The Blaxploitated Panthers

by Stephanie Lane Sutton

“The revolution is not a spectacle.  There are no spectators.  Everyone participates whether they know it or not.”
–Yippie protest sign

When viewing archival footage of the two most influential revolutionary organizations in news media of the 1960’s—the Yippies, the counter-culture movement led by Abbie Hoffman, and The Black Panther Party, a militant political group which made a name for itself defending black citizens’ right to self defense—the difference between their representations is directly related to our view of the organizations today. Through examining the different footage, the differences come down to one fine point:  the semiotics involved in television news’ portrayal of counter-culture was both the product of a perceived and invented social reaction of a capitalist purpose—a desire, above all, to make a profit—and were due less in part to differences between these organizations than the money-making ability of pop-culture realized in this time.  The BPP were portrayed the way the white market perceived them—as a threat to power—and the news media, attempting to represent the voice of this ethnocentric point of view, were required to emphasize this fear through their portrayals. Meanwhile, Abbie Hoffman seemed to epitomize the ideology of white middle class youth.  He was a celebrity asset in television news, and he attempted to use this creatively to his political advantage.  It is no coincidence that Hoffman’s belief in non-violent protest is emphasized, while The Black Panthers are shown militantly.  Images of either of these organizations were inserted into a cultural context in order to be as accessible as possible in a mass-consumer market; in turn, the way television news has presented these images as cultural history has influenced the relationship between youth culture and politics today.

Although The Black Panthers are beginning to be recognized as forward thinkers and political philosophers of their time, in the 1960’s, while attempting to manipulate television to create an image of black power, they came to be the face of black radicalism as news media represented their struggle in a militant and criminal light rather than as social progressiveness, as the Yippies were able to successfully achieve.  Because news media functioned within a perception of a white America in both legislature and culture, images of The Black Panthers both inspired and mimicked blaxploitation films which revolved around violent crime and subversive lifestyles in black urban communities (Myrick 72).  This was the only acceptable way to expose these images to a mass audience—the white middle class—the goal being to accumulate ratings as well as please advertisers.  Yet today, despite The Black Panther’s acquired legitimacy, these racist images persist—we criminalize militant minority activists and ignore white militant activists while novelizing the androcentric few that seek to preserve our country’s government rather than destroy it.  There is little distinction made in our culture or history between black activists and race rioters. They belong to the same category, proof that fighting back reinforces oppression instead of challenging it.

The key to understanding our culture’s perceived images of one thing or another on a mass level is semiotics, the study of signs & symbols in relation to communication.  How we react to images and what we associate with them represent parts of our identity; when looking at an advertisement in a magazine, one decides if they identify with the ad, which in turn influences whether or not they will buy a product. “The relationship between producers and consumers is a constantly evolving cycle intersecting both economy and culture” (Savage).  A certain relationship is created between consumer and producer each time we are exposed to an image, and it is both an influence upon and a product of our perceived identities.  Because we relate to images on a personal and cultural level, images can perceived in different ways—they can be sexually arousing or repulsive, novel or cliché, empowering or frightening.  However, when semiotics is applied to mass media, symbols are presented in a new way; in film & video, the act of capturing live images through a lens creates a perspective for the audience, causing us to empathize with or depreciate its subjects (Graber).  Because television is so intimately dependent on genre, the contextual meaning of these images is presented within a certain frame of reference; television news is seen as an informative program rather than entertainment (even more so in the 1960s than today), and often audience members feel that they are being given truth rather than opinions without sensing how the presentation of these images effects their interpretation and shows journalistic bias.

Semiotics works on a complex level in television news because its product is information and it is intended to reach such massive audience (Graber).  It must reflect this audience’s perspective in order to sell its product, but because only some images are culturally profitable, ideas that are too radical or shocking must be reshaped to represent the identities of the most lucrative demographic.  In these cases, the news represents these images in order to inspire fear or pity, if they can’t ignore them entirely.  The result is audiences come to identify with the symbols in texts presented in a narrow scope of minutes-long news clips.

If one is to examine footage of the Yippies and The Black Panthers side-by-side, the difference in representation are sharp—it is clear the viewer is meant to emphasize with the white organization and fear the black one.  Hoffman is vibrant and comical, often appearing in costume, with a wild mop of black curly hair being his most distinctive characteristic.  He ad libs and tells jokes and can even charm old ladies (Chicago 10).  Most footage is in color and features Hoffman interacting with others as if he were a member of the news crew, unlike footage of members of The Black Panthers, which is consistently in black and white and features members from a safe distance (A Huey P. Newton Story).  Typically the footage is observation of protests and rallies; unlike the Yippies, who are usually leading news crews to the story, prominent black panthers rarely directly interact with news crews, but rather dialogue is obtained through footage of speeches.  Unlike Yippies, BPP members are never interviewed live by news crews; rather, outside observers (almost always black neighbors or passerby’s) not affiliated with the party are asked for their opinions.  The most intimate footage is an interview with Huey P. Newton, the co-founder and leader of the BPP, describing the party’s basic beliefs and political logic.  But the interview is shown from inside a jail cell, emphasizing the criminal aspect of his beliefs (Huey P. Newton: Prelude to Revolution).

