Is the Tea Party the New Black Panther Party?

As implausible as it may seem, much of the insurgent movement's rhetoric sounds like the views of Eldridge Cleaver's old gang.

Mike Simons/Getty Images
Mike Simons/Getty Images

Factual or not, many Tea Partiers believe they are in similar danger. At GunBlast.com, an online firearms publication, one Tea Party member praised his fellow Tea Partiers for marching on Washington and “proclaiming our freedoms against the current tyranny set to bankrupt our nation and take our guns.” And at Patriot Depot, a Web store that sells “T.E.A: Taxed Enough Already” bumper stickers, one product description claims, “They plan to take our guns away, give more power to the federal government, and raise our taxes.”

It would be hard to argue that the middle-aged white males who compose much of the Tea Party have ever faced violent clashes with the police the way the Black Panthers did. But the question then becomes this: What is the difference between actually, wholly believing the government is after you and the government really being after you?

According to Elaine Brown, the first female chair of the Black Panther Party, the Tea Party and the Black Panther Party are firmly incomparable,. “We considered black people to be an oppressed people,” she says. “To say that a group of upper-middle-class white people — these are the same people who would support strict immigration laws against Mexicans but not French immigrants — are oppressed? There is no relationship ideologically.”

Brown says the only possible link is the Panthers’ “opposition to the government,” but she posits that the only reason the Tea Party is anti-government is that the government is currently being helmed by a person of color. “Their goals are not the liberation of poor and oppressed people,” she says.

Chris Littleton disagrees with Brown. As president of the Cincinnati Tea Party and co-founder of Tea Party coalition group the Ohio Liberty Council, Brown has been a driving force in Ohio’s Tea Party operations. “For generations and generations, we’ve slowly let little tiny things slip away,” he says. “There are now requirements from the government to control what your children eat in school. That’s an obscure example, but it points out how much of everyday life they’re touching now. I don’t disagree that children need to eat nutritious food, but should the government be in control of personal diets of families? That stuff is intrusive; it’s oppressive.”

 

Littleton argues that American prosperity has led to “entitlement” and a citizenry whose primary goal is maintaining its comfort. This stagnation, he says, has contributed to an ineffectual government muddied with special interests. “It’s not a Republican-Democrat thing, because Republicans have their special interests and Democrats have their special interests,” he says. “All these different things come into play so [that] we have administrators who are basically corrupt.”

Asked if he realizes that some of his ideas sound akin to many leftist ideologies, Littleton says, “I think the solutions I have for the problems are different from what [liberals] would do, but I think we can agree on many of the problems.”

 

In 1986, two decades after the founding of the Black Panther Party, Eldridge Cleaver turned away from his Leninist past and ran for the U.S. Senate on the Republican ticket in California. After years spent exiled in Cuba, China and other communist regimes, Cleaver had developed a new outlook on politics and power, famously declaring, “Pig power in America was infuriating. … But pig power in the communist framework was awesome and unaccountable.”

Though he lost the election, Cleaver’s platforms were all his own. He advocated using the private sector to eliminate poverty, said the welfare state had put blacks in a “negative relationship with the economic system,” and praised the North Vietnamese communists for their “anti-big [governmental] power” stance. He had become a Black Panther whom a Tea Partier could love. “The truth is,” he told Reason magazine before beginning his campaign, “is that any form of constraint on our freedoms is not acceptable.”

 

Cord Jefferson is a staff writer at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

 

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