Note: these images were photographed at the Ryerson Image Centre (which does expressly allow non-flash photography) as part of their excellent 2017 show:
Attica USA 1971: Images and sounds of a rebellion.
And do visit the (free) Ryerson Image Centre when they reopen.
I consider it the most exciting new-ish (2012) museum / gallery space in the city.
As minister of culture for the Black Panthers from 1967 until the end, and the designer of the Black Panther Newsletter (which he insisted from the start of his tenure, must thenceforth be printed web-press) – The artist Emory Douglas made uniquely powerful contributions to political graphics. His use of bold line graphics and spot colour were featured in every issue, and many remain charged enough to startle us still.
It is impossible to look at our historical moment, without also looking back to the political tumult of the sixties and seventies – the context in which Douglas was trying to pithily articulate political points. Our latest extremes, passions, themes, tactics and even (sadly) mistakes, all feel like reruns of depressingly familiar tragic plays, with scripts we should have bothered to improve and advance long before now.
Relative to most of the people in the world, we in the so-called ‘advanced’ west are shockingly ignorant about our own past, and we’re very bad at distinguishing opinions from realities in any case – but I remain convinced that when huge sacrifices are made on the basis of principle, we must pay attention and learn the difficult lessons that courage revealed, in order to show real respect for figures of genuine leadership, and for ourselves.
Empty words and bumper stickers simply don’t cut it. Making wrong-spirited use of great thought and action is just as lame or more so.
I know black history month is officially February in Canada and the US (though the UK and the Netherlands give it ten percent more air-time each year, by using October for the same purpose), but for me the natural peak of Black history in Upper Canada (Ontario) is midsummer. Just a couple of weekends after the enduringly fantastic Afro-Fest music festival, we have what most locals still call Caribana (despite disputes about the name) – one of the largest Caribbean carnivals anywhere outside of the islands themselves. Even better – for years now, we’ve had this famous and high spirited south-seas bacchanal on the Simcoe day long weekend!
Yes – to be clear – many outright malicious racists held power in Canada and influenced the formation of the country and its laws. But we cannot simply generalize and say all of those who arrived from overseas had purest arrogance and evil in them, because Simcoe accepted the founding governorship of Upper Canada only on these conditions, which he made clear in a speech to the British parliament before his departure.
“The moment I assume the Government of Upper Canada under no modification will I assent to a law that discriminates by dishonest policy between natives of Africa, America, or Europe.”
He also draughted and passed the first anti-slavery legislation in the British Empire (1793) and by 1810 there were no slaves at all in Upper Canada, even though it took more than forty years (1834) for the crown to wake up, and the rest of the empire finally give up, their old and profoundly evil business.
Here’s another thing about Simcoe we don’t remember – in 1777, during the American revolutionary war, he proposed the formation of a loyalist regiment of free blacks – but was instead given command of the Queen’s Rangers. Even today, some people completely freak-out and lose it at the idea of a black person armed equally with a white one.
As I’ve mentioned a couple of times in my podcast, the Black Panther Party (for Self Defence) formed in response to the exact sort of police violence which has shocked and horrified so many around the world recently – more than half a century later.
One of Huey Newton’s key insights came after watching furious street protests which followed the killing of an unarmed black teenager. He felt sure that if the power of all that righteous and justified anger could be disciplined, it could become a serious transformative political force – and that the way to lead such organization, was to show the state no fear.
There is a twin pull with such early movements, on the one hand, we are inclined to give them extra credit to make up for the dirty tricks and lying smear campaigns which we know were run against them by incredibly powerful, paranoid, well-funded and well-connected agencies of the government, misusing our tax dollars.
But if we make them cartoon heroes, we don’t learn anything about their struggle or tactics – and we leave evolution of principle aside entirely.
On the other hand – dismissing them as merely a gun rights group that finally made white people wake up and think about their power advantage, by confronting them with that nightmare image of black people, armed and unafraid, also throws away far too many of their valuable lessons.
The players too, must be distinguished. Eldridge Cleaver was held up as an early hero to many, but turned out to be an egotist with no principle beyond his own advantage. Not only did he betray the Panthers in a craven speech to lighten his own sentence – when he returned from exile, he’d become a born again Christian, then later tried inventing his own blend “Christlam” and finally opting for the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) as most consonant with his version of spirituality – which left room for his other main project – fashion – virility pants, based on the ancient codpiece. Especially creepy stuff for a guy who wrote that as a young man, he considered rape a revolutionary act.
And wouldn’t you know it – Cleaver swung so far back on his own tracks that he openly supported Ronald Reagan as president, even though Reagan as California governor was so hostile to the Panthers, he changed the state’s gun laws, specifically to outlaw their (constitutionally allowable) armed safety patrols.
