‘Policing The Police’: How The Black Panthers Got Their Start

Nearly 50 years ago, in 1966, a group of six black men in Oakland, Calif., came together in an effort to curb police brutality against African-Americans in the city. Because of a quirk in California law, the men were able to carry loaded weapons openly. The Black Panthers, as they became known, would follow the police around, jumping out of their cars with guns drawn if the police made a stop.

“They would observe the police and make sure that no brutality occurred,” filmmaker Stanley Nelson tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. “What they were really doing was policing the police.”

.. the group was a response to what some saw as the limitations of the nonviolent civil rights movement.

.. young people, who kind of felt that the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King … had run its course,” Nelson says. “It had gotten what it could get, and something else was needed; new tactics were needed.”

.. the Panthers put forth a 10-point program that sought to address a host of problems, including police brutality, poor housing and subpar education.

.. Sometimes the rhetoric is definitely over-the-top, and I think that’s one of the things that the Panthers knew and wanted it to be over-the-top. It’s saying, “OK, we’re going to totally break from what the traditional civil rights movement is asking for. We’re not asking for a right to sit on a bus or eat in a restaurant — our demands are much more radical, and they might be over-the-top, but they’ll also get your attention.” And I think [what] the Black Panthers wanted to do — they wanted to get attention. I think what happens as time goes on is they are kind of trapped into this corner that they’ve painted for themselves: one, with the over-the-top rhetoric; two, with the guns that they carry at first.

the Panthers saw that young kids were not being fed breakfast before school; there was no national government program to give kids a healthy meal before school. So the Panthers just started doing it

.. It was a very, very successful program for the Panthers, and actually J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, said it was probably the most dangerous thing that the Panthers were doing, because it was winning not only the hearts and minds of young kids but also of their parents.

.. “Every young black man has a black leather jacket or can get one or can borrow one if they can’t buy one.”

.. The look was very, very calculated. This was a break from … Martin Luther King and the suits and ties and that kind of “we’re going to look proper.” … A lot of people don’t know that was really part of the traditional civil rights movement, that they dressed up because they wanted to show you the difference between them all dressed up in suits and ties — the women were encouraged to wear dresses and sometimes little white gloves — because they wanted to show you the difference between them and the mobs that would be chasing them or screaming at them.

.. [Hoover] issues memos … that basically say to his agents, “Do anything that you can, anything that you can think of to destroy the party.” So the FBI does things that range from infiltrating the party and having agent provocateurs inside the Panther Party who are provoking violent acts and buying guns and supplying guns to the Panthers, to he has [a] memo that says we have to set spouse against spouse. .

.. The idea of writing letters to people’s husbands or wives to tear them apart … that was one of the tactics that the FBI was using, but just anything that they could possibly do to tear people apart and to create the sense of paranoia

.. You didn’t know what was true or what was not true; you didn’t know who your friends were. All of those things the FBI was using and I don’t think anybody really understood the extent and the low level that the FBI would sink to to destroy people it looked at as its enemies.

Insurrectionist Civics in the Age of Mistrust

Ghanaians are so frustrated with politics that within his generation of young, internet-savvy guys, no one wanted to be associated with either of Ghana’s major political parties. In fact, the easiest way to lose credibility in the Ghanaian internet community was for someone to declare you a member of the NPP or the NDC, the two major political parties, because at that point, anything you say is assumed to be said purely to score political points.

.. Efo can’t even be seen being too friendly with politicians or prominent members of either party – he avoids even being in the same photographs with people who are closely associated with either major party.

.. Activists in Pakistan and India who collect information on corruption, reporting police or customs officials who ask for bribes, or taxi drivers who cheat passengers, using crowdmapping to document these patterns. Friends in Russia who use the internet to collect resources for people affected by natural disasters and provide relief that the government should be, but isn’t providing.

What these movements have in common is

  • the youth of their organizers,
  • their use of digital media to organize and promote, and
  • an insistence by their organizers that these efforts are not political.

.. the front runners – at least in terms of pundit attention – are people who aren’t politicians – Donald Trump, Dr. Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina – or who are at least very unusual politicians, like socialist Vermont representative Bernie Sanders

..  think we’re at a moment of very high mistrust, not just in government, but in large, powerful institutions as a whole. And I think if we want to revive our civic life, we need to think about a vision of civics that’s appropriate for an age of widespread mistrust.

.. Where trust remains high is in a set of nations that includes successful autocracies like UAE, Singapore and China, countries that have made an implicit deal with their citizens that economic advancement will come at the expense of constraints on democratic participation.

.. Hayes suggests that the most significant divide in US politics today is not between left and right but between “institutionalist” and “insurrectionist” approaches to civic life. Institutionalists believe we need to strengthen and rebuild the institutions that have brought us this far, while insurrectionists want to overthrow the power of those institutions and either build new ones in their place, or see whether we’re able to exist without these sorts of institutions.

