From “Free Huey!” to #BlackLivesMatter: The United States’ Continuing Failure Toward its African-American Youths.

Saturday marked the 50th anniversary since the inception of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland on 15 October, 1966.

Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale were two typical African-American youths growing up in a 1960s America that persecuted its black citizens, while, at the same time, demanded they serve in war, and possibly die, for the same oppressive country which refused to recognise their rights. These, hitherto, nondescript individuals formed the BPP 50 years ago after becoming dissatisfied by the lack of will, from the existing crop of civil rights and black nationalist/militant organisations, to directly challenge the police brutality that had become a mainstay on the streets of the west coast and northern United States, following the mass migration of African-Americans, from the South, during the post-Reconstruction era and then, subsequently, the Great Depression.

The movement, from the start, was characterised by revolutionary black nationalism and known for its armed monitoring of police cruisers. The group were receptive to Marxist and Maoist thinking – in the early days of the group, Seale and Newton would bulk buy copies of Chairman Mao’s “Little Red Book” and resell them to leftist students and liberal-thinking intellectuals  in order to pay for the shotguns they carried during their patrols – and became staunchly in favour of feminism, demanding that members value the equality between male and female members, during the BPP’s nascent days.

Controversies persist regarding how to interpret their enduring legacy. In ‘Black Against Empire’, Bloom and Martin describe the Black Panthers as “the strongest link between the domestic Black Liberation Struggle and global opponents of American imperialism”. Others are less kind and emphasise the BPP’s disrespect for law and order and penchant for indiscriminate violence, suggesting their “gang mentality” was geared toward a collective persona seen as “defiant posturing over substance”. In spite of the gulf in the historical discourse where the character and role of the Black Panther Movement is concerned, there is no doubting the gravity of their impact during the riotous Civil Rights firmament that was gripping America throughout the 1960s. Many scholars exalt the BPP to a status of the “most influential black organisation of the late-1960s”. An organisation which acted as armed escort for Betty Shabazz as she travelled from San Francisco airport to deliver a keynote speech at a conference organised in honour of her late husband, Malcolm X, had, consequently, displayed its influence and channelled this into efforts to galvanise black, disaffected youths into action to end police violence and racism against their communities and, furthermore, demand the same freedoms as their Caucasian peers. Today’s refrain of ‘Black Lives Matter’ is born of the indelible influence of the BPP, arguably, as much as it is the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) and the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), and the Black Panthers inspired the confidence for young African-Americans to demand what is granted to them by law and the Constitution: justice and liberty.

But despite the self-actualisation that has come to realisation for black youths in America over the course of the past 50 years, social justice and equity continues to be absent from the city streets of the Watts’, Comptons and Baltimores of the, apparent, land of the ‘free’. Racism and discrimination are still all-consuming contagions that corrode American society. The epicentre of the current outrage against the seemingly continuous murders of unarmed African-American men and gratuitous brutality against young blacks, male and female, is local police forces across America. The persisting racial tensions, which occasionally erupt into all out riots – as in Carolina – are reminiscent of the troubles of 1960s America; the Watts riots, particularly, come to mind. You could be forgiven for thinking that little, to nothing, has changed regarding the condition of young African-Americans in those five decades. For example, between 1 January and the beginning of July, 2016, 194 African-Americans have been murdered by police officers in America. This comes after over 1100 African-Americans were gunned down by US police forces in 2015 – a record high and roughly twice the total of white individuals murdered during the same period. This is an eye-opening statistic when one considers that African-American males, under the age of 30, comprise only 2% of the US population, and yet their deaths at the hands of law enforcement personnel accounts for 15% of the total. Additionally, 25% of those killed were unarmed and posed no serious threat to officers or civilians.

The problem goes beyond the barrel of a gun. The incarceration figures of African-Americans, as a whole demographic, in the US prison system is astonishing when considering their tiny representation within the national population figures. 12% of people living in the States are African-American, but yet 35% of prison inmates are black. This disparity goes beyond complex and systemic institutional racism, but is also part of a wider societal problem relating to the criminal justice system in the United States; a nation with 4.4% of the world’s population, but 22% of the global prison population. Even with this additional consideration in mind, the disparity between black and white incarceration figures is staggering, especially when you introduce comparisons between 1960 figures and those of the 21st century. In 1960, – when Huey Newton would have been an 18-year-old black youth and subject to unfathomable instances of bigotry – six years before the BPP was formed, there were 1,313 black male prison inmates per 100,000 of the population, whereas the figure for white males was 262. The ratio of black males in the US prison system has increased tremendously, and the gap between black and white has also widened significantly, in the 50 years since 1960. 4,347 black males per 100,000 of US residents were languishing in prison in 2010, as compared to 678 of their white male, abundantly more populous, counterparts. So, black men are five times more likely to receive a custodial sentence than their Caucasian fellow citizens, despite comprising a fraction of the population.

