Why Democrats Should Adopt the Black Panthers’ Ten Point Program
“I do think there’s a fundamental mismatch between how I approach politics and what a lot of the country wanted to hear in 2016. When people are angry and looking for someone to blame, they don’t want to hear your ten-point plan to create jobs and raise wages. They want you to be angry, too.”
— Hillary Clinton, from her book What Happened
The year was 1966. Revolution was spreading across America. They called it Flower Power, or Black Power, Brown Power. Everyone had power on their minds. It was what they argued for, marched for, even sang and danced for. Power. Talk of it filled the air, especially in a city like Berkeley, California. That’s where Bobby Seale was, standing on a street corner, when he had a political epiphany. It began with a poem and a curse word.
“Somebody got me to recite a poem. And it was an anti-war poem written by a young Black man from New York,” is how Bobby Seale remembers it. “That poem I recited caused a fight with undercover cops, who jumped on me and were beating me up…We wound up going to jail, Berkeley jail.”
What was his offense? Seale said “motherfucker” in public. That disturbed the peace. Back then that was no joke. Seale was eyeing a possible one-to-ten year stretch for saying motherfucker in public. He got lucky. The judge granted him probation. After that, Seale was in a revolutionary mood. He huddled up with Huey Newton and together the two men drafted the original Black Panther Ten-Point Program. It served as their blueprint for building power.
“Number one: we say we wanted the power to determine our own destiny,” Seale recalls, “That was about me futuristically organizing to get more Black politicians elected to political office. Remember, we called ourselves a political party. People keep forgetting that.”
Right now, it feels like most Democrats are in the mood to shout, “Motherfucker!” Perhaps they should. Perhaps it’ll kickstart a revolution. The party needs to do something. It needs to get angry, go radical. What Huey Newton and Bobby Seale wrote fifty-one years ago, what the Black Panther Party demanded in their Ten-Point Program was radical. And now, today, it sounds like a militant preview of Bernie Sanders’ platform. Therein lies the answer. No, not Bernie. I mean the Panthers.
What I’m saying is, if they want to win in 2018, the Democratic Party should adopt the Black Panther’s Ten-Point Program for their national platform…yes, I’m serious.
Before you scoff, what do you know about the Black Panther’s Ten-Point Program? Most likely, little to nothing at all. That’s fine. It’s not like it gets taught in American schools.
We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present-day society.
Obviously, the institutional Democratic Party isn’t going to push for a public education program that teaches Americans “our true history.” But the second half of the Panthers’ statement about “our roles in present-day society,” that is something to consider. What if our schools taught real skills, like money management instead of useless shit like cursive writing? What if public education taught the destructive nature, and lingering effects, of colonialism — the ones that so clearly shape the contours and weight of our current political and cultural discourse?
Starting to see how the Ten-Point Program is adaptable to our present day moment?
We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.
That was the Panthers’ first demand: the freedom to control one’s own life. This is what Libertarians demand. It’s a key tenant of the political faith of American conservatives. You could say it’s something we all agree on. Yet, this demand for freedom is rarely, if ever, articulated by Democrats as a party position. Instead, it’s sort of vaguely assumed. Like the idea that Canada is cold. The Democratic party tends to treat freedom like a given condition of being American; it’s like, “you are an American, and thus, you are free.”
Now, to be fair, one could easily argue Democrats are protectors of (certain) American freedoms. Yet many of the party’s tan, black, brown, Muslim, and LGBTQ voters don’t feel like their day-to-day freedoms are fully protected by the Democratic Party. Especially now that they’re under direct attack from the current federal government. This is when they need their freedoms protected. Where are you, Democratic leadership?
Resistance is a good measure of one’s freedom. And right now, there’s a growing #Resistance movement in America. That’s good. We need it. The Democratic Party has gained some momentum from this movement; despite the party’s paltry efforts to resist Trump. But more than just resist, the party needs to lead. Which means the party needs to figure out how to make demands, build power, and fight for freedom for all Americans.
