For decades since their inception in the 1960s, members of the liberation group known as the Black Panthers were labeled thugs and hateful extremists who set out to ruin the U.S. They were considered the antithesis to Martin Luther King Jr. — armed and dangerous. And that’s how many people still remember them today.
But a new documentary, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, dives into the rise and fall of the Panthers’ political agenda, offering a counter-narrative that’s more timely than ever.
Combining interviews with former members of the party with archival footage of Panther activity, Stanley Nelson’s documentary explores the white supremacy and state-sanctioned police violence that inspired a revolutionary movement — and how that movement redefined black power and pride.
It talks about the key players — founders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, one of the most vocal and recognizable Panthers, and women like Elaine Brown and Kathleen Cleaver who switched up traditional gender roles and actually dominated the party. The party created the Ten Point Program, a platform that served as the blueprint for uplifting the black community through job creation and social services.
The film pulls back the curtain on COINTELPRO, the government-backed FBI campaign initiated by J. Edgar Hoover to destroy the Panthers. By following every move they made (via wire tapping and planting spies in the organization), falsely imprisoning them, and murdering them outright, the counterintelligence program sought “to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist hate-type organizations and groupings.” Hoover, on behalf of the U.S. government, was hellbent on “[preventing] the rise of a messiah who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement.”
The film also hones in on what made the organization famous: the Panthers’ militant approach to fighting systemic racism — and their arsenal of weapons.
But what makes Nelson’s work all the more interesting and relevant is that it reveals how the mainstream has embraced ideas, once considered radical, that were birthed by the Panthers. Their doctrine, formerly viewed as a threat to the very fabric of the country, has been adopted by people of all races and has shaped the current social movement to end police brutality and achieve racial justice.
Decades after the party was formed, the Black Panthers have actually shaped the status quo, from their cop watching and stance against mass incarceration to their holistic approach to overhauling an oppressive system.
“Huey said that we are going to carry our guns, and we’re gonna follow the police. And if they stop someone, we’re gonna stop. We’re gonna maintain a legal distance and we’re gonna observe these so-called law officers in performance of their duties,” Elbert ‘Big Man’ Howard, a former BPP member, says early in the film.
Put another way: Black Panthers were some of the original cop watchers. It makes sense, as their party, originally named the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, was founded in response to police terror in black communities.
“The police in our community occupy our area, our community as a foreign troop occupies territory,” Newton explained in a famous interview he did behind bars. “And the police are there in our community, not to promote our welfare or our security and our safety, but they are there to contain us, to brutalize us and murder us.”
One of the organization’s main objectives was to hold police accountable, which Panthers achieved by observing officers closely. As shown in the film, Panthers dressed in their characteristic black uniform and patrolled the streets to monitor cop activity. To people on the outside, the Panthers were armed vigilantes. But the activists carried their weapons in self-defense and to ensure that police didn’t brutalize black bodies. The Panthers were well-versed in the law and due process, and were able to impart that knowledge to their communities.
Fast forward to today, when cop watching has become the norm. More and more, people are using their cellphones to record violent police interactions and expose the injustices of lethal force. Special teams like We CopWatch are trained to legally observe officers and document their behavior. Facing mounting pressure to reform their internal policies, law enforcement agencies are mandating body cameras in order to make policing more transparent. Numerous phone apps have been developed to upload videos and ensure that damning evidence can’t be tampered with.
“For folks who have cop watched, they’ll tell you that police behavior often does change when they are caught on tape. And it gives the community more data points,” Executive Director Rashad Robinson of the Color of Change previously told ThinkProgress. People could put images to the stories they’ve been telling for years about the abuse that they’ve been taking at the hands of law enforcement.“
The technology used to observe cops may be more sophisticated today, but the push to keep tabs on law enforcement is very much a Black Panther tactic. Cop watching is now considered progressive — common sense. It’s perceived as a self-defense mechanism and supported by lawmakers and the general public alike. But when it was championed by the Panthers in the 60s,70s, and 80s, it was labeled extremist and dangerous.
Fighting back against police violence was one of the primary goals of the BPP, but so was ending mass incarceration. Calling for the freedom of “all black and oppressed people” behind bars, the Ten Point Program stated:
We believe that the many Black and poor oppressed people now held in United States prisons and jails have not received fair and impartial trials under a racist and fascist judicial system and should be free from incarceration. We believe in the ultimate elimination of all wretched, inhuman penal institutions, because the masses of men and women imprisoned inside the United States or by the United States military are the victims of oppressive conditions… We believe that when persons are brought to trial they must be guaranteed, by the United States, juries of their peers, attorneys of their choice and freedom from imprisonment while awaiting trial.
Decades before the prison population ballooned 790 percent, the Panthers’ call to end mass incarceration was considered laughable. Now? It’s one of the sexiest, buzziest topics in America — in both liberal AND conservative circles. Draconian sentences for minor offenses, inadequate legal representation, and pretrial detention — injustices that disproportionately impact black and brown communities — are widely recognized.
And those conversations aren’t limited to the streets and privacy of one’s home.
Politicians have also gotten on board with the push for criminal justice reform. Multiple bills have been introduced in Congress — the REDEEM Act, the Smarter Sentencing Act, the Corrections Act, and the Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention Act — to do away with mandatory minimums, provide safeguards for convicted felons, and emphasize restorative justice and rehabilitation.
Once again, the Panthers were on to something.
What made the Panthers revolutionary wasn’t just that they wanted to end state-backed violence against African Americans. They were radical because they wanted to restructure society as whole, arguing that the oppression of black people comes in many forms. The BPP’s mission is often reduced to their self-defensive gun-slinging, but the Panthers believed police brutality couldn’t be separated from economic injustice and poor community health.
The Panthers called for full employment, decent housing, education, and free health care for oppressed peoples — a holistic vision. So in addition to patrolling the streets for cops’ wrong-doing, the Panthers were very much committed to providing a variety of social services. Indeed, the first proposal in the movement’s 10-point platform said: “We believe that Black and oppressed people will not be free until we are able to determine our destinies in our own communities ourselves, by fully controlling all the institutions which exist in our communities.”
This vision isn’t lost in Nelson’s documentary. In it, we see members of the party feeding breakfast to school children — a service they provided every morning. They opened medical clinics. They wanted to be seen at the forefront of progress, and their community initiatives ultimately earned them widespread support.
Today the concept of comprehensive racial justice is considered progressive — not fanatical and dangerous. Activists and lawmakers are increasingly aware of the fact that economic opportunity and public health are key to changing the status quo.
For instance, Bernie Sanders’ racial justice platform shares several similarities with the Ten Point Program. In addition to police violence, it stresses political disenfranchisement and economic deprivation — two forms of violence against black bodies. The Ferguson Commission report, released last week, details public health, education, and economic disparities that make black people more likely to encounter law enforcement.
Again, it seems, the Black Panthers were ahead of their time.