You can kill the revolutionary, but you can’t kill the revolution. – Fred Hampton, Nov. 3, 1969
This week I came across a piece in the Columbia Journalism Review by Lawrence Lanahan. This piece, Secrets of the City, was about a newsroom’s quest to cover a city as complex as Baltimore in a climate of attrition (inside and outside the newsroom). A large part of the article focused on David Simon (creator of The Wire) and his approach to journalism. His approach often clashed with his editors when he was a crime reporter at the Baltimore Sun in the mid-1990s.
Effective journalism, according to Simon, consisted of portraying a city in all its nuance. Instead of, say, writing a story about students performing poorly in schools because of a lack of money, Simon felt that effective journalism dictates that many sociological factors (demographics, educational policies over the years, teacher motivation, dysfunctional bureaucracy, etc) be included. His editors, John Carroll and Bill Marimow, thought otherwise. They felt that the newspaper had its limits in that regard, and that a more effective story includes a victim, villain and an opportunity for reform.
Simon feels that this type of simplistic storytelling was rooted in the desire to win Pulitzers at the exclusion of deep-rooted reporting. Carroll and Marimow disagreed. Simon ended up angrily leaving the paper and going on to create what many feel is the greatest television show ever. Carroll and Marimow both went to the Los Angeles Times and Philadelphia Inquirer, respectively, winning numerous Pulitzer Prizes in the process.
Turns out that in the end, both sides may be right.
It’s been 43 years since the Black Panther Party was founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, yet, the Black Panther Party still hasn’t been fairly depicted in mainstream media. Yes, they were about their Second Amendment rights. Yes, their founders served time. Yes, they weren’t loving cops too much. Yes, they imploded and became too disillusioned and diverted to fulfill their mission.
But if one were to ask any person about the benefits of the BPP, would any mention be given about the Free Breakfast for School Children Program, which enabled thousands of under served children across the nation to eat every day before school? What about the efforts of Fred Hampton, the precocious 21-year-old leader who was shot to death in his sleep by the F.B.I. (who had over 4,000 pages of information on Hampton)?
Or even the F.B.I.’s tumescent fascination with the destruction of this party, whom J. Edgar Hoover – the same man who denied the Mafia’s presence in the U.S. – called “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country?”
The tendency to caricature controversial people and movements in this country is prevalent. The Panthers were not completely violent, nor were they wholly benevolent. They provided rays of hope to many who felt hopeless; they sowed seeds of bitterness and lacked a firm spiritual direction. It should also be noted that the Panthers’ violence came toward the same authority figures who made their bones – and quotas – in minority communities. Good journalism would portray that.
Context matters. Without it, misinformation and half-truths will prevail. Just like it does in the stories of two of the nation’s most prominent African-American leaders, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. One figure is viewed as a hatemonger, while the other as hate-averse. But a true story shows that both characters were more complex than any story could reveal (even a movie couldn’t fully convey the X’s story; nonetheless, it still remains a classic in my book).
King was much more radical than contemporary society gives him credit for, even denouncing capitalism in a 1967 speech:
“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
King also called the U.S. the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” Do you think the F.B.I. – that Hoover guy again – tapped his phones for his nonviolent philosophy? No news organization would ever confuse King’s ideologies with X’s, but history strongly indicates that both men died with nearly identical beliefs about American capitalism and oppression.
On King’s birthday, instead of being fed a bunch of rhetoric about how far we have come, we should be eating questions about the factors that led to his demise.
As professor of journalism at University of Texas at Austin Robert Jenson wrote, “How long can we ignore King’s radical analysis and still pretend to honor him?”
Oct. 15 marked the 43rd anniversary of the formation of a revolutionary group that would become the most dynamic counter-cultural organization of the postmodern era. But it seemed that only a few people noticed. Twitter feeds were updated by a small amount of people. On Facebook, there was nary a reminder about the Black Panther Party.
There was nearly no mention about it in the news.
Of course, many would argue that it isn’t the job of mainstream media to bog the viewer/reader down with full context. After all, that’s what documentaries and books are for. That’s the reason David Simon ultimately left his beloved residence of the newsroom: He became disenchanted with the lack of full storytelling that is often at odds with producing daily content. A newspaper, CNN, Fox or MSNBC may be limited mediums to produce consistent long-form stories, which goes a long way to explain how the tales of the BPP, King, X, Emmett Till or even Kathryn Johnston are under told.
The BPP was done in by F.B.I. infiltration, implosion, distrust and a divided vision. Their ideology was driven by the need to subvert the capitalist system that exploited many minorities, and the desire that the workers take over the means of production. All of this was influenced by sociological factors – disproportionate wealth, imprisonment, resources – that still dominate minorities today.
That information is more likely to be discovered through extra research and viewings of documentaries than in a history text book or public school system. Whether the subject is Westside Baltimore or a black nationalist organization, our full story is rarely told.