Freedom. What do I mean by that? Freedom was so over-used and misapplied by George W Bush — much like liberty — it’s almost been bled dry of all vital political meaning. It’s practically an abstract term now. Freedom has become a word politicians like to lifelessly cite on the Fourth of July, and drunks like to spit at people who tell them what to do. It’s a free country ain’t it? But there are real, lived freedoms — the ones we must fight for — that do not include a drunk college kid’s right to vomit in a parking lot.
When I say freedom, I mean freedom from pain, suffering, all-consuming worry, financial ruin, or even death, because an American doesn’t have health care. Health is a right. Just like gun rights, or Civil Rights. The push for Universal Healthcare is a fight for freedom, too. It should be treated as such by the Democratic Party. It’s not.
The Democratic Party must articulate how it plans to fight — really fight, not negotiate or leverage, triangulate or compromise, but fight — for the many contested freedoms that Americans are phoning their representatives and demanding, practically daily. Democrats, you must fight the same way the Black Panthers once fought for freedom for all black Americans. It must be a demand. Nothing else will do.
We want full employment for our people.
Over the summer, the Democratic Party released its new national platform. It’s called A Better Deal. Here’s Charles Schumer hawking it in the New York Times. It’s a ham-handed version of progressivism lite. Hack sitcom writers could come up with better slogans on their way to a good punchline. The new national platform, created in reaction to Donald Trump’s presidency, outlines goals that are solely economic: raise wages, lower cost of living, build a 21st Century economy. (…Yawn.)
Basically, it sounds like what it is: a committee-made compromise designed to safely split the difference between the more social-minded goals of FDR’s New Deal, the monopoly-fighting ideals of Teddy Roosevelt’s Square Deal, and the business-minded market-awareness of Donald Trump’s Art of the Deal. Only their platform has none of the appeal of any of those deals. It’s just more half-hearted neoliberal pablum.
We want an end to the robbery by the white man of our Black Community.
If you can believe it, somehow, the Democratic Party still fails to grasp that the American people want to hear radical solutions. We want radical political change. When you’re in the market for radical solutions, one of the best places to look is a radical’s playbook. Fifty-one years ago, the Black Panther Party provided the Democrats with a time-tested blueprint to build power. Real power. People power. The kind of power that scared the whiskey shits out of ol’ FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. All the Panthers had to do was give school kids free breakfast.
You paying attention, Democrats?
“One of our primary aims in counterintelligence as it concerns the Black Panther Party is to keep this group isolated from the moderate black and white community which may support it. This is most emphatically pointed out in their Breakfast for Children Program, where they are actively soliciting and receiving support from uninformed whites and moderate blacks. You state that the Bureau under the counterintelligence program should not attack programs that have community interest such as the Black Panther Party Breakfast for Children. You state that this is because many prominent humanitarian, both white and black, are interested in the program, as well as churches which are actively supporting it. You have obviously missed the point.”
— from a memo by J Edgar Hoover to the special agent in charge in San Francisco, dated May 27, 1969
To separate fact from fiction, and legend from logistics, and to see if my political theory — that Democrats should adopt militant black politics at the national level — has any merit, I contacted author and historian Joshua Bloom, who wrote a definitive history of the Black Panther Party and its organization, Black Against Empire.
To begin our chat, Bloom read the section quoted above (from page 177 of his book). For our conversation, he wanted this central conflict to be clear: the real power of the Black Panthers wasn’t shotguns and racial fear, it was their disruptive politics, community programs, and coalition-building. As Bloom points out, the Black Panthers knew that any tool can be a weapon, if you hold it right. Even a bag of grits and a church.
They were young black men in black berets and black leather jackets, armed with shotguns, rolling around in cars at night, following the police. That image terrified the director of the FBI in the late sixties. Imagine J. Edgar Hoover’s face when he saw news headlines about those same shotgun-toting militant black men invading and occupying the state capitol of California. But do you know what image really made J. Edgar Hoover want to soil his pressed slacks? When those same young militant black men handed out free eggs and grits to kids. Why would breakfast be scarier than shotguns? The answer to that riddle is something Democrats need to understand.
