Power to the Community: The Black Panthers’ Living Legacy of Grassroots Organization

There was a historical moment in the late 1960s when the movement for “community control” seemed to promise hope for the creation a new direction for the left in North America. The movement focused heavily on grassroots control of schools and the police, but hinted at a more all-encompassing vision of “power to the people” in the concrete, meaningful sense of effective power from below. What might have been was envisioned in David Morris and Karl Hess’s almost-forgotten small classic Neighborhood Power: The New Localism [1], which was published just as the practical hopes of the movement for grassroots power were in the process of fading away. Hess, who also wrote the complementary work Community Technology [2], credited the Black Panthers very explicitly for their central role in inspiring these hopes. He praises the Panthers for being “neighborhood-oriented” and “for demanding freedom where they lived, freedom to have communities rather than colonies.” [3] Yet, today, the Panthers are hardly known in the popular mind as prophets of the neighborhood as the new liberatory polis.

If the right and political mainstream have dismissed the Panthers by branding them as violent extremists and criminals, much of the left has highlighted the Black nationalist and vanguardist aspects of the party while giving only glancing attention to grassroots initiatives like the free breakfast and health programs.  There has been a general neglect for the radically decentralist and anarchistic dimensions of the movement that are expressed in the call for community control. But these aspects were the vital core of the movement and remain an invaluable resource for the creation of a deeply transformative social movement with a broad base of support and participation.  They reveal that the Panthers were an effective radical and revolutionary force to the extent that they were in touch with the radical needs of the community.

I know the importance of this tradition in part through the work of my friend scott crow, whose exposure to the Panthers began early in his life. In Black Flags and Windmills, Scott’s indispensible book on the Common Ground Collective, he explains some of this history and illustrates how the Panther heritage, combined with anarchist ideas, was at the core of the extensive relief work of Common Ground after Hurricane Katrina. [4] And I know the vitality of the tradition above all through the work of my friend and fellow local activist Malik Rahim, who was a Panther leader in New Orleans in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, who has been a tireless community organizer in the Bay Area and in New Orleans over the decades since, and who was the major inspiration of Common Ground.

While I was in the process of rereading the history of the Black Panther Party, I came across a video of a talk that Malik had recently done on the importance of the Panther legacy in the disaster recovery work of Common Ground. In it, he says that “the teachings that I learned in the party were carried out in Katrina.” He points out that 19,000 volunteers worked with Common Ground and served 200,000 disaster survivors in southeast Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Referring to the long-time movement to free the framed former Panthers known as the Angola 3, he says that Common Ground’s work “wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for the Angola 3. And there wouldn’t have been an Angola 3 if there hadn’t been a Black Panther Party.”[5]

So what is the connection between the Black Panther Party of the 1960’s and tens of thousands of volunteers devoting days, months, or even years of their lives to saving devastated local communities forty years later? Philip Foner, in the introduction to his collection The Black Panthers Speak,  quotes Vice-President Spiro Agnew as labeling the Black Panthers a “completely irresponsible, anarchist group of criminals.” If you look at the early Panther program, you find much of it to be a radically decentralist, libertarian, and communitarian in nature.[7] It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to call this neglected dimension of the Panther legacy “a completely responsible anarchist plan to replace a criminal system.”  It is a part of American radical history that is usually ignored in mainstream and even many left accounts, but which has already had an enduring influence and can still offer tremendous inspiration today.

The Black Panther Party Platform and Principles,” its famous “Ten Point Program,”[8] starts with an unambiguous communal libertarian statement. “We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.” “Freedom” is thus defined as the self-determination of the community.  Much of the Program is an effort to spell out this concept of communal freedom, showing that it means the ability of the self-reliant community to provide for its own authentic needs.

The Panthers’ Program states that “if the white American business will not give full employment,”—something they knew wouldn’t happen—“then the means of production should be taken from the businessmen and placed in the community so that the people of the community can organize and employ all of its people and give a high standard of living.” This is a proposal for worker self-management of workplaces that is at the same time community self-management of the local economy as a whole.  It goes on to state further that “if the white landlords will not give decent housing to our black community,”—something they also knew wouldn’t happen—“then the housing and the land should be made into cooperatives so that our community, with government aid, can build and make decent housing for its people.” This is a proposal for resident self-management of homes that is at the same time community self-management of local housing as a whole.  The Panthers also aimed at creating a community-based system of medical care.  Despite their limited resources, they were able to establish a People’s Medical Care Center that had ten doctors, twelve nurses, two medical technicians plus volunteer interns from local medical schools. It treated over one-hundred patients per week.[9]

