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Black Power and Anti-Carceral State Infrastructure

In 1991, Black radical activist Safiya Bukhari spoke to an audience and reflected on her decision to join the Harlem branch of the Black Panther Party (BPP). It wasn’t the black leather jackets, berets, dramatic displays of militancy, or even the Party’s high political theory that attracted Bukhari to the Panthers. Rather, it was the less visible politics behind the free breakfast program that initially drew her to the party in the spring of 1969: “I could not get into the politics of the Black Panther Party, but I could volunteer to feed some hungry children; you see, children deserve a good start and you have to feed them for them to live to learn. It is difficult to think of reading and arithmetic when your stomach is growling”1 Later that year, however, Bukhari found herself intervening in an altercation between a Black Panther Party member and a police officer. Bukhari attempted to stop the officer from harassing the Panther member who was selling the Panther’s newspaper. She viewed it as a political infringement on the Panther’s first amendment speech. Following her intervention, Bukhari was arrested and after getting out of jail, she officially joined the Party. As she reflected years later, Bukhari highlighted this as the moment she dedicated her life to the Black Liberation Movement: “It wasn’t the Panthers that made me join the Black Panther Party. It was the police.”2

Since the police killings of Mike Brown and the Ferguson Uprising, many with stories like Bukhari’s have joined a growing movement against state-sanctioned violence. The summer of 2020 rallying cry to “defund the police” brought to the forefront the problems of policing, but also to how policing reflects larger realities of unfreedom, repression and state violence that Black, Brown, and low-income communities face. Books and articles by abolitionists such as Mariame KabaRuth Wilson GilmoreAndrea RitchieBeth Ritchie, and the abolitionist organizing and theorizing of Critical Resistance have made important contributions to the growing understanding that for Black people to be free, the carceral state—policing, jails, prisons, and surveillance—must end. Today’s abolitionists and thinkers build on the ideas of Black Power era organizers, activists, and thinkers. The community defense groups, mutual aid programs, legal defense committees, and political education classes that Black Power organizers developed formed an anti-carceral state infrastructure that resisted state violence, neglect, and their attendant anti-Black, capitalist, and imperialist ideologies.

Community defense groups and mutual aid programs were some of the primary components in the anti-carceral state infrastructure Black Power organizers built to reframe violence. Then, as now, Black, heavily under-resourced communities were seen as violent places. However, Black Power collectives like the BPP saw the constant presence of police in their communities as violence. They understood poverty that plagued Black communities because of state policies and neglect as violence. As a response, in 1967 the Panthers organized community defense groups that patrolled the police. They reasoned that the police were not sent into Black communities to protect Black people. Rather they were sent into communities as agents of the state to protect property and harass, surveil, and jail Black folks. 

However, the Panthers also saw the underside of over-policing in Black communities: the state’s only investment in their communities came in the form of policing, jails, surveillance, and prisons. Meanwhile, Black communities in Oakland, where the Panthers were founded, and around the country suffered from lack of material resources and delipidated segregated neighborhoods. By 1969, the Panthers launched their first free breakfast program, and a slew of other services and public goods ranging from free ambulance, free sickle-cell testing, and free medical care would follow. Both the community defense groups and the mutual aid programs were the Panther’s ways of arguing that because of the state’s violence and neglect, they’d have to organize and provide the life-affirming and sustaining services that people needed to live safe and whole lives.  

Read entire article at Black Perspectives