While the Black Lives Matter movement has been extremely successful in galvanizing national attention and outrage around police abuse and killing of Black people, the movement would be much more effective if it added an economic component to its demands—just as the Black Panther Party did in the 1960s.
That is the intriguing argument made by writer Deena Guzder in a piece at Al Jazeera America. While Guzder is full of praise for the way the Black Lives Matter movement was able to commandeer the nation’s attention to its cause, she said it would be even more powerful if it married the call for an end to police brutalization of Black people with efforts to close the enormous wealth gap that has left so many Black people in dire economic straits.
Renewed attention is being brought to the incredibly transformative power of the Panthers with the release of a documentary, “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” by Stanley Nelson that premiered last month at the Sundance Film Festival. The documentary takes a deep dive into the world of the Panthers, using rare archival footage and a slew of interviews with party leaders, rank-and-file members and even FBI informants.
“The Panthers didn’t just pay lip service to economic concerns; the party launched a massive social revitalization program in black communities,” Guzder writes. “The group’s free breakfast program at its height served 20,000 meals a week to low-income children in 19 communities across the country. The Panthers operated free health clinics and education programs in inner-city neighborhoods. These efforts were not top-down charities but horizontally run community initiatives that welcomed newcomers as equals. These social programs also served the crucial purpose of bringing community members together to brainstorm and collaborate on how to better their lives.”
With stories about the nation’s wealth inequality lately crowding the headlines, Guzder suggests that the Black Lives Matter movement grasp onto economic equality as the next plank in its platform—just as the Panthers penetrated deep into the community’s psyche by understanding its needs, pushing beyond police brutality to full employment and decent housing.
Jamal Joseph, a filmmaker and former Panther, explained in the documentary why the Panthers used this approach.
“The civil rights movement was basically a Southern movement,” he said. “So when you had an organization like the Panthers taking on housing and welfare and health, that was stuff people in the North could relate to and rally behind.”
“What would it look like if the Black Lives Matter movement embraced the struggle for economic justice in practice rather than just in rhetoric?” Guzder asks. “A simple, preliminary step would be to reinstate the Black Panthers’ free breakfast program in communities most affected by police brutality and economic marginalization. These programs could provide a forum for discussing issues affecting the community, including economic concerns.”
“While the Panthers’ conception of black power was far from perfect, it successfully captured the interest of a generation of urban African-Americans by fighting for both civil and economic rights,” Guzder writes. “The Panthers understood that police brutality is just one form of state violence.”