This blog is a partial departure from the norm here. It’s a response to a period of change in the UK that I saw play-out once before in Canada and feel needs to be fundamentally challenged, having seen its devastating social consequences there. More immediately, this is a follow-on from Lisa Ansell’s blog on the Big Society, and the importance of grounding our resistance in the immediate needs of those hit hardest by the social injustices of the current government’s cuts. It’s an attempt to make our resistance to injustice ‘more like people’.
The Black Panther Party doesn’t get mentioned much by most people I work with. Maybe it’s because I’m based in the UK? Maybe because the staff at larger voluntary organisations are disproportionately white? Maybe it’s because there’s been a long-term effort to distance ourselves, as a sector, from radical politics?
I don’t doubt that the answer is some combination of these things and more I haven’t mentioned. Without delving into the motivations too deeply, I think the Panthers provide an example that requires revisiting in light of the ‘Big Society’, the cuts, and most importantly, the notion of community organising that has been held-up by David Cameron and Company since before last years’ election.
This blog is partly a response to Lisa Ansell’s excellent post on ‘using the Big Society to fight the cuts’ – a pragmatic look at opposing the current government’s agenda, and the impacts it will have on peoples’ lives. I think the Panthers’ offer some key learning in this area, while they are often unknown or dismissed by the voluntary sector for their Maoist leanings or their advocacy of armed self-defence.
Without delving into these debates either, the Black Panthers succeeded (for a time, at least) in combining active campaigning and critical DIY service provision, as Lisa (rightly) suggests we need to, if we want to build a truly broad-based movement that includes and is led by those most impacted by the current ‘austerity measures’.
A challenge for the ‘left’ and the ‘centre’
This is a challenge to both the activist ‘left’ and the voluntary sector ‘centre’, acknowledging the need to step in and create alternatives to the state when it fails to provide for basic human needs, AND for the fundamental importance of actively challenging (by, as Malcolm X stated, ‘any means necessary’) those shortcomings. On a philosophical level, these ideas can seem in contradiction, but in the lives of people who are seeing critical lifelines disappear, both approaches are essential.
This was something Huey P. Newton and the Panthers understood. Like other movements that have emerged organically from the communities they supported, the Panthers knew that in order to get their political platform taken seriously in poor, black neighbourhoods, they needed to demonstrate how it related to peoples’ immediate needs, as well as their bigger picture aspirations and values.
They started ‘Breakfast for schools’ programmes in schools, they defended people against police brutality, they assisted the elderly to get to the shops and to medical appointments, providing those appointments themselves when people had no insurance to cover them… but through all of these efforts, the Panthers maintained that what they were doing was a stop-gap to pave the path for a more just world in which their services wouldn’t be required because they would be guaranteed rights for all. The government could never pretend that what the Panthers were providing was a justification for their own lack of provision; quite the opposite! They tried to ignore, discredit and otherwise undermine it, realising that the challenge presented by the group was far more fundamental to their power than the challenges of much of the mainstream organised left.
Black Panthers as a model voluntary organisation?
The Black Panthers were a model voluntary organisation, in the sense that they provided leadership, opportunities and infrastructure for people to support their local community’s core needs. But in doing so, they never pretended their makeshift provision could be the whole solution, within a country that systemically marginalised minority communities from coast-to-coast.
This combination of services and activism created a deep credibility throughout the United States.
The Panthers were not intellectuals presenting ideas for bigger picture change without obvious benefit to those hit hardest by inequality. Simultaneously, they weren’t offering piecemeal or plaster solutions to vast social ills, as so many charities had in those same communities. Instead, the Panthers offered people the opportunity to become active players in their own liberation – whether through the creation of immediate services, or the organised resistance to their state-imposed oppression.
The Panthers’ approach was closely mirrored by the community organising of Saul Alinsky in Chicago (albeit, without the guns and non-racially specific), which Barack Obama was trained in the methods of, and is (in name, at least) behind parts of the Big Society agenda. The government seemed to have missed the analysis that I (and many others) have pulled from this period of history…
What this means for charities and activists?
So while the protests of tens-of-thousands of students facing the loss of their education prospects provide an inspiring example and clear demonstration of public opinion, it is not the entire solution.
Alternatively, most of the health or literacy services cobbled together by voluntary organisations on increasingly ragged shoestring budgets are important, but also incomplete in weaving an inclusive, believable and holistic narrative of positive social change for those at the wrong end of the current cuts.
‘More Like People’
I usually talk about the ‘More Like People’ idea in relation to institutional voluntary organisations. In this case I feel it also applies to the ad hoc activist groups that can be equally alienating to people impacted directly by losses more fundamental than say, libraries and forests (not to discredit the public movements around each of these important issues, but only to put them into perspective).
How can we – those of us concerned with equality in the face of a drastically clawed-back state – create the conditions for greater social justice? I think we can blur the lines – stop retreading the Blairite notion that services and campaigns should be inherently separate from one another. Stop trying to hold a philosophical high ground by refusing to step in where the state is clearly failing.
Whether or not the government’s model of community organising recognises the factors critical to its pioneers’ successes in the ‘60s and ‘70s, its lessons are not ones we can afford to ignore in 2011…