An unarmed young black man struck down in the prime of his life by antagonistic and overbearing security forces. Twisted with bullets, there his body lay, treated with something between callous disregard and the glory of conquest.
It was almost 45 years ago exactly that prominent member of the Black Panther Party Fred Hampton was murdered in his apartment, sleeping next to his pregnant wife, during a raid conducted by the Chicago Police Department and the FBI. Hampton was a rising star in the revolutionary movement that promised strength, unity, peace and protection for the black community. He was a talented and renowned organiser, and at just 21 years old taught classes on political education in his local church.
The events in Ferguson Missouri, where unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer, have provoked global shock. The strangulation of the unarmed Eric Garner has provoked similar ire. The illusion of an America where racism is dead has fallen away, even for those who could maintain that illusion from the rosy vantage point of sunny, white suburbia.
Almost half a century ago the Black Panther Party for self-defence was founded by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton. Many people are aware of its chief concerns: civil rights for black Americans, income inequality and charity activities like the provision of community healthcare and free breakfasts for kids. But what was the spark that ignited that movement of revolutionary racial consciousness? The clue is in the self-defence part.
Policing in America at the time was a notoriously racialized process. Civil rights protesters faced water cannons and mauling by dogs. The black community had learned that the police were not dedicated to the community, but were in fact an ugly and alien “other”, to be avoided and tiptoed around lest you invoke their wrath. And so, out of this pressing need for security, the Black Panthers were born.
The Black Panthers famously embraced the right to bear arms and morphed what had been a traditional symbol of American authority into one of revolutionary struggle and self-defence. The Black Panthers would send armed citizens’ patrols to hover over police officers and prevent the vicious brutality that many in the black community had simply come to know as “policing”. If black Americans could not count on fair policing from their nation then they would have to take it into their own hands.
I was reminded of the Black Panthers as I watched the scenes in Ferguson and around the United States that seemed to dispel this cruel joke of a “post-racial America”. Nothing much of any substance has changed for African Americans since the Black Panthers roamed the night trying to keep the cops honest. Alice Goffman, a sociologist in the University of Wisconsin, highlighted in her book On the Run how many black people living in the inner city experience policing in an entirely different way than most of white America.
America’s unprivileged exist in a constant state of surveillance. These people are watched night and day by thousands of accusatory eyes. Their phone calls are monitored and recorded. Their privacy is horrifically invaded and every moment of their lives are lived as fugitives. People reacted with shock and awe at the high tech military gear that Ferguson police officers displayed against protestors. But this isn’t at all uncommon. This is where futile and ridiculous endeavours like the War on Drugs and the War on Terror have done to American policing. The local police department is no longer the friendly, approachable cop on the beat who might maybe have a .40 Smith and Wesson if things get particularly hairy. Nope, not anymore.
As the war on drugs continues in vain and brings suffering to the lives of so many, it does benefit one group immensely: local police departments. American cops are seizing illicit profits from drug dealers and auctioning their loot to buy military grade hardware, hellish hand-me-downs from the war on terror. That little revolver and a friendly smile have become armoured Humvees, assault rifles, light machine guns and a gas mask.
Disadvantaged black communities are profiled and harvested like crops for high tech gadgets for police departments and for exploding profits for a powerful private prison system. More than 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, African Americans are enslaved again. Only this time, the chains are tidy and orderly and the whippings and beatings are kept in the dark, outside the glow of primetime TV, corporate news and the state of the union address.
In a time like these you could mourn the death of a revolutionary movement like the Black Panthers. At a time like this, as minorities and the poor are being more and more excluded by voter ID laws etc, you long for a movement that put radical political involvement and collective consciousness in the hands of the black community. At a time when the American corporate machine holds up its head puppet and declares racism over because his skin is sort of dark in the right light, you long for a revolutionary movement that treats the illness instead of putting a bandaid over the weeping sores and declaring it all healed.
You long for a watchful eye to police the police.
Photo: Christian Matts/ Flickr