Cleaver had always been attracted by the idea of armed insurrection – and he fought with one of the founding Panthers, Huey Newton, about this especially. By 1968, Newton and many others thought that the point about arms, the right to self defence and courageous assertion of constitutional rights had been adequately made, and their guns were now alienating more of their allies in the black community (as well as endangering their own members) than any remaining benefit justified.
Cleaver accused them of selling out – but the Panthers new emphasis on community programs was incredibly popular, and helped many kids and poor people with things like a regular breakfast for thousands of kids, free health clinics, fitness and martial arts programs to get youth off the street and feeling new pride. They offered drug and alcohol rehabilitation, rides to visit family members incarcerated upstate, first aid training, even their own paramedic service for badly neglected areas. You would think that this shift from arms to outreach would make them seem much less of a threat to the authorities, wouldn’t you? Not so at all.
Huey is a complex character, though still less weird by far than Cleaver – both made important contributions to a hugely influential movement, but neither serves well as an unalloyed hero in the modern age. Compromised by reckless violence and misogyny in particular. But the Panthers did have profoundly great spirits – as does any revolutionary transformation movement with a genuine spirit and program
My own favourite (and a special saint in my personal pantheon) is Fred Hampton, who has always seemed to me to represent the most important lesson which revolutionaries and change agents still try to wish their way past – rather than engaging realistically, with appropriate knowledge, tactics and resolve.
As I mentioned above – the Panthers move to shift their emphasis from armed defiance to community transformation, did not make them seem less of a threat to the institutions most hostile to them (J Edgar Hoover’s FBI above all, though many other agencies took an ‘active interest’) – quite the opposite.
The reason strikes a chord in common with Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X and Fred Hampton himself. Martin Luther King Jr had always made some uncomfortable – but people forget his later principled and courageous stances – not just against racism in America, but against war, imperialism, exploitation and injustice around the world. Going all the way.
Similarly, Malcolm X was long worrisome to the FBI because Hoover was deeply terrified about the potential emergence of a “Black Jesus” capable of inspiring a socially transformative movement. (If ever there was a revealing fear…)
But as long as Malcolm spoke against whites in divisive ways, he represented a localized threat that could be contained with heavy-handed policing. When Malcom travelled to Mecca for the Hajj, he had a revelation that never left him afterward. He saw people of every colour of skin from all over the world joining in common faith and spirit. His own racism was destroyed forever by this (though his understanding of injustice remained).
Upon his return, Malcolm began speaking about greater unities and greater justice in a way which threatened to build broad and serious political coalitions. History records his death as the fault of Elijah Mohammed – the leader of the Nation of Islam, and Malcolm’s own political mentor.
But history definitely does not record all of the trouble-causing phone calls made by wiretapping, surveilling and photographing others, to make sure every single disagreement created the greatest possible damage.
Fred Hampton is my favourite Panther saint for two reasons. He was not an advocate of violence (only self-defence) and always preferred to organize, rather than provoke and risk chaos and injury. There are no accusations against him of misogyny or bullying. He was a man of ideas, understanding, and dialogue.
I can’t help thinking that part of his success was due to his being assigned to help anchor the Chicago chapter of the Panthers. Many places have deep union history and traditions, but Chicago is special in that regard – many of the best ideas about coalitions of left and poor were born there.
The point is that Fred Hampton was not involved with inciting violence – but he was leading the most successful organizing in any Panther chapter. Creating working and solid understandings with white anti-poverty groups and progressive anti gang organizations helping steer kids toward hope.
Not only was he charismatic and effective at cross coalition organizing, he was relentless in the cause, personally teaching a six AM history class designed for busy workers every single morning, rather than delegating what some would consider a burdensome chore.
For his political relevance, brilliant speaking skills, keen understanding and judgement, and master level consensus-building, the state killed him.
They didn’t do this right away. First the FBI got a guy called William O’Neal (who was facing serious felony jail time) to agree to infiltrate the Chicago Panthers in exchange for charges reduced (no jail) and regular payments. O’Neal was successful beyond their wildest dreams – becoming director of security for the Illinois chapter, as well as Hampton’s own bodyguard.
Thing is – O’Neal’s reports infuriated Hoover. He said it seemed clear to him that in this chapter at least, they really were putting the bulk of their energy into being useful to their community, expanding their breakfast, educational and health care initiatives, in particular.
Hoover told the agent who was ‘running’ O’Neal that he must either come up with evidence of plans for armed insurrection, or seek work elsewhere.
