The media prime us in ways of thinking about the world, particularly in terms of whom we accept and dismiss as legitimate or illegitimate political actors. In this way, the media frame and “crystallize history.” Media coverage of events affects our understanding of history and “preconditions what collective action we take.” These were the ideas with which Jules Boykoff, associate professor of political science at Pacific University, opened the presentation I attended on March 18. The lecture was organized by The Northwest History Network and entitled “'We’re going to defend ourselves': The Portland Chapter of the Black Panther Party & Local Media Response."
Who were the Black Panthers? What was the organization's mission nationally and locally? How were the wider community's ideas about the group shaped by the press coverage of its activities? What is the party's legacy today? These were some of the questions addressed by the presenters, who, aside from professor Boykoff included Kent Ford and Percy Hampton, both original members of the Portland Black Panther Party chapter, and Martha Gies, an Oregon author who has written extensively about the Portland Black Panthers, one of approximately fifty chapters affiliated with the national party, a progressive organization dedicated to social and economic justice and black empowerment.
The speakers addressed a full house of about eighty-five people (more than thirty were turned away at the door for a lack of space), spanning multiple generations, but somewhat lacking in racial diversity, with approximately ninety percent of the audience being white. In attendance were also two nurses and one laboratory technician who volunteered in the Black Panther-run Portland health clinic forty years ago.
The weekly, Portland Mercury, was the only local paper tocover the talk, however, as we will see below, the report failed to explain the Black Panthers' mission or to provide a larger sociopolitical context for the organization's activities. Additionally, the Mercury article neglected to mention any critique of the media whatsoever provided that night. This is curious, given that scrutiny of the press was one of the main topics discussed; a lens so key to the lecture, in fact, that even the title--not once stated in the Mercury article--included the words “Local Media Response.”
In light of understanding the media's power in shaping history, Boykoff and Gies discussed their findings from a survey they conducted of the local press to see what kind of coverage the Portland Black Panther Party received in Oregon during its most active period from 1969 to 1979. Their inquiry, due to be published in the fall issue of the Oregon Historical Quarterly, examined all the articles printed in the local newspapers during that decade.
Investigating the press, Boykoff and Gies found that police were nearly always the only sources quoted in the stories, with the press almost never quoting Black Panther members themselves or ever mentioning the party's ten-point plan, which included: “the power to determine the destiny of our Black and oppressed communities;” full employment for the Black and oppressed people; reparations for slavery; decent housing and education; free health care; an immediate end to police brutality and murder of Black and oppressed people; “an immediate end to all wars of aggression;” and “people's community control of modern technology.”
Looking at how the press presented the BPP is important, because, according to many, including historian and activist Manning Marable, quoted in Boykoff's book Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States, the Black Panthers were one of the most influential revolutionary organizations in the U.S.
Plenty has been written about the Black Panther Party, founded in 1966 in Oakland California and active nation-wide throughout the 1970s, but it is important to supply a little bit of historical information when so much is missing in the recent local coverage of this presentation. According to the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation, an organization dedicated to preserving the history and legacy of Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton, the Black Panther Party's platform and message was so powerful, "it became a movement of itself," resulting in "a rapid proliferation of other, like minded organizations."
From the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation website:
"Chicanos, or Mexican Americans, in Southern California formed the Brown Berets. Whites in Chicago and environs formed the White Patriot Party. Chinese in the San Francisco Bay Area formed the Red Guard. Puerto Ricans in New York created the Young Lords. Eventually, a group of so called senior citizens organized the Gray Panthers to address the human and civil rights abuses of the elderly in society. The Party expanded from a small Oakland based organization to a national organization, as black youth in 48 states formed chapters of the Party. In addition, Black Panther coalition and support groups began to spring up internationally, in Japan, China, France, England, Germany, Sweden, in Mozambique, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Uruguay and elsewhere, including, even, in Israel.
. . . At the street level, the Party began to develop a series of social programs to provide needed services to black and poor people, promoting thereby, at the same time, a model for an alternative, more humane social scheme. These programs, of which there came to be more than 35, were eventually referred to as Survival Programs. [These included] free breakfast programs and free clinics, but also grocery giveaways, the manufacture and distribution of free shoes, school and education programs, senior transport and service programs, free bussing to prisons and prisoner support and legal aid programs, among others.
One of the greatest strengths of The Panthers was that they strove for a class-based, rather than race-based, solution to social justice. Bobby Seale, one of the co-founders of the BPP, said: "Those who want to obscure the struggle with ethnic differences are the ones who are aiding and maintaining the exploitation of the masses. We need unity to defeat the boss class – every strike shows that. Every workers’ organization’s banner declares: ‘Unity is strength.’"
In 1968, J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, pledged to wage a campaign to crush the Black Panther Party, stating the Party represented "the greatest threat to the internal security of the U.S." He enlisted the assistance of local police departments to do so, and thus began the era of raids and assaults on the Party's field offices, accompanied by the FBI's use of "informants, agents provocateur and covert activities involving mayhem and murder."
