One of the cool things about seeing a documentary that touches on local issues in Oakland is that you draw a crowd. (We got our tickets in advance and got there early and still stood in a line around the corner.)
And with a movie about the Panthers, you draw a diverse crowd. The majority of the people there were African American, but we weren’t the only white folks there.
We also got the special treat of having the director, MacArthur genius grant winner Stanley Nelson, there to talk about the movie along with two former Panthers, Ericka Huggins and Tarika Lewis.
It’s a powerful and well-made movie. While it doesn’t gloss over the conflicts and issues within the Panthers, it also makes very clear just how much they were targeted by the FBI and other law enforcement. They were labeled terrorists, because black activists terrify a lot of cops – especially black activists who legally carried guns.
I came home reflecting on a lot of things. To start with, the Panthers were formed to go after systemic racism, not the ordinary bigotry that we associated with the South back in the 1960s. It was no accident that they started in Oakland, a city with a thriving black population and culture, because the northern and western cities that attracted African Americans fleeing the south had plenty of issues of their own.
Tarika Lewis, who grew up in Oakland, mentioned during the Q&A that the West Oakland neighborhood had once been the city’s black downtown. But when they built the highways through Oakland and laid the groundwork for a BART station in that neighborhood, they took out the major street that included local African American businesses, Lewis explained.
I’m sure the people in West Oakland wanted a BART station, but there was no reason it had to be above ground. The downtown Oakland stations are underground and the train goes under San Francisco Bay when it leaves West Oakland going west. Had it been underground, the businesses wouldn’t have been affected in the long term.
As for the highways, even as a newcomer to Oakland I can see how much damage they did to the city, dividing up neighborhoods. The city is struggling with similar issues today. A booming real estate market has resulted in soaring rents and house prices, causing problems for the people whose wages and salaries are not keeping pace.
Things have changed since the 1960s, but a lot of the issues that motivated the Panthers are still around. The movie Q&A was moderated by a spokeswoman from the Black Lives Matter group, which is doing similar work today.
Here are a few other things I gleaned from this movie:
- Two-thirds of the Panthers were women. Tarika Lewis was the first woman to join, but she was far from the last.
- Conservative politicians have a very different reaction to Black men carrying guns in public than they do when white people do it. Politicians were falling all over themselves to introduce bills making it a crime to carry a gun after the Panthers went to legislative hearings in Sacramento.
- The Panthers were demonized as terrorists by police and specifically by the FBI. Those agencies engaged in appalling actions to stop Panther activities. I recall similar actions against antiwar groups and other activists in the 60s and 70s, but I suspect the Panthers were targeted more heavily because they were African American.
- News coverage of the Panthers at the time missed almost all of the point. Again, that’s something I noticed with white activist groups back at that time, but the movie really brought it home. Even reporters who were interviewed in the movie and showed a great deal of sympathy to the Panther actions appeared pretty clueless in the clips from news coverage.
- And they were all so young. Some of the leadership wasn’t old enough to vote; some were even of high school age. No wonder they didn’t really understand the backlash that hit them.
I strongly recommend seeing this movie. The activism of the 1960s laid a lot of groundwork for what people are working on these days. It didn’t change things as much as I had hoped or expected back in the day, but the core is there and should be studied, especially by those hoping to build a better society.