My People are Rising

This book was my first in-depth introduction to the Black Panther Party, and it was a fantastic read. Aaron Dixon is an excellent writer, and it will come as no surprise that the story of the Black Panthers is fascinating and inspiring.

If you'd like a copy, you can get one at (Note that that is an affiliate link, which I earn a commission from - it helps keep this site going.)

I took quite a few lessons from this book - my observations and ideas are below, in rough chronological order from where they appeared in the book.

I immediately noticed how strongly the Party's infrastructure was geared around physical presence. That's not a shock considering that there were few alternatives at the time (the late 1960s) if you wanted to build a cohesive group, but it's still a world that I'm entirely unaccustomed to. This offered the Panthers a lot of advantages in their organizing - the physical closeness certainly helped with building bonds compared to recent groups (frequently built around a group chat or forum) and provided a base that enabled (and encouraged!) physical action by lowering the barrier to getting started, since the participants were already physically gathered together.

Quite a few of the vignettes Aaron writes of start by hanging around a Panther space (a party member's house, or the official office) and either (semi-)spontaneously gathering a group to do something, or being drafted ad-hoc into doing something that needed to be done. The barrier to action was "stand up, and begin" rather than "coordinate a time and location, figure out transportation and logistics, meet up, and begin." That said, there were serious drawbacks to the physical presence - it's a point of vulnerability, with police harassment and raids a recurring threat, and a large drain on resources in that it needs to be staffed more-or-less 24/7 since it's such an obvious target.

One of the key advantages of the physical infrastructure built by the party seemed to be that space created time, in the sense that physical space, with beds and a kitchen, enabled Panthers to meet their basic needs with less work than maintaining their own homes. This, of course, had to be weighted against the energy required to maintain a 24-hour guard rotation.

The "free time" advantage provided by the Panther logistical network was only possible from the deep commitment that Panthers (at least the bulk of those discussed in the book) have to the Party - which again I think comes back to the physical infrastructure and time spent together working toward a shared cause. The resultant trust and bonds, I suspect, end up mattering more in determining commitment than ideology (analogous to unit cohesion among soldiers). Eating and sleeping in a shared revolutionary space may build strong bonds, but it's not for everyone, and requires a baseline commitment level far above that of a group built around online interaction. Any group using this approach needs to ensure that they have a comprehensive recruiting plan, including (if not especially) a way to both draw in, and find useful work for, those who are not (yet, or ever) willing or able to commit at that level.

I was struck by the amount of popular support involved in the Panthers' organizing. They sent trucks with loudspeakers through the streets, handed out posters and flyers, sold papers, and specifically tasked members with going out and talking to people to drum up support. I don't see many parallels in today's left - that I've experienced - in trying to build support among a mass base. Perhaps I've been in the wrong places or at the wrong times, but most groups I know of in the US are fairly insular and have given up on convincing what amounts to "people on the street," focusing instead on growing through individuals' social networks and pools of already-sympathetic people.

This mass support truly showed itself - several times in the book, Aaron was trying to evade the police or other opponents when someone proactively came out of their home and brought him inside to hide there.

The programs initiated by the Panthers are also wildly ambitious by today's standards for a single explicitly-leftist organization:

  • Breakfast program for children
  • Buses to bring visitors to and from prisons
  • Arranging for bands to play in prisons
  • A free clinic, including the "well baby" program that handed out supplies, arranged rides, and conducted outreach
  • Providing food, shoes, and clothes to the community
  • Ambulance services
  • Pest control
  • The "Liberation School" summer program for children
  • Screening for sickle cell anemia, both at free clinics and by visiting prisons for mass screening events

On top of this, the Panthers themselves were doing regular political education, target practice, outreach work selling papers and putting up flyers, and keeping watch (including staffing a phone the neighborhood could use to call for help with problems). This was, of course, on top of other assorted logistical work to keep the Party running. One of the key things I took away from the book is just how much this all is. It's impressive, inspiring, and intimidating all at once.

A model that I noticed and have filed away in my mind is that frequently Panther programs (the breakfast program in particular) went through several stages:

  1. Someone in the party starts a program (either a new concept, or an existing program in a new location).
  2. They recruit others to the program, managing and growing it as it matures.
  3. The recruited group slowly shifts toward "local" people, who may or may not be members of the party.
  4. Eventually, the central party organization only provides logistics, with the day-to-day management and operations handled entirely by local recruits, freeing party staff to start the cycle over again.

The Panthers had an excellent understanding of power:

Power is the ability to define a phenomenon and make that phenomenon act in a desired manner.

Aaron notes in the book that when the party was presented with a hardship or problem by the community, they explicitly pursued a strategy of "transforming [the] problem into a solution we created and controlled."

This concept also dovetailed with a lot of thinking I've been doing about territorial vs. functional sovereignty - though the Party didn't control territory per se, they still had a great deal of functional sovereignty in meeting the public's needs and garnering support. I'll be doing a deeper analysis here - but that's best left for another day.