Scrubbing Away the Whitewash

Fight the power

So, how's that equality coming? It's been a little more than 50 years since Brown v. Board of Education declared the segregation of schools unconstitutional, a decision that energized both sides of the debate into a fervor lasting nearly two decades until cocaine and disco came along to distract everyone. And look what happened! Hurricane Katrina came like a sledgehammer to prove that America still has a long way to go toward true equality, whether it be race, class or other.

Sadly, the kind of revolutionary movements that really stand a chance of changing things on a large scale have dwindled in the face of political reality and human foibles. Perhaps the greatest lesson the political establishment has taken from the Civil Rights movement is how to pay enough lip service to tolerance that anyone who still rises up to protest is labeled a fringe malcontent, un-American, anti-capitalist, a rabble-rouser. Witness the demonization of the peace movement at the start of the current Gulf War as those who dared challenge the rhetoric of the administration's "compassionate" conservatism were marginalized and mocked. After all, this was the New American Century, when everyone would have the opportunity to succeed provided they had the moral strength and work ethic to participate fully in capitalism. What are you complaining about, hippie?

However, it was not so long ago that revolutionary groups had the cultural presence in American society to truly affect their world—when racism, poverty, and inequality were not as subtle a problem as we have been led to believe they are today.

AK Press' new DVD release What We Want, What We Believe highlights the activity of the Black Panthers, still to this day one of the most misunderstood revolutionary movements in American history. Collecting footage from the documentary Newsreel film collective, as well as contemporary interviews with those involved in both the suppression and the promotion of the movement, What We Want clocks in at over 12 hours, a total Black Panther immersion.

Their Panther philosophy, to the uninformed, is easy to misread as anti-white militarism. The establishment at the time of the Panthers' heyday was only too happy to take them at face value. And sure, to your average middle class Caucasian who had absolutely no idea of the extent of the problems that his brethren of color had to endure, the sight of a large group of fatigues-clad African Americans marching through the suburbs—armed and chanting "Off the pigs"—might be at least a wee unsettling. What this DVD set helps elucidate, however, is how multifaceted and justified the movement actually was. Foremost on the Panthers' agenda was the care of their children, equal access to employment and housing, and the ability to preserve their culture and heritage without the undue influence of armed and politically powerful outsiders who had little or no interest in their survival.

What a bunch of wackos!

Though one can view their methods with incredulity, the core of their aims was certainly noble and just, and by this point in our development, accepted by most progressive people.

As time goes by and those with the most interest in suppressing their history are beginning to pass into that great bureaucracy in the sky, what was once conspiracy theory is becoming established fact. Also included on the DVD set are documents from the Roz Payne Archives that help outline the codified and systematic repression that politically active Panthers endured—including, but not limited to, assassination at the hands of the police. Perhaps most distressingly, this information will come as little surprise to most culturally aware Americans today as the sheer mass of political and social corruption and atrocity begins to bludgeon us into cynicism. While What We Want is so exhausting it will be overwhelming to those with a merely casual interest in Panther history, the documents and primary footage it collects may serve to rekindle a bit of fight in those who are still dissatisfied, still desperate for justice, and still of the opinion that black—and for that matter, every other color—is beautiful.


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