“Hoover is very clear that the Breakfast program, in particular, and the social programs, more generally, of the Black Panther Party are the most powerful and dangerous and threatening part. They’re powerful because of how they bring so much support and alliance behind the Party. Hoover’s very clear that his program is unremittingly to destroy the Party — to destroy its power and its politics. That means severing it from its allies. Hoover was not at all alone in this. Nixon was calling for this repression, which is: We have to destroy this effort of black people to build power.”
That’s how Bloom lays out the scene. Nixon and Hoover are committed. The White House declares war on the Black Panthers. So, Hoover assesses his enemy’s strength. He decides the Panthers’ strongest weapon is breakfast for school kids. His plan: deny black kids this free food.
If you’re wondering why he was so brutal, Hoover’s white supremacist views are well-documented. According to legal scholar Randall Kennedy, Hoover believed that “protest against white domination was tending toward treason.” Think we can treat Hoover’s bigotry as a descriptive fact. Like how water is wet. And if we do that, we can reverse-engineer Hoover’s racist hate to learn how to best beat white supremacists. If you know what he fears, you also know the best weapon to use against him. Hoover feared free breakfast because he knew that it built community, fostered allies, and generated support. It was soft power.
You paying attention, Democrats?
Just like Hoover, our white supremacist-in-chief, Donald Trump, agitates those same fears. Soft power is a battle for hearts and minds. Hoover used fear to divide America. Trump does the same. The Black Panthers and their free breakfast program brought people together, which engendered hope. Hope is always more powerful than fear.
But it’s also way deeper than that. Stick with me. There’s a dynamic you need to understand, Democrats. It’s about how shotguns and grits build power, and how each requires the other. Here’s Bloom to break it down for you:
“The Black Panther Party were part of a two-way relationship. The armed practices of the Black Panther Party provided the source of power and strength. They were able to mobilize on a national scale in cities throughout the country, and feed thousands and thousands of kids, every day, by using the power they had built by challenging police brutality.”
You hear that, Democrats? The Panthers stood up against cops and their brutality, this attracted allies, which the party turned into a support system for a national network to distribute free food to the most vulnerable. Got it? Good. Okay, back to Bloom:
“And conversely, Breakfast for Children made it much easier for the party to build relationships with constituencies in the black community. To provide direct need that built loyalty and support with allies outside the black community, as well as with moderate blacks and churches. Many of the churches that provided space for the Black Panther’s Free Breakfast for Children program may not have supported the armed politics, but they felt like it was a good thing to support because the poor kids were getting fed in the community. ”
This coalition-building at the grassroots level is more valuable than a corporate political donation. It’s long-lasting. It builds, creates, and sustains community. This was part of Bernie’s appeal. His network of supporters were a vibrant community. They fought together.
Over the last ten years or so, we’ve seen large scale social movements bubble up into the national consciousness. There’s been Occupy, BlackLivesMatter, Bernie’s grassroots revolution, and most recently, Colin Kaepernick’s protest of police brutality. So how has Democratic leadership aligned with any of those movements? About as well as a blind man playing dodgeball.
To be clear, no one’s suggesting Democratic leadership should co-opt these social movements. Quite the contrary. Instead, the party needs to acknowledge them, listen to them, consider their aims and demands, and then respond accordingly. As the Black Panther Party shows, there’s real power to be gained from this two-way dynamic. The menace of Occupy grabbed headlines, activists created networks of support, and Dems ignored the politics in the street — until they came echoing back as Bernie’s insurgent socialist movement.
Right now, the Democratic Party benefits from a cultural moment that’s just as alive with protests as the Civil Rights era. Thus far, the party has been loathe to align with today’s protesters or their demands, other than to express empty platitudes about social change and progress. Why is that? Did they not pay attention in history class? As each MLK Day passes, we see another flurry of tweets from Democrat leaders that shows how much they love dead activists. It’s just the living ones they have no use for, apparently.
To get to the heart of how the street affects policy in Washington, Bloom draws from the history of the Democratic Party. In the mid-sixties, LBJ pushed for passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act; he created Medicare and Medicaid. But, of course, these weren’t his ideas, or his original political agenda. Bloom explains the conflict:
“It wasn’t like the Kennedy administration and the Johnson administration were just itching to jump up and do whatever they could to advance black equality — their constituency included the Dixiecrats. So how did the Civil Rights Movement achieve what it achieved? Disruption. The Black Panther Party, very intentionally, sought to figure out how to do the same thing in a different context, in the North and the West, where there was no Jim Crow like there was in the Deep South.”