The Panthers also envisioned a revolutionized form of education, one that emphasized critical thinking that unmasked the nature of the dominant ideology and the system of domination itself, and that educated young people to become free and collectively self-determining beings. They demanded “education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society,” and “that teaches us our true history and our role in the present-day society.” Most strikingly, they called for “an educational system that will give to our people a knowledge of self.”  How many political movements have recognized that the basic problems of society are rooted in the kind of selfhood that has been imposed on people and that a basic political task is to carry a revolution at the level of self and subjectivity?[10] An article on “Liberation Schools” sketches some of the details of a curriculum in pursuit of such goals. The well-known Panther programs of free breakfasts and lunches are included (in this, they were far ahead of most public school programs at that time). Schools were to have three days of classes each week, in addition to two days dedicated to films and field trips “throughout the community,” so that the split between the educational process and the real life of the community could be eliminated. Finally, education was recognized as a life-long process so there would be adult political education classes in the evenings.[11]

One of the other core demands of the Program was direct democratic community control of not only the police but the legal system.  Fifty years ago, the Panthers were already proclaiming, “We want an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of black people.” One must wonder what would have happened if millions had followed the strategies they proposed rather than the path of slogans, street protests and the lobbying of politicians that has prevailed. The immediate Panther response to police oppression and brutality was a combination of self-education and direct action. They thought it essential for all members of the community to “know their rights,” but their position was that the whole community also had to act directly to enforce those rights. Foner notes that “the Party established a system of armed patrol cars, completely legal, carrying both guns and lawbooks,” so that “whenever black men or women were stopped by the police, armed Panthers would be on the scene, making sure that their constitutional rights were not violated.”[12]

A more long-term goal involved developing a political movement and detailed plan for community control of police. The plan is outlined in a “Petition Statement for Community Control of Police."[13] It would involve “establishing police departments for the major communities of any city.” This was to include all local communities, though the particular focus was obviously on enabling major oppressed ethnic (or class) communities to control their own affairs. Control of the police would be in the hands of neighborhood councils elected by the citizens of the neighborhoods. The councils would determine policies for the community police departments. The administration of these departments would be carried out by police commissions whose members would be “selected by a Neighborhood Police Control Council,” which would have fifteen members elected by the community. Councils would have disciplinary power over the police and set policies for the commissions and departments to carry out.   The council would have the power to recall the commissioners and the community would have the power to recall the council members. All police officers would come from the communities they serve. The result of all these proposals would be effective power of the community over the police and policing.

The Panther Program goes beyond the issue of law enforcement to that of community control of the legal system itself. The Program says that “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.”  The Panthers noted that a “peer” in a real sense means “a person from a similar economic, social, religious, geographical, environmental, historical and racial background.” They realized that the jury system is one of the most radically democratic aspects of the existing political system, one small remnant of a less bureaucratic and statist historical era.  In a jury trial, ordinary citizens get to vote on questions that directly and often powerfully affect the members of their community—namely, the disposition of their lives, liberties and possessions.  A radically democratic jury system provides a means for the community to avoid not only the injustices typical of the travesty of a jury system that we know today, but also to fight against the injustices of a larger undemocratic political and legal system. I think we can assume that jury nullification is implied in the Panthers’ proposal. A community-based jury can not only demand that the law be applied justly, but it can also in effect nullify unjust laws that are imposed on members of local community. The Panthers’ demand for a jury of true peers is thus a very radical one. The Program states that “all black people should be released from the many jails and prisons because they have not received a fair and impartial trial.” The Panthers were demanding that the whole system be reset—get out of jail and return to go, we might say—so that the community can assure that laws are applied justly and that unjust laws will not be applied at all.

