incarcerated for years under the most dehumanizing conditions because he discovered that Blackness need not be a badge of servility but rather could be a banner for uncompromising revolutionary struggle. He was murdered because he was doing too much to pass this attitude on to fellow prisoners. George Jackson was a political prisoner and a Black freedom fighter. He died at the hands of the enemy.”
On May 13, 1971, after the longest political trial in New York’s history, the New York Panthers were acquitted of all charges after 90 minutes of jury deliberation.
The New York 21 included Tupac Shakur’s mother, Afeni Shakur, who gave birth to her son one month (June 16, 1971) after her acquittal.
In the collective autobiography of the New York 21, Look for Me in the Whirlwind (title taken from Garvey’s letter written while he was imprisoned in Atlanta, February 10, 1925) the members document their ordeal.