Black Power, then and now

How political struggles and concepts from the '60s are animating a new generation

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Angela Davis has drawn connections between the Black Power and Occupy Wall Street movements.
PHOTO BY LUKE THOMAS

"We're not ever to be caught up in the intellectual masturbation of the question of Black Power. That's a function of people who are advertisers that call themselves reporters."

That's how the radical student and civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael opened a speech about Black Power — a term he helped popularize — at UC Berkeley in 1966. But the ideas and concepts behind Black Power proved to be an enduring ones that are enjoying a resurgence today.

Angela Davis epitomized the Black Power movement to many observers. The author, scholar, and professor was a Black Panther Party member who then joined the Communist Party USA and brought a class analysis to issues of race, building on the movement that began in the '60s for decades to come.

In recent months, as the Occupy Wall Street movement began to focus the country's attention on economic and social inequities, Davis has spoken out regularly in support of the movement and drawn connections back to her early activism. She has embraced the "99 percent" paradigm, and the connections between various issues that Occupy activists have sought to highlight.

"Our demands for justice lead us toward demands for prison abolition. And our demands for prison abolition lead us to demands for free, quality education. And our demands for free quality healthcare, and housing, and an end to racism, an end to sexism, an end to homophobia," Davis said March 1 in Oakland at a benefit for Occupy 4 Prisoners, a coalition of Occupy protesters and prison justice advocates.

Consciousness surrounding those connections can be largely attributed to efforts from Black Power organizers.

"When I listen to the way young people so easily talk about the connectedness of race, gender, and sexual issues, and I remember how we groped our way towards an understanding of those connections, it makes me really proud," Davis said in a January interview with Independent Lens.

And as Davis said at the March 1 event: "One of the most exciting accomplishments of the Occupy movement has been to force us to engage in conversation, explicit conversation about capitalism, for the first time since the 1930s."

The movement's economic message also seemed useful to Kiilu Nyasha, a San Francisco-based journalist and former member of the New Haven Black Panther Party.

"Globalization has already happened. It's not happening, it's happened. One percent, internationally, owns and controls 80 percent of the world's resources. People are dying all over the world of every complexion which you can think of" Nyahsa said March 14 at a panel discussion called Reboot the Rainbow.

The original Rainbow Coalition- the topic of the March 14 panel- included the Black Panther Party, the Puerto Rican Young Lords, and the poor white Young Patriots organization, and was committed to a Black Power concept: organize your own, fight together. Building coalition is more important now than ever.

"It's not Black Power right now," says Terry Collins, president of KPOO radio, a black-owned station long focused on community empowerment. "It's people power. It's power unto the people who are in need: all the people out there who are out of their homes, students who owe so much that they're like indentured servants."

Occupy the Hood is a national effort to encourage participation of people of color in Occupy Wall Street. In its mission statement the group writes, "It is imperative that the voice of people of color is heard at this moment!"

The focus of San Francisco's Occupy the Hood chapter is "three-fold," according to organizer Mesha Irizarry: "The cop-watching in neighborhoods that are criminalized, especially poor neighborhood of color. It's freedom fighters against foreclosures. It's also bank transfers."

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