English Professor Nels Christensen shares some thoughts reflecting back on an attack of the U.S. capital on Jan. 6.
For the past four years, I’ve taught a class to incoming first-year college students called “All Power to the People: Why the Black Panthers Still Matter.” The experience of listening to my students of color talk about the Black Panthers and their own lives has strengthened my conviction that the Black Panther Party remains strikingly relevant in our own political moment, but it wasn’t until the January 6 mob assault on the U.S. Capitol that I fully understood why.
The widely uniform description of the January 6 mob as an insurrection—that is, as a direct threat to U.S. democracy—echoes the public outcry against the Black Panther Party’s own action against a capitol building some 54 years ago. But calling the January 6 mob an insurrection rings hollow—or at least it should. To understand why, we need to look to the Panthers.
The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense stormed onto the national stage over half a century ago—Black, armed, and righteously angry. It was May 2nd, 1967. Bobby Seale, the Chairman of the BPP, and twenty-nine other Panthers drove from Oakland to the state capitol in Sacramento, stridently entered the capitol building, and burst into the California State Assembly chambers during an active legislative session. The Panthers were armed with handguns, shotguns, and rifles. Government officials ducked for cover. Police confronted the Panthers, and reporters snapped photographs as the chaos ramped up. Sound familiar?
The Panthers went to Sacramento in open defiance and rebellion against what Huey P. Newton called the “racist California Legislature,” which was seeking to pass a gun-control law designed to pull the teeth of the Panthers strategy of legal, armed self-defense against the police brutalizing and terrorizing their communities in Oakland. They went to start a righteous insurrection.
The trouble with calling the January 6 mob an insurrection and claiming it was a risk to our democracy is that in doing so we run the risk of forgetting that democracy is the same one the Panthers defended themselves against, the same democracy that gave us slavery and Jim Crow and redlining and unchecked police brutality. It’s the same democracy that launched a secret and often illegal war against the Black Panther Party for feeding and educating Black children and defending themselves against the police brutalizing and terrorizing their communities, the same democracy that assassinated Fred Hampton, the Chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party, in his bed for successfully organizing poor southern whites in Chicago to join the Panthers in “fighting capitalism with socialism” and “fascism with solidarity.” It’s the same democracy that passed the Mulford Bill to undermine the armed self-defense of Black people against white terror.
The Panthers remind us that, from the founding of our nation, a rational argument has existed for righteous, morally justified, insurrections waged by Black and brown people and their allies against “our democracy.”
I’m white. And because I’m white I feel compelled and equipped to call out the profound problem with naming the January 6 mob an insurrection when it’s not. I feel it’s my job as a white person to hold myself and other white people accountable by pointing out the simple fact confronting us when we set the January 6 mob and the Black Panther Party side by side: the January 6 mob doesn’t deserve to be called an insurrection precisely because it wasn’t seeking to overthrow our democracy but to maintain it.
It’s easy as a white person today to read the Black Panther Party 10-Point Platform and Program—in which Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale articulated what the Panthers wanted and what they believed—as an artifact of the past. But for my Black and brown students, those wants and beliefs are not the past. They’re the present. My Black and brown students still want what the Panthers wanted—freedom, education, housing, work, peace, safety—precisely because they don’t have them in the way I do in the country we live in together.
Personally, I’m not shocked or offended by the idea of insurrection because there never has been a U.S. without it. Just ask Nathaniel Bacon or Denmark Vesey or Nat Turner or John Brown. But I want my insurrections to be righteous, to be morally justified, and I need them to be real. The Panthers’ insurrection was all that—righteous, justified, real—because they were fighting against a nation that disenfranchised and terrorized them. They were fighting for an actual political revolution born of self-defense. So far as I can tell, the January 6 mob’s insurrection was nothing of the kind—because the nation they were fighting for, in all the ways that really matter, is the one they already have.