The Black Panthers were recognized in the media through constant police conflicts rather than their grassroots efforts; the only news coverage the BPP ever received was in direct relation to police violence. During a period of frequent race riots between 1967-68, rioters were referred to in news as “black nationalists,” mistaking the average citizens’ taking advantage of temporary anarchy through looting and random violence as politically motivated (Franklin 554).  Subsequently, the Black Power movement was seen as the defeating force of the Civil Rights Movement, instead of an effort to expand upon the rights and influence of black folk.  “Each historian [today] … acknowledges but looks beyond the militant record of the BPP to unearth its larger goals of peacefully improving the African American community in the areas of literacy, children’s education, health care, hunger, economic sustainability, and electoral politics” (Hawkins 124).  The popular consensus among 1960’s America—which persists today— is that The Black Panthers’ primary focus was on militant activity; this is due to the fact that this is the only aspect of the BPP’s political objectives portrayed in news stories.  However, the television news media of the time was white dominated and therefore disinterested in focusing on issues that effected black citizens, such as Newton’s survival programs which existed to provide food, clothes, and other necessities to impoverished black communities.  Only the violent aspects of the BPP were portrayed, and not their grass roots efforts (A Huey P. Newton Story).

White activists, such as Abbie Hoffman, were able to successfully use media for their cause.  Because news media was concerned with addressing issues of political unrest as well as drawing in members of counter culture as an audience, some activist movements were approached with novelty and interest, catering to more traditional and accessible values, as well as the desires of those in power.  “[News media] may never have had much interest in winning the ideological consent to dominance of the black population … nor have black Americans ever successfully been knitted into the liberal pluralist dream of American social democracy” (Bodroghkozy 66).  Ultimately, black dissatisfaction with the status quo is seen as a normal occurrence, and therefore largely invisible, while white youth dissatisfaction was new a phenomenon worthy of discussion by the elite.  Some believe that white revolutionary activists opposed mass media and refused to cooperate with reporters; however, news journalism was integral to white counter-culture, and it was even possible to be a journalist and an activist, as exemplified by Hunter S. Thompson, who was one of many journalists to cover the police brutality of the 1968 DNC carried out against Yippie protestors. The Yippies and news media worked cooperatively; Abbie Hoffman staged many “free events” in order to draw media attention while simultaneously promoting his cause (Chicago 10).  Since Yippie protests were akin to street performances on a mass-demonstrative level, they were a highly accessible spectacle for TV news.

Although they attempted to use mass media to their advantage, The Black Panthers were not able to create and sustain a cooperative relationship with white-dominated media.  While simultaneously trying to reclaim the black image, The Black Panthers had to function within the media who had for decades shaped images of minorities in stereotypes and myths (Crips and Bloods: Made In America). The Black Panthers both inspired and mimicked the lifestyles put forth in blaxploitation films as a means of presenting themselves in an immediately recognizable form while attempting to create connotations of empowerment to these images. While this functioned as an advantage to the BPP is some respects—for instance, their ability to represent themselves through a physically powerful connotation rather than be undermined through less empowering stereotypical black images—they emphasized the wrong aspects of the organization for both TV news and potential members. The Black Panthers openly recruited those with criminal records and, subsequently, many agent provocateurs from the FBI were planted within chapters of the party in order to persuade members to organize illegal activity (Franklin 553).  Although Bobby Seale would reiterate to the public that what today would be considered gang activity directly conflicts with the party’s principals and rules, the blaxploitated symbols of the Panthers would be the information broadcasted on millions of American’s television sets and would seem to reinforce these visions for youth across the country.

The portrayal of both the Yippies and The Black Panthers has manipulated their message, but also created cultural icons out of subversive political organizations that have spawned a rebellious youth consumer culture today.  Television news focused on the Yippies and The Black Panthers as representations of opposite spectrums of youth culture rather than dissident political organizations with similar ideologies.  TV news reinforced a separation between black and white political activity—whites must work peacefully in compliance with laws; blacks who don’t comply must wield guns and participate in street warfare.  The fact that The Black Panthers were admired and supported by Yippies never made it to camera—only the differences in party activity were displayed.

