For the most part, no one ever expected such a barrage of condemnation against the super-star African American singing artist Beyonce for her performance during halftime at the 2016 Superbowl. It is an institutionalized extravagant sport event viewed by tens of millions of people throughout the United States.
The controversy began immediately after a dance troupe of about 50 women, with Beyonce at the helm, took center stage in a beautifully choreographed arrangement and dress attire that made references to the legendary Black Panther Party and Malcolm X. To many people nothing could have been a better tribute to the annual tradition of Black History Month (February) than to depict figures so symbolic in U.S. history.
But in order to understand why this performance became such a controversy we must first explore the causes that triggered it. Anyone who closely examines the norms of this violent “sport” will easily see how it tends to present itself as a feverish gladiator ritual. The definition of “sport” has been changed to mean inflicting bodily harm among high priced members of opposing teams and in some cases with permanent damage.
With military music bands playing and jet fighters flying high above the airspace of stadiums, the Superbowl has become an event that insidiously promotes a peculiar version of militarism. It accentuates sexism, white supremacy and big nation chauvinist arrogance – all of the not-so-hidden ideas that prevail in the general thinking of capitalist culture.
With this kind of historically rooted setting it came as no surprise when arch racists and notorious figures like New York State Representative Peter King and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani launched a barrage of attacks against the prominent Black female performer.
They were appalled that Beyonce would dare pay homage to heroic African American revolutionaries, even in the most minimized implicit manner. The vindictive outcry by these and other white supremacists has little to do with Beyonce or what they perceived as “offensive” during the halftime performance.
Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party and the mass upsurge that occurred during the 1960’s – 70’s, the height of the Civil Rights movement, continues to haunt the imagination of our oppressors to this day. Their apprehensions are attributed to the militant traditions of the African American masses which brought about the rise of Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party.
The lessons that came as a result of those experiences are indisputably applicable in our reality today – and that is precisely what these villains fear. Blacks, Latinos, Indigenous and other people of color continue to be brutalized and murdered by the police across the United States.
Unlike the lies asserted by Guilliani and King it was the police who attacked, imprisoned and murdered Black Panthers in a criminal campaign organized by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) known as Operation COINTELPRO. However, both Malcolm X and the BPP boldly advocated and practiced the right to use armed self-defense against the racist terror of the police in the Black community.
What the representatives of the ruling class are most upset about at Beyonce is that her Superbowl halftime performance reminded everyone of a period in U.S. history when Black people defiantly posed a threat to this racist system by galvanizing many sectors of the general population. This phenomena presented the potential for revolution in this country under the impact of the Black liberation struggle.
The role Black people played in the events of that period in history is something the ruling class can not forget or forgive. They will naturally dread the mere thought of a revolutionary upheaval until the day of their final doom.
The Black Panther Party believed in the right to armed self-defense from police terror.
This is why former Black Panther and political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal has stated: “The tyrants, oppressors and racists who continue to hold political power in this country by using the most ruthless means can not afford a repeat of the 1960’s.”
The plight of Black people, from the 300 years of slavery, Jim Crow discrimination and the mass incarceration and police brutality today, are facts that our oppressors and those who benefit from white privilege and entitlement would like us to ignore and forget.
Regardless what Beyonce’s motives may have been she touched upon a vulnerability of white supremacist America and because of that she merits our applause and praise. If her halftime performance were a projection of jingoism, militarism or a glorification of white supremacy she would not have received the flack that she is now a target of.
An example of revolutionary defiance and militancy
By Carlito Rovira
Fifty years ago, in October 1966, the Black Panther Party was born. It is one of the highlights in the history of the U.S. revolutionary movement, and the Black liberation struggle in particular.
Young African Americans dared to stand up and challenge the reins of the capitalist state, to the point of arming themselves to demand an end to Black oppression. Their vision of Black emancipation evolved into a vision of the liberation of all oppressed people and the smashing of the capitalist system.
The U.S. government, terrified by the potential for revolution and the influence these Black leaders and freedom fighters were gaining, resorted to the most extreme violence to destroy the BPP. It is a campaign that is still felt today.