The Panthers did still have some weapons, as well as fair cause to fear violence against them. O’Neal made a map of Hampton’s apartment for the FBI showing exactly where Fred and his pregnant girlfriend slept. On the night they chose for their raid, (only days after a still unclear gun battle between police and Panthers, while Hampton was out of town) O’Neal followed orders and slipped a heavy dose of secobarbitol into his drink. Hampton later passed-out in the middle of a phone conversation with his mother, and was put to bed by his friends, who knew he never did drugs, and so assumed it was simple exhaustion.
Just before five AM, fourteen heavily armed tactical officers stormed the four room apartment where Hampton, his girlfriend and eight of their friends (who’d come over after the evening’s speeches) were sleeping.
The initial volley of police gunfire killed Mark Clark, who was sitting watch with a shotgun, and injured several others – but Hampton was only hit in the shoulder. Harold Bell, who was there, said he heard officers say
“Is he dead? Bring him out.”
“He’s barely alive.” “He’ll make it.”
Immediately after which all the surviving Panther witnesses heard the sound of two more gunshots, directly into Hampton’s head.
Then, “He’s good and dead now.”
The police tried to spin the story as a gun battle – but the Panthers countered that it wasn’t a shoot-out, it was a shoot-in – because no Panthers fired. Not every newspaper got it right at first, but that was proven true forensically – the only shot from any Panther was one into the ceiling from an involuntary spasm, when Mark Clark was shot directly in the chest. Somewhere between ninety and one hundred bullets fired by police.
Now let’s just have another look at what was so incredibly threatening.
What radical insurrectionary doctrine had Hoover so terrified? Gee that’s odd – it looks considerably more like the American constitution, than the Communist Manifesto. Like I said – if ever there was a revealing terror.
And for the record – these 10 points and understandings were included in every issue of “The Black Panther Newsletter” which stayed in print from the sixties until the 80s when the group effectively dissolved/imploded. Powerful Emory Douglas graphics, throughout the historic run.
What We Want Now!
1. We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.
2. We want full employment for our people.
3. We want an end to the robbery by the capitalists of our black and oppressed communities.
4. We want decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings.
5. We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present day society.
6. We want all Black men to be exempt from military service.
7. We want an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of Black people.
8. We want freedom for all Black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails.
9. We want all Black people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury of their peer group or people from their Black Communities, as defined by the Constitution of the United States.
10. We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.
What We Believe:
1. We believe that Black People will not be free until we are able to determine our own destiny.
2. We believe that the federal government is responsible and obligated to give every man employment or a guaranteed income. We believe that if the White American business men will not give full employment, the means of production should be taken from the businessmen and placed in the community so that the people of the community can organize and employ all of its people and give a high standard of living.
3. We believe that this racist government has robbed us and now we are demanding the overdue debt of forty acres and two mules. Forty acres and two mules was promised 100 years ago as redistribution for slave labor and mass murder of Black people. We will accept the payment in currency which will be distributed to our many communities: the Germans are now aiding the Jews in Israel for genocide of the Jewish people. The Germans murdered 6,000,000 Jews. The American racist has taken part in the slaughter of over 50,000,000 Black people; therefore, we feel that this is a modest demand that we make.
4. We believe that if the White landlords will not give decent housing to our Black community, then the housing and the land should be made into cooperatives so that our community, with government aid, can build and make a decent housing for its people.
5. We believe in an educational system that will give our people a knowledge of self. If a man does not have knowledge of himself and his position in society and the world, then he has little chance to relate to anything else.
6. We believe that Black people should not be forced to fight in the military service to defend a racist government that does not protect us. We will not fight and kill other people of color in the world who, like Black people, are being victimized by the White racist government of America. We will protect ourselves from the force and violence of the racist police and the racist military, by whatever means necessary.
7. We believe we can end police brutality in our Black community by organizing Black self-defense groups that are dedicated to defending our Black community from racist police oppression and brutality. The second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States gives us the right to bear arms. We therefore believe that all Black people should arm themselves for self-defense.
8. We believe that all Black people should be released from the many jails and prisons because they have not received a fair and impartial trial.
9. We believe that the courts should follow the United States Constitution so that Black people will receive fair trials. The 14th amendment of the U.S Constitution gives a man a right to be tried by his peers. A peer is a persons from a similar economic, social, religious, geographical, environmental, historical, and racial background. To do this the court will be forced to select a jury from the Black community from which the Black defendant came. We have been, and are being tried by all-white-juries that have no understanding of “the average reasoning man” of the Black community.
10. When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature’s god entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident, and that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its power in such a form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accused. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, and their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards of their future security.