Philosophy and the Black Panthers

RP 179 () / Article

The vanguard party only teaches the correct methods of resistance.

Huey P. Newton, 1967

‘Hey Joe! How many of you motherfuckers are coming out here?’ ‘Here’ was Santa Rita Jail, California, early morning, Thursday 3 December 1964. ‘Joe’ was Joe Blum, a student radical, and the accompanying ‘motherfuckers’ were the 814 students who had been arrested for occupying Berkeley the day before in support of the Free Speech and, indirectly, Civil Rights movements. The prisoner who greeted Joe Blum was Huey P. Newton, then in jail for felonious assault. The friendship of Blum and Newton was a cameo for the brief alliance of white radicals and black militants in the wake of the civil rights struggle. Both were students at Oakland City College in 1961 and, on that morning in the bus at Santa Rita, Blum was struck by Newton remembering him. Thereafter he followed closely Newton’s development through the foundation of the Black Panther Party with Bobby Seale in 1966 and beyond. He later interviewed Newton when in prison in 1968 on the charge of murdering a police officer and published the conversation as a very influential article in the The Movement. In 1969 he even named his son Huey. He repented his support when he learnt of Newton’s alleged criminal activities, in his article ‘The Party’s Over’ published in New Times, 10 July 1978, an article that confirmed the growing eclipse of the Black Panther Party.

Free-BreakfastAt this time of mounting public accusations against Newton and the Black Panthers, in great part seeded by the FBI and its Counter Intelligence Programme of surveillance, infiltration and defamation (COINTELPRO), Newton embarked on a PhD programme in the History of Consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz, which he completed in 1980. He wrote a thesis that described the evolution of COINTELPRO and the way it was used against him, an analysis of the sustained and deliberate campaign of defamation conducted in the third person. In the early hours of the morning of 22 October 1989 Newton was gunned down in West Oakland. His assassin remembered his last words, ‘You can kill my body, but you can’t kill my soul. My soul will live forever’, but he didn’t realize the significance of this last of Newton’s many paraphrases of Plato’s Phaedo, which describes Socrates’ last hours on death row in ancient Athens.

Much earlier, back in 1970, some representatives of the Black Panthers visited Jean Genet in Paris asking for solidarity; he replied that he was prepared to travel to the USA immediately. His subsequent public statements in support of the Panthers are collected in his book The Declared Enemy: Texts and Interviews, but it is in his last book, Prisoner of Love (1986), that he proposed a methodology for understanding their struggle, one that links it with the Palestinian resistance, in which he also directly participated.1 It’s a method that appeals to dimensionality, one refined and confirmed by Genet’s experience of walking through the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut hours after the murders in 1982. He was struck there by how the killers had taken great pains to create little visual scenarios – little installations of terror – designed to be photographed, televised and disseminated worldwide as a spectacle of humiliation. So at the outset of his ‘4 Hours in Shatila’ Genet insists

A photograph has two dimensions, so does a television screen: it is impossible to walk through either. From one wall of the street to the other, arched or curved, their feet pushing on one wall and their heads leaning against the other, the blackened and swollen corpses I had to step over were all Palestinian and Lebanese.2

The walk multiplies the dimensions of the experience, restoring depth to the two dimensions of a photographic testimony implicated in a spectacle of terror.

In Prisoner of Love, Genet moves between the Palestinians and the Panthers as between two groups of what he calls ‘virtual martyrs’, reflecting constantly on the politics of their image:

The Whites’ recoil from the Panthers’ weapons, their leather jackets, their revolutionary hair-dos, their words and even their gentle but menacing tone – that was just what the Panthers wanted. They deliberately set out to create a dramatic image. The image was a theatre for enacting a tragedy and for stamping it out – a bitter tragedy about themselves, a bitter tragedy for the Whites. They aimed to project their image in the press and on the screen until the Whites were haunted by it. And they succeeded.

Genet continues: ‘“Power may be at the end of a gun,” but sometimes it’s also at the end of the shadow or the image of a gun.’ Genet regarded entry into the spectacle as a plausible tactic of subaltern resistance, but one with its own dangers and risks:

Wherever they went the Americans were the masters, so the Panthers should do their best to terrorize the masters by the only means available to them. Spectacle. And the spectacle would work because it was the product of despair. … But the spectacle is only spectacle, and it may lead to mere figment, to no more than a colourful carnival; and this is the risk that the Panthers ran. Did they have any choice?3

The danger of the Panthers losing position and threat in depth and slipping into a spectacular politics was especially intense given their adversary’s mastery of the terrain of the spectacle, especially the FBI and its director, who deliberately set out to transform the Black Panthers’ resistance in depth into a revolutionary pantomime of gestural violence. Genet feared that the consequences of this unequal struggle could be devastating, and urged in his speeches and writings a return to engagement in depth in the ‘metamorphosis of the black community’:

So the Panthers were heading for either madness, metamorphosis of the black community, death or prison. All these options happened, but the metamorphosis was by far the most important, and that is why the Panthers can be said to have overcome through poetry.4

But this was not the poetry of the spectacle; it was the multidimensional expression of an emergent capacity to resist.

[…]

Notes

1. Jean Genet, The Declared Enemy: Texts and Interviews, trans. Jeff Fort, Stanford University Press, Stanford CA, 2004; Prisoner of Love, trans. Barbara Bray, New York Review Books, New York, 2003. 2. Genet, The Declared Enemy, p. 209. 3. Genet, Prisoner of Love, p. 99. 4. Ibid., p. 100.