Black Power, then and now

Pub date March 22, 2012
WriterYael Chanoff

“We’re not ever to be caught up in the intellectual masturbation of the question of Black Power. That’s a function of people who are advertisers that call themselves reporters.”

That’s how the radical student and civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael opened a speech about Black Power — a term he helped popularize — at UC Berkeley in 1966. But the ideas and concepts behind Black Power proved to be an enduring ones that are enjoying a resurgence today.

Angela Davis epitomized the Black Power movement to many observers. The author, scholar, and professor was a Black Panther Party member who then joined the Communist Party USA and brought a class analysis to issues of race, building on the movement that began in the ’60s for decades to come.

In recent months, as the Occupy Wall Street movement began to focus the country’s attention on economic and social inequities, Davis has spoken out regularly in support of the movement and drawn connections back to her early activism. She has embraced the “99 percent” paradigm, and the connections between various issues that Occupy activists have sought to highlight.

“Our demands for justice lead us toward demands for prison abolition. And our demands for prison abolition lead us to demands for free, quality education. And our demands for free quality healthcare, and housing, and an end to racism, an end to sexism, an end to homophobia,” Davis said March 1 in Oakland at a benefit for Occupy 4 Prisoners, a coalition of Occupy protesters and prison justice advocates.

Consciousness surrounding those connections can be largely attributed to efforts from Black Power organizers.

“When I listen to the way young people so easily talk about the connectedness of race, gender, and sexual issues, and I remember how we groped our way towards an understanding of those connections, it makes me really proud,” Davis said in a January interview with Independent Lens.

And as Davis said at the March 1 event: “One of the most exciting accomplishments of the Occupy movement has been to force us to engage in conversation, explicit conversation about capitalism, for the first time since the 1930s.”

The movement’s economic message also seemed useful to Kiilu Nyasha, a San Francisco-based journalist and former member of the New Haven Black Panther Party.

“Globalization has already happened. It’s not happening, it’s happened. One percent, internationally, owns and controls 80 percent of the world’s resources. People are dying all over the world of every complexion which you can think of” Nyahsa said March 14 at a panel discussion called Reboot the Rainbow.

The original Rainbow Coalition- the topic of the March 14 panel- included the Black Panther Party, the Puerto Rican Young Lords, and the poor white Young Patriots organization, and was committed to a Black Power concept: organize your own, fight together. Building coalition is more important now than ever.

“It’s not Black Power right now,” says Terry Collins, president of KPOO radio, a black-owned station long focused on community empowerment. “It’s people power. It’s power unto the people who are in need: all the people out there who are out of their homes, students who owe so much that they’re like indentured servants.”

Occupy the Hood is a national effort to encourage participation of people of color in Occupy Wall Street. In its mission statement the group writes, “It is imperative that the voice of people of color is heard at this moment!”

The focus of San Francisco’s Occupy the Hood chapter is “three-fold,” according to organizer Mesha Irizarry: “The cop-watching in neighborhoods that are criminalized, especially poor neighborhood of color. It’s freedom fighters against foreclosures. It’s also bank transfers.”

Occupy the Hood showed up March 16, when a group known as the Foreclosure Fighters- organized and supported Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, Homes Not Jails, and related groups—occupied their latest foreclosed home. “We’re liberating this house. We’re taking it out of the hands of the oppressor,” said Archbishop Franzo King of the African Orthodox Church.

“Jesus Christ was an uncompromising revolutionary. He spoke truth to power. Then they killed him for it,” added King in a nod to the radical religious leaders who have influenced liberation movements throughout the years.

Black Power was concerned with self-determination, with organizing within community. That legacy is still strong as San Francisco’s African American communities experience an out-migration and continuing police harassment and violence.

“Black sailors and black army personnel built the shipyard,” said Jameel Patterson, a founder of the Bayview-Hunters Point-based community organization Black Star Liner Incorporated. “Hunters Point, West Point, Harbor Road—they’re all military names. The soldiers stayed there with their families. The area has a rich African American legacy going back to the ’40s. Now it’s fading…we want to make sure that community’s still here 20 years from now.”

Patterson remembers being a child in the ’70s when, on the tail of an era brimming with black liberation efforts. “There were more community events,” he said, but now, “People don’t have connections with each other. That’s what we’re building.”

The group does regular events where they serve free home-cooked meals to residents, reminiscent of the Black Panther Party’s free breakfast program. “With every plate, you get information,” often Know Your Rights reminders for encounters with police, said Tracey Bell-Borden of Black Star Liner.

They have also spent countless hours in City Hall meetings advocating for their community and reporting back on city policies that affect it. “We occupy the Police Commission meeting,” said Bell-Borden.

Police are a central and tricky question for the Black Power movement of the ’60s, as well as organizing efforts today. Black Panther Party members spent years serving free breakfast to children, writing and selling newspapers, and even running election campaigns, but they are often remembered for carrying guns and efforts to “police the police.” So many leaders were arrested that energy that could have gone into feeding or education was often channeled into freeing prisoners.

“I was in the second chapter of the Black Panther Party,” Nyasha said at the March 14 event, “which basically existed to get the first chapter out of jail.”

Recent police crackdowns have fed indignation not just about policing protesters, but about the role police play in poor communities of color. “One thing Occupy has done is address the issue of policing in communities of color, to the extent that some aftermath of what we’re seeing at Occupy is shedding light on how police can sometimes treat people,” said Kimberley Thomas Rapp, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the Bay Area.

“In black neighborhoods, police should be community partners, not come in and exert more force than necessary. And at protests, they should be there to ensure safety, not just to arrest people unnecessarily or use excessive force,” Rapp said.

Police crackdowns on Occupy are the first exposure many white protesters of the younger generation have had to excessive police force, an issue that was central to the story of the Black Power. Sadly, for many black and other protesters of color, excessive police force is nothing new.

“It’s absolutely the case that police brutality shown towards many Occupy protesters has brought to the forefront the issue of police violence and led to an awakening among many white folks of the day to day reality of police violence that many people of color have lived with now for many years,” Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, told the Guardian.

Enraged at police beatings (see “OPD spies on and beats protesters,” Feb. 14) both Occupy Oakland and Occupy San Francisco have held “fuck the police” marches. March 18, after a six-month commemoration celebration brought 3,000 to Zuccotti Park in New York City, followed by 200 arrests and rampant police violence, Occupy Wall Street protesters followed suit, holding their first anti-police brutality march.

Occupy Wall Street has reanimated concepts that burned through the ’60s, such as violence vs. nonviolence, the systemic causes of personal economic woes, and the peoples’ relationship to police. With the consciousness created by Black Power activists, today’s organizers have a foundation on which to build their own answers to these questions, across issues and generations.

National Occupy the Hood has called for action concerning Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black 17-year-old who was shot Feb. 26 and whose confessed killer has yet to be arrested. Taking up high-profile cases of injustice and working more closely with organizers to respond to the needs of local African American communities could bring more power and truth to the rage for justice currently galvanizing a new generation.

“It’s about black re-empowerment,” Archbishop King said. “It’s like the torch, the light of freedom and justice, has actually gone out. And we’re trying to relight that. That’s why I’m so excited about the Occupy movement; it ties into the Black Power struggle. And I think it’s waking up some of us old revolutionaries to stand up.”