When Beyonce dressed her dancers up in gear reminiscent of The Black Panthers at this year's Super Bowl halftime show regressive white America lost their minds. And not just the people you sort of expect to lose their minds over any display of black pride (ie, the entire field of GOP hopefuls); the LA comedy scene was shocked when comic Owen Benjamin flipped his lid over the dance number:
That attitude - that the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense is somehow analogous to the Ku Klux Klan - was the underlying misunderstanding that fueled a lot of people's racist reactions to that dance number. But if the Panthers weren't the KKK, what were they?
Tonight PBS will help you answer that question when they show the documentary Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. I caught this film at Sundance last year and I found it engrossing; at the time I said it was maybe more of a TV-level doc, so showing up on PBS is perfect for it. What makes the doc so great is that it offers a fairly comprehensive history not just of the Panthers but also explains the context in which they arose - a context you will see is not all that different from the world in which we live today. The Panthers were created to police the police, to keep the cops from killing unarmed young black men in the streets. They exercised their sacred Second Amendment rights to bear arms, and they stood at safe distances monitoring police interactions with the community. More than that, they hoped to channel the simmering black rage at police brutality, systematic racism and unfair economic practices into a true political force.
By the way, conservative governor Ronald Reagan changed California's gun laws because the white population felt so threatened by armed black men.
Black Panthers: Vanaguard of the Revolution is full of exciting and rarely seen photos from behind the scenes of the movement, and it covers aspects of the Party that rarely get discussed, such as the Black Panthers' successful community schooling and nutrition efforts. But it also follows the story of the struggles that tore the Party apart - the story of the headstrong men at the center and the tragic descent of founder Huey P Newton. It also follows the story of how the US government worked hard to break the Panther Party to pieces, and how, when the FBI couldn't do it through dirty tricks, they resorted to assassinating Panther leaders like Fred Hampton (he was shot in the head twice at point blank range by cops... while he was unconscious).
America of 2016 looks an awful lot like America of 1966 for our black citizens. Little has changed - the police still have a license to kill black people on a whim, and the structural systems of our economy and government remain hostile to black life in general. I know that PBS isn't exactly the spot where young revolutionaries are likely to stumble upon this doc, but I do hope that people with fire in their souls see this film and learn from the Black Panthers - from both their victories and from their fatal mistakes.
Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution airs tonight at 9pm on your local PBS station. Watch it and be radicalized.