It is a disservice to the memory of anyone who has passed to reduce their lives to a handful of quotes. It is a particularly egregious act when said person’s life was led in a way that inspired the courage, awakenings, and imaginations of millions. And it is an outright act of political malice to take the words of a Black revolutionary murdered by the state to provide cover for white reactionaries and their murderous ideology and activities. Fred Hampton
Yet— here we are once again this time owing to a Hollywood movie, with a renewed interest in the life, times and struggles of Chicago chair of the Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton, who was assassinated at 21. We are witnessing the attempt to mangle the legacy of a Black revolutionary into support for the misguided political program of redirecting reactionary white rage into activities with a genuine revolutionary potential.
Over the years, articles from the likes of Jacobin, Teen Vogue, TeleSur, the Conversation, and a whole host of other sites emphasizing Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers outreach to the Young Patriots as evidence that white people if properly made aware of their class interests can be organized and participate in revolutionary struggle.
Many of these articles appeared in 2016 and 2017 as a reaction to the election of Donald Trump. These articles often called for an end to so-called divisive identity politics and the like. They called for the embrace of class issues, despite the fact that the Republican voter, on average, was higher income than the Democratic voter.
Then as now, many white leftists framed the rise of Trump as a blow against the neoliberal elites. And it is true that the Democratic Party does pose as big tent imperialism. It is true that Democratic branding is to put a multiracial, multinational face on the bombing of nations, the ravaging of the planet, and the exploitation we all endure under capitalism.
But for the white reactionary, a neoliberal elite could mean a Black DMV worker who tells them to stand in another line.
To the white reactionary a neoliberal elite could be a Chicana member of the PTA who thinks the school district should wait a little bit longer before opening up.
To the white reactionary a neoliberal elite can be anyone who isn’t white doing anything they don’t like.
To the white reactionary, a neoliberal elite could be anyone asserting any kind of autonomy and heavens to Betsy forbid, holding any type of authority over them even for a passing moment.
White reactionaries, racists, live in the same world as the rest of us. So, it should be no mystery that some of their complaints might overlap with our own. Their children, their siblings, their parents die in war too. I remember a conversation in Texas where someone told me he was worried about his brother in Iraq and how he just wanted to come home and fight the real war on the Mexican border. I never talked to him again, and frankly I don’t care what became of him or his brother. Why would I? In fact, if anything, I imagine their car breaking down in the middle of the desert, wandering dehydrated through the searing heat. But that is just me.
White reactionaries are well aware that the economy has been on a 40-to-50-year skid to oblivion. They are as well aware as the rest of us that they did not live as well as their parents and that their children’s future is even more precarious. The fact that they worry about their children’s future does not make them any less racist. That’s what the 14 words are all about. That is what is meant by “securing a future for white children.”
The hyper-focus on their downward mobility of white people belies the greater truth. We are all headed in that direction and the speed at which we are falling is also racialized.
In the crash of 2008, Black families lost over half their wealth. Latino families lost two-thirds. And this is just one egregious example of what we all know. It’s harder in America if you are not white. Everyone knows this. Yet, so many white leftists want to fight this fundamental reality in the name of class struggle. And the desire to do so burns brightest at the sight of gathering white mobs.
And none of this speaks to the reality of who the Young Patriots actually were.
At the time of the Rainbow Coalition, Uptown was where most of the Young Patriots lived. It had another name, Hillbilly Heaven. This was an area of the city settled by Appalachian migrants who were treated differently in Chicago precisely because they were Appalachian. Not because they were white.
They were a group of geographically bound people, shared a common culture, and were discriminated against by the dominant society in Chicago.
The fact that they could be organized is not evidence that white people at large can be organized around their cultural complaints but rather that for a period of time, a group of people who faced discrimination and higher rates of exploitation on the basis of their identity could for a time be organized to fight around those conditions. Once those conditions were removed, Hillbilly Heaven transitioned back to Uptown. And the Young Patriots faded into the ether.
It is also true that working-class white people can and do organize against war, against the destruction of the planet, for better wages, against the abuses of landlords, for safer work conditions, for all kinds of things worth supporting all the time. When they do this and do this every day, they do so most often, shoulder to shoulder with their Black and brown counterparts. This is not news either. We all know this. This is not the question at hand.
The purpose of mangling the legacy of Fred Hampton’s and, by extension the legacy of the Black Panther Party is to provide cover for the most vicious forms of white reactionism. It has nothing to do with convincing anyone that white people can fight for something good.
It is done to give a shield to the worst elements of white reaction in this country.
Fred Hampton deserves better.
The Black Panther Party deserves better.
The working class as a whole deserves better.
Matt Sedillo, Public Intellectuals
Matt Sedillo has been hailed as “the best political poet in America” by journalist Greg Palast and the “poet laureate of struggle” by historian Paul Ortiz. He is the author of “Mowing Leaves of Grass” and the literary director of the dA Center for the Arts in Pomona CA. Visit his website: www.mattsedillo.com