Black Panthers’ United Front against Fascism conference
An excerpt from The US Antifascism Reader, edited by Bill V. Mullen and Christopher Vials.
The following account of the Black Panthers’ United Front against Fascism (UFAF) conference appeared in the Old Mole, a paper of the Students for a Democratic Society that was widely read in radical circles in the Boston area.
As has been noted elsewhere in this volume, in forming their own United Front in 1969, the Panthers resurrected analyses of the Communist Party USA, reaching out to personnel who were active during the Popular Front period. Interestingly visible in this piece is how their fellow radicals subjected the Panthers to some of the same critiques leveled at the earlier Popular Front: namely, that they watered down their previously revolutionary language and demands in the interests of overly broad coalition building. Following the conference, many whites in the New Left, while continuing to rhetorically support the Panthers as a vanguard, increasingly disdained the shift as “reformist.”
Indeed, the Panthers had a modest legislative goal in mind when they assembled the UFAF: decentralized policing, wherein black communities would control police in their communities and whites would control police in their own communities (a legally drawn petition for a referendum on community policing in the city of Oakland was already in place at the time of the conference). The nonrevolutionary nature of this goal illustrates the larger organizational context out of which their antifascist turn emerged. At the beginning of 1969, under the leadership of Bobby Seale and David Hilliard, the party began to shift its emphasis from paramilitary tactics to a community service orientation. As the group swelled with new recruits following the “Free Huey” campaign of 1968, Seale and Hilliard devised an organizational structure more suited to a disciplined, national party rather than a loose, Oakland-based group.
The Old Mole’s account of the conference should also serve as a reminder to contemporary readers that movement building has never been easy.
Wherever they have organized, the Panthers have been hit hard by the Man: beaten, framed, jailed, held under huge ransoms, murdered. Systematic repression has threatened their very survival. The Panthers have always believed in the necessity of joint struggle with whites against American racism and imperialism. They felt that the best defense against their own destruction would be a “United Front against Fascism” and, accordingly, called a conference in Oakland to organize such a front.
The conference began on July 19. Eighty percent of the delegates were white. The program stressed the need for unity; chairman Bobby Seale stated in his opening speech that this was no place for “ideological quibbling.” There were few workshops or discussions planned for participants. The conference consisted of a solid schedule of speeches on topics such as: “Students and Education vs. Fascism,” “Workers vs. Fascism,” “Doctors vs. Fascism,” and “Religion vs. Fascism.”
Before the conference participants agreed that absolutely no disruption would be tolerated, since the attack on fascism was so crucial. On the first evening Progressive Labor / Worker Student Alliance (PL-WSA) members were identified by SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] and subsequently ejected from the conference by the Panthers.
Seale surprised the audience by referring to “policemen” and “cops” rather than “pigs,” and by hailing “progressive forces” without mentioning socialism or revolution or armed struggle. He stressed that fascism exists in this country and must be combated now, before the arrival of concentration camps. The radical movement, he urged, must move to defeat fascism by organizing for community control over decentralized police forces.
Seale was followed by Herbert Aptheker, who spoke on “Historical Aspects of the Rising Tide of Fascism Today.”1 Aptheker droned on for an hour, irritating many who were worried that Communist Party influence might swing the political line of the United Front to the right. Furthermore, the women’s panel, inserted into the program at the last minute and postponed until last on the evening’s schedule, was being threatened with extinction by Aptheker’s verbosity. As angry women began to stand up in protest, they were forcibly seated by Panther monitors, trying to prevent disruptions.
Masai, a Los Angeles Panther who was moderating the meeting, called the protesting women “pigs and provocateurs.” The main speaker of the women’s panel, Roberta Alexander, stressed the tensions inside the party over the question of male supremacy and called on men and women to struggle against the problem.
None of the women had wanted to disrupt the conference or to withdraw their support for the Panthers, but various groups disagreed about the appropriate response to the problems of male chauvinism internal to the movement. Women’s caucuses met continually during the conference, sharing their experiences, setting up national committees and discussing the politics of the UFAF.
The UFAF Program
Speeches continued according to schedule on Saturday. During an afternoon session in Bobby Hutton Memorial Park, PL-WSA members were physically attacked when they refused to stop leafletting against the conference and the Panthers. More violence erupted on Sunday morning when PL returned to leaflet.
By Sunday night, many of the delegates had left the conference before hearing the United Front program, as presented by Bobby Seale at the closing session. The UFAF program calls for decentralization of police forces and community control, with the right to hire police officers from the community. This is to be accomplished by referendum campaigns organized by Committees to Combat Fascism in black, brown and white communities. These committees are to initiate petition campaigns to educate and involve people around the police-control demand.
Panthers stressed that white as well as black workers come under attack from fascist police and thus need to fight and control them. They explained the need for legal tactics as an educational necessity at this time.
Seale reminded his audience that conferences would have to be held every three or four months in order to implement the program. “At the next conference,” he predicted, “we’ll be back here 15,000 strong, and we’re not going to miss a single worker in the country.”2
Many of the delegates left the conference confused and disappointed. The radical movement feared that the Panthers’ UF tactic was attempting to enlist liberal support at the expense of revolutionary militancy.
SDS supports self-determination and community control in colonized black and brown communities, but not in white communities where racism and white supremacy must be fought. In a statement after the UFAF conference, the National Interim Committee of SDS says:
We support completely the demand for community control of decentralized police in the black and brown communities, and will help by building support for that demand in white neighborhoods. At the same time we cannot support the demand for “white community” control and we therefore urge local and regional SDS organizations to work within the National Committees to Combat Fascism to change the wording of the petition. This will also be done on a national level. We also urge that SDS chapters undertake campaigns around pig repression.
1. Herbert Aptheker (1915–2003) was a Jewish American writer, organizer, and independent scholar. He joined the Communist Party USA in 1939 and remained active in the Party for most of his life. He saw combat in Europe with the US Army during World War II. He wrote more than fifty books, many of them on African American history, including the pioneering Negro Slave Revolts in the United States 1526–1860 (1939).
2. There was never a follow-up conference. Be that as it may, the Panthers set up National Committees to Combat Fascism across the country, which were essentially branches of the Black Panther Party.