Even though our present moment calls for different nonviolent tactics than what Civil Rights activists and the Black Panthers employed, protests and direct action still work. The Democratic Party leadership overlooks this historic truth, and ignores the street as a means to build power. Instead, the party plays neoliberal corporate politics, right up until the critical mass of opinion and cultural momentum swings so far they have to jog to keep pace with mainstream America.
Consider gay marriage. How did it become law? It wasn’t congress who passed a law, or President Obama who signed an executive order. Nope. It was the Supreme Court. They gave America gay marriage. Which means, the People did it themselves. Activists and lawyers kept fighting until they found a legal strategy that the courts codified into law. Up until that moment, Democratic leaders like Hillary and Obama expressed half-hearted support, but determined it too politically risky to do much more. Back when he was president, Bill Clinton actually passed a law against gay marriage, the Defense of Marriage Act. On so many issues, the Democrats have done a terrible job of reading the room for these last… um, forty years. And then act like we forget their pasts. (Yes, you, too, Joe Biden.)
Now, when I recommend the Democrats adopt the Black Panther’s Ten-Point Program, does this mean I’m advocating for the party to arm themselves, become a militant pro-gun organization, and leverage the threat of violence and menace of street protests to get their way?
That’s the wrong lesson to take from the Black Panthers. Remember, it’s about guns and grits. The protesters and activists supply the menace of the streets, and express the demands of the People.
Here’s Bloom to explain the difference between politics in the streets and politics in the sheets, where strange bedfellows are made:
“The mainstream of the Democratic Party is never going to be an insurgent organization. It’s by definition institutional and institutionalized. The interests that constitute a lot of the formal Democratic Party and the Republican Party, many of those interests are the same.”
When he says “interests,” Bloom means corporate sponsors, trade alliances, big money, big business. He’s smart to point this out. Our two-party system is pushed by a corporatized agenda, which is partly what allowed Donald Trump to capture the White House and surround himself with his cadre of white supremacists and xenophobes, pretending to be an administration. Bloom has no love for the president or his tactics of fear:
“Trump campaigned by saying, ‘Look, the mainstream Republican and Democrat parties they talk a bunch of liberal goody-two-shoes shit and they’re not going to do anything for you. Look at how much you’re suffering. You lost your home. You have friends who lost their homes. You have family who can’t get health care. I’m gonna solve this for you. I’m gonna bring jobs back and the way I’m going to do it is we’re gonna make America great for white people again. We’re gonna put the immigrants in their place. We’re gonna put the Islamists in their place. We’re gonna put black people in their place. And we’re gonna make America great for white people again.’ So he’s played that xenophobic card. He’s played that racist card as a way of addressing the fundamental growing inequalities that liberalism and Neoliberalism and the Democratic Party have been at the heart of and created.”
The Democrats’ present political identity crisis is a direct and lingering effect from George McGovern. He was the Democrat presidential candidate in arguably one of the most important elections in recent American history: the ’72 election against Nixon. The left-leaning candidate, McGovern, was so soundly thrashed by President Nixon in the ’72 election that a whole generation of Democratic leaders decided any smart Democrat politician should aim for the center. After Ronald Reagan trounced Jimmy Carter in ’80, this Democratic push to the center became party orthodoxy. It became the party’s whole identity. It was the ultimate “if you can’t beat them, join ‘em.” It was the wrong move then. And it’s wrong now.
The abandonment of the party’s core values by Baby-boomer politicians led to the rise of Bill Clinton and a Neoliberal agenda. You may recall Clinton’s string of legislative hits: financial de-regulation, free trade bills, welfare reform, militarized police, and generations of mass incarceration. Sounds like a Republican, doesn’t he?
Democrats, you were the party of the People. If the party has any hope to reclaim power in 2018 midterm elections, it’s indisputably vital the party return to its progressive identity. Not with empty slogans and hokey sign and press conferences, but with real, applicable strategies for helping Americans. No more neoliberal nonsense about why restructuring corporate taxes helps protect American jobs. Talk about American lives.
