I appreciate the spirit of Jim Vernon’s response to my work, “The Panthers Can Save Us Now,” even where I do not agree with his interpretation or conclusions. It would be a sad world indeed if we all held the same views. Moreover, the kind of debate he’s encouraging is necessary in these times of academic silos, toxic social media, broad anti-intellectualism, and creeping fascism in American life. I welcome this chance to exchange ideas. That said, for all he has written, Vernon manages to miss the core point of my 2017 Catalyst essay “The Panthers Can’t Save Us Now,” which was a plea for conjunctural analysis to understand what is historically unique about the terrain we face right now rather than seeking solace in movement nostalgia. Likewise, that essay reasserted the necessity of a broad, popular, and anti-capitalist left amid growing protests against police violence that emphasized the primacy of racial oppression in ways that obscured the class character of carceral power. There are three basic disagreements worth addressing here: Vernon’s claim that I have ignored the radical, if not revolutionary, value of the Black Panthers historically; his assertion that I have willfully minimized the Panthers’ criticisms of black cultural nationalism so that my claims might appear original; and finally, Vernon’s belief that the Panthers provide a model of revolutionary left politics that should be emulated in our own times.
It is necessary to respond to Vernon here, not just to defend my work against mischaracterization but, more importantly, to refute the notion of black vanguardism that suffuses his response and so much contemporary left politics within and beyond academe. The gathering strength of black vanguardist notions among both the newly woke and the graying New Left was precisely why I wrote that 2017 essay in the first place. My intended audience was not merely the activists and citizens who were rehearsing Black Power platitudes, aesthetics, and styles of engagement after the vigilante killing of Trayvon Martin, but also those white leftists waiting for the black vanguard to appear around every historical corner. Their hope always seems to be the same: that black protests and urban rebellion will be the spark that starts a prairie fire, burning all illusions and clearing the ground for the kind of revolutionary transformation they desire. As we witnessed during the 1992 Rodney King rebellion and even more dramatically during the 2020 George Floyd rebellion, however, once the protests dissipate, technocratic reforms and corporate patronage have been the dominant responses, not some revitalized and powerful left opposition.
In the years since that initial Catalyst essay, we have witnessed all the nostalgia and wish fulfillment I and others cautioned against. Black Lives Matter achieved majority support throughout the country, only to disappear by late summer. Public support for either defunding or dismantling police departments, a crucial demand of the most radical, abolitionist elements of Black Lives Matter, proved elusive at best and nonexistent in many parts of the country. And far from serving as some genuinely oppositional force, militant anti-racism was “all the rage” in 2020, as most major US-based corporations stepped forward to make massive donations to anti-racist activist organizations, launch internal hiring and training initiatives among their workforces, or roll out massive ad campaigns that denounced racism and prejudice as antithetical to their firms’ core values. The Panthers did not return as Vernon might hope, but their imagery was readily evoked and, in some moments, too easily degraded, from the anachronistic, unhelpful revival of the colonial analogy and megastar Beyoncé’s spectacular Panther cosplay during the Super Bowl 50 halftime show to the gun fetishism and performative militancy of black militia like the Not Fucking Around Coalition and the New Black Panther Party, among others. The latter are philistines pushing fundamentally reactionary responses to the central problem of carceral regulation of the most submerged segments of the working class, the central problem that Black Lives Matter activism has helped to publicize. Where Beyoncé is pro-corporate and philanthropical, the parades of black militia, the usual self-help fare, and online banter about taking up arms in the mode advocated by rapper Killer Mike are all escapist, distracting, and dangerous, and far removed from the difficult choices and political positions most blacks face in their day-to-day lives.
Oddly, in his opening characterization of my work, Vernon relies more on the words of other interlocutors and critics than my own writings. This is a curious choice, and one that leads to some mischaracterizations of what I’ve argued in the original “Panthers Can’t Save Us Now” essay and elsewhere. The 2017 essay was not, as Vernon charges, an “effort to tie [the Panthers] to later forms of neoliberal anti-racism” but rather the opposite: to discourage attempts by activists and academic proponents of Black Lives Matter to enlist the Panthers, and more broadly the aesthetic and rhetorical rebellion of the ’60s, in ways that were uncritical of that time and lost sight of the broader historical context — the combination of mass mobilization against Jim Crow, shifting urban demography, and liberal statecraft that produced Black Power as a phenomenon. Again, my 2017 essay was less about Panther history and more of a plea for analysis of black life as it exists within our specific historical moment, with all its internal contradictions and complexity.
