Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Bring the Vanguard Home: Revisiting the Black Panther Party's Sites of Class Struggle

Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Bring the Vanguard Home: Revisiting the Black Panther Party's Sites of Class Struggle

Article excerpt


By the summer of 1968, less than two years after its inception, Oakland, California's Black Panther Party (BPP) was running out of space. Signs of the Black Power organization's rapid growth were especially evident at its Grove Street office, which by this time, was "busting out at the seams," with "piles of newsletters, leaflets, buttons, [and] flags" overflowing into members' homes. (1) Not surprisingly, state agents were equally privy to the Black Panther Party's increasing popularity among local residents; during the same year, increased rates of incarceration, policeled murders, and the political exile of Panther men resulted in a predominantly female membership. (2) In the midst of heightened FBI and police repression of the organization, David Hilliard, the Black Panther Party's then Chief of Staff, recalls in his autobiography that by September, he no longer felt safe in his home or the BPP office. (3)

Thus, the search was on for a new base of operations. With the help of friends and the pooling of organizational funds, Hilliard quickly located an ideal site on Shattuck Avenue, midway between Berkeley and Oakland. Aside from the buffer that the college town's businesses would afford Hilliard's family against "the marginally more civilized Berkeley police" at this particular location, Hilliard envisioned additional benefits to purchasing the property: "We could hold meetings, press conferences, and store the paper in the wide space on the ground floor. Upstairs in front we can put out the paper; in back are plenty of rooms, including the kitchen. From the basement we can build tunnels to the backyard of a friend of Eldridge's who lives nearby, escape routes in case of attack." (4)

Further, aware of the house's ample size, Hilliard proposed to his wife, Patricia, the idea of withdrawing their children from Oakland's public schools and homeschooling them at the new residence. His plans quickly materialized. After outfitting the bedrooms with bunk beds and equipping every desk with a telephone, Hilliard and his comrades covered the windows with steel sheets and placed sandbags along the walls. (5) Soon "the chatter of people working, the chaos of last-minute details, some nonsense about the kids upstairs, some members sacked out on the floor in sleeping bags," filled the house with an atmosphere that Hilliard recalls, felt "familiar, natural, right." He called the new domain, "home, headquarters, embassy." (6)

But what do we make of the tripartite relationship that Hilliard describes? Beyond what it suggests about the central role that the organization's Chief of Staff played in the Black Panther Party's early years, the image he provides is telling on at least one additional level; it offers us a key window through which we can more fully examine the organization's sites of class struggle. While Hilliard may have been the only BPP member to actualize plans for building an underground escape route in his backyard (and he might have been successful, had the city's underground subway system not backed up the water level, causing the tunnels to flood), the "home, headquarters, embassy" he depicts was not unique.

In fact, accounts of BPP households outlined in memoirs and biographies of former members, organizational documents, and FBI files suggest that for numerous Black Panthers, the home existed as a liminal space, at the nexus of family, community, and work life. More specifically, for many Black Panthers, the household functioned as a primary site of contestation between the BPP and the state over the terms of social reproduction.

While much has been written about how the Black Panther Party's brand of Black radicalism operated as a spectacular politics--in the streets, in front of government buildings, and in community centers--few scholars have fully explored the more intimate terrains over which the BPP attempted to multiply its revolutionary ranks. …

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