The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, as the party was first called, was formed in Oakland, Calif., by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. The name—and the famous panther logo—came from the Lowndes Country Freedom Organization in Alabama, that which organized for independent Black political action with the help of Stokely Carmichael and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
The formation of the Black Panther Party was the culmination of a resistance movement over the long history that characterizes the oppression of African Americans in the United States, from the lashes of slavery to the beatings and murders by the police in modern times. It grew up in the aftermath of the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X—a powerful voice for militant Black self-determination and liberation. It drew inspiration from the Deacons for Defense and Justice, organized for African American self-defense against racist Klan and police terror in the South.
The Panthers recognized the need for an organization that was capable of addressing the racist violence that the Black masses faced. Every gain being made by the Civil Rights movement was being matched by violence and lynching by racist cops and the Ku Klux Klan, in the North and South alike.
The Right to Armed Self-Defense
The Panthers won respect and admiration for their militancy and defiance in the face of the racist police state. For example, less than a year after their founding, on May 2, 1967, a group of 30 Black Panthers walked into the California state capitol building armed with shotguns and automatic rifles. The armed but peaceful demonstration was to protest the Mulford Act, aimed at prohibiting citizens from carrying firearms on their persons or in their vehicles.
As the Panthers walked towards the entrance of the capitol building, they were approached by television and other news media. They used the occasion to call upon African Americans everywhere to arm themselves against the systematic brutality and terror practiced by the power structure.
But the party’s efforts went far beyond their call for armed self-defense and their patrols of racist cops. They also carried out consistent community work, gaining the confidence of the people not only in the Black community but among other oppressed nationalities as well.
Panther chapters sprung up in the African American communities of major cities from coast to coast. Wherever they established branches, they tried to set up outreach programs like free breakfast for children and free clothing drives. They used every one of these opportunities to expose the avaricious nature of the rich and powerful who exist at the expense of the poor.
The Panthers were influenced by Malcolm X’s rejection of “turn the other cheek” pacifism for the Black liberation struggle, as well as by the socialist movement in the United States and around the world. Their “Black Power” salute combined with street corner sales of Mao Zedong’s “Little Red Books” of quotations.
The international situation during this period also contributed to the birth of the Panthers. The 1949 Chinese Revolution, the 1959 Cuban Revolution, the Vietnamese Revolution and the heroic struggle of south Vietnam’s National Liberation Front against U.S. imperialism, along with the other national liberation struggles in Africa, Latin America and Asia had a great impact in inspiring revolutionaries in the United States, including the Black Panthers.
Their militancy and revolutionary politics quickly put them in the center of the African American liberation struggle, as well as in the growing mass movements that were sweeping the country.
Capitalism is the Problem
More and more, the party put the blame for the plight of the African American people on the capitalist system. It rejected the view that the problems of racism could be solved within the confines of the exploitative system, or that it was possible to accumulate enough capital in the Black community to rival capitalism with “Black capital.” Instead, Panther speakers called for socialist revolution within the context of the Civil Rights era.
Their uncompromisingly revolutionary and anti-capitalist stance was the most prominent in what became a new trend within the Black liberation struggle of the 1950s and 1960s.
As part of the political training of its membership, the BPP studied Marxist literature like the Communist Manifesto and the writings of Mao Zedong.
The Black Panther Party was a disciplined and organized revolutionary political entity. The Panthers put forward the need for professional, organizational sophistication in building a revolutionary political party.
While the party’s Ten-Point Program reflected its political views and line of march, it was the membership rules that ensured the internal discipline of the organization. Membership rules touched a range of matters, including mandatory collective study of revolutionary theory; respect for women inside and outside the BPP; and respect for the property of the poor.
Revolutionary Multinational Alliances
The Panthers advocated a united front of revolutionary organizations to guarantee the success of a revolutionary struggle in the United States. Their organizing efforts extended to Puerto Rican, Chicano, Asian, other nationally oppressed people., and the white working class.
They forged alliances of various kinds, such as with the American Indian Movement and Cesar Chavez and the farm workers’ movement. The Panthers stood in solidarity with the struggle for women’s equality, especially supporting those sectors of the women’s movement that were anti-imperialist and anti-racist. To the surprise of many, on the heels of the Stonewall rebellion, Panther leader Huey P. Newton publicly supported the struggle to end LGBTQ oppression.
