They were armed to the teeth. They were mad. They gathered at public buildings, guns tucked into their waistlines, demanding limited governmental authority and the right to self-determination. They believed the Democratic White House to be an untrustworthy, imperialistic power, one that "robbed" them under spurious circumstances. They were wary of the "Zionist media," and they loved to quote at length from America's founding documents, specifically violent, revolutionary passages like, "it is their duty, to throw off [an abusive] Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security." They were members of one of the most fringe political organizations in modern American history.
They were the Black Panthers. Had you anticipated Tea Partiers?
As the Tea Party movement continues its steady ascent toward the mainstream, it has also begun filling out its ranks with a small but vocal cadre of African Americans. To many outsiders, this is unconscionable; how could any person of color align himself with a group whose protest signs frequently depict President Obama morphed into a primate? And yet in some ways, the coupling makes perfect sense.
In January, political philosopher Noam Chomsky said in an interview about the Tea Party, "These are people with real grievances. For the past 30 years of neo-liberalism, wages for the majority have stagnated; benefits, which were never very great, have declined; working hours have shot way up; they've gone way into debt to try and preserve the consumerist lifestyle that's been rammed down their throats by the advertising industry. They're in bad shape — not Third World-style bad shape — but bad shape by the standards of a rich industrial country." Assuming that the Tea Party is not an inherently racist entity, as every black Tea Partier says it isn't, is it so hard to imagine that African Americans might be attracted to a group whose underlying gripe is a broken government that doesn't accurately represent its people?
"First of all, the Tea Party movement is about small government and self-reliance," says Deneen Borelli, a fellow with Project 21, a network of black conservatives sponsored by the right-wing National Center for Public Policy Research. A frequent speaker at Tea Party gatherings, Borelli says the Tea Party started "because individuals felt they were not being represented by our elected officials," an impetus quite similar to those of a great many left-wing political organizations, including, ostensibly, the Black Panthers.
To be sure, reconciling most of the Marxist underpinnings of the long-defunct Black Panthers with the laissez faire philosophy of the Tea Party is impossible. It's important to note, however, that the Panthers' idea of socialism was very much one of limited government intervention, at least when they were talking federally. Consider their demand that every black prisoner be released, citing the "racist" government's unfit justice system. Consider their demand for a U.N.-supervised plebiscite concerning the possibility of African-American secession (secession is also a popular Tea Party talking point). Consider Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver's declaration that "the American flag and the American eagle are the true symbols of fascism" (Tea Partiers believe the U.S. government to be fascist, too).
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.