What about the Original Black Panthers?
Black communities and the African diaspora alike welcomed the New Year with a plethora of milestones, the most notable being Marvel’s release of the much anticipated afro-futurist film, Black Panther.
While the celebrations for Black and African representation continue to ring loud across all social media platforms, many of the original Black Panthers continue to fight for freedom from behind bars. Former Black Panther Party (BPP) members such as Mumia Abu Jamal, Sundiata Acoli, Sekou Odinga, Herman Bell, Veronza Bowers have dedicated their lives to promoting the mission and values of the BPP party, even at the expense of being subjected to the harsh penalties of the U.S. ‘correctional’ system. The majority of these members were convicted during a time when the U.S. government was concerned with the surveillance, infiltration and disruption of domestic political organizations, namely Communist Party USA, anti Vietnam War groups, the Black Panther party and MOVE through a series of covert and often often dubiously legal FBI projects known as COINTELPRO (COunter INTELligence PROgram).
The release of Black Panther has facilitated important dialogue on contemporary Black and African issues, bridging the gap between the experiences of Africans in Africa and those of Black Americans and addressing the potential for global unification of the African diaspora.
While it is evident that Black Panther achieves its name inspiration by alluding to the Black Panther’s from the BPP, the film ironically does not sufficiently address the continuous subjugation and incarceration of Black Panther members who have championed for black liberation and empowerment since the birth of the party 50 years ago. The arrests and subsequent incarceration of many of these former members occurred following FBI director Edgar Hoover’s 1969 declaration, "the Black Panther Party... represents the greatest threat to internal security of the country."
For those who are unaware, the mission of the BPP has always been to promote self-defense against institutionalized racism and police brutality, and through any means necessary, including bearing arms and exercising the 2nd amendment of the U.S. constitution. And yet the rate at which black men perceived to be armed are killed by police has not ceased. Perhaps you have heard about the recent murder of unarmed 22 year old Stephon Clarke in Sacramento, who was on the phone in his grandmother’s backyard when he was shot 20 times by police officers. Perhaps you haven’t, since black death at the hands of law enforcement seems to have long since bored white ears. How much blood must be shed and life imprisoned before black lives begin to matter?
When the U.S. judicial establishment isn’t attempting to incarcerate and kill African-Americans from inside prisons, law enforcement continues to terrorize black communities with excessive force and police brutality. It is no secret that the US prison industrial complex disproportionately incarcerates black men, according to a 2016 study by The Sentencing Project:
Former BPP member Mumia Abu Jamal is an internationally celebrated black writer, activist, and radio journalist. Mumia has been referred to as ‘America’s most famous inmate on death row.’ He has also spent the last 36 years in prison after being convicted in 1981 and placed on death row for the murder of white Philadelphia police officer, Daniel Faulkner. Mumia has maintained his innocence for the duration of his incarceration, citing his conviction being based on an erroneous trial, falsified evidence and witness coercion by the prosecution. Numerous human rights organizations and groups have denounced the verdict of Mumia’s trial, with Amnesty International concluding:
After almost two decades on death row, the US Supreme court ruled Mumia’s death penalty unconstitutional and sentenced him instead to life imprisonment without possibility of parole.
Since his imprisonment, Mumia has written numerous publications critiquing the prison industrial complex, US capital punishment, police brutality and disproportionate sentencing and its relationship to race and socioeconomic status. Although Mumia’s case and writings on the matter have received international attention and made him the face and voice of the death row and prison experience, there are thousands more carrying out disproportionate prison sentences like him.
The voices of incarcerated political prisoners and activists like Mumia serve as primers, voices that can articulately attest to and condemn the dehumanization that occurs within the U.S. judicial and penitentiary system. While Black Panther has broken the glass ceiling for African and black representation in Hollywood, the road to black liberation is a long and difficult one. The struggle to continuously rally and fight for the freedom of these activists is not simply a battle for the freedom of individuals, but rather a campaign to raise awareness and to challenge a racialized criminal justice system that is ever growing in its discrimination and incarceration of black individuals.We must not forget the work and legacies of the Black Panthers that fought and continue to fight for us to achieve milestones like Marvel’s Black Panther, and in return we must fight for their justice and freedom.