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Is Violence the Answer?: the Black Panther Party

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Is Violence the Answer?: The Black Panther Party

Organized in the 1960s at the height of the American Civil Rights Movement, the Black Panther Party emerged as a revolutionist group pioneering a strategy of militancy. The Party's aims were to eliminate the discrimination challenging African-Americans in America since the time of slavery, and to protect their communities from police brutality. Inspired by contemporary radical leaders such as Malcolm X, the party recognized that in order to restructure American society so that civil equality was obtainable by all people, a much stronger opposition was necessary. Party members felt the passive resistance adopted by their predecessors fighting for equality proved futile, and therefore the Party endorsed new tactics of self-defense and violent resistance to secure their political and social rights as American citizens. However, the promotion and employment of open violence fueled the government with legitimate reason to battle for the Party's eradication. Regardless of its success in instituting innovative community reforms in African-American neighborhoods, during its short existence the Black Panther Party was never able to achieve its fundamental goal of eliminating racial discrimination and ensuring civil equality for all when battling against an America averse to change.

The period ranging from approximately 1950s-1970s witnessed a rabid call for social change: in particular, the demand for civil equality. In 1966, frustrated by the lack of progress in the fight for equal rights for blacks, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Outraged by instances of police brutality and violence toward civil rights workers and even innocent citizens, the Party adopted a policy of self-defense and militancy recognizing that "All history has shown that this government will bring its police and military powers to bear on any group which truly seeks to free Afrikan people" (Acoli 2). This new strategy of "fighting back" differed dramatically from the non-violent rebellion that leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. advocated. These non-violent leaders had adopted a strategy of building a respectful coexistence with the rest of society, which they hoped would eventually lead to social change. However, change was not transpiring rapidly or extensively enough for the founders of the Black Panther Party. Originally a small coalition of men with the goal of protecting their community of Oakland, California, the Party developed itself into a prominent national organization maintaining chapters in forty-eight states all fighting to rid the country of discrimination and unlawful violence against blacks.

While other prominent civil rights groups were engaging in non-violent protests such as sit-ins and rallies, the Black Panther Party was determined to take a bolder stance against injustice. The Party believed that the methods that organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), and leaders such as Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr. were implementing remained ineffective against an extremely discriminatory America:

despite mass uprisings by blacks in resistance to unrelenting violence and the law's delay, despite tacit urgings by blacks to be afforded some means to survive, despite bold attempts to live separate lives in America [...] blacks, in the main, found themselves denied of every possible avenue to either establish their own socioeconomic independence or participate fully in larger society ("Panther").

The Black Panther Party, therefore, ventured to adopt a new strategy: revolution. The Party was strongly influenced by the rising Black Power movement, which stressed dignity, self reliance and racial unity. Robert F. Williams, an early Black Power leader, was one of the earliest advocates of violent protest against the continued injustices confronting blacks. He determined that "nonviolence could not be looked upon as the cure-all for all the problems of the Afro-American community" (Coombs 5). Williams asserted that because non-violent demands for civil equality were met with seemingly unnecessary violence by police and government forces or ignored altogether, blacks must be prepared to engage in a full scale war against oppressors. Williams avowed, "it is precisely this unchallenged violence that allows a racist social system to perpetuate itself" (6). Drawing on Williams' and other Black Power activist's arguments as encouragement for taking up arms, the Black Panther Party sought to reform society through violent means.

Although armed and fully clad in black leather jackets and berets, the party's militant guise, the party sought not to retaliate for past violent actions against blacks. The Black Panther Party instead encouraged blacks to defend themselves only when faced with hostility. Adopting the black panther as their emblem, the party hoped to communicate that like the animal, it "never attacked another animal" but was prepared to "defend itself ferociously when challenged" (Coombs 10). Black Panther members worked as surveyors of their community police forces, ensuring that the police were not being unnecessarily hostile during routine operations. Panthers would trail police cruisers and when one stopped an African-American, they too would stop and make certain the person pulled over was receiving proper legal treatment.

Not only did the Black Panther Party offer protection against police hostility it sought to reform deteriorating African American communities. The Panthers were able to make substantial contributions to the improvement of African-American communities. The Party sought to reform their neighborhoods from within by "going to the masses, living among them, sharing their burdens, and organizing the masses to implement their own solutions to the day to day problems that were of great concern to them" (Acoli 2). The party instituted many ground-breaking community reforms that provided "a model for an alternative, more humane social scheme" for African-Americans ("Panther"). Through commonly labeled "Survival Programs," the party was able help meet the basic needs of the people, those often ignored by the central government ("Panther"). The Black Panther Party did this by initiating community help programs ranging from free breakfasts for children, free health care, and free clothing drives to reforms aiming to reduce drugs and crime in their neighborhoods. The reform techniques were so successful that similar measures were implemented by the government years later to help disadvantaged communities and



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