The Panthers perspective was toward building a multinational alliance of revolutionary organizations. Their most notable effort was the Rainbow Coalition, organized in June 1969 in Chicago by Panther leader Fred Hampton, which consisted of the Black Panther Party; the Young Lords, a U.S. organization of Puerto Rican revolutionary youth; and organizations representing Chicanos, Asians, and poor whites. Hampton’s vision was to eventually merge these allied organizations into a single revolutionary entity, to forge a revolutionary organization with representation from the full spectrum of the working class.
Wherever their agitation work was conducted, on the streets, in on campuses, or at public events, the Panthers upheld the principle of solidarity with the liberation movements in the oppressed and colonized countries. At the height of the Vietnam War, the Black Panther leadership made an open gesture of internationalism by offering to send party members to fight alongside the National Liberation Front in their struggle against U.S imperialism.
Fierce U.S. Repression
Faced with the Black Panther Party’s tremendous growth and revolutionary orientation, the U.S. government struck back. It organized a massive political-military campaign, involving the FBI and police departments around the country, to destroy the Panthers’ leadership.
In a now- well-documented campaign called “Operation: COINTELPRO, or Counterintelligence Program,” the FBI orchestrated covert operations—personally overseen by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover—to provoke conflicts between the Black Panthers and other organizations. They employed a network of infiltrators and provocateurs to disrupt the party’s discipline and leadership.
Police attacks were common. Cops routinely raided party offices and the homes of Panther members. Dozens of Panthers were killed outright, often in cold blood. The most notable of these cop assassinations was the Dec. 4, 1969, murder of Fred Hampton in Chicago while he slept. He was 21 years old.
Dozens more Panther members and leaders spent years in prison. The campaign to jail Panther leaders and activists long outlived the organization itself. Mumia Abu-Jamal, who at 16- years -old had been the Minister minister of Information in the party’s Philadelphia branch, was framed up and sentenced to death in 1981. He has been in prison ever since despite a worldwide effort calling for his release.
The Black Panther Party ultimately could not withstand the government onslaught. The combined police attacks and covert operations compounded internal differences. Unable to withstand the tremendous repression, by the mid-1970s the Black Panther Party was essentially defunct.
Lessons for today
Bourgeois historians often try to downplay the role of the state in the destruction of the Panthers. At best, they point to the Panthers as a lesson to revolutionaries, especially from the oppressed nationalities: Do not dare to struggle, you can not stand up to the power of the capitalist state.
Revolutionaries draw different lessons. The rulers were not then and are not now invincible. The fact that the U.S. government relentlessly attacked the Panthers before they had a chance to steel the discipline of their rank and file only points to the need to build disciplined organizations of professional revolutionaries today in preparation for the battles to come.
As long as capitalist oppression exists, the rise of revolutionary movements, like the one that gave rise to the Black Panther Party, is a historical certainty. The Panthers showed that revolutionary ideology and organization, embraced by the most oppressed sectors of the working class, is what the ruling class fears the most.
Everything they did and the sacrifices they made will not be in vain. Eventually, those who aim, in the sincerest sense, for socialism, Black emancipation and the liberation of all oppressed people in the United States must embrace that history and strive to emulate their courage and revolutionary spirit.
The historical struggle of the African American people was the inevitable consequence of the introduction of slavery by capitalists in the Western Hemisphere. The collective experience of the African American people over the course of many generations ran parallel to the development of U.S. capitalism at every stage. Their plight, from the era of the slave trade to the present day, reveals the inherent oppression within capitalism.
Racist terror, degradation, and discrimination were the objective circumstances that compelled into existence the militant tradition of resistance in the African American masses. Their steadfastness in many key moments in history proved exemplary to the U.S. working-class movement, and particularly to other oppressed nationalities. African American history is replete with displays of genuine solidarity with other liberation struggles.
The Black press, the Black church and outspoken African American figures such as W.E.B. DuBois, openly condemned the motives behind the 1898 Spanish-American War. The U.S. government and giant banking enterprises sought military conflict with Spain to win colonial control of Guam, the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico.
Black Puerto Rican scholar Arturo Alfonso Schomburg devoted his entire life to compiling vast collections of writings documenting significant events in Black history. Before moving to New York City’s Harlem community, Schomburg was a member of the clandestine Revolutionary Committees of Puerto Rico, which organized the famous 1868 Grito de Lares uprising — a revolt that called for the abolition of slavery and the independence of Puerto Rico. Schomburg eventually became a prominent figure during the Harlem Renaissance, which challenged the ideological facets of white supremacy through the literary, visual and performing arts.
