Fighting co-optation: Honoring the Black Panther Party on its 55th anniversary

‘Serve-the-people-Black-Panther-mural-in-Oakland-by-Bryan-Berry, Fighting co-optation: Honoring the Black Panther Party on its 55th anniversary, Culture Currents
This powerful Panther mural appeared recently in Oakland, where the Panthers are remembered with pride. – Photo: Bryan Berry 

by Delency and Abbas Muntaqim

Founded 55 years ago on the campus of Oakland City College, the Black Panther Party (BPP) has left an everlasting impact on radical and revolutionary culture – not just in the U.S., but across the entire world. We founded People’s Programs in their spirit, and with all our work we aim to honor their legacy.

As we write these words, we sit just a few blocks from the old Oakland City College campus in North Oakland. What was once the stomping grounds for young revolutionaries, the property now houses a senior citizen center, a high school and a children’s hospital research center. And although the area has gone through drastic changes since 1966, the campus still has almost the exact exterior it had when Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and others used to roam its hallways and congregate on the front lawn. 

We’re over a half century removed from that time, but you can still feel the energy of those early Panther days on “Grove Street” – now known as MLK – and it is that revolutionary energy that many of us, not just in Oakland but around the world, try to carry with us as we strive to put an end to the same settler colonial western imperialist domination that the Panthers set out to destroy with their first patrols in 1966.

In his autobiography “Revolutionary Suicide” BPP co-founder Huey P. Newton details how and why he and Bobby Seale started the party. It was their analysis of the Black contemporary struggle – poverty, racism, police brutality – and their understanding of Marxist-Leninist theory – anti-colonial, anti-imperialist, socialist, communist – that led to them realizing the importance of a mass organization aimed to meet the material needs of the people while simultaneously working at dismantling the larger euro-amerikkkan power structure. 

With this knowledge, the party’s 10-point program was composed, and it was through the inspiration of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization that Newton and Seale found their name and symbol: the Black Panther Party for Self Defense.

“I was very impressed by the political party in Lowndes County. They called themselves a freedom organization and they used the Black Panther as their symbol … they used the Black Panther because of the nature of a Panther. A Panther will not attack anyone; he will back up first … if the assailant is persistent, then the Black Panther will strike out and wipe out his aggressor thoroughly, wholly, absolutely and completely. We thought the symbol would be very appropriate for us and also … I was very proud of the move that the Black people in Lowndes County made.” – Huey P. Newton (25:00 mark)

Black-Panther-free-breakfast-program, Fighting co-optation: Honoring the Black Panther Party on its 55th anniversary, Culture Currents
“Black Power is giving power to people who have not had the power to determine their own destiny.” – Huey P. Newton. What is activism in an era when the Black Panther Party line faces simultaneous co-optation and renewed popularity? How many of us are conditioned to live for ourselves and forget the beauty of living for a common cause? Through places like Peoples Programs in Oakland, the Panthers’ legacy continues, and the community builds what the community needs – thereby actively freeing ourselves and the land from amerikkkan control. Pictured here is a Panther volunteer serving two children at a Black Panther free breakfast program, one of thousands that once flourished around the country. – Photo: It’s About Time BPP

With their 10-point program and symbol in place, the next decade would see the Panthers grow from a student-led organization fighting for a Black studies department and a stoplight at a busy intersection on 55th and Market to a political force with cadres and survival programs spread across the country, plus an international headquarters in Algiers.

Free breakfast, free groceries, health clinic, freedom schools, legal services, offering military aid to the Vietnam army to fight off amerikkkan imperialism – the Party dove head first into the cause of liberation – giving the people not just an image and idea of hope, but a material measure to point to.

The success of the Black Panther Party, in its ability to serve and organize the community for revolutionary change, led to Richard Nixon launching the FBI’s – illegal – Counter Intelligence Program, known as COINTELPRO. Under the direction of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, the program involved the use of repressive tactics such as: falsely imprisoning Black Panthers, illegal wiretaps, assassinations, fake letters to create dissension, the planting of drugs, torture and many more terroristic practices. 

The ruthless approach of amerikkkan government officials and their military arms would eventually get the best of the party. With some of their greatest minds and most effective organizers imprisoned, forced to go “underground” or dead, the party would come to an end in the early ‘80s. 

When it comes to the 21st century ploy of neoliberal, neocolonial co-optation – it commonly surfaces as reductionism and ahistorical reframing of Black liberation fighters and revolutionaries.

But, what didn’t end with the closing of the last school, clinic, headquarters or the death of co-founder Huey P. Newton was the Panthers’ revolutionary politics and programming. Those are still alive and well today. You just have to dig through all the neoliberal and neocolonial co-optation to find the folks who are truly living with the goal of “All power to all the people!”

When it comes to the 21st century ploy of neoliberal, neocolonial co-optation – it commonly surfaces as reductionism and ahistorical reframing of Black liberation fighters and revolutionaries. For quick and easy examples of this tactic, we can look at Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

If we simply look over the last five years, we can find perfect examples of how MLK has been used at the disposal of the amerikkkan propaganda machine. Whether it’s pushing their monopoly capitalist efforts by using audio from one of his speeches for a Dodge Ram Super Bowl commercial in 2018, or the FBI “honoring” him – as if they didn’t spend years harassing him and his family – via their Twitter in 2020, the U.S. colonial powers have made it their mission to erase the many years of repression King suffered at their hands and, ultimately, the role they played in his assassination.

Like MLK, the mass media and U.S. government have always had it out for brother Malcolm X – and what we’ve seen from them the last decade has been utterly disgusting. In 2011, writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates called emperor Barack Obama “Malcolm’s legacy,” when just the slightest look into Malcolm’s revolutionary black nationalist politics would show you that a Black man as the head of a fascist regime is the complete opposite of what Malcolm believed in. 