Today we can see how this attitude has transferred among the children of those who grew up in the 1960s; the dominant ideologies in white/black youth counter culture are the result of the evolution of white/black counter culture symbols that originated in the 60s with the absence of first-hand exposure to their causes. Images of The Black Panthers inspired black youth to start street clubs that would eventually turn into gang organizations such as the Crips and Bloods (Crips and Bloods: Made In America).  Meanwhile, the type of exposure the Yippies received would effect what aspects of the organization carried into our culture; future generations would come to see hippies and 1960s demonstrators as synonymous, viewing their contributions to fashion, music, and disobeying the status quo as having more impact than their political involvement.  Although they were the first revolutionaries to work hand-in-hand with pop-culture for their cause, the name “Yippie” is virtually unknown among youth, and it seems only their outrageous fashion and music sensibilities are the only ideals that have carried on to 21st century youth.

The white counter culture movement today, “hipsters,” is a conglomerate of all fashion and music styles made popular by past movements starting with the hippie demonstrators of the 60s—the key difference between hipsters and other youth movements (such as punk) being a complete lack of political meaning, as well as an emphasis on mainstream consumerism in television, music, and fashion (Haddow).  Hip Hop culture, which came to rise providing a voice to disaffected black youth, has received a similar transformation with its entrance into mainstream pop-culture; once again, the perceived market (a perception formed by white record label distributors) is not one of a knowingly oppressed community but of seemingly every other type audience.  The result is a type of music which glorifies gang activity, along with domestic violence, drug trafficking, and materialism, among other things. This is in sharp contrast to early and underground Hip Hop music, which emphasizes civil disobedience and rising up over political obstacles within the black community (Chang 69).  Similar to the perversion of the message of The Black Panthers, it seems the message continuing to be sold regarding black youth is one that instills fear and reinforces class status.

Counter culture has been completely sold out in our time.  An iconic image of Che Guevara is mimicked by Democratic Presidential Candidate Barak Obama, a caption of “change” replacing one that once said “revolution.”  In effect, our culture has been bred to equate revolutionary political activity with participation in the existing political process—an overall purpose of supporting Democracy has been reinforced.  Any efforts contrary to this vision of preservation are immediately dismissed as “violent” rather than “radical” to ensure a lack of any real change within our country.  The changes youth activists in the 1960s set out to create have been squelched, bought out by capitalism and created into another consumer product.  Television news was key in beginning this process, creating instant history without the ability to recognize inherent flaws in their representation. One can only hope that youth now or in the future will become aware of this manipulation and fight for their freedom of expression as well as their civil rights before more is stolen and sold back.

STEPHANIE LANE SUTTON was born in Detroit, MI.  She studied creative writing at Interlochen Arts Academy before attending Columbia College Chicago, where she received a Bachelor of Arts in Poetry and Television Writing.  As a poet and performer, her works have appeared in such publications as The Albion Review, Gordian Knot, The Detroit Free Press, and The Chicago Weekly, while also participating in The Encyclopedia Show and appearing alongside Patti Smith during her studies at Columbia College.  As a professional writer and blogger, she is deeply involved in politics, especially concerning issues of race, gender, and class.  Currently she resides at the West Side School for the Desperate in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood.

Works Cited

Chang, Jeff. “Fight the Power.” Mother Jones 32.6 (2007): 67-94. Web.

Chicago 10. Dir. Brett Morgen. Perf. Mark Ruffalo, Hank Azaria, Nick Notle. Consolidated Documentaries, 2007. DVD.

Crips and Bloods: Made in America. Dir. Stacy Peralta. 2009. DVD.

Franklin, V. P. “Jacknapes: Reflections on the Legacy of The Black Panther Party for the Hip Hop Generation.” Journal of African American History 92.4 (2007): 553-60.

Graber, Doris A. “Seeing Is Remembering: How Visuals Contribute to Learning from Television News.” Journal of Communication 40 (1990). Web.

Haddow, Douglas. “Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization.” Adbusters Culturejammer Headquarters | Journal of the Mental Environment. 28 July 2008. Web. <https://www.adbusters.org/magazine/79/hipster.html>.

Hawkins, Karen M. “Liberated Territory: Untold Local Perspectives on the Black Panther Party.” North Carolina Historical Review 87.1 (2010): 124-25. Web.

Huey P. Newton: Prelude to Revolution. Dir. John Evans. Perf. Huey P. Newton. 1971. DVD.

Myrick, Howard A. “Framing The Black Panthers.” Television Quarterly 38.2 (2008): 70-72. Web.

Savage, Cary. “Advertising & Semiotics: Understanding the Commodity Sign Industry(Williamson, Goldman & Papson, Giroux) – CCTP698_Researching_The_Visual.” CNDLS. Georgetown University. Web. <http://cndls.georgetown.edu/applications/postertool/index.cfm?fuseaction=poster.display&posterID=3802>.

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