.. At MIT, we’re in the midst of an entrepreneurship craze – you may be experiencing this at Syracuse as well. The coolest thing you can do as a college student is graduate – or leave before you graduate – and found a startup. The lamest thing you can do is join a large, established company – and large, established companies no longer mean IBM or Bank of America, they include Google.

.. There’s a strong sense that the way in which you can leave your mark on the universe is not through existing, powerful institutions but through small, nimble structures that haven’t yet had time to become calcified and bureaucratic.

.. Reverend King and the rest of the movement had to influence a government that was capable of passing these powerful and sweeping laws. I don’t have confidence that a march on Washington could have this effect today, that our Congress could pass reforms on this scale. And if we can’t march on Washington, where do we march?

.. The model pursued by the civil rights movement is one we still use today: elect the right people to office, and influence them so that they take action on the issues you care about. In other words, our power as citizens comes from influencing the institutions that govern our country. The NRA are institutionalists when they work to influence legislators to oppose any gun control, and the Human Rights Campaign are institutionalists when they work to bring equal marriage to the Supreme Court. Despite radically different points of view, their core methods are similar, and they both depend on confidence in these core civic institutions.

.. But change is lots harder for insurrectionists. If we decide that Congress no longer represents the will of the people – because members are so beholden to donors, because representatives now have to speak for 700,000 people rather than the 30,000 they spoke for when we founded the nation, because partisanship is so high that very little legislation gets passed, then any strategy that involves Congress – whether it’s elections, lobbying, letter-writing campaigns, sit-ins, or even marches – can’t accomplish major change.

.. And so, often, insurgents are revolutionaries. They have lost confidence in the possibility of making change through any existing institutions, so they wanted to smash them all and start again. That’s what we saw in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and Sudan, countries where cartoonish dictators had ruled for years and where every institution of the public and private sector was part of an unjust system. And when people rose up against those governments, we tended to root for the revolutionaries, because it seemed absurd and impossible that these corrupt institutions could be reformed or changed.

.. But it hasn’t gone so well for the countries of the Arab Spring.

.. In Egypt, we discovered an uncomfortable truth of revolutions – if you topple a powerful authority, the likely outcome is that whoever was next most powerful and organized will take power: in Egypt, it was first the Muslim Brotherhood, then the army, an institution that has demonstrated that it’s capable of the indignities and cruelties of the Mubarak regime.

.. Revolutions where we replace existing flawed institutions with new, different institutions are exceedingly rare.

.. many people involved with Occupy would argue that the movement had difficulty governing itself within encampments, never mind scaling the model of General Assembly to govern a city or a nation.

.. I’m seeing lots of examples of a third way, a form of civics that starts with a simple question: “What’s the most effective way I can be a civic actor?”

.. I’m deeply frustrated – ashamed, really – by US government surveillance of domestic and international users of the internet by the NSA, as revealed by Edward Snowden and the journalists who worked with him. But I don’t have a lot of confidence that either President Obama or this Congress will make more than cursory changes to our surveillance apparatus… and I’m not sure how I’d even verify that these changes took place, given the NSA’s track record of lying to Congress.

.. friends who work developing open source security software tell me that they have a very hard time flying in the United States due to frequent supplemental screenings.

.. So maybe surveillance doesn’t have you worried. Climate change should. But it’s been fascinating to watch entrepreneurs look for ways to make money and make change around alternative energy

.. We need to change the norms of our society so that black men and boys aren’t automatically viewed as potential threats.

.. There’s a tendency to dismiss online activism as slacktivism or clicktivism – and no doubt some is. But online activism can be very powerful as well, particularly when it comes to shaping norms.

.. iftheygunnedmedown was a campaign to call attention to the images used to portray Michael Brown after his death. Media outlets found Brown’s Facebook account and chose a picture where Brown was photographed from below, giving prominence to his height. Media

.. The Root found another Facebook photo in which Brown looks much less intimidating, and juxtaposed the two, asking “If they gunned me down, what picture would they use”,

.. how news media portrays a victim has influence on whether we see that victim as innocent or culpable. The campaign quickly became participatory with African Americans selecting pictures from their Facebook accounts that portrayed them at their most and least “acceptable”.

.. Many newspapers changed the image they used to depict Brown

.. iftheygunnedmedown is evidence that online campaigns can shape media more broadly, and perhaps shape norms.

.. Some of the most ambitious experiments in insurrectionism are trying to build a world without institutions at all

.. promoters of bitcoin hope that these distributed architectures could provide a powerful new way to govern legal contracts, eliminating the need for branches of government and judiciary

.. This month, Alabama announced they were closing 31 DMV offices across the state, including every one in counties where the population is 75% black. Black and white people have an equal right to vote in Alabama, but voting in Alabama is likely to be deeply inequitable.

.. “Monitoring” sounds passive, but it’s not – it’s a model for channeling mistrust to hold institutions responsible

.. They would follow police patrol cars and when officers got out to make an arrest, the Panthers – armed, openly carrying weapons they were licensed to own – would observe the arrest from a distance, making it clear to officers that they would intervene if they felt the person arresting was being harassed or abused, a practice they called “Policing the Police”.