Black autonomy and lessons from the Black Power struggle

The Black Power movements of the 1960s and 1970s can show the way for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Demonstrators mass on the steps of the Los Angeles City Hall
People protest against police raids on Black Panther headquarters on the steps of the Los Angeles City Hall on December 11, 1969 [File: Wally Fong/AP]

The murders of Ahmaud Arbury, Tony Mcdade, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd have triggered a rebellion in the United States, while solidarity protests have emerged across the world. The moment has reminded many historians of the 1960s, when the country was engulfed in an uprising similar to the one we have seen for the past few weeks.

From 1964 to 1968, African Americans burned their rejection of exploitation and oppression into the cities of America: more than 160 rebellions, more than 150 deaths, thousands of arrests, and tens of thousands of buildings damaged or looted.

The uprising gave birth to the organisations of Black Power: The Black Panther Party in Oakland and the US Organization in Los Angeles, the Congress of Afrikan People in Newark, the Shrine of the Black Madonna and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit – all joining the newly radicalised civil rights groups Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

If the urban rebellions were the disruptive rejection of being Black and oppressed in America, Black Power was the positive counterpart: the demand for self-determination. As the opening point of the 1967 Black Panther Program made clear, “We want Freedom. We want the power to determine the destiny of the Black community.” Or as Stokely Carmichael, the civil rights leader who coined the term averred, Black Power meant Black people “need new types of political institutions in this country [and] … we need them now.” 

Black Power was not peripheral, it was the mainstream. And its ideas caught on like wildfire. By 1968, Black Power had effectively replaced Civil Rights as the dominant ideological concept among a majority of Black youth and significant portions of the Black working and middle class.

And yet, people often perceive Black Power as a mutation of civil rights, a kind of extremism – condemnable but understandable – which arose in response to the intransigence of the US government. The story we are often told is that a loud minority of civil rights leaders lost their patience and became Black Power advocates.

The truth is, in rural America, Black Power was the grassroots response to white power: the violent alliance between white racists and the state, whereas in the cities it was the political response to decades of racialised economic exploitation and extraction that had led to the urban rebellions.

The government’s investigative task force stated as much. “White society,” the 1968 Kerner Commission Report declared, “is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” Unless these factors were addressed, the report concluded, riots in Black ghettos would become a permanent feature of American society.

And that they became. We seem to be experiencing waves of rebellions that fizzle out and return every few years. The script is consistent. Brutal and vicious videos document Black suffering and death. We remember Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and George Floyd.

When the protests transform into rebellions, civil rights leaders, Black celebrities, and the families of murdered Black men are called upon by state governments to stop one kind of violence: the kind against private property, while the violence against human beings continues unabated.

The latest iteration of this script featured TI and Killer Mike speaking in front of Atlanta’s elected officials, telling Black people to stop “burning your own house down for anger with the enemy” and urging them to channel the anger of the bullet towards the ballot. When these exhortations prove insufficient, the script takes the now all too familiar turn: heavy state repression with a light sprinkle of reform – little carrots and big sticks.

Over the past two weeks, we have seen this dual approach play out, inflected even further by the polarisation of the Trump presidency. At the federal level, Trump remains committed to escalation and brute force. “When the looting starts,” he smugly tweeted, “the shooting starts”. About 10,000 people have been arrested in more than 140 cities across the United States, while thousands of complaints of police brutality during the protests have been submitted.  

Meanwhile, democratic mayors and liberal legislatures are brandishing symbolic fixes to pacify the revolt. Images of kneeling cops, removed Confederate statues, and large yellow inscriptions of Black Lives Matter pointing to the White House have proliferated across the media.

Corporation after corporation, from Netflix to Amazon, are competing to show how much they stand for Black lives. When things quiet down, there will be the usual commissions, the hearings where the community can vent and testify, followed by the minor policy tweak. Wash, rinse, repeat.

The cycle cannot continue. But how do we get out? One recent article in the New York Times argued that the issue we face is not systemic racism but an even more fundamental anti-Blackness. To many of the Afro-pessimist thinkers, since the moment that Black people were first kidnapped from the shores of Africa to work the plantations of the Americas, the world’s entire semantic field has been structured by anti-Black solidarity that denies the humanity of Black people.

Non-Black people cast on one side, these theorists argue, and Black folk – those deemed non-human – on the other. From a global perspective, the mob violence against Nigerian students in India, the recent evictions of and restaurant bans against Black people in China, the cycle of police killings, Black rebellions, and state repression in the US, show that global anti-Black racism is an understudied and very real phenomenon worth investigating. And Afro-pessimists are indeed correct to argue that Black suffering cannot be equated solely with white supremacy.

But as Angela Davis has rightly argued, as a category “anti-blackness has been used to be deeply critical of people of color“. We share her concern that this has served as a barrier to solidarity.

In claiming that all non-Black people are complicit in Black suffering, new popular currents of thought imply that, at some level, the possibility of international solidarity is occluded. We argue instead that autonomous agency and international solidarity, the twin pillars of the Black Power struggle of the 1960s and 70s, are actually the ideas most worth revisiting during the present rebellion.

