Fifty years ago this October, the Black Panther Party formed to protect the Black community in Oakland, California, from White oppression and police brutality. On Sept. 16, former party leaders and members of the movement will gather in Seattle to celebrate the party’s legacy and explore the lessons it offers to a new generation of activists who continue to fight the same old battles.
The Seattle Black Panther Party Revolutionary Film Festival and Forum 2016 will span three days from Sept. 16 to Sept. 19. For the first two days, participants will engage with films and talks about the history of the Black Panther Party and its impact on the lives of its members. The third day will include strategy sessions to connect the messages of the forum with the work being done for the Black community in Seattle.
The idea is to give people the flavor of what the party was in the 1960s and 1970s, when the Panther movement was at its height, and to pass those lessons on, said Aaron Dixon, former captain of the Seattle Black Panther Party.
“We’re elders, and we have experience in organizing and making change in our community,” Dixon said. “We want to share our experiences with them and help them to get a better framework in terms of why it’s important to have objectives and how to organize toward objectives and to accomplish goals.”
Part of that will be a focus on what the party was: a movement focused on love and community rather than the hate group that popular perception has branded it.
The Panther brand is persistently associated with armed revolutionaries, and while the party did field patrols, to identify it solely by that project is like saying Planned Parenthood is just an abortion clinic.
The Black Panther Party was a movement that harnessed the activist energy of young people with discipline and direction to make positive change at home, Dixon said.
“Before many of us joined the Black Panther Party, we were like a lot of young people today,” Dixon said. “We were angry, frustrated and we leaned more toward Black nationalism. Had it not been for the Black Panther Party, a lot of us would have ended up dead and ended up in prison.”
Instead, they organized a free breakfast program and neighborhood medical clinics. They reached out to other groups such as the Young Lords, founded by Puerto Ricans, and the American Indian Movement to form the Rainbow Coalition.
“Anybody who was oppressed was our friend and our comrade,” Dixon said.
The Black Panther Party wasn’t about just race. It wrestled with gender issues as well. According to The New York Times, the majority of party members were women by 1970, and founder Huey Newton responded by adding gender and sexual equality into the platform.
Terika Lewis, the first woman to join the Black Panther Party, will be speaking at the forum about her experience in the movement. Other presenters include Felipe Luciano, former deputy chairman of the Young Lords, and keynote speaker Emory Douglas, the former party minister of culture.
Nyema Clark, one of the event organizers and co-director of the Seattle Young People’s Project, directed a play about the movement when she was in high school. It featured many of the people she will be seeing live at the forum.
“It means a hell of a lot to me,” Clark said.
Clark sees the event as an opportunity for people to come together, regardless of race, to turn current sentiment around the risk to Black lives in a system bent against them from isolated marches into real reform.
“If you want some sort of reform, you have to seek higher power,” Clark said. “You can’t just go into the street and stop traffic.”
Organizers hope that participants will finish the three-day forum with tangible goals that they can bring home with them to affect change.
“We want them to feel clarity, to find peace,” said Aziza Dixon, Aaron Dixon’s daughter and another organizer for the event. “We want them to leave this event knowing that there are solutions, knowing they can help rebuild their community.”
The opening event of the forum will be film screenings at the Rainier Arts Center followed by live music. Talks the following days will be held at Washington Hall. For more information, visit their Facebook event page.