Alondra Nelson, a
professor of sociology and gender studies at Columbia University, is the author
of a new book released last month, entitled Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination. By documenting the multifaceted health activism
of the Black Panther Party (BPP) and critically assessing the BPP's strategy
and tactics in a respectful and appreciative manner, Body and Soul presents an analysis that is rare and badly needed in
US colleges and universities today. In this interview, Nelson discusses how the
Panthers' legacy can both inspire and provide important strategic lessons for
today's new generation of political activists
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In her book, Nelson writes
that "the Party's focus on health care was both practical and ideological." On
a practical level, the BPP provided free community health care services,
including preventative education. Simultaneously, the BPP railed against the
medical-industrial complex, declaring that health care was "a right and not a
privilege." Ronald "Doc" Satchel, the minister of health for the Chicago BPP,
wrote in the BPP newspaper that "the medical profession within this capitalist
society"is composed generally of people working for their own benefit and
advancement rather than the humane aspects of medical care." A newsletter
published by the Southern California chapter argued that "poor people in
general and black people in particular are not given the best care available.
Our people are treated like animals, experimented on and made to wait long hours
in waiting rooms."
By 1970, People's
Free Medical Clinics had become a requirement for every BPP chapter. In 1972,
the BPP revised point six of the founding ten-point-platform, adding a demand
for "completely free healthcare for all black and oppressed people"We believe
that the government must provide, free of charge, for the people, health
facilities which will not only treat our illnesses, most of which have come
about as a result of our oppression, but which will also develop preventative
medical programs to guarantee our future survival. We believe that mass health
education and research programs must be developed to give Black and oppressed
people access to advanced scientific and medical information, so we may provide
ourselves with proper medical attention and care."
While citing Martin
Luther King's 1966 declaration that "of all forms of inequality, injustice in healthcare
is the most shocking and inhumane," one chapter provides an important
historical context for the BPP's health activism by detailing what Nelson calls
"the long medical civil rights movement," that began long before the BPP.
"Mobilized in response to the distinctly hazardous risks posed by segregated
medical facilities, professions, societies, and schools; deficient or nonexistent
healthcare services; medical maltreatment; and scientific racism, activism
challenges to medical discrimination have been an important focal point for
African American protest efforts and organizations. The Panthers were heirs to
health activism that directly reflected tactics drawn from this tradition,"
Angola 3 News: In our recent interview with Billy X Jennings from It's About Time BPP, one theme explored was how, with rare
exception, the mainstream media has misrepresented the BPP. However, it seems
that the even the radical and anti-capitalist media has generally underreported
the health activism that is the focus if your book. How did the BPP's health
activism relate to their better-known stances against white supremacy,
capitalism, and police violence?
Nelson: Yes, it's true. The Black Panthers' health activism has been
under-reported across the ideological spectrum. Their critics obviously did not
want to cast them in a positive light. And, as your question suggests, even the
Party's supporters said little about this important aspect of the BPP's work. I
think its plausible to say that many on the Right and some of us on the
Left--in very different ways and for completely opposite reasons--were
captivated by a vision of the Party that did not include its health politics.
Depictions of African Americans working in their
neighborhoods, wearing white medical coats, was unspectacular compared to
images of Black radicals wearing leather jackets and carrying guns.
It is ironic that our collective memory of the Panthers remains so
incomplete because their health activism--from their political writing about
medical issues in The Black Panther
newspaper, to their practice of DIY
healthcare--exemplified the anti-racist, anti-capitalist stance for which they
are known. In fact, the reality of health inequality brought the BPP's
political perspective into sharper relief because it offered stark and specific
examples of how economic and racial oppression literally damaged bodies,
families and communities.
As you know, the BPP was originally the Black Panther Party for
Self-Defense, a name that reflected that protecting communities from police
brutality was a primary motivation for the group's founding. The BPP exposed
the misuse of power whether it was at the hands of police officers or
physicians. So, it's also useful to think of the Panthers as being engaged in medical
In Los Angeles, Party members Ericka Huggins and Elaine Brown, nursing
professor Marie Branch, Dr. Terry Kupers, and others established that chapter's
People's Free Medical Clinic. But, like all of the BPP's health activism, this
work extended beyond the clinic, including in this case, confronting police
brutality. (Branch shared meeting notes with me from the 1970s from her
personal archive where the formation of BPP health programs and prisoners' protection
from medical discrimination were seamlessly discussed). The LA Panthers
advocated for and provided health care for incarcerated persons; some of these
men and women needed medical attention because they had been abused while in
A3N: How does the story of the BPP's health activism, as presented in your
book, contribute to and challenge the traditional presentations of the BPP by
both the mainstream and alternative media?
AN: Body and Soul offers an account of the BPP that moves away from the narrow confines of
the so-called "culture wars," in which the Party can only ever be a positive
force or a negative element. Paying attention to the Party's health activism
calls into question the inaccurate stereotype of the activists as aimless thugs.
