The New Jersey State Supreme Court announced this week that decided to release Sundiata Acoli, the oldest former member still in jail of the Black Panthersthe controversial left-wing group advocating for African-American minority rights in the late 1960s.
Acoli was eligible for parole for 29 years, but every time his lawyers asked for it, he was denied. It was systematically considered a “public threat”despite the fact that his health, the years and various medical and psychiatric reports suggested otherwise.
they had sentenced to life imprisonment in 1974after a strange incident a year earlier in which a policeman ended up dead. Acoli was traveling with Assata and Malik Shakur, two other members of the Black Pantherswhen two officers stopped the vehicle for a routine inspection on the New Jersey Turnpike because it had a broken light.
What followed next was never made clear: there was a shooting, Malik and a policeman were killed, Acoli and another agent were injured. The two members of the group fled, but they were arrested a few days later and sentenced to spend the rest of their lives behind bars.
In one of America’s most memorable jailbreaks, Assata managed to escape and took refuge years later in Cuba, where it is believed that he still lives. (He’s still on the FBI’s most wanted list.) For his part, Acoli has since spent his life in prison, but he is not the only one. At least 12 members of the movement are still imprisonedwith sentences approaching or exceeding 50 years in prison.
His sentences are still the testimony of a controversial era of struggles for civil rights in the United States and a sample of the racial and social gaps of the society in which it was generated. But What was this group and why does it still generate controversy more than half a century later?
Black berets and black leather jackets, clenched fists and pistols in hand… the Black Panthers created their own fashion that was, at the same time, their symbol. They advocated armed self-defense, especially against the police, and defined themselves as a “Socialist Party” at a time when communism was seen as America’s greatest enemy.
The party was created in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, who had become known a few years earlier for protesting at a rally in California that ignored the black legacy in the colonization of the American West. Since then they have been involved in the political activism but there were two events that led them to take a step further.
In February 1965 Civil rights leader Malcolm X was assassinated and a year later, San Francisco police fatally shot an unarmed black teenager: Matthew Johnson. It was then that they decided to create the “Black Panther Party for Self Defense”, whose main goals at the beginning were monitor police activities against black communities in Oakland and other cities.
His activism and charisma soon multiplied the popularity of the group: monitoring went on to create social programs, included free breakfasts for children or people with anemia, while also engaging in political activities. In a couple of years, the group’s subsidiaries had multiplied in more than 30 states.
in his book Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther PartyJoshua Bloom, and Waldo E. Martin estimate that for 1969 already had more than 5000 members and his ideas were popular in both small communities and large cities, from Los Angeles and Chicago to New York and Philadelphia.
Unlike other African-American civil rights groups, the Black Panthers carried guns and defended the right to self-defense with them. Bloom and Martin point out in their book that it was a active response to police violence experienced by the black population and that it sought to “empower the black community in the face of a racist system.”
However, his defiance of the authorities and his use of weapons was seen as defiant and were sometimes described as gangs or violent groups, something their leaders denied.
The Marxist Danger
The Black Panthers were part of an even larger group, the so-called blackpower, that defended black pride and unity for the rights of racial minorities. However, Newton and Seale did not conform to the ideology of that organization and based themselves on Marxism. They strongly believed in “class struggle” and thought that the organization represented “the battle of the proletarian vanguard against capitalism”.
It was these ideas on which they based their political platform, which they called Ten Point Programin which they requested, among other things, the immediate end to police brutality; jobs for African Americans and increased access to land, housing and justice for all.
Their closeness to Marxism, the black nationalist approach and a series of violent acts they committed then put them in the crosshairs of the authorities, especially the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) by Edgar Hoover. The FBI, in fact, created a secret counterintelligence program, COINTELPRO, just to keep a close eye on members of the Black Panthers. It was just the beginning.
For 1969, the FBI declared them a “communist organization” and “enemy of the government” and Hoover even considered them “one of the greatest threats to the nation’s internal security.”
rivalries with the police
Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin’s book recounts how increasing persecution by the authorities led to a rapid radicalization of the group. Clashes with the police became frequent and several agents were killed in shootouts involving the Black Panthers. The group, however, always assured that they only used weapons as a method of self-defense and that they only responded to the police if they were attacked.
The organization also became a focus of police violence. In one of the most famous cases, in 1969, Chicago police fired over 100 shots two party members who were sleeping in his apartment. The authorities claimed that a fierce exchange of fire had taken place, but it was later shown that only one bullet came from the gun of one of the group’s members.
In the book The Black Panther Party [Reconsidered], historian Charles E. Jones asserts that the persecution to which the members of the group were subjected was so great that a kind of collective paranoia also began to manifest itself among its members… and to divide them. This led not only to numerous discussions and fears, but there were also allegations that some “black panthers” killed or beat others from the same group they believed to be police informants.
Certain parts of the movement were also associated with criminal activities and an internal split between its main leaders and organizers soon weakened them as a political force. By the mid 70’s, the Black Panthers continued to lose followers and popularityalthough they made efforts to survive the debacle, including creating an armed branch, the Black Liberation Army.
In the following decades, the group’s name became a subject for academic research and history books, while some of its main activists died, escaped to other countries or spent their lives in prison.