The new Black Panthers struggle for street cred

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Thirty years after Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and a gaggle of gun-toting black militants burst onto the national scene, the Black Panther Party is beginning to re-emerge. In a dozen cities across the country, including Chicago, New York, Las Vegas, and Dallas, a new generation of Panthers have come together with a retro Black Power ideology and a commitment to helping African-Americans struggle against the white power structure and the gangsta/drug culture that has become the dominant force in urban America since the government systematically erased the Panthers from the political landscape in the early '70s.

They have not, however, been warmly welcomed--even in the black communities they seek to serve. And some members of the original Panthers are particularly peeved. Seale, a lecturer at Temple University, has decried the new Panthers' emphasis on guns and vigilante-style community patrols over the community organizing he and his followers advocated. Kaleef Hasan, one of the original founders of the Dallas chapter of the Panthers, has gone so far as to sue the revivalists in his hometown to prevent them from besmirching the party's good name. 'Weapons should not be used to bring attention to your group, but should be used in an organized and disciplined fashion to defend your community,' Hasan told The Source (Oct. 1996). 'I cannot say that these people who claim to be Panthers have studied, prepared, or trained enough to carry this title.'

Hasan and others are also uneasy about the alliance the Dallas chapter--the new party's most visible arm--has forged with Khallid Muhammad, the controversial former national spokesman of the Nation of Islam. But Aaron Michaels, the 34-year-old founder of the Dallas chapter who last summer invited Muhammad and his Fruit of Islam entourage to support his group's effort to unseat the president of the Dallas school board, says the new party is different, even if the name isn't. 'We chose the name because we wanted to revitalize the ideology of people we respected, but our actions alone spoke for us,' he says.

Whether those actions speak well for the new Panthers is another question. As Laura Miller writes in The Dallas Observer (June 20, 1996), Michaels' high-profile chapter (Muhammad's June visit attracted a 'crisis-sized' CBS news crew) has not always reflected well on the Panthers' mystique. 'The burning of black churches across the South is a real issue--a horrendous act that will only be stopped when everyone focuses on apprehending the hateful, lunatic people who are doing it. In contrast, the suitability of Bill Keever as president of the Dallas school board is, at best, interesting dinner conversation,' she notes. 'Incredibly, though, these two stories have become intertwined, mostly because the New Black Panthers with their impossible-to-ignore shotguns and assault rifles have run hither and yon screaming equally loudly about both.'

Despite such media-pleasing goofiness, what Essence has labeled 'Panther-mania' seems to be gaining momentum. On the heels of Mario Van Peebles' 1995 movie, Panther, a batch of similar film projects are in the works, and through the work of such rappers as Paris ('the Black Panther of hip-hop') and KRS-One the Panther platform (against police brutality, black-on-black violence, and drug use) has been preserved and revitalized. The murder of rapper Tupac Shakur even provided an opportunity to hark back to the Panther legacy, as Kevin Weston cited Shakur's Panther roots in a recent essay (Pacific News Service, Sept. 16, 1996) and lamented the loss of a black revolutionary ideology.

Indeed, the roots of this phenomenon may be most easily found in the hopelessness of inner-city black youth, caught in the remorseless chaos of gangsta warfare--a decidedly apolitical culture devoted, ironically, to the supremacy of monopoly capitalism. As Cheo Tyehimba explains in Essence, an entire generation of African-American youth was left dangling when the Panthers vanished, and no satisfying political ideology ever emerged to take its place.

Of course, part of this is simple nostalgia, as in the case of the May 1996 Essence interview with original Panthers Angela Davis and Katherine Cleaver. But as Pam Widener notes in her Prison Life 'Man of the Year' profile of ex-Panther Eddie Ellis (Oct. 1996), the party's political message remains alive and effective. 'The same sense of outrage and urgency that dissidents took to the streets in the '60s. now drives countless seminars, conferences, lectures, marches, and rallies throughout the nation and across the World Wide Web in response to the tragic failure of the war on crime,' she writes.

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