When we think of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, certain events tend to come to mind: the March on Washington, for example, or perhaps the Freedom Rides or sit-ins. Others, however, have faded from our collective memory. One of those is the story of the Black Panther Party, the subject of this Op-Doc video. Founded in 1966 in Oakland, Calif., to combat police violence, the Black Panther Party and its story are a key part of our nation’s still-complicated racial narrative.
When it was conceived, the Black Panther Party called for “an immediate end to police brutality and murder of Black people.” Relying on the right to bear arms contained in the Second Amendment to the Constitution, the Panthers organized armed citizen patrols to monitor police behavior. It was a controversial approach to an intractable problem, but it provoked important debate.
Of course, the police violence and misconduct that inspired the founding of the Black Panther Party 50 years ago have not gone away. In just the last six months, the deaths of Michael Brown, John Crawford III, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice – and the lack of indictment of police officers for any of their deaths — have shaken black communities to the core.
But today, unlike in the 1960s, there are no shootouts between protesters and police. There are no organized groups calling for armed revolution on the evening news. Young people protesting police violence are armed not with rifles, but cellphones; shouting not “Off the Pig,” but “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” or “I Can’t Breathe.” Though the problems remain the same, the protests are different. What we’re waiting to see is whether police departments and elected officials will be any more responsive to demands for change and accountability than they were 50 years ago.
Yes, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the March on Washington are part of the political legacy inherited by today’s activists. But so too is the Black Panther Party. Both stories inform not only where we are today, but also where we might be heading.