Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr’s ‘Black Against Empire’: Book Review

black against empireCertainly, after the quick rise and repression of the Occupy Movement, this study on an earlier radical faction who advocated more violent urban occupation and resistance merits reflection. Joshua Bloom (UCLA) and Waldo E. Martin, Jr (UC Berkeley) collaborate to present a study which relies not on oral interviews or ‘retrospective accounts’ colored by bias or filtered through idealism, but a sober analysis. They base their work on five years of Bay Area archival research: first to assemble nearly all of the over five hundred copies of the Party’s newspaper, and then to investigate audio recordings from radio stations aired in the 1960s and 1970s about social movements. Bloom and Martin apply an academic approach over four hundred pages of carefully organized and accessibly phrased text that combines a contemporary perspective from which to approach the material with a way to revive the voices in print and on the air–the latter otherwise (perhaps) evanescent.

Given the limits of this review’s length, my overview will offer a quick nod to the sections. ‘Organizing Rage’ tracks what had started in May 1967 for black anti-imperialism and ‘policing the police’. This led in ‘Baptism of Blood’ to the very quick eruption of the Black Panther Party to national prominence. In 1968, armed self-defense, self-determination, and armed opposition emerged as Party platforms and programs. While as one interested in a parallel time when Irish republicanism revived to rally another nation of ‘internal exiles’ across the world, I found no direct correlation made by Bloom and Martin to the Irish struggle, certainly (as Brian Dooley’s Black and Green: The Fight for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland and Black America documents), parallels to a First World as well as the many Third World liberation movements of the late ’60s on point to the continuing inspiration that the Party’s leaders and their revolutionary rhetoric–combined with efforts such as the famous Oakland free breakfast programs–left in nations at first sight far removed from the ghettos of Northern California.

Part three looks at ‘Resilience’, and part four, ‘Revolution Has Come!’ Rebels burst onto the scene, internationally, happened as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s. Accidentally or symbolically, the transfer in the methods for social change advocated for urban guerrillas to actively fight the state led to understandable media and increasingly (un-)popular attention. The role played by informants, provocateurs, and dirty tricks has often been featured in coverage; this volume collects such FBI COINTELPRO factionalism as an object lesson in how the growth of a grassroots movement creates its own increased repression.

For instance, when I attended UCLA decades later as a grad student, I heard about the Black Studies Program and a fatal shootout by the US organization against the Panthers in the building next to the one where I took most of my courses. As the authors note in the type of aside showing the scope of their survey, under the leadership of Ron Karenga, US can be credited for starting the holiday of Kwanza. (141) As Kwanza illustrates in miniature, the advances made by black activists can be seen around us in education, culture, politics, and employment in the nearly fifty years since the Party’s power.

Ramifications of the divide and conquer strategy cynically employed by the government demonstrate the fear that many Americans had, stoked by media coverage, of the Party. ‘Concessions and Unraveling’ as the final section speaks for itself. It reminds me of the Occupy Movement if in less hard-headed fashion, as groups split and individuals watched as conflicting agendas and mutual dissension weakened, frayed, and then dissolved under the relentless forces of law-and-order crackdowns, political disdain, and popular caricature.

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  • Rory Carr

    John,

    I’m afraid that readers might find your penultimate paragraph indecipherable. It might help if you let readers know what you mean by “US” (not at all clear to me) and who “Ron Karenga” is/was and what “Kwanza” (shouldn’t that be “Kwanzaa” ?) is.

    This aspect of Black consciousness in the USA in the 60’s has not really resounded abroad as the legends of Bobby Seale and George Davis and Angela Davis, much as while the names of Bobby Sands and Ian Paisley are well known internationally, the various holidays associated with Irish Republicanism or Ulster Unionism would not make much of a mark.

  • Rory, both points taken. I am limited by Slugger to 600 words for a review, so I opted for the personal touch and it may be too much so in that paragraph. Ron Karenga was an activist and professor in Long Beach CA who founded US, who turned out to be a rival black nationalist organization to the Panthers; he also is credited with the invention of Kwanza[a] (the authors in their book twice use the spelling I did in the review) in 1966. US literally fought it out by gunfire with the Panthers at UCLA in 1969 to deadly results, so this episode reverberated for me as a student years later, “next door”.

    I agree with your comment about Kwanzaa vis-a-vis holidays and legends; this review in this aspect is pitched more from my own perspective, although I tried to connect it in the short space to the Irish civil rights reverberations. Thanks for both remarks…