The vision of community power in the original Black Panther Program and the actual initiatives put into effect by the Panthers thus constitute an inspiring example for our practice today.  Among those who have done most to put this legacy into practice is Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin. Ervin is a former member of the Black Panthers and SNCC, and a founder of the Black Autonomy Federation.  He is well-known as the author of Anarchism and the Black Revolution. In a very instructive interview about his ideas on organizing, he points out the weakness of tactics like “lobbying politicians” and depending on “celebrity so-called leaders,” dead-end tactics that do nothing “to build a grassroots movement from the bottom up.”[14] Ervin sees the crucial question as the radical communitarian one: “How do we turn neighborhoods and communities into self governing communes?” For him, this implies very concrete creative efforts in which people can see before their eyes the growing power of community and feel this power through their participation in the communal creative process. So, “on the local level people would start to build their own neighborhood institutions,” and this would include “some kind of economic base where people can be given jobs and can build housing and infrastructure for themselves.” He sees urban farming as playing a key role in this process, as it has recently in many impoverished and marginalized urban areas, perhaps most notably in Detroit. But Ervin points out that even projects like community-based urban farms are of limited value unless they are part of what he calls “building a whole synthesis.”  He notes problems such as high rates of infant mortality, high cancer rates among women, economic segregation, and police terrorism, and stresses that all these issues have to be linked together, since underlying them all is “the problem of people being disempowered by institutions that exist now."

So the challenge is to take on all these institutions simultaneously at the local level.  Ironically it is only by becoming more radically local that a movement spreads far beyond its boundaries. Ervin argues that “when people see that you’ve got a sustainable movement wherever you started at, it can spread.  People will emulate it.  And that’s essentially what happened with the Black Panther Party.” He explains that he is “not saying that we won’t help someone start up somewhere else, but our objective right now is to worry about Memphis.”  The point is that “worrying about Memphis” means at the same time worrying about the world.  This is what “building a whole synthesis” means.  Ervin explains that even in the most local of actions “it has to be understood that we’re trying to dismantle this entire society.  This entire capitalist system and the whole system of white supremacy worldwide.” This systemic focus is something that was always central to the Panther ethos. An area in which both Ervin and Rahim extend this Panther outlook in their awareness of the ecological dimensions of the necessary synthesis. They recognize that social revolution also means defying capitalism’s and the state’s definition of reality on behalf of a more bioregional, land- and Earth-centered approach. As Ervin says, we must move “to the question of a bioregional area as opposed to just a city: We cannot be limited to what the state says is the territorial limitation of an area.”

So the “synthesis” means taking on capitalism, the state, racism, and the entire system of domination. The old slogan about thinking globally and acting locally never really made sense in a world that is radically local and global at the same time. The system of domination knows how to think and act both locally and globally at the same time, and movements for liberation have to learn how to do this also. This is what the struggle between domination and liberation, the historical dialectic, is all about.

And this is how the Panther legacy fits into the total picture. The struggle for an Oakland Commune as a commune of communes, or a Memphis Commune as a commune of communes, is inseparable from the struggle for Commune Earth, the commune of all communes.


[1]  Boston: Beacon Press, 1975.
[2] New York: Harper & Row, 1979.
[3] Karl Hess, Dear America (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1975), p. 146.
[4] Oakland, CA: PM Press, second ed., 2014.
[5] On the Angola 3, see the powerful film In the Land of the Free (2011), written and directed by Vadim Jean.
[6] Philip S. Foner, The Black Panthers Speak (Philadelphia and New York: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1970), p. x.
[7] For the almost completely neglected communitarian dimension of the Black Panthers, see “Communalism and the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California” by Robyn C. Spencer in the excellent collection West of Eden: Communes and Utopia in Northern California, edited by Iaian Boal, et al (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2012), pp. 92-121. This analysis discusses many of the deeper issues of values and personal life, including sexism and gender roles, that are not addressed extensively in the official statements of the party.
[8] “Black Panther Party Platform and Program: What We Want What We Believe” (October, 1966) in The Black Panthers Speak, pp. 2-4. 
[9] Lincoln Webster Sheffield, “People’s Medical Care Center” in Daily World (May 16, 1970); reprinted in The Black Panthers Speak, pp. 173-175.
[10] The radicalizing nature of the movement on the personal level can be gauged by the distance between certain notorious sexist and heterosexist statements that are still cited by critics of the Panthers, and the appearance, within a short period of time, of statements such as Huey Newton’s highly advanced and self-critical text, “A Letter from Huey Newton to the Revolutionary Brothers and Sisters about the Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation Movements”
[11] “Liberation Schools” in The Black Panther (July 5, 1969), pp.170-171; reprinted in The Black Panthers Speak, pp. 170-171.
[12] The Black Panthers Speak, pp. xvii-xviii.
[13] “Petition Statement for Community Control of Police. Summary of Police Control Amendment that Must Be Established in the Cities and Communities of America to End Fascism,” in The Black Panther (June 14, 1969); reprinted in The Black Panthers Speak, p. 179.
[14] "‘Racism has to be challenged’: An Interview with Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin”.

Posted on November 25, 2015 .