On October 15, 1966, Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton – two students at Merritt College in Oakland, California – founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP) to protect the citizens of their hometown from abuses of the state.
Under the protection of the Second Amendment, they created armed citizens’ patrols to monitor an almost all white police force that regularly brutalised African Americans citizens with impunity. From their grassroots efforts, a nationwide movement was born – one that radicalised a new generation of youth to fight for their Constitutional rights.
The BPP set up chapters in 68 cities in order to implement the Ten Point Platform and Program, which called for freedom, full employment, reparations, housing, education, military exemption, an end to police brutality and murder, freedom for the incarcerated, Constitutional rights during trial, and full self-determination.
The leaders of the BPP had mastered the law, and knew exactly how to exact the rights granted by the Constitution and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This – combined with their ability to build coalitions with other political groups including the Young Lords, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the American Indian Movement, and the Chicano Workers Movement – created a very real threat to the systemic racism that had kept these groups vulnerable, marginalised, and living under constant threat.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called the BPP “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” Unable to fight the Party legally, Hoover organized COINTELPRO, an illegal operation of surveillance, infiltration, perjury, police harassment, and ultimately murder, in order to destabilise, discredit, and criminalise the Party – killing and imprisoning countless members while driving others out of the country.
Yet, despite the systemic decimation of the BPP by the government, their legacy has inspired countless activists, artists, writers, and community organisers to pick up the pieces of what remains. In 2016, Michelle Dunn, the Executive Director of the Photographic Centre Northwest, had the idea to create the book All Power: Visual Legacies of the Black Panther Party (Minor Matters) to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the BPP.
Dunn realized that the majority of projects she had seen about the Party were created by Caucasian photographers, and realised what she really wanted to see. “I contacted 30 artists who were Black or part of the African diaspora and asked, ‘Do you feel any connection between your work and the Black Panther Party?’” she reveals.
16 artists responded positively. From here, Dunn and her colleague Negarra A. Kudumu began to edit the book, which includes submissions from Hank Willis Thomas, Derrick Adams, Ayana V. Jackson, Carrie Mae Weems, and Mickalene Thomas.
“The Panthers were a youth movement, and that is really important right now,” she explains. “More than three-quarters of the artists are under 40. The majority of the artists represented are young. This is not about the past, it’s very much about the present and the future.”
“In 2016, the project was about reminding people of the importance of the Party and what it stood for. In 2018 I have come to a greater, more nuanced understanding of the importance of the narrative as part of American history.”
The BPP’s impact, which serves as a conscious model as well as an invisible thread between generations, is being further honoured with an exhibition of that same name now on view at the Photographic Centre Northwest, Seattle, through June 10, 2018.
The exhibition reveals the ways in which conversations can further advance our understanding of the issues at the heart of the Ten Point Platform and Program. “When we were making the book, Endia Beal didn’t see the connection between the Am I What You are Looking For? series and the subject of full employment in the communities,” Dunn notes.
“But we had a lot of conversations, so when it came to the exhibition, I asked her again to include the series because I think she visualised something difficult to show: discrimination and access to employment. It’s a very abstract idea to illustrate in a photograph and she has done so in a very powerful way… This exhibition is not a celebration of the past: this is looking to the future.”
All Power: Visual Legacies of the Black Panther Party is available now on Minor Matters.
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