“I do not expect the white media to create positive Black male images.”

Then, there’s two recent Netflix documentaries that are essentially hours of Malcolm being degraded by his enemies. But what can we expect when the same people who control the land, control the corporations, control congress, control the army, navy, marines and police also control mass media? You get tales of Black freedom fighters that are at their best reductionist and at their worst defamatory. As Huey Newton said: “I do not expect the white media to create positive Black male images.”

Time plays a huge role as it pertains to when the state can begin to rewrite a revolutionary’s history. When someone is no longer able to speak for themselves and the people who knew them best are also dead, locked up, or begin to waiver in their own politics – become neoliberal – this allows for the folks in power to begin to craft stories that are beneficial to their desires. 

Both Malcolm and Martin have been gone for over 50 years now. There’re generations of people who will be newly introduced to their life and work – it is in the best interest of the state to craft an image and story of folks like them that is both docile and pro-amerikkkan. 

So here we are, celebrating the 55th anniversary of the founding of the BPP, and if we look at the last eight years or so, the state and neoliberals have been working overtime to rewrite, reduce and co-opt their legacy.

As history has shown us, the state will integrate a chosen few Negroes to do the job of white supremacist imperialism: This is what we identify as neo-colonialism. Amerikkka has chosen “cultural” figures within the Black community to do the work of co-optation of the Black radical legacy. 

This must be understood as white supremacist propaganda with Black face, and this is part of a propaganda war on the Black Panther Party’s legacy. Its purpose is to discredit what the Panthers stood for and ultimately to misrepresent their legacy in order to fuel neoliberalism.

Beyonce’s Super Bowl halftime show in 2016 perfectly illustrates this. 2016 was a time in which the Black Lives Matter consciousness movement was gaining traction. New Afrikan rebellions were growing, from Ferguson, to Baltimore, to Oakland, Calif. Beyonce – and the state – saw it in her interest to cosplay a Black Panther for the Super Bowl show. 

This is co-opting the radical energy of the masses of people and instead representing it in a passive way. It gives the people the illusion of “progress” while there is no material benefit! Beyonce didn’t even say anything about what the Black Panther Party stood for and didn’t advocate for Black Panthers still incarcerated under the illegal COINTELPRO! 

She’s also a billionaire and isn’t supporting organizations on the ground doing the work to free the people and the land. This was a counter insurgency employed by the state.

The Panthers knew that armed struggle was an inevitable facet of revolution, but the purpose of their guns was always political, not just for show.

This can also be identified as cultural nationalism, as Beyonce used the imagery of the Panthers and erased the political objective of their work. This type of co-optation has material consequences for the masses of New Afrikans. For one, it indoctrinates New Afrikans to think that simply representation is a solution to settler colonialism and imperialism. 

This will then fuel New Afrikans into the corporate controlled democratic machine. It leads people to believe that “progress” can happen by having a seat at the imperial corporate table. Beyonce’s action has also led to other people thinking it is OK to cosplay a Black Panther. And, arguably even worse, it reduces the BPP to nothing more than leather jackets, afros, berets and raised fists. It turns them from a revolutionary cadre organization to simply an aesthetic.

Another example of the co-optation of the Black Panther Party was when paid actors in Atlanta dressed up as Panthers at a protest. Following in the footsteps of Beyonce, they mastered the look, but they went a little further – they were armed. 

Images went viral of a Black woman holding a gun, while she had a leather vest and beret on, and one of them even had a fake Panther logo on! After the pictures were plastered on every blog and social media site, it was found out they were paid actors. So now the question is, what is the objective of paid actors going to a protest and purposely misleading people?

It can be assumed that they were creating a fake organization for the purpose of not only misleading people, but also spying on New Afrikan masses. Again, this is a counter insurgent tactic: It could have led to New Afrikans joining their ranks and sharing their frustration within the group while advocating for action against the state, which then would have led to this fake organization snitching and leading people to be imprisoned. In addition, it also suggests that dressing up and going to protests is a form of “activism.”

In the process of their cosplaying, these actors not only put the people who followed them into the streets in danger, but they once again reduced the BPP. When they didn’t have a political ideology or program to point to during their “armed resistance” they inaccurately invoked the spirit and politics of the Panthers. 

The Panthers knew that armed struggle was an inevitable facet of revolution, but the purpose of their guns was always political, not just for show. We must always remember that! Whenever we bring the Party into the spotlight, we must look at them in their entirety – for both their ideologies and their material work.

Now that we’ve identified a few ways in which the Panthers have been co-opted, reduced and inaccurately portrayed, it’s important for us to show the people the right way to honor the Panthers’ legacy! It is through collective action with a revolutionary nationalist ideology that the sacrifices of the Panthers made will not be in vain. 

It is through building programs for decolonization – free breakfast programs, free healthcare etc. – that we actively work towards freeing the land from euro-amerikkkan control. Programs for decolonization were created by Black Panther veteran Jalil Muntaqim, and they describe the process of the evolution of survival programs into programs for decolonization. 

The posture is offensive, rather than solely based on survival. It is the process of building alternatives to the state to build a front for the liberation of the New Afrikan Nation. Through organizing for independence, we can begin to abolish these structures. It is through nationhood that we can practice self-government – and begin to free ‘em all!

Free the land. Free the people. And never forget, We Are Our Own Liberators.

Read more on why we need to Free the Land and why we need a United Front.

Author’s note: If there are words used in this piece that you are unfamiliar with, please refer to the glossary section in our previous writings as we may have already defined them. Thanks!