We also gain a different perspective on things we thought we already knew
about the BPP, like the fact that the Panthers were avid followers of Fanon,
Che and Mao, whose writings were required reading for all members. Through the prism of health, one can see very clearly
the influence of Fanon's dissection of colonial medicine in Algeria on the
Panthers' understanding of medical discrimination in the U.S. We can take
seriously the fact that Fanon and Che were physicians as well as political
thinkers. We can appreciate that Mao, who established the "barefoot doctors"
lay health worker program, made available to the Party not only broad
revolutionary principles, but also specific ideas about health care as
A3N: What do you think were the most successful tactics employed by the BPP
as part of its health activism? Strategically speaking, what lessons from the
BPP's health activism do you think are most applicable for today's activists to
addition to setting up their own clinics, they used legal approaches not
dissimilar from the NAACP to voice their opposition to problematic biomedical
research. The Party leadership realized early on that "policing the police"
would not be the only method they used in their effort to topple racism and
capitalism. The Panthers were pretty flexible tacticians.
One of the lessons that the BPP offers today's activists is that they
should be more loyal to the desired outcome than to the tactic. The sit-in came
to be associated with the southern civil rights movement just as the mic check
is now emblematic of the Occupy movement. But these groups also used other
tactics: marching, occupying, sermons, etc. Social movements are dynamic
phenomena; circumstances are constantly changing. So too should tactics.
One of the BPP's more fascinating tactics was what I call, after
sociologist Lily Hoffman, the "politics of knowledge." Working in this vein,
the Panthers engaged and reinterpreted scientific ideas about race and disease.
They reinterpreted scientific theories about the causes of sickle cell anemia,
for example, by placing the prevalence of the disease in the context of the
history of the transatlantic slave trade, the medical-industrial complex and
The Panthers use of this tactic--the politics of knowledge--should remind
today's activists that "framing" matters. It is important to be able to
translate political arguments--health-related ones and other ones--into language,
into stories really, that resonate with the broader public. The Party could be
expert at this.
The Nixon administration and mainstream philanthropies would ultimately
coopt the issue of sickle cell anemia. But the BPP played a key role in raising
awareness about the disease and in situating it in a powerful political
language that could mobilize communities.
A3N: Along with chapters focusing on the BPP's free medical clinics and the
campaign to educate the Black community about and test for Sickle Cell Anemia,
another chapter focuses on the BPP's involvement with a diverse coalition that
successfully organized against the formation of the Center for the Study and
Reduction of Violence at UCLA in 1973. You write that BPP felt that the
Center's "biologization of violence" line of research would ultimately "craft a
narrative of Black and Latino violent pathology" that would serve to "make
already marginalized populations more vulnerable to medicine as a tool of
social control," and "effect the further criminalization of social groups--black
males, the incarcerated--and in turn justify calls for increased surveillance
and social control."
While writing that the defeat of the Center was a "notable triumph," you
note further that it "was somewhat of a Pyrrhic victory for Newton and his
allies, as blocking resources to the center as an entity would not prevent
individual researchers from pursuing other sources of support for their
investigations." With this in mind, how has biologization of violence research
progressed since the 1970s? How much influence has it had on public policy?
to attribute the causes of violence to biology (and closely related to this,
criminality) are a very old story. In the late 19th century, the influential
Italian criminologist Lombroso, claimed that new methods (e.g., phrenology) and
theories (e.g., social Darwinism) showed that the tendency toward criminal
behavior was inherited.
More than one hundred years later, similar ideas persist. In the 1990s,
during the first Bush presidency, Louis Sullivan, the Secretary of Health and
Human Services set-up a "violence initiative" to explore the biological models
of social unrest in urban settings. Your readers may recall that around the
same time another Bush official, referencing studies on violence among
non-human primates, said that disproportionately black and brown "inner cities"
were like "jungles." (The initiative and controversial commentary around it
would recall to the heated debate the Panthers were engaged in over plans to
form a "violence center" at UCLA in the 1970s that may have had an especially
harmful impact on black and Latino youth and men).
the extent that the longstanding efforts that I have just described have kept
in circulation the fallacy that there is a definitive link between human
biology and violence, theses ideas have indeed served as a justification for
the expansion of the carceral system.
This is where the policy implications of the biologization of violence
come to the fore: If violence is "in your genes" or "in your blood," then one
can justify policies that lock people away because these people are "lost causes."
And, in turn, the idea that there is a innate predisposition to violence
contributes to the decline of support for rehabilitation and reparative justice
A3N: Since the 1970s, has the US come any closer to realizing the BPP's
public health goals? If BPP co-founder
Huey P Newton were alive today, what do you think he would say about President
Obama's "Affordable Care Act?"
revised ten-point platform was prescient in capturing one side of the recent
debates about widening health inequality in the U.S. and what to do about it.
If I had to venture a guess, I would say that Newton and the Party would have
appreciated the historic nature of what President Obama accomplished--a feat
that many administrations before his had variously tried to accomplish and
failed to do. Perhaps Newton would have even observed that the Affordable Care
Act is a verysmall step in the right direction.
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more. Our articles and videos have been published by Alternet, Truthout,
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Over 40 years ago in Louisiana, 3 young black men were silenced for trying to expose continued segregation, systematic corruption, and horrific abuse in the biggest prison in the US, an 18,000-acre former slave plantation called Angola. In 1972 and (more...)