It bears repeating that the title of that 2017 essay was inspired by the late Issa Samb’s performance art, a riff on the iconic image of Huey P. Newton seated in a rattan throne, which was staged at a December 2013 gathering held on the anniversary of the assassinations of Mark Clark and party chairman Fred Hampton. This was also roughly a year and half after George Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood watchman, stalked and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teen, and the ensuing protests demanding Zimmerman’s arrest and trial birthed the Black Lives Matter hashtag. For me, Samb’s haunting performance and the week of events hosted by the University of Chicago to commemorate the Panthers underscored how they emerged from unique historical conditions of postwar urban segregation — most significantly, the shift from police neglect of the black ghetto to brutal overpolicing and the beginnings of carceral expansion as we know it — and how the problems they could not rectify in their time have evolved in our own in complex and harrowing ways.
I do not elide Panther history but have written about it in various places, and I include some discussion of the Illinois chapter and the formation of Chicago’s Rainbow Coalition in my latest book, After Black Lives Matter: Policing and Anti-Capitalist Struggle. In this work, I characterize the Panthers as
the most iconic organization of the Black Power period … [which] set out to make revolution in the heart of urban America. Rather than seeking assimilation into mainstream America, the Panthers condemned the crass materialism and military adventurism that sustained the affluent society. They famously contested carceral power through propaganda, monitoring of police activities, and armed conflicts with law enforcement. The Panthers provided pioneering, lucid criticisms of police power that illuminated the continuities between state repression of the “black colony” and the broader project of American empire and war-making abroad, views that both enthralled and frightened middle-class America. And while the Panthers were deeply committed to black liberation, they also understood that the working class was not restricted to black and brown inner-city ghettos.
Far from ignoring the Panthers, I acknowledge their contributions to ’60s social struggles even while tackling their contradictions, something Vernon seems less willing to engage with even with the benefit of a half century of hindsight.
The most sustained and sympathetic treatment I have provided, an essay titled “Huey P. Newton and the Last Days of the Black Colony,” was first included in an academic collection on African American political thought and was also published by Dissent and Portside in abridged form during summer 2021. It is worth noting here that this treatment of Newton was written before the 2017 Catalyst essay, but it took longer to see the light of day due to academic peer-review and university press production timelines. That article on its own refutes Vernon’s claim that I’ve elided the Panthers so that I can make the same arguments they made. In my work on Newton, I write:
Newton and the Panthers deserve to be studied and debated because so much of their analysis and political practice addressed ghettoization, racist policing and incarceration, mass unemployment, and failing schools, problems that defined the urban crisis of the 1960s and have grown more intense and graver in our own times. But while I am sympathetic to the historical project of left internationalism the Panthers embodied, I want to offer a critical analysis of some of the central ideas offered by Newton that were at times widely shared among Black Power radicals and continue to shape left approaches to U.S. inequality.
My treatment of Newton also examines the evolution of the Panthers away from black nationalism and toward more extensive commitments to socialism, often citing some of the same writings Vernon employs to make his case about my alleged oversights. As I note in the 2017 Catalyst essay, the failure to build powerful working-class solidarity during this particular historical juncture, of course, does not fall solely on the shoulders of Black Power radicals, who were often more courageous than any other political element in naming the system’s failures and advancing a critique of imperial power, even under the threat of repression and death.
The problem here is not that I ignore or avoid the Panthers, or worse, fail to understand their historical significance and narrative. Vernon and I simply disagree on the historical impact of the Black Panther Party, the viability of its style of revolutionary left politics, and its relevance to our own times.
Perhaps more disturbing than this basic mischaracterization of my work, especially of what I have written about the Black Panther Party, is the disappointing and, at this late stage, tiresome reading of black political life that dominates too many corners of the Left. Reading Vernon’s essay left me with a feeling of despair, not because my work was placed under scrutiny but because his discussion of black political life does not seem to have advanced much beyond Norman Mailer’s “White Negro” musings or, for that matter, the “oppressed nation,” “black colony,” and other anachronisms that serve as crib notes for an American left that should be engaging in honest, empirical analysis of society as it exists. I say “despair” because I have heard this argument too many times, and it does not reflect the experiential and hard-earned knowledge of black political life I have gained over a half century of living and learning. Reading what amounts to a prayer for the intercession of the Panthers, you might assume that, since their time, we have not witnessed some sixty years of black political incorporation, but this may be the source of the problem. The fact of actual black political power and the new contradictions such developments produced require us to move beyond the culturalist criticisms of the black bourgeoisie offered by youthful Panthers and provide more mature analyses of the new conditions and complexities of black political life.