A program of the BPP seen probably as most controversial by the wider public, was that of armed citizen patrols, an effort to monitor police interactions with the black community, in order to shield community members from police harassment and excessive force.
Bobby Seale commented on the Party's police monitoring work this way, as quoted in Beyond Bullets:
The party realizes that the white power structure's real power is its military force; is its police force. And we can see our black communities are being occupied by policemen just like a foreign country might be occupied by foreign troops. Our politics comes from our hungry stomachs and our crushed heads and the vicious service revolver at a cop's side which is used to tear our flesh, and from the knowledge that black people are drafted to fight in wars, killing other colored people who've never done a damn thing to us. So how do we face these cops in the black community? We have to face them exactly how they come down on us. They come down with guns and force.
Nationwide, writes Boykoff, the media undermined the Panthers and depicted them as "wrongheaded, antisocial, and a national threat."
In Oregon, Boykoff and Gies identified three dominant angles, or frames, used in the reporting.
In his book Beyond Bullets, Boykoff writes:
The mass media present social movements and their actions through a process of framing, in which easily identifiable lenses refract the news and shape public opinion. A frame is “an interpretive schemata that simplifies and condenses the 'world out there' by selectively punctuating and encoding objects, situations, events, experiences, and sequences of actions within one's present or past environment.”. . . By framing socio-political issues and controversies in specific ways, news organizations present—if tacitly—the foundational causes and potential consequences of a social problem or issue, as well as possible remedies.
The three dominant frames Boykoff & Gies identified in the local press coverage of the PBB were: criminality, violence, and community organizing. Sixty-three percent of all the articles used the criminality frame, amplifying arrests and trials of party members, thus creating the perception of “a threatening, menacing network of criminal enterprise which justified the need for police presence,” to use Boykoff's words.
Criminality was used as a news peg—a central purpose or justification—for a story in about half the articles with a criminality frame. Such coverage only helped to perpetuate the damaging stereotype of African American men as criminals or “black demons” that has plagued the African American community since the colonial times and is still so prevalent today in mass media depictions of black men, according to sociologist Dennis Rome whose book Black Demons: Mass Media's Depiction of the African American Male Criminal Stereotype, which Boykoff referenced.
Additionally, violence was used as a frame in nearly half the stories, making no distinction between self-defense and other types of violence.
Surprisingly, Boykoff and Gies did not find a dominant anti-white frame in Oregon's press, though the depiction of the Black Panthers as anti-white was abundant in national press forty years ago.
The community organizer frame was present in just over a third of all the articles, though whenever the Black-Panther-run Portland clinic or breakfast program for the poor were mentioned, this was done without substance and “without the civil rights context,” Boykoff said.
Letters to the editor were the only places of dissent, contention and more substantial information about the Black Panthers—perhaps a lesson for today's activists to use this space more actively in order to shed a light on often underrepresented voices in the media, as Boykoff suggested.
The Portland Mercury already covered the bulk of the experiences shared that night by the Oregon Black Panther Party members, but what kind of language was used to do so?
The article was entitled In The Shadows: Talking with the Black Panthers. Why in the shadows? The readers are never enlightened as to the reason for this word choice. Again, the BPP's mission or function in the community is never quite explained. We are told that Kent Ford “was the founder of Portland's chapter of the '60s-era black empowerment organization.” But the rest of the activities of the organization are hardly, if at all, expounded upon. We learn about the Black Panthers' free breakfast program: “The free breakfasts the group handed out to school kids on NE 7th and Wygant are no more.” No context there. The readers find out about the free health and dental clinics run by the Black Panthers, again without the larger context. The only example of patients treated there is that of drug-addicted prostitutes.
The paper informs of the BPP's mission to end police brutality in this way: “Tensions between police and African Americans in his NE Portland neighborhood running at a dangerous high.” Again, this brief statement leaves out the historical context of the Panthers' struggle for justice.
Percy Hampton's crystallizing life event which led to his involvement with the BPP is described somewhat ambiguously: Two officers harassed Hampton while he was walking to a grocery store. “The two officers got angry, beat him up, and sent him to jail for 90 days for assaulting the police.” Nothing more.
Next we learn that the local leader Ford “remembers standing on Union Avenue (now MLK) with a shotgun, monitoring police arrests of black people.” To those unfamiliar with the philosophy and activities of the party, this type of a quote again casts the light of a threatening presence that could potentially justify the use of violence by the police, a dangerous image to broadcast without further explanation, given today's heated struggle against recurring cases of police brutality and use of excessive force, disproportionately affecting Portland's African American community.
It is unfortunate that forty years later, the history of one of the most influential progressive organizations dedicated to affecting social change in this country remains shrouded behind the misleading language used by the press, and in what is missing between the lines. The wider public continues to be "underinformed," if not misinformed, by the media about the real work and achievements of the Black Panther Party. The media, especially the smaller, alternative press like Portland Mercury, should strive to do better than this.