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Feeding Revolution: The Black Panther Party and the Politics of Food

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Abstract

This chapter examines the role of food in the symbolic politics and practical agenda of the Black Panther Party (BPP), founded in the late 1960s in Oakland, California. Situating hunger and the politics of food at the center of drives for racial justice, it argues that the BPP’s anti-hunger efforts and food-centered campaigns were driven by an implicit understanding of the power of food in battles over racialized definitions of personhood, a forum for both enforcing and resisting hegemonic authority. From this vantage, the Panthers and their allies in the East Bay community utilized the Party’s popular food programs, specifically its Free Breakfast for School Children Program, as staging grounds to prepare for a revolutionary overthrow of the socio-economic order. In addition to strengthening the physical bodies of African Americans to ensure their “survival pending revolution,” the food programs served a deeper organizing function by encouraging community members to come together to meet an immediate, practical need and, in doing so, to visualize themselves as part of a larger movement for change. The Panthers’ subsequent demands for consumer rights and calls for conscientious consumption (both as purchasers and eaters of food) highlighted the role of food politics in perpetuating racial injustice while demonstrating the capacity for food-related protest to challenge structures of hunger and patterns of widespread malnourishment.
ISSN: 1941-0832
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Feeding Revolution:
The Black Panther Party and the Politics of Food
By Mary Potorti
First you have free breakfasts,
then you have free medical care,
then you have free bus rides,
and soon you have FREEDOM!
-Fred Hampton, Deputy Chairman,
Black Panther Party, Illinois
aving studied as an undergraduate under
Warren Belasco, a pioneer in the field of food
studies, I have for years been conscious of the
politics behind food production and consumption. In my
own research and teaching, however, I returned to food
studies not with an interest in food, per se, but as a means
of investigating structures and systems of power and
inequality. Historical moments that transformed my own
insular undergraduate worldviewnamely, the black
freedom struggle, the Vietnam War, and the emergence of
second wave feminism and gay liberationsometimes
barely registered with my students, many of whom saw
little connection between their own fields of study in
H
COURTESY OF LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
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communications or the health sciences and current issues
involving race relations, capitalism, gender inequality, gay
rights, or international affairs. After two years meandering
through stacks of literature about the black freedom
struggle in search of a new topic or innovative approach
suitable for a dissertation, I attended a fascinating
presentation by Alondra Nelson in 2011 about the Black
Panther Party‟s efforts to combat medical discrimination. I
began to consider the potential of reaching media- and
science-minded students by de-emphasizing key historical
figures and events and instead focusing on the human
body itself as a site of social and political struggle.
1
Food, I
came to realize, is often a weapon in these battles.
The dynamics and tensions of agency and coercion,
autonomy and oppression, at play in the global food
systemmanifested in myriad recent controversies
surrounding the Farm Bill, food stamps, GMOs, obesity,
healthcare, hunger, school lunch programs, food waste,
food deserts, food safety, farmers‟ markets, fast food
wages, globalization, and slave labor around the world
directly reflect and implicate historical patterns of
marginalization and oppression. Current realities have
historical roots, and historical campaigns and programs
have modern-day reverberations. In an age where student
activism largely occurs in cyberspace, if anywhere, many
undergraduates see little point in attempting to challenge
or even question systems of power when 1) the target is so
diffuse, and 2) prospects for immediate, tangible gains are
dim, to say the least. Relatively recent stories, for
example, about fast food workers striking for a $15
minimum wage or Walmart‟s revealing move to place bins
for customers to donate food items to help feed the
company‟s own employees, make clear that food insecurity
persists. But many voice surprise, even disgust, with the
notion that McDonald‟s employees “deserve” a living wage
or believe that a carefully-constructed hunger safety net
will catch those who fall through the cracks. Rarely have
my students articulated an impassioned belief that change
can be effected from the grassroots. In U.S. history and
food studies courses, I often turn to the Black Panther
Party and its food service programs to raise questions
about how “poor people‟s movements” develop, how tactics
and strategies develop, and, in the words of Frances Fox
Piven and Richard A. Cloward, “why they succeed” and
“how they fail.
2
Speaking of the newly renamed
“Food for Peace” program in 1961,
President John F. Kennedy
highlighted a reality that many
African Americans and civil rights
activists already acknowledged.
“Food is strength,” Kennedy
proclaimed, “and food is peace, and
food is freedom, and food is a
helping to people around the world
whose good will and friendship we
want.”
Resisting the object-centered lens of much food
studies work, Kyla Wazana Tompkins‟s Racial Indigestion
(2012) calls for closer examination of “texts and
[historical] moments during which acts of eating cultivate
political subjects by fusing the social with the biological, by
imaginatively shaping the matter we experience as body
and self.”
3
Following her lead, I frame my undergraduate
food course, “The Politics of Food,” around questions of
identity and agency, access and accountability, health and
sustainability, rather than commodities, flavor principles,
etiquette, or culinary innovations. Though certainly the
material delights of food are laden with cultural
significances that reflect and reinforce social dynamics and
political relationships, eating as an act itself, the meaning
of which primarily stems from the identity of the eating
subject rather than the eaten object, speaks to the reality
that some have far greater access to “good” food than
others. The Black Panther food programs represent an
opportunity to approach food less as a forum of cultural
and community expression than as a tool for political
mobilization. As a historical case study, the Panther food
programs offer several useful angles for classroom
interrogation of hunger and emergency food relief
specifically, as well as struggles for liberation and
movements for social change more broadly. Their message
remains relevant today, or as The Black Panther newspaper
proclaimed in March 1969, “Hunger is one of the means of
oppression and it must be halted.”
