Copycats

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.

Whether that message and its new adherents are to avoid the fate
of their predecessors, however, will depend largely on whether they
are willing and able to moderate their tactics, says ex-Panther
Tiye Acoli in The Source. ‘I only wish they would study COINTELPRO
and not glamorize being hunted down and shot.’

RESOURCES

Dallas Observer
$80/yr. (52 issues)
2130 Commerce
Dallas, TX 75219
214/757-9000
letters@dallasobserver.com

Essence
$16.96/yr. (12 issues)
1500 Broadway, 6th Floor
New York, NY 10036
212/642-0600

Pacific News Service
$52/yr. (52 issues)
450 Mission St., Room 506
San Francisco, CA 95105
415/243-4364
pacificnews@pacificnews.org

Prison Life
$23.70/yr. (6 issues)
Box 537
Stone Ridge, NY 12484
800/207-2659
prisnlife@aol.com

The Source
$19.96/yr. (12 issues)
215 Park Av. S., 11th Floor
New York, NY 10003
212/253-8700

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