We want decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings.
Decent housing is just as dire a need today as it was in ’68. Whether it’s the lead-befouled water crisis in Flint, Michigan; the lingering effects of waves of foreclosures in economically at-risk communities after the Great Recession, or the recent rise of homelessness across America; housing is a real and urgent concern.
In Los Angeles, the homeless crisis is growing at an alarming rate. Currently, LA streets are home to 58,000 people. Rather than confront this crisis, as he promised in two elections, the city’s Democratic mayor, Eric Garcetti, just pushed for LA to host the Olympics. People need housing, the mayor delivers spectacle. This is the market-loving, profits-obsessed, modern face of Democratic politics. It’s failing in elections, and it’s failing our future.
“Ironically, #BlackLivesMatter and Trump’s constituency have a lot in common. In terms of the ways Neoliberalism has not worked for them,” Bloom told me when we spoke. “But Trump has been able to capture a lot of the pain on the right. And not just Trump — this has been the direction the Tea Party and the rest of the right have been going for a while now. It’s been able to capture a lot of that pain for this authoritarian xenophobic program. But at a fundamental level, their interests are really similar. So, there’s some real insight into the idea that [the Democrats] adopt the Black Panthers Ten-Point Program. Because it’s fundamentally about those kind of bread-and-butter issues. Issues about power, and issues about well-being, at the basic levels. I think that could be an interesting platform for them to campaign on.”
Before we get carried away, Bloom was quick to modify expectations.
“Do I think that the mainstream Democratic Party is going to ever adopt and adapt the Black Panther Party’s Ten-Point Program? Absolutely not,” Bloom says with a laugh.
But then, he offers this ray of hope, “Could it be a sort of interesting campaign for a grassroots action? Sure. Why not? There’s something insightful about that. On the left and right, that’s what people are hurting about.”
We want all black men to be exempt from military service.
Since the compulsory military draft ended in 1973, the Black Panthers’ sixth point — calling for an exemption of military service for black men — is no longer politically relevant. Without a compulsory draft, we don’t need to exempt anyone from involuntary service. To the Black Panthers, forcing a young black man to go fight and die overseas — to give his life in a racist war for a home country that treated him as subhuman, and was just as likely to kill him as the enemy — was just a new form of slavery.
Now, their seventh point calls for an end to another form of brutality.
We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people.
This demand is just as critical now, as it was in ’66. So, what is the Democratic plan to end police brutality?
Those who don’t fear police brutality — read: white people — fear instead an indirect form of financial brutality — one that gets labelled “economic anxiety.” This is a dog whistle for “white people who are afraid that people of color are getting ahead while they’re backsliding.” Trump used this racialized fear to his masterful advantage and rode it to the White House.
The Democratic Party must figure out how to speak to Americans’ legit fears of police brutality, while also speaking to their fears of “economic anxiety” — and speak to both with meaningful plans. Real economic anxiety — not the racist dog whistle — isn’t just a problem facing coalminers. In a nation where countless Americans are one paycheck from financial ruin, economic anxiety shouldn’t be racialized. Now, police brutality? That’s certainly a racist problem. But it’s also a violation of the values of our nation. This is how you fight for the People, Democrats. You see them as your people. Not as populations of others.
We want freedom for all black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails.
The 8th demand may feel like an unreasonable goal — freedom from incarceration for all black men — but prison reform is not. It’s urgently needed. Ava DuVernay’s masterful 13th sheds light on the dark history of America’s carceral state, and highlights how it’s an extension of slavery. If you haven’t seen it, check it.
The Black Panthers’ 9th demand is a basic fundamental right. It’s guaranteed by the Constitution.
We want all black people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury of their peer group or people from their black communities, as defined by the Constitution of the United States.
But this is still not something poor Americans and POC often receive: justice. Just look at our system of money bail, and how monetizing freedom unfairly affects our most disadvantaged. Our justice system remains a racist and economically-prejudiced theater of oppression.
