The book, Savage City (2011), T.J. English, examines New York City over the period 1963-73, using three individuals as a device for walking us through that period. George Whitmore, a naïve and innocent young black man, is viciously framed by the police and D.A. for crimes he very obviously didn’t commit; Dhoruba Bin Wahad not so innocently is also framed, basically for being a Black Panther; Bill Phillips is a super-corrupt cop who, like his more famous and honest contemporary Serpico, becomes a super-snitch. He is also, ironically, framed. The book’s focus is really massive police corruption and virulent racism. The Panthers would never have existed without the daily harassment, humiliation and routine injustice of the men in blue and their near-impregnable blue wall of silence.
The Black Panthers represented a reaction to oppression, on the street, in the job place, in housing and to a systemic discrimination that made daily life hell for most black citizens across the country. The success of the civil rights movement in the south helped northern black communities realize that passivity was not the only option. But the cities were populated by young men, such as Malcolm, Dhoruba, Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton, who had spent hard time in youth gangs and prison. This was an education that did not recognize the merit of non-violence. In fact such a strategy was equated with cowardice, just as it was on the mean streets and in the prison system.
A friend of mine tells the story of returning to visit his south Georgia hometown after an extended stay in Boston and joining his father and friends at their club. After enduring an evening of casual racist jokes and hawkish Vietnam platitudes (along with way too much Southern Comfort) my friend announced to these Southern Gentlemen that the U.S. was doing to the Vietnamese in Southeast Asia just what they were doing to blacks here at home. A Father/Son fistfight was narrowly averted. Southern organizers recognized that to challenge the oppressor in their comfort zone of violence, was suicidal. The basic law of karma, that violence begets violence, that actions have consequences, that it all comes back on you, what goes around comes around, etc; is ignored at our peril. Noam Chomsky recently stated that when you want to create change you have to consider whether your actions will actually move things in the desired direction. Will breaking windows help or will it only give you the feeling that you’re doing something? That the Black Panthers were ultimately destroyed testifies to the futility of one aspect of their strategy, the fatal mistake of dismissing non-violence. Would that the criminals who, in the main, run U.S. foreign policy, would take this lesson to heart.