At many of his performance appearances, renowned African American singer, actor and Communist Paul Robeson would call upon his audience for a moment of silence to express solidarity for the incarcerated Puerto Rican revolutionary Nationalist leader, Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos.
The young Pedro Albizu Campos gained recognition among African American figures for being very critical of the racism within the United States. Campos’s mother was Black, which gave him first-hand insight into the impact of racist oppression. Campos’s outspoken oratory against the “racist practices in the house of the empire” caught the attention of Pan-Africanist leader Marcus Garvey, who traveled to Puerto Rico to meet the renowned leader.
Despite their differences in goals and tactics, this meeting was highly symbolic for that period in history. The Russian Revolution emboldened workers’ struggles and nationalist movements throughout the world, including the United States and Puerto Rico, and instilled a sense of vulnerability in the U.S. capitalist class.
Black Struggle Inspires Puerto Rican Militancy
The Spanish-American War had a significant impact on African Americans, especially Black soldiers who were sent to wage colonial war on behalf of U.S. imperialism. Black troops resented their white officers using racial slurs against Filipino people, which were reminiscent of their own experience in the United States. Many Black soldiers defected to join the anti-colonial Filipino guerrilla army. The most notable of them was David Fagan, of the 24th Infantry Division. Fagan won the admiration and respect of the Filipino people and was made a commander in their guerrilla army.
Puerto Ricans have migrated to New York City and surrounding counties since the mid-1800s—in most cases, to escape Spanish colonial persecution. But in the years after World War II and well into the 1960s, Puerto Ricans migrated to U.S. industrial centers at an annual average rate of 63,000 due to economic hardships caused by U.S. colonialism in Puerto Rico.
What the Puerto Rican migrants encountered was not what they expected when they uprooted in search of a better life. In addition to the agony of having to come to a strange land, the Puerto Rican experience now included greedy racist landlords, housing and job discrimination, cultural stigmatization by the mass media, police brutality and the terror of racist white gangs.
While Puerto Ricans began their exodus in the late 1940s African Americans were already involved in their “Great Migration” from southern states where they had been historically concentrated. Fleeing racist Jim Crow laws and Ku Klux Klan terror, more than 5 million African Americans migrated to the North, Northeast and California between the 1920s and the 1960s.
The instinct of any oppressed people is to seek allies and find ways to resist. Puerto Ricans facing the realities of colonialism and impoverishment could relate to the Civil Rights movement and were attracted to its boldness.
The Nation of Islam began to approach the newly arrived immigrants with the aim of politicizing them. And when the Black Panther Party began organizing in the Puerto Rican community of Chicago, it caused the transformation of a street youth group (“gang”) known as the Young Lords.
The Young Lords were the first Puerto Rican revolutionary organization to arise in the United States based on the concrete political circumstances of this country. They were a decisive factor in the spread of militancy in Puerto Rican communities in various U.S. cities. Like the Black Panthers, they advocated for a multinational revolution in the United States.
As this movement gained momentum, Puerto Ricans gained a sense of hope and became inspired to fight for their political and economic rights. By the second half of the 1960s, Puerto Ricans in the United States had become much more politically adept, thanks to the struggles of the African American masses.
African Americans and Puerto Ricans further developed their mutual affinity based on a resistance to racist oppression. In cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and New York, at street demonstrations and on college campuses, African American and Puerto Rican masses instinctively aligned with each other in common struggle. It was not unusual for the Black liberation flag (red black & green) to be accompanied by the Puerto Rican flag.
A particularly significant examples of solidarity, one that became a great concern to the ruling class, is the 1969 student takeover of City College in New York City. African American and Puerto Rican students captured the attention of many throughout the U.S. when they defiantly seized control of campus buildings to demand free tuition in the City University system. To further demonstrate their boldness, these students lowered the U.S. flag from the tallest flagpole and hoisted the Black Liberation Flag and the Puerto Rican Flag. It was an imagery of defiance and resistance never seen before in this country.
The great lessons gained from this experience are still deeply relevant today. Black oppression was instrumental in the rise of U.S. capitalism, and the African American masses have confronted head-on some of its most oppressive manifestations. Their struggle will continue to be a source of inspiration to the working class and oppressed peoples, and help forge genuine solidarity with deep consequences for struggles at home and abroad.