“We were in Tennessee. During the motorcade, he spotted some ugly racial epithets scrawled on signs. Late that night in the hotel, when the local dignitaries had finished the last bottles of bourbon and branch water and departed, he started talking about those signs, “I’ll tell you what’s at the bottom of it. If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
— Bill Moyers, recounting a story about LBJ
To more closely examine the legacy of the Black Panthers, and to synthesize what we can learn from their successes and failures, I spoke with Kathleen Cleaver: former Black Panther Secretary of Communication, early party leader, and wife of fellow Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver.
“I don’t think the Democrats of today have any Black Panther programs to model themselves on. Today, there are no Panthers.” Cleaver added, “The fact that it’s an effective model is one thing. The fact that it’s being overlooked — I’m surprised at the lack of understanding of the Black Panthers, which is usually generated by something like fear or resistance to this idea of radicalism. So, looking at the Black Panthers for a model, I think — in a racist world — is very daring.”
She doesn’t mean the racist world of the sixties. Cleaver is talking about right now.
“In the sixties and seventies, it was wartime. So, people were doing daring things. And they were dying. And they were challenging the government. Challenging the exploitation. It was a more confrontational era than we have now. And so, I’m not really clear on how contemporary activists would respond to models presented by the Black Panther Party. I think it would require considerable familiarity with the impact of the Black Panthers to make people, now, look to the movement for their model. That doesn’t mean it’s not possible. I think current activists may be less familiar than they were twenty five years ago. What do you think?”
In this moment in history, American millennials have begun to imagine a future without capitalism. They’re finding ways to reject neoliberalism. They’re seeking out alternative ways to govern and steward our shared planet. And they’re mixing in some older approaches, like socialism. The Democratic Party would be fools to ignore this trend. Millennials are the most numerous Americans now, replacing Baby-boomers as the dominant force in American politics. How do the Democrats plan to appeal to this shift in values?
I asked Cleaver what she thinks about this generational shift from neoliberal capitalism towards a more community-minded socialism. Her answer is exacting as it is insightful.
“There needs to be a modification of our social contract to benefit the larger elements of the society. This pyramid idea that the top level of society gets the majority of the benefits and the bottom level gets almost nothing, that has to be modified — that pyramid of capitalism. I think many different aspects of political, personal, and religious struggles would be required to accomplish that. I’m in my seventies, so I might not see that in my lifetime. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.”
But does she still hold onto hope that it could be possible?
“Yeah, I think it’s possible. America is an amazing place. Things that aren’t possible in other societies turn out to be possible here. But that doesn’t mean everything is possible.”
Can the Democrats be bold and forward-thinking, while also reaching back to take lessons from the Black Panther Party, mix those with ideas from the anti-capitalist Occupy Movement, partner that with Bernie’s socialist political aims, add BlackLivesMatter’s calls for justice, and build that mix into a successful national platform for the future? Who knows? As an elder stateswoman, Cleaver remains optimistic.
“It sounds like something Eldridge used to say, ‘What we need is some Yankee Doodle Dandy socialism.’ If Americans saw that, they’d go for it. We have to figure out how you make people see it in that way. Americans have to own it. It can’t be that alien socialism. It has to be domestically-generated. I think you’re onto something.”
We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.
That’s it. There’s your recipe for political power: Food, housing, education, justice, peace, equal representation and protection under the law. Things which sustains lives. Politics that assert that lives matter. These are fundamental American values. These are the freedoms Democrats must still fight to provide their voters; without profit as their primary motivation to do so. This may sound radical. Guess it is. But it’s what the American people want.
Right now, it’s our job to disrupt ‘business as usual,’ the Democratic leadership needs to listen, to reflect, and to respond politically to the collective voice of protests and the voters. The values of your future voters are in the mouths of protesters today. Lead the voters, don’t follow blindly from behind with the help of polls.
The Black Panthers showed us how something as simple as free grits can scare the shit out of a white supremacist. J Edgar Hoover’s fears of free breakfast confirm this fact. This dynamic of flexing soft power is still applicable today. If you’re looking to beat a white supremacist in power, build community. There’s your blueprint for power in 2018, Democrats.
Now, will you use it?