4
Historical Context
Speaking of the newly renamed “Food for Peace”
program in 1961, President John F. Kennedy highlighted a
reality that many African Americans and civil rights
activists already acknowledged. “Food is strength,”
Kennedy proclaimed, and food is peace, and food is
freedom, and food is a helping to people around the world
whose good will and friendship we want.”
5
In light of the
rediscovery of poverty in the United States, initiated by
Edward R. Murrow‟s documentary treatment of the plight of
migrant farm workers in 1960‟s Harvest of Shame,
Kennedy‟s pronouncement would prove both profoundly
insightful and painfully short-sighted. Amidst the prosperity
and abundance of postwar America, the persistence and
pervasiveness of povertyand its most pressing symptom,
hungergrew both more pronounced and less palatable.
Despite the lofty rhetoric of Lyndon Johnson‟s War on
Poverty, tellingly launched on the porch of white Kentucky
sharecroppers in 1964, tangible gains for America‟s poor
were piecemeal, politically-contentious, racially-charged,
and ultimately fleeting. The intertwining of racial
oppression and class inequality, which has characterized
American history since slavery, expanded the implications
of poverty beyond issues of material welfare, fostering a
crippling physical and psychological condition that
diminished prospects of justice and freedom for the poor.
Religious charities like those run by the Catholic Church
and mutual aid societies formed by immigrant communities
have deep roots in American history. While they provided
needed services, they worked toward no long-term
solutions. During the Great Depression, hunger amidst
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surplus became a national scandal, as the government paid
farmers to overproduce while millions continued to starve.
6
During this time the communist Alabama Sharecroppers‟
Union worked to mobilize a racially-conscious class-based
movement to secure rights for tenant farmers, recognizing
the connection between the race of most Alabama
sharecroppers and the biases of a system that kept
hardworking families in an intergenerational cycle of debt.
Decades later in neighboring Mississippi, the Student
Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) quickly
realized that civil rights work in the poorest counties of the
Delta would be pointless if people were too paralyzed by
hunger and food insecurity to move. In fact, the long black
freedom struggle has repeatedly underscored the cultural
and political significance of food, explicitly calling attention
to interlocking structures of racism and social inequality
embedded in the politics and culture of food.
Conceptualizing food as a site of conscious and concerted
social activism calls attention to the problematic interstices
of the “racialized political economy of food production and
distribution” and the “cultural politics of food consumption
in the United States.
7
Offering a new vantage point from
which to scrutinize and formulate questions about racial
equality and social justice, food studies encourages a more
inclusive, expansive understanding of the black freedom
struggle. The lens of food justice and what Tompkins has
termed “critical eating studies” in particular requires a
broadening of the term “activist” to include all those
seeking to resist systems of oppression in efforts to
improve their daily lives. It also mandates a revision of
more conventional definitions of “freedom,” most of which
have focused on integration and voting rights, by
illuminating the essential role of food in both the symbolic
politics and practical agenda of movement activists.
This tactical progression from
guns to butter was not reformist or
counterrevolutionary, as critics like
Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver
charged, but instead represented a
flexible and logical response to
official efforts to thwart the Party’s
growth and influence.
The Black Panther Party, a community-based
organization headquartered in Oakland, California
dedicated to radical politics, armed self-defense, and racial
self-determination, advanced one of the most devastating,
forceful, and potentially revolutionary critiques of the
American food system to emerge during this decade of
sweeping social change. In 1969, Huey P. Newton, Panther
co-founder and Minister of Defense, mandated that all
Party chapters nationwide institute a Free Breakfast for
Children Program. Only recently released from jail after his
acquittal in a long and highly-publicized trial for murdering
a police officer, Newton and his Party had become
infamous for their militant efforts to “police the police” via
community patrols by young black men in leather jackets
and berets openly bearing loaded guns. This new directive
established the first of the Party‟s much-celebrated
“Survival Programs,” which provided free goods and
services to the urban poor. The most popular and, oddly,
the most controversial of these programs were centered on
food.
Despite their infamously militant tactics, the Panthers,
and Newton in particular, contended that combating police
brutality and racial violence was but one dimension of their
broader vision of black liberationa vision rooted in
demands for “freedom” and the “power to determine the
destiny of our Black Community.”
8
“Interested primarily in
educating and revolutionizing the community,” Newton
later explained, “we needed to get their attention and give
them something to identify with.”
9
The tenth point of the
Party platform encapsulated the tangible gains it sought for
America‟s “black colonial subjects,” declaring, “We want
land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, and
peace.” Struggles for land and housing required long-term
legal and economic strategizing, while major reforms of the
urban education system would require skillful
reorganization and enormous financial investment, all with
no immediate payout. Though certainly apparent in the
physical deterioration of the nation‟s cities, the human toll
of “the urban crisis” was most palpable in the daily
suffering of the hungry poor. Therefore, while African
Americans worked toward long-range goals of “freedom,”
“justice,” and “peace,” the Party began organizing around
the basics of bread.
This tactical progression from guns to butter was not
reformist or counterrevolutionary, as critics like Panther
leader Eldridge Cleaver charged, but instead represented a
flexible and logical response to official efforts to thwart the
Party‟s growth and influence.
