Huey P. Newton :: Philosophy :: Armed Self-Defense
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Laid out in the Ten-Point Program of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense is the bold and ambitious idea that when a government is unjust, it is the right of the people to change the oppressive system: “...when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.”
For Newton, this system denies blacks any semblance of rights, denying their agency, their potential and their power. For this reason, “the oppressor must be harassed until his doom” and this must be done through armed self-defense, for the basic tool of liberation is the gun. Newton’s idea of power does not come through non-violence or other civil disobedience, a method which he finds debilitating, useless and degrading; rather, power comes through facing the enemy on equal grounds. The oppressor must be fearful, and armed self-defense forces the government into this fear. The power to change the system then, comes from the power wielded through weapons and brute force, a force which will require that the government recognize blacks for their worth, or be woefully sorry they didn’t.
While Newton advocates armed struggle, his ideology does not mean that the end product will be a world in which violence reigns. Rather, blacks must use guns as a means to a peaceful end. He quotes Mao Tse-tung: “We are advocates of the abolition of war, we don’t not want war; but war can only be abolished through war, and in order to get rid of the gun it is necessary to take up the gun.”
As one of the key platforms in the Party’s ideology, armed self defense was necessary and utilized as if in war time. Indeed for Newton, the streets of Oakland were nothing less than a colonized nation engaged in war against revolutionary guerilla fighters. The need to defend oneself against the blatant violent aggression of the Oakland Police was only just, and who better to defend Blacks than “brothers off the block, brothers who had been robbing banks, brothers who had been pimping, brothers who had been peddling dope, brothers who ain’t gonna take no shit.”
"Black people had been taught nonviolence; it was deep in us. What good, however, was nonviolence when the police were determined to rule by force? We had seen the Oakland police and California Highway Patrol begin to carry their shotguns in full view as another way of striking fear into the community. We had seen all this, and we recognized that the rising consciousness of Black people was almost at the point of explosion." —Huey Newton, Revolutionary Suicide
The Party’s leather attire and black berets evoked menace, but it was the guns they carried which were the most significant symbol. It evoked not only violence itself, but perhaps more importantly the threat of violence, and Newton used this symbol confidently and ardently. In displays of poise and command, Newton was able to face police and other oppressors on seemingly equal footing, while intimidating them and empowering Blacks. The gun was also an educational tool. By toting a gun, one would no longer be afraid and could fearless face the problem eye to eye and subsequently learn how to fight it.
In possibly more ways than not, Newton saw the gun as a vehicle for rhetoric rather than a vehicle for violence. It was supposed to get people looking and thinking. Despite his insistence that violent armed struggle would be necessary for a revolution, as well as his own conflicts with violence, in truth Newton had hoped that the gun itself would be enough to force the oppressors back, not the actions of the gun. Violence was only necessary when in self-defense, not in aggression. Many Americans both within and at large had trouble understanding the true meaning of armed self-defense and the gun was seen and used as a means of violence, not as symbol for empowerment and self-determination.
Question: "In the history of the Panthers there have been a number of shootouts. Are you now de-emphasizing the role of gunplay in the revolution?"
Huey Newton: "I'm always very careful not to apologize for any defensive measure and not to mix it up with aggression. And I would never view the Vietnamese defense of their homeland as mere violence. Our Panther defense is a tool to get rid of the violence and aggression. I'm against all wars. I'm for world disarmament; the party is also. But we're not pacifists. We think that it's time to organize the people in the United States, which of course the authorities are very upset about. We want peace. But, in certain situations, I won't guarantee that I won't use means that the people think are necessary, wholly necessary and efficient, to bring about liberation. And if I were to tell you anything else, I'd be dishonest with you."
"I hope that America will stop acting violently so it will no longer be necessary for the people of the world to defend themselves. And we hope that the people will require America to stop the violence and not dwell upon criticizing those who decide to defend themselves. I think it's critical to talk about the helpless victim and his defense rather than to talk about the blood and the aggression of the true criminal, that is, the American fascist forces. I would say that we are advocates of the abolitional war--we don't want war, but war can only be abolished through war. In order to geit rid of the gun, it becomes necessary to take up the gun. Chairman Mao stated that political power grows through the barrel of a gun. Just as the Chinese understand Mao's statement, I say power grows through the barrel but it culminates in the ownership of land and institutions by the people."
When Huey was released from prison in 1970, he emerged at first a hero, but soon realized that his beloved Party was in trouble. Part of these problems arose from Eldridge Cleaver’s advocacy of increasingly aggressive violence against police, and the greater public’s awareness of the Panther Party as an inherently violent organization. Newton found that his ideology of self-determination and empowerment was being obscured by the same symbol which had at once been its cornerstone. He realized that to resurrect the Party and the revolutionary movement, the Black community would need strong internal structure. Thus in 1970, Newton began de-emphasizing the gun and emphasizing important social programs.
“We are now free to move toward the building of a community structure which will become a true voice of the people, promoting their interests in many ways. We can continue to push our basic survival programs, we can continue to serve the people as advocates of their true interests, we can truly become a political revolutionary vehicle which will lead the people to a higher level of consciousness so that they will know what they must really do in their quest for freedom. Then they will have the courage to adopt any means necessary to seize the time and obtain that freedom.”
Newton did not give up armed self-defense as an integral part of his own ideology or of the Panther’s. Rather, he acknowledged that it was the violence spawned by this misunderstood method which was dooming the Party. His emphasis on social programs was meant both to bring new light to the Party, and reinvigorate that self-defense which remained critical to his sense of revolution. Once people understood that their needs could and would be met, their empowerment would lead them to see self-defense in the truest sense, in a way in which not even Newton himself was able to fully grasp on a practical level. The fight against the oppressor necessitated equal footing, but did not necessitate equal behavior. Armed self-defense ultimately meant not being afraid.