Old Debates and New Eras: Amy Sonnie and James Tracy Respond to Paul Street.

Paul Street’s essay “What Would the Black Panthers Think Of Black Lives Matter?” has gained attention on social media since it was first published on Truthdig (October 29, 2017). Street attempts to raise important questions about the impact of foundation funding within social movements. This is not what he accomplishes.

Street jettisons a critical conversation about the “corporatization of activism” in favor of inaccurate personal attacks on Black Lives Matter’s founders and an ahistorical summoning of the Black Panther Party (BPP).

Given that Street is an accomplished historian, we’re certain he’s well aware of the numerous ideological debates among Black Panthers, past and present. This includes debates about reform and militancy, nationalism and internationalism, when (and if) to engage in multiracial coalitions, how Black radicals should relate to electoral politics, and what economic analysis supports self-determination given rising neoliberalism. These debates are well documented. Many remain active questions within today’s movements.

Street ignores these complexities in favor of a one-dimensional story about the Panthers, and an equally one-dimensional critique of Black Lives Matter (BLM).

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Photo credit: Stephen Shames

He quotes our bookHillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels and Black Power,in an attempt to shame BLM for not doing enough — presumably — to reach poor and working-class whites or to mimic the Panthers’ serve-the-people programs. There are three problems with this.

First, Street focuses his criticism on BLM’s founders — Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors — and falsely discredits their organizing experience. He questions their ability to reach poor Black communities and then insults those same communities by writing, “Few among the ghettoized and incarcerated black poor sit on the internet puzzling their way through the intricate policy ideas.”

This is a confounding statement in an article evoking the Black Panthers, who engaged the poorest of the poor in studying both theory and policy.

In fact, BLM is a network of many leaders, some new to activism and others — like Garza and Cullors — who have been organizing in Black communities, in prisons, and in grassroots multiracial organizations for nearly two decades.

Second, Street implies that BLM’s focus on Black dignity and power is too narrow, going as far as sympathizing with the All Lives Matter camp.

Much to their credit, BLM leadership has never been narrow in this regard. In addition to direct solidarity with Indigenous movements, many BLM leaders actively support the development of white — and specifically white working-class — activists through close collaboration and strategic alliances with white anti-racist organizations.

Street conveniently leaves this out, seeking instead to lay blame at BLM’s feet for the lack of organized working-class resistance that ushered in the Trump era.

Street spends the bulk of his article critiquing Garza, Cullors and Tometi for what he feels they left out of particular speeches or essays. In doing so, Street conveniently ignores the intellectual and political work of the entire BLM network, whose breadth of vision is clear: “We are a collective that centers and is rooted in Black communities, but we recognize we have a shared struggle with all oppressed people; collective liberation will be a product of all of our work.”

Finally, if we must make parallels, let’s be accurate. The Panthers never directly organized white communities nor did BPP water down its message to appeal to white feelings. The Panthers organized Black communities first and foremost, establishing a vision and serve-the-people model that inspired others. Strategic alliances emerged in that context.

Under the leadership of the Chicago Panthers, the Rainbow Coalition emerged after decades of Black-led organizing during the Civil Rights Movement and a deliberate shift to fortify Black Power and Third World Liberation. When Fred Hampton reached out to the Young Lords in 1969 and Bob Lee visited the majority-white enclave of Uptown in Chicago, it was because these communities were already organizing their own people.

“We never expected the Black Panther Party to come and organize poor white people” confirms Hy Thurman, a founding member of the Young Patriots Organization. “We were already organizing in Uptown and the Panthers sought us out for an alliance because of that.”

These groups found commonality fighting greedy landlords, poverty, police violence, imperialism, racialized capitalism and, specifically, anti-Black racism as a central, shared goal. This happened because a powerful Black-led movement existed in the U.S. and anti-colonial struggles were actively reshaping the global South.

While Street mocks BLM for playing identity politics, the Rainbow Coalition was arguably a model for identity-based class struggle. These alliances took time to build, happened under very specific historical conditions, and, ultimately, suffered because of deadly government repression.

As BLM faces increasing repression, there is a lot to learn from this history. But easy comparisons do little to instruct or inspire.

While Street evokes the Black Panthers as a rhetorical device for a catchy headline, the Black Lives Matter network has been deeply engaged in developing a broad vision, learning from history — including in-person meetings with former Panthers and veteran organizers — and confronting new challenges.

We are not here to speak for the Panthers or for BLM. Rather, we have appreciated numerous opportunities to see BLM leaders speak about these crucial questions directly. In fact, some of the most critical assessments of BLM have come from Garza, Tometi and Cullors themselves, alongside their contemporaries. Appropriately, many of these deeper debates happen offline and in the many grassroots spaces where real movement-building happens.

Street positions himself as uncovering a story about BLM that has been silenced on the Left. In reality, Mr. Street has uncovered more about the problems with the Left’s persistent self-immolation when it comes to criticism offered without concrete solutions.

We get the impression that Mr. Street has put a lot of thought into how to run a movement without foundation funding or the influence of Democratic party politics. Judging from his other important books and articles, that would be a truly worthy essay. We hope to see it.

Amy Sonnie and James Tracy are the co-authors of Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times. Sonnie works as a Librarian in the San Francisco Bay Area. Tracy teaches in the Labor and Community Studies Program of City College of San Francisco.

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