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Plundering the Panthers, Manipulating the Movement: Re-Branding the Black Panther Party

By Bruce A. Dixon

Created 12/02/2009 - 02:55

brandingEvery movement has its symbols and icons.  But when these are separated from their context and content they are nothing but brands, to be employed for whatever commercial or political purpose anyone has in mind, even purposes opposite those of the movement which gave birth to them.

Plundering the Panthers, Manipulating the Movement: Re-Branding the Black Panther Party

by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

Founded in 1966 and dissolved a little more than a decade later, the Black Panther Party is history. A few thousand of its graying participants in what we always called “the Party” are still very much alive. Most of us still look for and find ways to contribute to the struggle for human liberation. But the sixties are a long way off. 1969 is as far distant from us today as the world of the Great Depression was from our youth. 1969 is a full quarter of the way back to the Emancipation Proclamation.

While the Black Panther Party is long dead, its symbols, slogans and icons, like those of the broader Freedom Movement live on as ripe targets for commercial, historical and political manipulation. The manipulators have grown incomparably more sophisticated since the sixties. The practitioners of modern marketing are able to separate the slogans, the symbols, the iconography of yesterday's movement movement for change from their historic context and wave them in front of audience to evoke the feeling, the smell, the memories of a previous generation's struggle for freedom. Even the memories are usually imaginary ones, since not much of the audience has any direct experience of the social and political atmosphere out of which the symbols, the language and the icons arose.

The marketing people have a name for this. They call it branding. A brand is a symbol used to evoke manufactured desires, real or imagined chills, thrills, memories or convenient attitudes in an audience. In the black community, branding electoral campaigns from dog catcher to mayor to congress with the stamp of the Freedom Movement is old stuff that's been done for decades. The 2007-2008 Obama carried this about as far as anybody could, declaring that it WAS “the movement” so often and insistently that many folks without experience of such a thing --- along with a few who really should know better --- seemed to believe. Advertising Age, the journal of the marketing industry knew the truth, and awarded the Obama campaign its 2008 Brand of the Year Award [1].

You can buy Che Guevara's face on T-shirts, and Dr. King's family members have sued some people for the unauthorized use of his words and images with one hand while allowing giant corporations to use “I Have A Dream” in some of their commercials.

The Black Panther Party's symbols and language, its potent icons and images are not immune from this kind of thing. While nobody is making big money off any of it, a small group of political pretenders, paper panthers as we used to call them, have seized the Black Panther Party's name and symbols, and grabbed a few corrupted bits of its language and style to push a political agenda pretty much the opposite of the long dead Black Panther Party. The largest group of these folks call themselves the “New Black Panther Party”, and that's pretty much where the similarity ends. To illustrate how far these pretenders have carried the stolen iconography of the Black Panther Party from its actual context, I have reproduced below the 1966 and 1971 versions of the BPP's Ten Point Platform and Program along with what the so-called “New Black Panther Party” calls its Ten Points.

Founded in 1966, the year after Malcolm X's death, the Black Panther Party viewed itself as his ideological successor. Malcolm X had just emerged from the NOI and its almost purely race-based view of the world into an anti-colonial, anti-imperial world view, one that acknowledged the necessity of seeking white allies began to think in terms of class and race rather than race alone. This was not the position of the BPP so much as it was its trajectory. Just as Malcolm himself had been an unfinished work in progress, evolving from petty criminal to the NOI to something else afterward, the BPP seems to have viewed itself as obliged to evolve. It too was a moving target, tending steadily leftward for most of its existence integrating a Marxist and anti-imperialist analysis into its critiques of American white supremacy.

The old BPP appears, from the evidence of the 1966 and 1971 platforms, to have been moving in the direction of socialism. The organization which calls itself the NBPP on the other hand, appears to be aimed in a quite different direction, lifting phrases, concepts and a purely race-based world view from Ron Karenga’s and his US organization, which was widely believed implicated in a series of murders and assaults on members of the Black Panther Party at the behest of federal and local authorities in California and elsewhere. But the pretenders who parade themselves in near-authentic Panther regalia are spouting verbatim the work of people who murdered members of the Black Panther Party on behalf of the US government.

Everything comes from somewhere, and origins do often mean something. It means something that the so-called New Black Panthers chose to call themselves that. It means that the NBPP want to be taken seriously as the moral or spiritual or political or ideological heirs of the people whose symbols they have appropriated. They're not anything of the sort. They are a distorted and cartoonish reflection of what the BPP was, racist, religious and nationalistic where the party was anti-racist, internationalist and secular; addicted to inflammatory rhetoric and posing in leather jackets, berets and with guns.

The old Black Panther Party is long dead. The New Black Panthers and pretenders like them don't seem to have an original bone in their bodies. Nobody looks to these pretenders for original analyses of current happenings. They cannot and do not fill rooms with ordinary people anyplace in the country. They were never alive. They are undead, zombies living off the remnant symbols of a previous generation. The real movement that is to come in this country, and in our communities, will arise from some other quarter.

I know it's coming. I just hope, like the rest of us graying ex-Panthers, to stick around long enough to see, and maybe take some part in it..