10
In this vein, the survival
programs were broadly “designed to underline the
injustices of American capitalism and stimulate the Black
masses into revolting against the American government
and, in doing so, to “lay the groundwork for the
insurrection” necessary to bring about a new racial order.
11
The interracial, cross-cultural, and politically innovative
alliances the Party forged were both possible and
momentarily effective because the Panthers, and
particularly Party co-founder and political philosopher Huey
Newton, interpreted the world at the end of the 1960s in a
way that made sense to a variety of suffering peoples who
were, if not ripe for radicalization, sympathetic to the
demands and tactics of militants in America‟s streets.
Panther food programs, which began with a single
breakfast program in Oakland, exploded to over 36 sites
nationwide by 1971. Their food work also included free
food programs and spectacular “Survival Conferences in
the Spring of 1972, in which free groceries were a featured
attraction. These programs relied entirely on donations
from community members, local churches, and most
importantly from neighborhood businesses and grocery
chains. While the labor needed to make and serve the food
each morning was voluntary, provisioning foodstuffs and
other supplies was often a matter of manipulation, even
coercion. Party members, parents, and sometimes the
children themselves solicited donations from local grocery
stores and businesses. While some willingly contributed,
others, including chains such as Safeway and Mayfair and
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independent operations like black-owned Bill Boyette‟s
liquors, refused to do so. In these cases, the Party counted
not on the goodwill of local businesses so much as their
fear of economic retribution. The politics of the breakfast
program thus underscored the division between the haves
and have-nots. Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr.
note, “The Panthers drew a line dividing the world in
two.”
12
Indeed, it became easier for people to understand
the persistence of hunger, for example, when a store such
as Safeway could be castigated for withholding food from
needy children. Though widespread hunger has diffuse
points of origin, Panther food programs and food politics
devised concrete locations and sites for the poor and
working classes to challenge capitalists who profited from
the community without giving back. The Party newspaper
regularly listed stores that refused to participate or
contribute to their cause. In April 1969, the Panther chided
“the avaricious businessmen that pinch selfishly a little to
the program. We say that this is not enough, especially
from those that thrive off of the Black Community like
leeches.” The Party not only charged “avaricious
businessmen with perpetuating hunger by overcharging
for food commodities but also demanded that those
businesses be part of the solution or face swift economic
reprisals. As a result, the Party fostered an ideology of
hunger predicated on the belief that capitalism was
responsible for the people‟s suffering, but that ironically
also relied on the imperatives of capitalism to get
businesses in line with their program. In this way, the
breakfast programs had the potential to awaken the
revolutionary consciousness of the people to see the
interrelatedness of capitalism, social stratification, and
their own material deprivation and political marginalization.
Despite some objections to these practices, the breakfast
programs were a runaway success.
The practical benefits of free breakfasts were great. As
The Black Panther regularly emphasized, a morning meal
worked to silence the hunger pains of black youth that so
often incapacitated them during school hours. One Party
member asked her comrades, “How can a person be
expected to pay attention and learn about history, math,
science and other subjects that are abstract to his reality
when his mind is concentrating on a very real and concrete
problem? Where is the next meal coming from?”
13
The
connection between undernourished bodies and
underdeveloped minds was plain: Children must be fed
each morning if they were to feed their minds at school
during the day, to establish fundamental skills in math and
reading necessary not only for socio-economic mobility but
for political mobilization as well.
Certainly Panther food programs operated as vital
emergency measures to get food to the hungry and
nutrients to the malnourished. But that was only the
beginning. David Hilliard acknowledged that food “serves a
double purpose, providing sustenance but also functioning
as an organizing tool.”
14
As Newton later wrote, the
survival programs “were designed to help the people
survive until their consciousness is raised, which is only the
first step in the revolution to produce a new America….In
themselves they do not change social conditions, but they
are life-saving vehicles until conditions change.
15
The
practical necessity of the food programs, and the clear and
vital interest they aroused in the Party among residents of
Oakland and other major cities, sparked a series of food-
centered political campaigns aiming not only to improve
the daily lives of the hungry, but to address structural
inequalities that served to keep African Americans and
other economically and politically oppressed groups divided
and weak.
Panther food programs, which
began with a single breakfast
program in Oakland, exploded to
over 36 sites nationwide by 1971.
Four months into the first program, Newsweek quoted
a California police officer who asked, “How can anyone be
against feeding kids?” The skepticism, resistance, and
outright opposition the programs encountered, however,
made clear that many, especially those in positions of
authority, were opposed to feeding some kids, and
adamantly so. The extent of police harassment of the
Party‟s breakfast programs nationwide and the intricate
work of the FBI‟s Counterintelligence Program
(COINTELPRO) to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or
otherwise neutralize the activities” of the Panthers (among
other black organizations) demonstrated that officials at
the local and federal level perceived the food programs to
be a multivalent threat. Panther Elaine Brown, who
spearheaded the establishment of a Panther free breakfast
program in Los Angeles, surmised that “[t]he success of
the Panther free breakfast programs for the poor…as much
as Panther guns triggered [FBI director] J. Edgar Hoover‟s
targeting of the party for the most massive and violent FBI
assault ever committed.”
16
According to Bureau records,
one FBI head instructed agents in San Francisco, “…The
BPP is not engaged in the „Breakfast for Children‟ program
for humanitarian reasons [but for others], including their
efforts to create an image of civility, assume community
control of Negroes, and to fill adolescent children with their
insidious poison.”
17
Subsequent COINTELPRO efforts to
impede operations included harassment of church leaders
who hosted daily meals, questioning and occasional arrest
of youth and Party members who attended or volunteered,
often frivolous citations from the public health department,
and sometimes physical destruction of the food itself. In its
more devious moments, the FBI circulated rumors in San
Francisco that the breakfasts were unsafe because “various
personnel in national headquarters…are infected with
venereal disease” and in Raleigh-Durham that the nephew
of the chief breakfast organizer was a pedophile who
physically abused the children in attendance.
18
According
to Panther Chief of Staff David Hilliard, who oversaw the
expansion of Panther service work, “Police raided the
Breakfast for Children Program, ransacked food storage
facilities, destroyed kitchen equipment, and attempted to
disrupt relations between the Black Panthers and local
business owners and community advocates, whose
contributions made the programs possible.
19
But why? The
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extent to which government operatives worked to
undermine these food programs suggests that they, too,
understood what was at stake in permitting communities to
see the direct connection between strong bodies and
strong minds, between healthy children and healthy
communities, between food and freedom.
Indeed, many heralded the transformative potential of
the survival programs, asserting that for true freedom to
be possible, the material essentials of life must be free of
cost. The Marxist politics of Newton and his followers, of
course, lay at the root of this worldview, which declared
that freedom and capitalism by definition could not coexist.
“Capitalism is what put black people in slavery,” the Black
Panther declared in March 1969. “Capitalism is why black
people can‟t get decent housing and capitalism is why
there are so many hungry children in the black
communities of America today.”
20
But the survival
programs went further, showing not merely what was
wrong with capitalism but also how socialism could work.
Seale made the connection obvious: “Once the people see
a socialistic program is valuable to them they won‟t throw
it away. By practicing socialism they learn it better.”
21
Many heralded the
transformative potential of the
survival programs, asserting that
for true freedom to be possible, the
material essentials of life must be
free of cost.
Viewing the late Sixties as a moment truly ripe for
revolution, Newton and Seale sought to raise the
awareness of the oppressed of all races to see the systemic
forces that worked to perpetuate their daily struggles
against hunger, malnourishment, ill health, poor housing,
illiteracy, and a host of other social barriers. If, as Newton
insisted, the Party‟s survival programs were merely a
prelude to an armed overthrow of the capitalist system, the
food programs played a vital part by addressing the need
for bread—a need that has been at the root of people‟s
liberation struggles throughout history.
In the Classroom
The healthy state of Black Power studies and Black
Panther scholarship in recent years has produced several
important and accessible histories of the Party‟s formation,
ideology, political evolution, and social programs, several
of which are easy to excerpt and accessible to
undergraduates. Historian Donna Jean Murch frames her
study, Living for the City (2010), around the experiences of
southern blacks who migrated to California in search of
better employment and the mobility promised by a strong
public education system. Chapters titled “Survival Pending
Revolution” and “A Chicken in Every Bag” speak directly to
Panther Survival Programs, arguing that they were unique
and influential not because the Panthers were the only
group providing such services to the poor (they weren‟t),
but because Panther programs “politiciz[ed] welfare rights
by showing a coordinated national effort that highlighted
the Party‟s successes and the government‟s failures.”
22
More recently, Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr.
argue in Race Against Empire, a political history of the
Panthers, that this progression from armed community
defense to service programs was not reformist or
counterrevolutionary, as some contemporaries charged,
but instead a flexible and logical response to official efforts
to thwart the Party‟s growth and influence. In the authors‟
estimation, the unifying thread and the centerpiece of
Panther political philosophy was a “nondogmatic, Marx-
inflected anti-imperialis[t]” worldview—an incisive, timely
critique of class and power in the United States.
23
Bloom
and Martin posit that Panther politics was undergirded by a
belief that black Americans and other disenfranchised
groups were, in effect, internal colonies of the United
States. Examining the psychological effects of this
“ghettoization on individual and communal development,
Black Against Empire deftly situates the daily (lowercase
“p”) politics of survival in poor urban black communities
within the context of the international (capital “P”) political
struggles of subjugated nations and peoples against forces
of global imperialism. By this account, Panther politics
acknowledged the international dimensions of systems
defining the rights of people not only in their relation to
state power but in the political dynamics governing nations‟
relationships to each other as well. As this work proves,
the Panthers were not insular and impulsive but instead
largely collaborative and deliberatequalities that inspired
followers and created coalitions. Both works can serve well
to provide historical context and a political lens through
which to interpret Panther food politics.
Viewing the late Sixties as a
moment truly ripe for revolution,
Newton and Seale sought to raise
the awareness of the oppressed of
all races to see the systemic forces
that worked to perpetuate their
daily struggles against hunger,
malnourishment, ill health, poor
housing, illiteracy, and a host of
other social barriers.
I often frame conversation about the Black Panther
Survival Programs with a fifteen-minute clip from The Black
Power Mixtape, 1967-1975 (dir. Goran Olsson, 2011).
24
This documentary provides a concise, compelling
introduction to the black freedom struggle, theories of
Black Power and political radicalism, and leaders and
programs of the Black Panthers, highlighting the interplay
between poverty, physical vulnerability, and political
disfranchisement. The film is pieced together from recently
discovered archival footage shot by a Swedish film crew
during the late 1960s and early 1970s, voice-over
commentary from historical personalities including
Kathleen Cleaver and Angela Davis, and reflections and
childhood memories from hip hop artists like Talib Kweli
and Erykah Badu. Rather than show the entire film (which
is certainly worth the class time), I begin about twenty-five
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minutes into the film with a sequence capturing a single
black mother in New York City as she struggles to get her
ten children roused and ready for school. The narrator
points out that there is not enough food for all of the
children to eat breakfast (which on this day is only dry
cereal), while the camera frames the inadequacies of the
living space. The sequence then frames a Panther
liberation school, where children sing about the coming
revolution; a female Panther leader affirming to foreign
reporters the Panthers willingness to die or go to jail for
the cause; and scenes from an early morning breakfast
program. Grappling with these images urges students to
see that hunger and malnourishment are symptoms of a
sick social system, beset by the harmful contradictions of
capitalism.
Other primary sources about the Panther food
programs abound, including Party literature, news stories,
interviews, oral histories, and autobiographies. Moreover,
The Black Panther newspaper is itself a veritable archive of
Panther rhetoric and imagery, including articles by central
party leadership, reports from local chapters, ads
requesting aid and donations, letters from friendly and
hostile readers, photos of Panther events, and the
masterful artwork of Minister of Culture Emory Douglas.
Douglas‟s images are particularly fruitful in the classroom.
Depicting the black urban poor in humanizing, sympathetic,
even heroic terms, Douglas‟s cover art directly connects
daily struggles for food, clothing, work, shelter, and peace
of mind to the Party‟s broader revolutionary Marxist vision,
often while demonizing specific politicians and figures in
the local community. For example, during a BPP-
orchestrated boycott of Boyette‟s Liquor Store, Douglas
portrayed Bill Boyette as an “honorary Klansman” for his
refusal to “treat the people to a piece of bread” by pledging
a regular donation to the breakfast program.
Students often sympathize with
the Panther’s strategy of mobilizing
the poor through social service
work. However, they frequently
object to the tactics used to achieve
these ends.
Sources offering reactionary perspectives are tellingly
plentiful as well. Internal documents from the FBI‟s
Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) provide a
particularly stark contrast. Numerous internal memos to
and from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover reveal that federal
officials perceived the food and other survival programs as
a devious, highly effective tactic to divert media scrutiny
and win over those living in the nation‟s urban ghettoes.
Even more shocking to students, the documents often
detail specific instructions or reports about how to infiltrate
the Party and sabotage its operations, tactics that
historians largely agree succeeded in fracturing party
leadership and fueling internecine feuds and intra-racial
street violence. Many students express disbelief that the
United States government would go to such extremes to
impede what many see as an objective social good
feeding the hungry. The language of these documents
makes plain that those in positions of authority recognized
the appeal of free food programs and realized that in order
to maintain the status quo, such programs must be
quashed. One way this was accomplished was by
establishing comparable government-run programs,
namely free breakfast programs inside public schools. This
realization itself is instructive, urging students to question
the motives of government officials and to entertain the
possibility that problems like hunger and widespread
poverty are not inevitable, but the result of systematic
biases that agents of power often have a vested interest in
protecting.
Sociologist Janet Poppendieck‟s work on hunger and
emergency food services provides crucial historical
grounding and theoretical framing for this discussion, while
placing these short-lived programs in conversation with
food politics at the turn of the 21
st
century.
25
The Panthers‟
close practical alliance with community churches, which
often housed the free breakfasts, fosters easy comparisons
between the Survival Programs and the charity work often
conducted by religious organizations. But in contrast to
many church-run soup kitchens or food pantries that
provide an outlet for congregants to act charitably toward
their less fortunate brethren, the Panthers were not driven
by charitable aspirations, which Poppendieck points out
often actually serve to depoliticize hunger. Poppendieck
writes that charitable “[f]ood programs not only make the
well fed feel better, they reassure us that no one will
starve, even if the nation ends welfare and cuts gaping
holes in the food stamp safety net.”
26
Even worse than the
moral complacency fostered by “sweet charity,”
Poppendieck argues that emergency food assistance
programs and infrastructure renderour society vulnerable
to token solutions that simply link together complementary
symptoms without disturbing the underlying structural
problems.”
27
In striking contrast, the Panthers‟ food
programs and anti-hunger politics worked to address the
persistence of food insecurity by dramatizing its political
roots and implications. Though the Panthers targeted the
graphic problem of hunger, it was only the beginning of
their multi-faceted program for community survival. Paired
with a host of other programs to address needs for food,
clothing, shelter, shoes, and meaningful education, Panther
food programs reflected Poppendieck‟s assertion “that the
food portion of this complex web of human needs can [not]
be met independently of the rest.”
28
The Panthers
recognized that hunger could not be addressed in a
vacuum and that racial inequality could not be addressed
without tackling socioeconomic equality.
The historical moment offers several pedagogical
opportunities to engage with issues of poverty, racial
inequality, and social movements more broadly. First, why
did the Panthers become involved with these Survival
Programs? Where and how did they see a need and what
payout did they seek from dedicating enormous resources
to this work? Some students, mirroring the language of
contemporary Panther critics and early Panther
scholarship, express skepticism that the food programs
were actually driven by humanitarianism, raising another
important question. Was emergency food aid a tactical
RADICAL TEACHER 49
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move, or did Party members really view this as the ground
floor of the revolution they sought?
Indeed, students often sympathize with the Panther‟s
strategy of mobilizing the poor through social service work.
However, they frequently object to the tactics used to
achieve these ends. Film clips from breakfast programs
portray children repeating after a male Panther, “All power
to the people…Free all political prisoners. Right on!” These
scenes intrigue and sometimes disturb students, who
quickly formulate revealing inquiries. Were the Panthers
really any different from the federal officials and local
programs they criticized? Are all social programs inherently
disempowering? Is service work without agenda really
possible? And if, as I generally contend at the beginning of
the lesson, food is freedom and food is control, did the
Panthers not also manipulate the hungry, using their
growling stomachs to pull them into their program? Does it
matter, I ask? Can‟t the end justify the means, especially
when the means entail that fewer children went to school
on an empty stomach? Is this really coercion, as some
propose? Or is this simply how “poor people‟s
movements”—and many other social movements, for that
matteroperate?
Frances Fox Piven and Richard A.
Cloward’s classic work, Poor
People’s Movements: Why They
Succeed, How They Fail (1977),
helps address some of these
questions.
29
Reflecting on specific
class-based movements during the
20
th
century, the authors theorize
the interplay between state power,
historical circumstances, leadership
personalities, organizational
structures, and the demands and
outcomes of social movements on
behalf of the poor.
Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward‟s classic
work, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How
They Fail (1977), helps address some of these questions.
30
Reflecting on specific class-based movements during the
20
th
century, the authors theorize the interplay between
state power, historical circumstances, leadership
personalities, organizational structures, and the demands
and outcomes of social movements on behalf of the poor.
Piven and Cloward affirm the need to approach historical
moments with objectivity and respect for the reasoning of
movement leaders. They contend that “so long as lower-
class groups abided by the norms governing the electoral-
representative system, they would have little influence….
[P] rotest tactics which defied political norms were not
simply the recourse of troublemakers and fools. For the
poor, they were the only recourse.”
31
From this vantage,
the criticism and backlash elicited by the Panther food
programs seems inevitable. For as Piven and Cloward ask,
“how could it have been otherwise? Important interests
were at stake, and had those interests not been a profound
source of contention, there would have been no need for
[class] insurgency.”
32
Indeed, one of the greatest strengths
of Poor People’s Movements is the thoughtful, rational, yet
firm manner in which it calls upon many students to
question the class biases and assumptions they bring into
the classroomassumptions that influence and inhibit their
ability to take a social movement on the terms of the
people who made it. “[T]he relevant question to ask,” insist
Piven and Cloward, “is whether, on balance, the movement
made gains or lost ground; whether it advanced the
interests of working people or set back those interests.”
33
When framed by these questions, and discussed in the
context of the southern civil rights movement‟s tactics of
nonviolence, the tone of the conversation often shifts. The
work of social change is messy and difficult. Sometimes the
fact that a struggle is waged, that resistance coalesces,
must itself be the only triumph of a struggle, for “[w]hat
was won must be judged by what was possible.” The
community efforts of the Panthers would have been
noteworthy had they stopped at emergency food relief, and
their service work would have been subversive if their chief
aim had been simply to provide needed goods and services
to the urban poor. But in effect, doing for the hungry poor
of the nation‟s urban ghettoes what the federal
government claimed to be doing, and moreover
encouraging the members of the community to do for
themselves, constituted political work, meaningful
organizing, and class mobilization for grander, if ultimately
unachieved, ends. The revolution the Panthers sought was
not to be, but the means by which they prepared for that
revolution made clear the relevance of politics to the
everyday lives of the hungry poor. This itself must be seen
as a victory, for in doing so they framed hunger as an issue
of power and inequitable resource distribution rather than
a fleeting personal condition that beset the lazy or the
unfortunate. Launched in the early years of the Nixon
administration in the shadow of Johnson‟s grand,
unrealized Great Society, Panther hunger programs called
attention to the bipartisan failure to establish or maintain a
defensible, humane hunger safety net. Neither Democrats
nor Republicans were solely responsible but neither had the
wherewithal to actually, finally tackle the problem. This
lesson opens the door to potentially revealing and
undoubtedly difficult discussions about how to tackle the
persistence of food insecurity in the second decade of the
21
st
century.
RADICAL TEACHER 50
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Notes
1
Alondra Nelson previewed her research at the 2011 American Studies
Association Conference in Baltimore, MD. Alondra Nelson, Body and
Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical
Discrimination (University of Minnesota Press, 2011).
2
Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, Poor People‟s Movements:
Why They Succeed, How They Fail (New York: Vintage Books, 1977).
3
Kyla Wazana Tompkins, Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th
Century (New York University, 2012), 2.
4
“To Feed Our Children,” The Black Panther (26 March 1969).
5
Qtd. in “Overview: Food for Peace,” U.S. Food Aid and Security
Website < http://foodaid.org/food-aid-programs/food-for-peace/>
(accessed 13 Feb 2012).
6
Janet Poppendieck, Breadlines Knee Deep in Wheat: Food Assistance in
the Great Depression (Rutgers University Press, 1985).
7
Alison Hope Alkon and Julian Agyeman (eds.), Cultivating Food Justice:
Race, Class, and Sustainability (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of
Technology Press, 2011), 13.
8
Black Panther Party, “What We Want, What We Believe” (1966),
available at http://www.blackpanther.org/TenPoint.htm (accessed 18
Oct 2013).
9
David Hilliard and Donald Weise (eds.), The Huey P. Newton Reader
(New York and London: Seven Stories Press, 2002), 58.
10
The most successful of these official efforts was the 1967 passage of
the Mulford Act, which prohibited the carrying of loaded firearms in
public, which had been the principle Panther tactic during the early
months of the Party. See Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr., Black
Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party
(University of California Press, 2013), 57-61.
11
Ryan Kirkby, “„The Revolution Will Not Be Televised‟: Community
Activism and the Black Panther Party, 1966-1971,” Canadian Review of
American Studies Vol. 41.1 (2011), 25, 26, 30.
12
Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr., Black Against Empire: The
History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (University of California
Press, 2013), 393.
13
“Reform or Revolution?” The Black Panther (3 Mar 1969).
14
Qtd. in Alondra Nelson, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and
the Fight Against Medical Discrimination (Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 2011), 58.
15
Huey P. Newton, qtd. in Mumia Abu-Jamal, We Want Freedom: A Life
in the Black Panther Party (Cambridge, Massachusetts: South End
Press, 2004), 70.
16
Elaine Brown, A Taste of Power: A Black Woman‟s Story (New York:
Anchor Books, 1994), 10.
17
Qtd. in Kenneth O‟Reilly, “Racial Matters”: The FBI‟s Secret File on
Black America, 1960-1972 (New York: The Free Press, 1989), 302.
18
Ibid., 302-303.
19
David Hilliard, “Introduction,” in David Hilliard and Donald Weise
(eds.), The Huey P. Newton Reader (New York and London: Seven
Stories Press, 2002), 15.
20
“Capitalism Attacks Breakfast for Children,” The Black Panther (20
Mar 1969), 15.
21
Interview with Bobby Seale [Section title and pg unknown], The Black
Panther (3 March 1969), 43.
22
Donna Jean Murch, Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the
Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California (Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 175. Panther leader
Kathleen Cleaver remarked in 2010, “[With t]he kind of problems that
the black community sufferunequal levels of imprisonment, unequal
levels of access to resources, poor health …the Black Panther Party
tried to model for the community some of the possible solutions that
were not capitalistic-oriented, like free clinics…or „send your children to
us and we will feed them for free.‟ And the idea of free breakfasts is
one of the legacies that‟s been adopted with schools now having free
breakfasts. But they didn‟t before. The Black Panther Party was not the
only organization that did it, but it was the only organization based in
ghetto communities that did it.” Black Power Mixtape, 1967-1975, dir.
Goran Olsson (PBS, 2011); emphasis added.
23
Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr., Black Against Empire: The
History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (University of California
Press, 2013), 312
24
Black Power Mixtape, 1967-1975, dir. Goran Olsson (PBS, 2011).
25
See Janet Poppendieck, Sweet Charity?: Emergency Food and the End
of Entitlement (New York: Penguin Books, 1998). For a shorter, more
condensed version of Poppendieck‟s argument, see Janet Poppendieck,
“Want Amid Plenty: From Hunger to Inequality,” in Carole Counihan
and Penny Van Esterik (eds.), Food and Culture: A Reader, 3rd ed.
(New York and London: Routledge, 2013), 563-571.
26
Janet Poppendieck, “Want Amid Plenty: From Hunger to Inequality,”
in Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik (eds.), Food and Culture: A
Reader, 3rd ed. (New York and London: Routledge, 2013), 568.
27
Ibid., 567.
28
Ibid., 569.
29
Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, Poor People‟s Movements:
Why They Succeed, How They Fail (Vintage Books: New York, 1977,
rprt 1979).
30
Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, Poor People‟s Movements:
Why They Succeed, How They Fail (Vintage Books: New York, 1977,
rprt 1979).
31
Ibid., 3.
32
Ibid., xiii.
33
Ibid., xiii.
RADICAL TEACHER 51
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... Another example of African American leaders who employed distributive social justice was the activities of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. Cofounded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, Potorti (2014) noted that the Black Panther Party began in Oakland, California in 1966 as an organization that featured armed self-defense against police brutality, socialistic community programs, nontraditional politics, and self-determination for African Americans. In 1969, Newton and Seale instituted a Free Breakfast for Children Program in which Panther members fed hungry, undernourished children a wholesome meal before they went to school. ...
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Emerging as an intersectional response to social inequalities perpetuated by the mainstream food movement in the United States, the food justice movement is being used by marginalized communities to address their food needs. This movement relies on an emancipatory discourse, illustrated by what I term intersectional agriculture. In many respects, the mainstream food movement reflects contention between marketization (corporate agriculture) and social protectionist (local food) discourses, while the role of food justice remains somewhat unclear as it relates to the mainstream movement. Each movement attempts to restructure the ways in which food is distributed, consumed, and produced, impacting the social, cultural, political, economic, and environmental dimensions of food. Using the lens of Nancy Fraser’s triple movement framework, I construct an interpretation of food justice as the emancipatory pole of what I term the triple food movement to explore the role of food justice as it relates to the mainstream movement. Specifically, I draw upon the cases of black farmers and queer people in the U.S. creating and (re)creating spaces to address their community food needs and counter systems of domination constructed around race, class, gender, sexuality, agriculture, and food.
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United States agricultural policies have systematically disadvantaged farmers of color throughout U.S. history and today. The Alternative Food Movement (AFM) is redesigning food systems to improve human and environmental health damaged by conventional industrial agriculture, but is simultaneously reproducing racial disparities. The Food Justice Movement (FJM) is fighting to hold the AFM accountable for building food systems that prioritize racial and social justice. However, contemporary conversations of food justice/sovereignty and race, as areas of study, are often missing the important discussions of the long and rich history of farmers of color who have used agriculture as a means of resistance to systemic racial oppression. This chapter uses White’s (Freedom farmers: Agricultural resistance and the Black Freedom Movement. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC, 2018) theoretical framework of Collective Agency and Community Resilience (CACR) to illuminate the resistance strategies of farmers of color in three key areas of racism in agriculture: (1) policies targeting U.S.-born Black farmers, (2) policies targeting immigrant Latinx farmers, and (3) AFM spaces and organizations. We argue that an understanding of race and agriculture, using the theoretical framework of CACR and its strategies of prefigurative politics, commons as praxis, and economic autonomy, provides a way to shift the discussion from one often seen through a lens of oppression to one that has the potential to move toward self-sufficiency, self-determination, and liberation.
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In Oakland, California, in 1966, community college students Bobby Seale and Huey Newton armed themselves, began patrolling the police, and promised to prevent police brutality. Unlike the Civil Rights Movement that called for full citizenship rights for blacks within the U.S., the Black Panther Party rejected the legitimacy of the U.S. government and positioned itself as part of a global struggle against American imperialism. In the face of intense repression, the Party flourished, becoming the center of a revolutionary movement with offices in 68 U.S. cities and powerful allies around the world. Black against Empire is the first comprehensive overview and analysis of the history and politics of the Black Panther Party. The authors analyze key political questions, such as why so many young black people across the country risked their lives for the revolution, why the Party grew most rapidly during the height of repression, and why allies abandoned the Party at its peak of influence. Bold, engrossing, and richly detailed, this book cuts through the mythology and obfuscation, revealing the political dynamics that drove the explosive growth of this revolutionary movement, and its disastrous unraveling. Informed by twelve years of meticulous archival research, as well as familiarity with most of the former Party leadership and many rank-and-file members, this book is the definitive history of one of the greatest challenges ever posed to American state power.
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The act of eating is both erotic and violent, as one wholly consumes the object being eaten. At the same time, eating performs a kind of vulnerability to the world, revealing a fundamental interdependence between the eater and that which exists outside her body. Racial Indigestion explores the links between food, visual and literary culture in the nineteenth-century United States to reveal how eating produces political subjects by justifying the social discourses that create bodily meaning. Combing through a visually stunning and rare archive of children's literature, architectural history, domestic manuals, dietetic tracts, novels and advertising, Racial Indigestion tells the story of the consolidation of nationalist mythologies of whiteness via the erotic politics of consumption. Less a history of commodities than a history of eating itself, the book seeks to understand how eating became a political act, linked to appetite, vice, virtue, race and class inequality and, finally, the queer pleasures and pitfalls of a burgeoning commodity culture. In so doing, Racial Indigestion sheds light on contemporary "foodie" culture's vexed relationship to nativism, nationalism and race privilege.
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Foreword by Marion Nestle Acknowledgments xiii Introduction: The Paradox of Want amid Plenty List of Abbreviations 1. The Plight of the Farmer 2. Depression: Deprivation and Despair 3. The Politics of Wheat and Drought 4. Government Grain for the Needy 5. The End of the Hoover Era 6. The Promise of the New Deal 7. The Little Pigs: The Genesis of Relief Distribution 8. The Federal Surplus Relief Corporation 9. The Corporation in Conflict: Competition with Private Enterprise 10. Transfer to the Department of Agriculture 11. Accommodation to Agricultural Priorities 12. Food Assistance: The Legacy of New Deal Policy Choices Acknowledgments to the 2014 Edition Sources Notes Index
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This article examines the Black Panther Party's community activism from 1966 to 1971, with two aims in mind. First, it provides an overview of the numerous "survival programs" organized by the party in human sustenance, health care, education, and criminal justice, detailing their revolutionary intentions. Second, and more importantly, it challenges scholars to start considering ways in which community activism and revolutionary violence operated in tandem as part of the same strategy for Black liberation. In this way, it emphasizes the necessity to move beyond stagnant characterizations of the party as either humanitarian do-gooders or violent street toughs to construct a more complex interpretation of the BPP's legacy.
Overview: Food for Peace
  • Qtd
Qtd. in "Overview: Food for Peace," U.S. Food Aid and Security Website < http://foodaid.org/food-aid-programs/food-for-peace/> (accessed 13 Feb 2012).
most successful of these official efforts was the 1967 passage of the Mulford Act, which prohibited the carrying of loaded firearms in public, which had been the principle Panther tactic during the early months of the Party Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party
  • See Joshua Bloom
  • Waldo E Martin
most successful of these official efforts was the 1967 passage of the Mulford Act, which prohibited the carrying of loaded firearms in public, which had been the principle Panther tactic during the early months of the Party. See Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr., Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (University of California Press, 2013), 57-61.
Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination
  • Qtd
  • In Alondra
  • Nelson
14 Qtd. in Alondra Nelson, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 58.