“The Black Panthers are the single greatest threat to our national security,” proclaims Martin Sheen as J. Edgar Hoover at the beginning of the new film, Judas and the Black Messiah, “Our counter-intelligence program must prevent the rise of a Black Messiah from among their midst – one with the potential to unite the Communist, the anti-war, and the New Left movements.”
He then cues up a video of Fred Hampton reciting his famous quote, “We ain’t gonna fight capitalism with Black capitalism – we’re gonna fight capitalism with socialism.”
The new film by Shaka King is worth watching for a number of reasons, but it’s essential viewing for the new “New Left” – especially the first half. The latter portion of the movie focuses more on the mechanics of the FBI’s mission to infiltrate and debilitate the Black Panthers through informant Bill O’Neal, and eventually, to murder Hampton. This makes for compelling cinema, and provokes the appropriate amount of righteous anger in the audience. However, it’s the film’s first hour, which establishes why the Black Panthers, and Hampton in particular, were deemed such a threat to begin with, that makes Judas and the Black Messiah such a must-see.
Hoover makes the point quite plainly in the film’s opening sequence: what made Hampton so dangerous to the status quo was his “potential to unite” disparate factions of the broader anti-capitalist movement. Hampton, in his efforts to build, strengthen, and expand mutual aid programs throughout Chicago, sought to form relationships with seemingly unnatural allies. The most notable example of this is depicted about 40 minutes into the film, when the Panthers appear at a meeting of the Young Patriots Organization, an activist group of poor whites who immigrated to Chicago from Appalachia, and were facing many of the same problems in their neighborhoods that the Panthers were in theirs.
The Young Patriots ended up forming an alliance with the Panthers and a Puerto Rican turf gang called the Young Lords, which became the original “Rainbow Coalition.”
As much as the modern Left talks about our goal of uniting poor and working class peopl across racial and ethnic lines, many self-described Leftists seem unwilling to even explore the possibility of forging the kinds of partnerships that Hampton and the Panthers found so necessary. Many on today’s Left would be quick to label a group like the YPO as “toxic,” “problematic,” and “fascistic,” and dismiss out of hand the prospect of any collaboration with them. They view such people as being obsessed with their own “whiteness,” and “afraid of losing their status and power” over people of color. Fred Hampton realized that despite their white skin, the Young Patriots didn’t have any meaningful status or power to lose, because they were poor. In spite of their disparate cultural attitudes, their material challenges and interests were sufficiently aligned to the point where they felt they could pursue a political partnership.
At first, Hampton even accepted their use of the Confederate flag as a symbol, understanding the power of such imagery and symbolism as a recruiting tool. In short time, the Young Patriots would wear Panther buttons and hide their Confederate flag imagery out of respect when the Panthers were present. Eventually, more and more YPO members retired the Confederate flag altogether, recognizing it as a symbol of oppression and slavery.
It’s almost impossible to imagine such evolution in 2021. Of course, the siloing of American politics in general is largely to blame for this, as the media landscape is such that people nowadays are rarely exposed to opposing viewpoints. But the tendency on the modern Left to deliberately narrow its ranks by sniffing out those who they deem impure and ostracizing them from the movement cannot be dismissed.
Many on today’s Left seem more interested in establishing their own bonafides as “true Leftists” than they are in growing a vast and powerful Left movement. They seek to bolster their status within an increasingly select group by figuring out ways to prove that their peers in the movement aren’t as “radical” or as “genuine” as they are. They fail to grasp what Fred Hampton understood, which is that the most radical act of all is the acquisition and wielding of power through mass politics. Hampton’s legacy is a testament to the power of class solidarity as an organizing tool, and his willingness to build coalitions with the unlikeliest of partners is what made him so threatening to the establishment that the FBI ordered his assassination. Judas and the Black Messiah is an indispensable document of Hampton’s vision, and a chilling reminder of the ruthless evil he was up against.
We discuss this and other topics on episode 107 of the Due Dissidence podcast. Listen to our full conversation by clicking the player below:
Photo: Paul Sequeira