When most people think of Black Power, the image that comes to mind is armed young men in militant dress wearing stern expressions and black berets. Thankfully, the last 20 years have brought a more nuanced portrait of Black Power to the popular imagination. Thanks to the work of historians like Ashley Farmer, for instance, this view has been complimented by Black women building alliances with women all across the world, and Black activists posing alongside anti-imperial leaders from Cuba, China, and Vietnam.

Today when it has become common to come across arguments that question the possibility of coalitions between Black people and other groups, what do these images have to tell us today? A central tenet of the Black Power movement was international solidarity. It ought to be one today as well.

In the late 1960s, anti-imperial solidarity meant, to use euphemisms of the time, that the ghetto was Vietnam, that the police officer was the conscripted US soldier, that the Black woman and her Indigenous sister needed each other. Reflecting on Harlem, James Baldwin said “the white policeman, patrolled the neighbourhood” like “an occupying soldier in a bitterly hostile country”.

Martin Luther King Jr recalled that as he walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men that ignited the rebellions, he could not convince them to drop their Molotov cocktails. “They asked, and rightly so, ‘what about Vietnam?'” To which he responded that they were right.

International solidarity expressed the perception of a shared fate. Through organisations like the Third World Women’s Alliance Black women were able to imagine their liberation as a multiracial and global project. Other Black Power groups turned to Islam, international socialism, or Black nationalism as a way to connect local struggles of Black autonomy with a wider circle of common humanity.

There is a dire need today to adopt this outlook towards revolts happening elsewhere. International links that supplement the already existing connections between Black organisers and Palestinians, need to be established with activists in Sudan, Chile, Lebanon, Iraq, and the dozens of other countries who have revolted in the past few years.

In the 1960s, international solidarity was seen as a necessary extension of the organising work that needed to be done at home. In addition to defending their communities against the terror and brutality of racist police, Black Power initiatives did what the state refused to do. Thanks to the incredible book by Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin, Black Against Empire, we have detailed descriptions of what this looked like.   

When a new Black Panther chapter opened its doors, its first order of business was to hear (then dispatch members to deal with) local grievances.

As Jamal, a Philadelphia Panther recalled, “The offices were like buzzing beehives of Black resistance. It was always busy […] People coming in with every problem imaginable.” Local Panther offices dealt with job and consumer complaints, wrongful evictions, rent struggles, the need for traffic signals, and difficulties with private and public utilities.

In one particularly telling example, community outrage following a white ambulance driver’s refusal to pick up a dying 15-year-old boy shot in Winston-Salem prompted the local party chapter to action.

In response, the chapter obtained an ambulance (retrofitted from a donated hearse), paid for the training and certification of volunteer emergency medical team, and within a few months had a 24-hour free ambulance service for the area’s residents.

In 1969, Black autonomy meant that groups like the Black Panther party launched Black Panther community programmes, a concerted effort to build institutions of mutual aid across the US.

In addition to the well-known and fantastically successful Free Clinic and Breakfast programmes, the Panthers organised a Free Clothing programme, a Free Shoe programme, a Free Pest Control programme, a Free Plumbing and Maintenance programme, as well as liberation schools, legal aid, renter’s assistance, senior escort, and prison busing programmes, the latter offering collective transportation of relatives to visit inmates often incarcerated in rural penitentiaries.

Just a few weeks after the outbreak of the uprising in the US, we are reading headlines which seemed impossible just a few weeks ago. Police budgets are being slashed from Los Angeles to New York. In a veto-proof majority, nine of the 13 officials in the Minneapolis City Council have voted that the city police department, the one that had murdered George Floyd, was “not reformable” and would be defunded and dismantled.

There are at least two important reflections one can gather from this. First, the legacy of Black Power women like Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and the multiracial alliances their protegees have built has meant that ideas advanced by the small but active prison abolition movement have entered the mainstream.

Secondly, when people ask what could replace the carceral state in the Black ghetto, we may simply point to the legacy of Black Power. The history of Black America is the history of mutual aid in the face of state absence.

And so what does all of this mean today? It means to take a non-pessimistic look around and see the legacy of Black Power’s legacy around us. It means seeing the humility and solidarity on display in the thousands of non-Black protests across rural America. It means taking to heart that people in more than 50 countries across the world have risen up to indict the institutional racism in the US.

It means realising that these global protests are connected to liberation struggles occurring all around the world, from Algeria and Sudan, to Iraq, Hong Kong and Chile.

It means recognising that local autonomy initiatives of the Panthers are carried on today through mutual-aid organisations like Common Ground Health Clinic and West Street Recovery in the US as well as in the thousands of bottom-up solidarity networks that ameliorate the brutalising effects of climate change, war, and global austerity. We see the legacy of the Panthers in Cooperation Jackson, in initiatives like 400 1.

Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth ended with these famous words, “Let us reconsider the question of [hu]mankind. Let us reconsider the question of the cerebral mass of all humanity, whose connections must be increased, whose channels must be diversified, and whose messages must be re-humanized.”

The defunding and dismantling of the police is an incredibly important step in the struggle for Black liberation. It is only by forging such connections, by learning from, and building with the sum total of humanity, that we can begin to imagine what might replace it.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.