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A Conversation with 'Black Panthers' Director Stanley Nelson

Q&A with Director Stanley Nelson and Former Black Panther Jamal Joseph on history of the Black Panthers .
“The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” premieres Tuesday, February 16, 2016 on PBS’ Independent Lens.
“The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” premieres Tuesday, February 16, 2016 on PBS’ Independent Lens.Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch

Fifty years ago, a group set out to attain equality in education, housing, employment and civil rights, the Black Panther Party.

Beyoncé’s epic half-time performance of her new single “Formation,” paid a visual homage to the Black Panthers, showing us their legacy is far from forgotten. Her dancers dressed in all-black leather while sporting Panther inspired berets. They raised their fists into the air, holding them up emblematic of the “Power Fist” used by the Black Panthers as a sign of solidarity and support.

Despite this recent tribute, the Black Panther party is remembered differently throughout history. The party which was once regarded as, “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country” by former FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, was one of the most influential civil rights groups of its era.

The Black Panther Party is the focus of a documentary directed by Stanley Nelson which recaps the party’s history and sheds light on the issue of racial discrimination and misuse of police surveillance that still remains relevant today.

NBCBLK spoke with the director of The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, Stanley Nelson, and former member of the Black Panther party, Jamal Joseph, about the influence of the Black Panthers on the Black Lives Matter movement, the relevance of police brutality and misuse of surveillance almost half a century after the birth of the Panther party.

What is something you learned about the Black Panthers that you didn't know before working on this documentary?

Stanley Nelson: One of the things I learned was how well documented the FBI persecution of the Panthers was. It was really well documented. J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI sent memos back and forth saying that they were going to destroy this organization. Also I think the magnitude of women’s roles in the Panthers was something I didn't realize. In fact by the early 70s, the Panthers were majority women.

How do you feel about the Black Lives Matter movement? How do you think they’ve done in promoting their message?

Jamal Joseph: I think what’s exciting about the Black Lives Matter movement is that it's broad-based and that it's youth-lit. It reminds me of the Panthers. It became broad based in the sense that when the Panthers said, "all power to all the people," they meant it. They meant that they could work with the white community, the black community, Asian, Latino, and any progressive community that wanted to promote revolutionary change as they called it at the time.

When I see the resiliency of the movement so far, it excites me. It hasn’t been an Occupy Wall Street. The Black Lives Matter movement just continues to grow. It continues to be something that you hear people talk about on street corners, in churches, and in schools. It is a part of people’s everyday conversations.

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Do you think the Black Lives Matter movement descended from the Panthers? Are there any similarities or differences?

Stanley Nelson: I think there's a certain similarity in attitude. I think that there's the attitude that it's not about "you" but it's about "us." We're going to seize this time whether you like it or not. There are going to be certain people who don't like what we do but we don't care. I think that attitude was central to the Panthers.

I don't want to speak for the Black Lives Matter movement but from what I've seen and the statements they make, that's their attitude. Some people are going to be pissed off when we grab the mic from Bernie Sanders but we're not here to make everybody happy. We're here to raise the issues.

What would you advise the Black Lives Matter movement in terms of promoting their message?

Jamal Joseph: I would ask them to look at the community programs that the Black Panther Party created. What we understood was that in addition to rallies, demonstrations, press conferences, and mobilizing people to demonstrate that it was important on a day-to-day basis to be in the community organizing people around their needs.

The breakfast program, health clinic, and the liberation schools were about being actively engaged around people’s needs so the people that might have seen the Panthers on TV saw them feeding kids and bringing medicine into communities.

I would ask the Black Lives Matter movement to look at these programs and see what they can do to be in the community everyday organizing people around their needs so that folks in the community just don’t think that Black Lives Matters is something that happens only when somebody is shot.

How has social media changed public protests?

Stanley Nelson: Social media is an organizing tool. Everybody has a camera now in their pocket that they can whip out, press a button, and it's recording. I think that's made a tremendous difference in us as a country seeing the violence that's perpetrated against African Americans.

If the problems of race and inequality in this country were just the police, we could make strides to solve that.

If you add up all the things that have happened in the past year or so, it seems that 90 percent of the incidents were backed by evidence from a camera that recorded the incident. There are a bunch of places where the cops have already come out with a story that's not true and then someone comes out with a video showing what really happened. That wouldn't have happened before. It's made people have to see what's going on.

If you talk to most people of color, they can tell you their own personal story. Everybody's got this story and its part of our historical relationship with the police.

Black Panther Party
Panthers line up at a Free Huey rally in Defermery Park, in west Oakland’s ghetto. Light skinned man is Gregory Harrison. His brother, Oleander, went to Sacramento with Bobby & Huey. July 28, 1968Stephen Shames / Polaris

The police started for us as slave catchers. Then as this kind of force to keep African Americans and people of color in line and it's just progressed so hopefully there is this dialogue going on now. The other thing is that the whole idea of police violence is just a symptom.

If the problems of race and inequality in this country were just the police, we could make strides to solve that. Unfortunately, we still have all these other problems of unemployment, overstocked jails, lack of housing, poor schools, all those things that the Panthers talked about in 1966 almost fifty years ago.

Do you feel police surveillance is still a big issue?

Jamal Joseph: I think even more so for all of us. We live in a surveillance state. We live in a police state. We live in a military state. And the danger of that is that it appears to be benign. After 9/11, a lot of the stuff that we had accomplished in terms of holding the government to task and in terms of fighting what was going on, fighting the counterintelligence program, fighting all of that was reversed. The government used 9/11 to justify lethally giving back a lot of those rights. Things are worse, not better, and they’re scarier because we don’t know or don’t care.

How did the Panthers view the police?

Jamal Joseph: The Panthers weren’t so much anti-police as they were anti-oppression. Policing is an institution. The attitudes of the police and the way the police function, they function as an adjunct of the state. The police are there to protect their interests so they’re not in the community to protect people. They’re there to protect the state and the state’s interests.

The Panthers weren’t so much anti-police as they were anti-oppression.

After 9/11, what we got other than surveillance was the militarization of the police. Soldiers are not trained to police. They’re trained to kill the enemy, dominate the enemy, and so they return with all these new gadgets and new attitudes. Local police violence is connected to the ideology of the state, which is to make profits and protect our profits and protect our interests.

Do you think that the benefits of "lowering crime" outweigh the costs of a violation of privacy?

Jamal Joseph: The way you lower crime rates is not from surveillance, intelligence, and locking more people up. The way you lower the crime rate is by educating people, feeding people, creating better housing, and bringing jobs into the community. Crime happens because people are desperate because there’s no hope, there’s no job, there’s no food, and there’s no direction. So the idea that you’re lowering the crime rate by locking up more and more people who are suffering from the conditions that you created is absurd.

So when you’re looking at communities where crime rate has really gone down, it wasn’t because of surveillance. It wasn’t because more people were being locked up. It was because the community got better because there were more jobs, better housing, and a sense of hope and opportunity. In terms of policing, it improved when the police were more about partnerships with the community instead of occupying the communities.

What’s the next step for police reform?

Jamal Joseph: The simple answer is totally reimagining of the system and imaging a system where people are really here to work and empower people and to protect people not to overpower and depress people.

“The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” premieres Tuesday, February 16, 2016 on PBS’ Independent Lens.

[This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity]