The power of the panther

By Chris Barton

American artist Emory Douglas who created striking graphic images that came to represent the Black Panther Party in the USA during the 1960s and 1970s. Photo / Dean Purcell
American artist Emory Douglas who created striking graphic images that came to represent the Black Panther Party in the USA during the 1960s and 1970s. Photo / Dean Purcell

One of the first things Emory Douglas had to do in his new job in January 1967 was to draw the pig. "Huey and Bobby would come over after organising in the evenings and they would talk about the pig - how they defined the police as pigs."

That's Huey Newton and Bobby Seale who had just founded the Black Panther Party in October 1966 in Oakland, California. Douglas, then a 23-year-old commercial art student, was doing his best to take the idea on board. "This is all new to me. I'm a new kid on the block. This is on-the-job learning. I'm listening and trying to figure out how I could express in art form what was requested of me. My whole experience was interpreting what was being projected and articulated verbally."

When he talks it's a mix of street and artspeak. Cool. Very down.
What was being projected was point No 7 of the Black Panther's Ten Point Programme - "an immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people." It was a programme born out of socialist and communist doctrines mixed with black nationalism, militant posture and plenty of provocative rhetoric.

The party's uniform was blue shirts, black pants, black leather jackets, black berets, shades and loaded shotguns - for self defence. The party had reclaimed the American constitutional right to bear arms - only in this case, blacks were protecting themselves from the police.

Organised neighbourhood patrols were common - perfectly legal under Californian law which allowed carrying a loaded rifle or shotgun in public, as long as it was publicly displayed and pointed at no one.

This was the new wild west of social change and a tactic that promoted two very different tellings of history. One is the story of the Black Panthers as hoodlums and gun-toting gangsters who terrorised their communities. The other is the Black Panthers as a legitimate social protest movement - dedicated young blacks serving the people while heroically defending themselves against unprovoked attacks by the racist police.

At the time FBI director J. Edgar Hoover called them "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country" and ordered via its counter intelligence programme 'COINTELPRO' extensive covert and illegal methods to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralise" the party's activities.

It's a legacy that lives on. "Even at our 40th anniversary people were trying to say we were terrorists and that we were hoodlums and thugs and criminals," says Douglas who is here as the Elam International Artist in Residence at the University of Auckland. "Thousands of people came from all over the world to the 40th celebrations - they showed different. They tried to say we were racists. The progressive whites and activists came forward and they refuted all of that."

The year 1967, when he offered his commercial art skills to help produce the fledgling Black Panther newspaper, was the beginning of Douglas' party politicisation. Already a member of San Francisco City College's Black Student Union and involved in the Bay area Black Arts movement, he was a fast learner. He knew about youth correctional facilities too. "The fact that you understood the bigotry and hypocrisy of the authorities first hand, those experiences kind of shaped what I did."

His pig-in-uniform drawings were crude and provocative - the pig was always fat bellied, with exaggerated snout and usually with insects swarming around the head. "That came from seeing pigs and the slime they're eating and they have the flies flying around them. In American culture that was a grotesque thing."

The captions were provocative too: "A low-natured beast that has no regard for law, justice or the rights of people, a creature that bites the hand that feeds it, a foul, depraved traducer, usually found masquerading as the victim of an unprovoked attack."

Newton and Seale liked what they saw and before long Douglas had a job title like no other - Revolutionary Artist and Minister of Culture - and a free hand to draw as he saw fit. "When I first started working, Bobby and Huey made sure I understood the politics of what the party was about. Once they saw that I understood that, and could articulate it in my artwork, I was given the green light."

The green light - the back page of the weekly Black Panther newspaper published from 1967 through to 1980 - unleashed Douglas' pent-up talent and a style of drawing that he'd tried before, but which had been rejected at commercial art school. At its peak, from 1968-72, the Black Panther sold about 100,000 copies a week on street corners and college campuses across the United States.

Douglas' back-page poster image was often reprinted and pasted on the walls of the street. In tribute to his visit here, a run of his posters have been plastered around Symonds St. "It reminds me of what we used to say - our gallery is the community," says Douglas.

His style began with cartoon-like, thick black outline drawings which developed to include collage and patterns from Format, a less expensive version of Letraset. He liked woodcuts, but found them too time-consuming for the demands of a weekly deadline. "I tried to mimic woodcuts by using markers and hard ballpoint pen lines, then using the prefabricated textured material that you could cut out to get the tones and the contrasts."

There are three phases that come and go and resurface in Douglas' drawings. "The pig drawings are the earlier work. Then there were the self defence drawings, then the ones that dealt with social programmes."

The comic book style self defence images are the most confronting - guns in the hands of defiant black men and women in response to the oppressor that seem like a call to arms, to rise up and fight. The captions reinforce the idea: "All power to the people. Death to the pigs." Douglas says they were about empowering and fighting for freedom. And effecting change. "It was making them heroes. People begin to see themselves in the images and they become the heroes on the stage. They can identify with that."

But while the style is evidence of propaganda and a visual mythology to give power to the people, it's easy to see how some might be fearful of such images. Douglas is staunch: "Those who were frightened were frightened. Those who admired them weren't."

The social programme drawings, borne out of the Panther's Ten Point Programme demands for decent housing, education and employment, are softer, but more confronting in terms of the predicament and emotion expressed. Here, Douglas shows the conditions that made the revolution seem necessary. In one, a woman fights off rats (landlords) attacking her in her home. "I was trying to show a person trying to overcome the conditions - exaggerating the housing situation - but at the same time showing a person who had politics in their life. Even though they were struggling they were still concerned with the issues of that time."

Animals - pigs, rats and vultures - feature often as representations of not just the police and authority, but also the entire capitalist military/industrial system. In one image relating to the New Haven Black Panther trials in 1970 when Seale was imprisoned, the caption reads: "If the fascist pigs attempt to murder chairman Bobby Seale and the Connecticut Panthers in the electric chair, there won't be any lights for days."

They were meant to be provocative, says Douglas. "And some were meant to be humorous. So this was just saying the blood sucking vulture is the US Government being choked by the extension cord and hit on the head with the light bulb."

Point six in the party's programme was "all black men to be exempt from military service." Douglas' images relating to the issue were often about the Vietnam War and the effects it had on those returning, such as drug addiction. It was important, he says, to have authentic detail. "There were people in the party who had been ex-drug addicts. When I did this drawing [an addict shooting up] I had one brother pose for me. But I also asked what kind of syringes and stuff they used and that's there - what they use out on the street."

Douglas was very aware of other revolutionary propaganda art of the time. "We were getting posters from Africa, Latin America, out of Palestine and Vietnam and seeing Chinese and Russian, plus the American art protest work. I was mostly inspired by the work that came out of Cuba."

He says those who went there with the Venceremos Brigades to show solidarity for the Cuban Revolution often came back saying his drawings had come from there. Douglas insists it was the other way round. "It was amazing, they remixed some of my images." It's amazing too how the party's message spread around the world, including to New Zealand's Polynesian Panthers.

The party also got considerable support from white America including the Honkies for Huey campaign and composer Leonard Bernstein and friends who held fundraising parties. The latter was lampooned by journalist Tom Wolfe in 1970 as "radical chic" - the social elite endorsing radical causes to assuage white guilt.

As Douglas sees it, Wolfe was buying into the disinformation campaign.
"People donate if they want to."

Did it feel like a revolution in America? "We were hopeful. We had a swagger about ourselves believing that we could achieve what we set out to achieve. That was overcoming the obstacles of transforming society. And we were doing that. It was the ideal that we were changing the mindset of people."

Douglas, like other Black Panthers, has obtained the file the FBI had on him showing the level of surveillance that was going on - the tracking of his travel, his bank account (which had $64 in it at the time) and the questioning of his mother and aunt.

He's yet to get his file from Operation CHAOS, the code name for the domestic espionage project conducted by the CIA. But the picture emerging as the information becomes declassified shows the extraordinary measures that were taken by the authorities to discredit the party - including letters on forged Black Panther letterhead threatening to kill donors to the party if they didn't give more.
Douglas agreed there were problems within the party itself that led to its dissolution in the early 1980s - Newton getting caught up in drugs and substance abuse and in-fighting among party factions. But he says the Government's discrediting campaign also played a big part.

"The fact is what we did is still something people are inspired by. There is the solidarity and coalition politics. That's the legacy of what the Black Panther Party left - kind of like a blueprint that people could be inspired by."

EXHIBITION

What: Emory Douglas, Minister of Culture, Black Panther Party exhibition
Where and when: Gus Fisher Gallery, 74 Shortland St, October 3 On the web: www.gusfishergallery.auckland.ac.nz
Public events: Emory Douglas and the Art of Revolution - lecture University of Auckland Engineering Building Monday August 24, 6:30pm; MC5 and the White Panthers - Gus Fisher Gallery, August 29, 1pm

- NZ Herald

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