The Monday morning quarterback
Stephen Raab | Monday, February 15, 2016
I didn’t pay much attention to the Super Bowl halftime show. My friends and I put it on mute and I went to go get a burger from Five Guys. From the little I disinterestedly glimpsed, nothing seemed that remarkable. I was expecting only a couple of Buzzfeed “listicles” about “21.6 times that Beyoncé made us not even” or some such. However, I discovered the next day that there was much cause for controversy. During her performance of “Formation,” the singer and her backup dancers appeared wearing costumes deliberately evocative of the infamous Black Panther Party’s iconic uniforms.
Beyoncé doubled down on her activism when her backup dancers posed with a sign reading “Justice 4 Mario Woods,” in reference to the death of an African-American man who was surrounded by San Francisco Police Department officers after he stabbed another man with a knife. The officers employed beanbag shotgun rounds and pepper spray to compel Woods to drop his weapon. Woods refused to comply and attempted to leave the encirclement. Police briefly retreated, then opened fire when Woods refused to surrender.
Beyoncé is certainly within her rights to second-guess the SFPD when it comes to their use-of-force protocol, even though she has zero experience detaining belligerent, armed suspects. But the Black Panther Party is the last organization she ought to be promoting as an agent of empowerment, and it would be tragic for the modern Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement Beyoncé claims to inspire to end up in any way like the Panthers.
Founded in 1966 in Oakland, the Black Panther Party’s initial goal was to engage in (legally armed) monitoring of police actions against minorities. In this respect, they were not too different from modern, centrist BLM activists who encourage filming interactions with law enforcement or the wearing of body cameras by police, both laudable goals. Unfortunately, the Party’s rhetoric soon turned violent, with chants such as “Off the pigs!” becoming commonplace. The party adopted as its idols the Communist perpetrators of mass slaughter — Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-tung and Kim Il-Sung.
Violent words prefaced violent acts. Throughout the late 1960s, the Black Panthers perpetrated sporadic, armed ambushes against police officers. Black Panther violence spread across the nation; in New York, the Panthers attempted to blow up multiple police stations. Schisms within the Party (exacerbated by FBI infiltration) quickly caused the violence to turn inward in the form of bloody purges. Alex Rackley, Sam Napier and Betty Van Patter are just a few of the people tortured to death on the orders of Black Panther Party upper leadership for the sake of a turf war. Founding member Huey Newton would later claim, “We’ve never advocated violence.”
From the ashes of the Black Panther Party arose the Black Liberation Army. In one of its first actions, BLA members bombed the funeral of San Francisco police officer Harold Hamilton in what would be the first of many attacks on police. In 1981, members of the BLA hijacked Delta Air Lines Flight 841 and demanded a million-dollar ransom to help fund their crimes.
Certainly, the current Black Lives Matter movement is not yet at Black Panther levels of antigovernment terrorism. But history echoes loudly as protesters march through the streets of 2014 New York City, chanting “hands up, shoot back” and “we want dead cops.” The former of these calls to violence, of course, refers to the now-disproven claim that Ferguson resident Michael Brown was killed while attempting to surrender. As with the Mario Woods case, the shooting of Tamir Rice, who reached for a BB gun when confronted by officers and the suicide in police custody of Sandra Bland, organizations with an axe to grind spun Brown’s death as an “execution” in a deliberate attempt to inflame the population against police. It worked better than they could have ever hoped.
Sometimes, BLM’s violence is indirect, such as death threats made against the defendants in officer-involved shootings. Other times, protesters have taken direct action, such as the destruction of police vehicles during the Ferguson and Baltimore riots or the throwing of Molotov cocktails at the 4th Precinct headquarters of the Minneapolis Police Department. In the most extreme case, this violence has turned deadly.
On December 20, 2014, Ismaaiyl Abdullah Brinsley shot and killed Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos as they were sitting in their patrol car in Bedford-Stuyvesant, New York, then ran into a subway station and took his own life. In social media postings prior to his death, Brinsley claimed the assassination was revenge for the killings of Michael Brown and New Yorker Eric Garner, who died resisting arrest that July. (For once, it was the left who rushed to emphasize the mental illness of the “bad guy with a gun.”)
Ironically enough, Beyoncé’s criticism of the SFPD didn’t stop her from accepting a California Highway Patrol escort on her way to perform at the Super Bowl. Nor, indeed, did her inflammatory rhetoric and lionization of the Black Panthers prevent the officers of the CHP from providing it for her. They put their lives on the line to ensure the safety of a woman who would shortly denounce them before millions. Why? Because her life matters.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.