When periodically confronted with realities like the above, I am often reminded of the brilliant Marvin Gaye track ‘Inner City Blues’, from his seminal 1971 album ‘What’s Going On’: An insightful and raw social commentary on brutally violent and unjust urban landscape: The northeast and the American Midwest providing a particular focus for the unforgiving lyrical appraisal.

To illustrate how perfectly the present urban climate mirrors the late-1960s/early 1970s America that Marvin was soulfully protesting in his greatest work, you need only glance at the lyrics:

Rockets, moon shots
Spend it on the have nots
Money, we make it
Fore we see it you take it
Oh, make you wanna holler
The way they do my life
Make me wanna holler
The way they do my life
This ain’t livin’, this ain’t livin’
No, no baby, this ain’t livin’
No, no, no
Inflation no chance
To increase finance
Bills pile up sky high
Send that boy off to die
Make me wanna holler
The way they do my life
Make me wanna holler
The way they do my life
Dah, dah, dah
Dah, dah, dah
Hang ups, let downs
Bad breaks, set backs
Natural fact is
I can’t pay my taxes
Oh, make me wanna holler
And throw up both my hands
Yea, it makes me wanna holler
And throw up both my hands
Crime is increasing
Trigger happy policing
Panic is spreading
God know where we’re heading
Oh, make me wanna holler
They don’t understand
Dah, dah, dah
Mother, mother
Everybody thinks we’re wrong
Who are they to judge us
Simply cause we wear our hair long

The verse that I have emboldened is, obviously, the most striking and relevant given the main news stories emerging from America and to the Black Lives Matter campaign. But all that precedes it are severe afflictions that not only predominantly black communities, but which most ethnic minority demographics face. Almost a quarter of African-Americans live in relative poverty in the United States, today, (for Hispanics it is over a fifth). For the white population it is less than 10%, with the rate of relative poverty in the United States, across the entire populace, measured at 14%.  In some states, where African-Americans are a significant presence (e.g. Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina) the percentage of African-Americans who are impoverished begins to eclipse 30%. But interestingly, in those states where the African-American presence represents less than 5% of the total population, poverty figures skyrocket – to a high of 46% in Nebraska. Three other States show that over a third of their black population are living in relative poverty (New Mexico, Kentucky and Ohio). Only Ohio has a black population ratio that is commensurate with that of the nation as a whole.

The deep and widening inequalities between black and white extend into education and unemployment. Only 22% of black Americans obtain a University degree compared to nearly half of the Caucasian population. Unemployment among Africa-Americans is at nearly 10%, when the national figure is below 5%. Not surprisingly, unemployment is higher among those individuals who do not attend University. So the inferior access to higher education begins to lay the poverty trap for black Americans at a very young age. All of the above can only serve to reinforce the inequalities and divisions that underpin the current issues around race and discrimination, that are forever tormenting American society. It was the same factors that were placing so many black Americans in a deplorable situation back in the 1960s.

Since the Black Panthers showed young African-Americans that they deserved a seat at the table of justice, equality and pursuit of happiness, the political class and judicial system has not evolved and offers little to help improve the lives of their black citizens, continuing to impede the progress of almost all ethnic minorities. Black Lives Matter is an episode in history repeating itself and a government not recognising its past errors. From the Watts riots of 1965, via the violence in LA follow the savage police beating of Rodney King in 1992, we have no arrived back where we started. At an America that does not value the lives of a segment of its on citizenry; a government and law enforcement organisation that will protect its licensed murderers who unlawfully kill those of a dark hue; and a not insignificant proportion of the white population that wilfully turn a blind eye to everyday tragedy and act as apologists for racial crimes perpetrated by those entrusted to ‘protect and serve’.

As Marvin Gaye said: “God knows where we’re heading!”





About johnny3wishbone

University of Bristol alum Follow me on Twitter @DanielAdshead25 A few of my favourite things: International development, human rights, justice, wildlife conservation, primates, politics, literature, music, catharsis, theatre, my fiance, history, environment, current events, writing, reading, running, fundraising, campaigning, activism, travel, Prague, Bristol, Mexican food
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