If one good thing came from orgy of predatory advertising, rabid consumerism, militaristic nationalism, and pro-establishment distraction that characterized the fiftieth Super Bowl, it came from the national spotlight on Beyoncé’s half time tribute to the Black Panther Party. Backed by dancers in Panther-style leather and berets, the highest-paid black artist of all time performed her recent single, “Formation,” which directly references African American pride, the mass murder of black men by a militarized police force, and the failure of the racist state to appropriately compensate black victims of Hurricane Katrina, and gave the crowd a Black Power fist. The NFL confirmed on Monday that Beyoncé’s performance was a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party’s establishment in Oakland. Immediately, the singer (though, interestingly, not the advertisers or the league that endorsed her performance) faced massive criticism from American conservatives who claim that the revolutionary civil rights group was murderous, terrorist, and (most absurdly of all) racist. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose expansion of policing and gentrification were described by even the establishment’s own New York Times as “Benign Ethnic Cleansing,” called the performance “an attack” on police officers who “keep us safe.”
While the original Black Panthers, frontrunners of the last great Marxist revolutionary movement in American history, would have likely refused any endorsement from the Pepsi Halftime Show, especially from a woman who performed the national anthem at the second inauguration of a violently imperialist President, contemporary revolutionaries can’t afford to be so particular. Beyoncé’s performance gave two major gifts to the million of Americans who watched it. By evoking the Black Panthers, she reminded an increasingly radicalized populace that there is a historical precedence for rejecting the imperial state and its violence, and by provoking racists, it highlighted the hypocrisy of the establishment’s argument that the only legitimate protests are those that occur within its own tightly controlled paradigm. To understand the depth of these gifts, this is a brief history of the Black Panther Party: their inarguable foundation in the right to self defense, their deep commitment to human rights and opposition to racism, and violent and criminal destruction at the hands of the United States government.
Modern conservatives would perhaps be surprised that the Black Panthers originated with limitations on gun control in California. After the state legalized the open carry of firearms in public (ironically, facing staunch opposition from Governor Ronald Reagan and the NRA) in 1966, young Marxists Huey Newton and Bobby Seale decided to take advantage of their constitutional right to a well-regulated militia. Together they formed the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, organizing groups of openly armed black men to follow police officers through Oakland at a legal distance. Their goal was to prevent police officers from unfairly stopping and murdering black people. All Black Panthers pledged to a list of conditions, including a mandate that they never use their weapons except in self defense, and this “copwatching” was hugely successful and spread (with chapters of the Party) to ghettoized cities across the country, a direct response to the spike in racial murders by policemen that came as white America felt threatened by the so-called end of legalized segregation. Despite their guns, the Black Panthers were enacting the ultimate non-violent protest: a protest that actually deterred violence.
Like any effective revolutionary army, the Black Panthers’ most significant work was not in their militancy. Citing the government’s failure to properly support the lives of black Americans, Huey Newton required all Party members to take part in “Community Survival Programs” designed to provide essential services to black communities across the country. These included free ambulances for the rural poor in North Carolina with no access to emergency medical care. They included free breakfast programs for black children, who then as now lived with immensely disproportionate food insecurity, and grocery assistance for poor families, black and white. And they included a prison busing service, in which the families of incarcerated people could visit their relatives without access to a car (a service that would be even more critical today, when a racist criminal justice system is 10 times more likely to imprison a black man than a white person, and an inhumane prison-for-profit system that has made America the most highly incarcerated country, by far, in world history). These entirely non-violent programs earned the endorsement of major civil rights organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which was in turn endorsed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who despite the distortions of decades of neoliberalism, spent the last year of his life promoting revolutionary socialism and attacking the Johnson administration’s violent and racist imperialism.
It was this introduction of militancy into the massive (and largely futile) national struggle for racial justice that perked the interest of the greatest domestic terrorist in American history, FBI founder J. Edgar Hoover. Recognizing that the massive populist appeal of the Black Power movement would would lead to either actual realization of racial (and economic) justice or an all out revolution, he set out to destroy the SNCC and the Black Panthers to protect the status quo. Hoover called the Party “the greatest threat to the internal security of the party” in a Congressional testimony and directed the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) to neutralize that threat. COINTELPRO fed local law enforcement false information implicating Party members in entirely fabricated crimes to justify police raids with the explicitly stated goal of luring armed Black Panthers into gunfights in which they would be murdered before they could go to trial and reveal their innocence. This strategy resulted in the assassinations of many Party leaders, most notably Chicago’s Fred Hampton. In the face of this attack, the Black Panthers (and their 1970 offshoot, the Black Liberation Army) were forced to lean more heavily on violence for survival; the Fraternal Order of Police to this day accuses the two groups of 13 murders of police officers (almost all of which were in response to fraudulent COINTELPRO arrests).
Using this increase in “terrorist” activities, the FBI stepped up their attack in the early 70s. COINTELPRO planted false evidence of police informers within the Party, driving Newton into a paranoid spiral and causing the Black Panthers to split into conflicting factions. By the late 70s the Panthers were virtually disbanded, and in 1989, after the CIA had introduced crack cocaine to the ghettoized poor in American cities in order to fund fascist rebels in Central America, a drug-addicted Newton was killed by a rival factionist posing as a drug dealer. While the Freedom of Information declassified evidence of the FBI’s criminal sabotage of the Black Panther Party as far back as 1971, the capitalist media, as is typically the case with state violence, completely ignored it; the New York Times mentioned COINTELPRO for the first time in 2014. Despite the establishment’s slander, the Black Panthers existed to protect their people from violence, and at its highest possible estimate they killed as many people in their 11 years as the American police have killed in the past 52 hours. While the Black Panthers remain, in the white American imagination, a racist and terrorist force for violence, the FBI, which destroyed the legitimate revolutionary Party through blatant murder and fraud, is the second least-hated federal administration in the country, after only the Center for Disease Control (for the sake of time, I won’t get into the fact that the CDC performed experiments on black people without their consent for decades).
If the invocation of the Black Panther Party, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the resurgence of Black Power are “reverse racism,” that is no reason for white America to take offense. Shouldn’t anybody who is not a racist by definition want to reverse the devastation of racism, as the Black Panthers and the Black Power movement fought to do? Beyoncé angered millions of white people simply by reminding us of a fundamental truth we have the privilege of ignoring: our country was built by millions of human beings kidnapped and forced to work while living as property, and the state that protects us has been systematically devaluing their descendents’ lives for centuries so that we can perpetuate that structural and economic model without retribution. The Black Panthers are scary only because they refused to operate on the terms of white supremacists, and they proved that submission to a fundamentally illegitimate establishment is not inevitable.