Full disclosure: I’m divorced. I have hundreds of friends, family and acquaintances who’d willingly testify to my overall good character but I’m uncertain that my ex-wife and her family would extend such grace. I suspect they might be slightly more eager to tell you of my shortcomings and more dangerously, attribute innocent actions to ill intent. I would not want my ex’s family charged with writing my biography. Sadly, this is precisely the way we treat the history of the Black Panther Party.
In a recent interview with Charlamagne Tha God, Tomi Lahren said that the Black Panthers were organized as a “response to Martin Luther King’s nonviolent, peaceful, civil rights movement.” Tomi went on to say that the group “has roots in violence” and that the FBI ultimately shut them down because they were targeting white police officers. Tomi’s analysis clearly indicates that she hasn’t studied much history and her talking points sound eerily similar to those used by the FBI to target the Panthers (the FBI would be sort of like my former in-laws). It is that same FBI that enacted the COINTELPRO (counter intelligence program) program that targeted, harassed and even assassinated American citizens.
It cannot be overlooked that the man leading the charge was the FBI’s Director, J. Edgar Hoover: a known racist. So blinded was he by racism that Hoover relentlessly surveilled and harassed the peace-loving Dr. King, even hoping to drive King to suicide. The COINTELPRO files (which Tomi Lahren and most Panther critics have surely never read) clearly show an all out campaign to manufacture violence toward and among black freedom groups. Most egregious and at the extreme end of the spectrum, COINTELPRO produced all out assassinations; such was the case with Fred Hampton, a Panther leader gunned down in his sleep in a raid carried out by Chicago Police, in conjunction with the FBI. Of the 295 documented activities to disrupt black groups, 233 were directed against the Panthers.
Tomi Lahren complained that the Panthers went after police officers but with such a wealth of documented, criminal actions by the FBI and local police departments through COINTELPRO, how can that narrative remain unchallenged? Further, it is alarming that an organization so vast and service-minded as the Panthers could be defined by a few incidents in its history that involved cops. Few would find it acceptable to condemn all police because some shoot unarmed blacks but this is precisely the logic applied to the Panthers- setting aside the trouble discerning the true nature of the relatively small number of violent conflicts they had with police.
So why do people hate the Panthers so much? Why did J. Edgar Hoover label them “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country?” After all, they were largely patrolling to ensure police accountability (open carry style, as so many on the political right assert the right to do today), serving kids breakfast, organizing politically across racial lines and providing healthcare. The trick is that the Panthers were organized originally as the “Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.” With the advent of the cell phone and camera, the world has become privy to the type of violence black people have suffered at the hands of police for some time. The Panthers knew full well and thus felt the need to organize and defend themselves. “Self defense” is precisely why they are hated. People like Lahren never quite find the outrage to use their platforms to condemn the conditions the Panthers felt the need to respond to but the reaction of self defense bothers them and they feel the need to categorically condemn groups that fight back. That blacks won’t suffer in silence and concede to oppression without fighting back is what actually bothers them.
In the same interview, Lahren condemned Malcolm X, who once said, “Our religion teaches us to be intelligent. Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery.” On the other hand, Lahren praised Dr. King, who advocated non-violence even when faced with violence. Dr. King is a man that can be admired but not Malcolm X or the Panthers. The Panthers did not accept violence from the state and organized to defend themselves; because of that stance they were especially attacked by J. Edgar Hoover and are still attacked today. Indeed, Hoover’s characterization of the Panthers still shades our understanding. The simple act of defending one’s self against violence has never been accepted from black people. Yes, America can invade Iraq after 9/11 although Iraq was uninvolved but no, black folks suffering violence are not tolerated if they simply advocate self defense. That’s why we hate the Panthers.