White activists formed the White Panther Party as a way to support the Black Panthers (Creative Commons/The Philadelphia Tribune).
By Michael Coard
Monday marked 53 years to the very day that the white comrades I refer to as “The Sons and Daughters of John Brown” formed an organization called the White Panther Party (WPP).
Being a white racist is bad. Being a white non-racist (i.e., a mere white liberal) is insufficient. Being a white anti-racist is good, which is why being a white proponent of the legacy of the pro-Black WPP is great.
It was in 1968 that John Sinclair, Leni Sinclair and Pun Plamondon heard what Huey P. Newton, one of the six co-founders of the Black Panther Party (BPP), said when a journalist asked him what was the best thing white people could do to help end systemic racism and classism as manifested primarily in police brutality, judicial injustice, mass incarceration, capitalist exploitation, political subjugation, uninhabitable housing, miseducation and war-mongering.
Newton’s response was that they could form a “White Panther Party.” And that’s precisely what the Sinclairs and Plamondon did.
The founders of the WPP had been active in a Michigan-based radical arts collective known as the Detroit Artists Workshop established in 1964.
The impetus for the WPP’s founding in 1968 was “The 12th Street Rebellion,” which occurred just eight months earlier for six days from July 23 to July 28 when notoriously and blatantly racist Detroit police officers began by brutalizing innocent Black patrons in a West Side bar and, along with the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne, the 101st Airborne, the Michigan National Guard, the Michigan State Police, and the Detroit Fire Department, ultimately caused the death of 43 persons and the wounding of 1,189 others.
By the way, in 1965, which was three years before the rebellion, the Community Relations Division of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission commenced a study of the Detroit Police Department and concluded in 1968 that the city’s “police system was at fault for racism” and the commission blamed that system for “recruiting bigots.” Moreover, the 1967-1968 National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, determined that prior to and during the rebellion, nearly all, i.e., 79% of the white Detroit police officers working in Black neighborhoods were either “extremely anti-Negro” or “prejudiced.”
Over 7,200 people were arrested in that rebellion. But not one was any of the white cops, white soldiers, or white firemen who caused, initiated, accelerated, and extended the widespread racist deaths, injuries and property destruction. In fact, those very same cops, soldiers and firemen were exactly like the vast majority of white racists who had always been in blatantly segregated Detroit- including Mayor Orville Hubbard, who in 1956 had proudly proclaimed in a local newspaper, “(We white) people (here) are so anti-colored, much more than you in Alabama!”
Something had to be done by good white folks in Detroit. And the WPP decided to do it, starting with its declaration that the actions of Blacks who, during “The 12th Street Rebellion,” had fought back with fists and weapons against 50 years of ever-increasing police brutality and political oppression in Detroit were clearly “justified.”
But in supporting Black self-defense and pro-Blackness in general, the WPP made sure it wouldn’t take the white liberal’s stereotypical “white savior” approach wherein white people paternalistically create and smugly implement so-called solutions to Black folks’ problems.
Instead, the WPP followed the lead of the BPP, which is why it deferred to and relied on the BPP’s seminal Ten Point Program (that was created when the BPP was founded Oct. 15, 1966) to compose its own WPP Ten-Point Program on July 4, 1970:
- “We want freedom [and the] power for all people to determine their own destinies”
- “We want justice (and) an immediate… end to all… repression of all oppressed peoples…, ‘particularly the… Black people’….”
- “We want a free (non-capitalistic) world economy….”
- “We want a clean planet….”
- “We want a free educational system… (that encourages people to) grow into… (their) full human potential.”
- “We want to (end) corporate rule and turn all the… land over to the people …”
- “We want free access to all… media and… all technology for all the people.”
- “We want… (an end to the military draft and warmongering of the) armies of the oppressor throughout the world.”
- “We want freedom for all political prisoners …”
- “We want a free planet … for everybody.”
And the WPP wasn’t all talk. They were also about action. And although that action was confrontational, it was strategically non-violent. Despite that, Plamondon and John Sinclair were indicted in connection with the 1968 bombing of a CIA office in Michigan, shortly after the WPP was founded. Plamondon, although innocent, justifiably had no faith in the American legal system and decided to flee to Algeria where he spent time with exiled BPP member Eldridge Cleaver.
Both Plamondon and Sinclair were later captured, tried, and sentenced to prison. But they ultimately won on appeal in the U.S. Supreme Court after their lawyers successfully argued that the warrantless wiretaps that led to their conviction and incarceration were unconstitutional invasions of their Fourth Amendment right to privacy.
But governmental oppression and harassment never stopped. For example, the WPP headquarters in Portland was raided by the FBI in 1970 following false allegations of firebombing a Selective Service office.
Unfortunately, during their imprisonment before their victory, Plamondon and Sinclair were unable to sufficiently maintain the structure of the WPP and effectively promote its laudable and pro-Black goals. As a result, it began to weaken and finally disbanded in 1973.
However, California WPP chapters in Berkeley, Marin, and San Francisco continued doing their laudable and pro-Black thing well into the 1980s by holding free concerts and — just like the BPP — feeding the hungry and promoting legal armed self-defense.
I conclude by writing the following. Dear Good White People: Keep the legacy of the WPP alive by saying “Happy 53rd Birthday,” by being more than mere non-racist milquetoast liberals, and by becoming anti-racist allies.
Opinion contributor Michael Coard is an attorney and radio host. His work appears regularly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. He wrote this column for the Philadelphia Tribune, where it first appeared.
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