The Black Panthers as a Subculture

The Black Panthers (BPP)were originally referred to as The Black Panther Party for self-defense. It was started in 1966 by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton (Ogbar 2014:1175). The major purpose of the party was to offer community vigilance against police brutality in black neighborhoods. Also, the party was involved with the advocacy for the protection of the blacks against social injustices. For years, there has have been conflicting opinions on whether the group was a subculture based on its ideologies and activities. A subculture is a section of people with the larger population that hold dissenting views and beliefs or acts differently from mainstream society. While the The Black Panther Party started as a movement for championing for the rights of the blacks, its later activities have proven that it was a subculture.

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            The origin of BPP can be traced back to 1960s at Oakland, California. During the period, it is documented that many blacks who were living in North America were subjected to a great deal of discrimination by the white majority despite the landmark Civil rights ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court (Shih and Williams 2016:25). African Americans suffered from social and economic segregation which followed by poverty, joblessness, violence, and poor states of living (Spencer 2017:22). These situations gave rise to uprisings by the blacks while trying to demonstrate their agitations and discontentment about the inequalities they suffered. The uprisings would later escalate to alarming levels where the police resorted to using violence to return order. After the assassination of Malcolm X and killing of a black teen, Mathew Johnson, by the police in San Francisco, Newton and Seale, founded the BPP in 1966 while they were still college students. Their main aim was to keep watch of police activities against the blacks both within and beyond Oakland.

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            The BPP can be is considered as a subculture based on its unique courses of action that were inconsistent with other black movements such as the Nation of Islam and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (Spencer 2017:23). For instance, other organizations that fought against the oppression of the African Americans used to generalize the white majority as oppressors but the BPP acknowledged the whites who were not racists and remained to white movements advocated for ant-racism. Also, whereas the other black nationalist movements generalized the blacks as the oppressed, the BPP believed that some blacks such as the working class and black capitalists were also oppressing African Americans through various forms of exploitations.

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The most outstanding difference between the BPP and other African American organizations is that the former believed that the only way to liberate the blacks from oppression was through forming a strong political party which would act as a vehicle to national politics. On the other hand, other black movements believed in the use of oratory skills and imagery to salvage African Americans from their oppressors. Moreover, the BPP initiated social services programs such as free clothing, medical services, and free breakfast for school going children amongst many others which were specifically meant for the blacks (Ogbar 2014:1176). Such initiatives had never been done before by other African American movements. The sub-culture drew inspiration from Marxist ideologies and was shared by the members of the party.   

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            The BPP became a sub-culture when it increased its followership not only in Oakland and the larger America but also in many parts of the world including the Aborigines of Australia and Israel’s Oriental Jews. The rising popularity of the party became an issue of security concern as it had gained over 2000 followers by 1968 (Cleaver and Katsiaficas 2001:25)Besides, it is documented that the party transformed into violent means in the late 1960s where it engaged the police on numerous violent encounters at a gunpoint leading to arrests and deaths including the death of the BPP treasurer, Bobby Hutton. Internal conflicts within BPP also became violent which led to the death of the party’s bookkeeper, Betty Van Patter (Spencer 2017:23).

Moreover, the party’s controversial activities contributed to its labelling as a sub-culture. For instance, in 1967, some of the The Black Panther Party members held a protest in California while fully armed to raise concerns about a bill on gun control (Ogbar 2014:1176). The party believed in the freedom to own guns as part of security measures to defend themselves against the police. This reason was suspicious as it became apparent that the party may have been planning warfare with the government. Besides, the BPP became a sub-culture upon the adaptation of unofficial uniform and identity as the party members used to keep afros, wore black berets, and black leather jackets. Thus, the party’s rapid growth in popularity, incidences of violent acts, and codified identity made it transition into a subculture.

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In summary, the The Black Panther Party ’s origin can be traced in the 1960s at Oakland, California. It was triggered by the continued oppression of the blacks by the whites which deprive them of fundamental resources leading to uprisings. The police met the uprisings with brutal force that forced Seale and Newton to form the party in 1966. The BPP can be regarded as a sub-culture based on its different courses of action from other African American movements. It became a sub-culture when it spread across America and beyond, changed its tactics to violent means and adopted a codified form of identity. The sub-culture drew inspiration from Marxist ideologies and it was shared by the party members.

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