Defunding Black Panther research infringes on academic freedom

Jessica Khauv/Staff

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There’s nothing surprising about the federal government’s attempts to stifle the legacy of the Black Panther Party. However, the fact that those attempts have a direct effect on the staff and students of UC Berkeley, is troubling to say the least.

In late spring of 2017, the National Park Service of the East Bay approached Dr. Ula Taylor, chair of the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley, about conducting research on the Black Panther Party and surrounding movements for civil rights. All seemed to be well and good.

I could name few people more qualified for the task of gathering a profound compilation of resources meant to honor the Black Panther Party and their history of community activism than Dr. Ula Taylor. Taylor has research expertise in the fields of African American Studies, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and African American women’s history. She is also the co-author of “Panther: The Illustrated History of the Black Panthers and the Story Behind the Film,” published in 1995.

Taylor had begun the process of applying for grants to conduct her research when conservative voices began to publicly derail her pursuit of gathering a professional and well-crafted collection that would have documented Black Panther history. On Sept. 14, an article was published in the Washington Free Beacon titled “Feds Give Berkeley $97,999 to ‘Honor the Legacy’ of the Black Panther Party: National Park Service funds research project on Marxist Revolutionary Group.” The article not only condemns the community work of the Black Panther Party as violent and oppressive but also describes UC Berkeley as an institution made up of “far-left” radicals who are “anti-free speech.”

On Oct. 19, 2017, the National Fraternal Order of Police wrote a letter to president and reality TV star Donald Trump that claimed the Black Panthers murdered police. According to Dr. Taylor,“this political energy was then used to influence Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to defund the project.”

For those who do not know, or rather, for those who were miseducated by a white supremacist education system, the Black Panther Party — originally titled the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense — was founded in Oakland in 1966 by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in reaction to police brutality in Black and brown communities. The Black Panther Party was dedicated to health activism in the community, affirmation of black beauty, promotion of self-defense and the monitoring of the behavior of the police in black communities. The Party’s central guiding principle was an “undying love for the people.”

In the aforementioned article published in the Washington Free Beacon the author argues that the research project is undeserving of the federal grant because, “the FBI labels the Black Panther Party as advocates for ‘the use of violence and guerilla tactics to overthrow the U.S. government.’ ” This may be in reference to the trial of Huey P. Newton, one of the founders of the Panthers, which occurred in 1968 for the assault and murder of a policeman. Many believe that the charge was an entirely unfounded attempt at crushing the Black Panther Party. Given the racial bias present in the American legal justice system, it is difficult to determine what actually happened on that night in 1967. It is impossible to ignore the judicial branch’s history of false-sentencing and racial bias in the case of Huey Newton. The judiciary and their reputation of racism led to mass demonstrations and a national movement to “Free Huey” in 1968.

Newton had long been under attack by the federal government in the form of COINTELPRO, a program issued by the FBI to monitor “radical” national political groups that had different outlooks than those of the government. One of the purposes of this program was to discredit, disrupt, and neutralize the activities of Newton and the Black Panther Party. Nevertheless, the Black Panther Party remains a central actor in Black history and should not be censored for alleged crimes.

Taylor, aware of the controversy that surrounds the legacy of the Panthers, made it a focus of her project to be neither uncritical nor romantic. She contests that she wanted to provide an “invaluable resource for generations of the curious” and that “our work had to detail the transformative power of critical scholarship.”

The main purpose of Ula Taylor’s research was to maintain an essential piece of historical knowledge, and more specifically African American historical knowledge. In Taylor’s descriptions of her goals in her research for the project:

“The project would not only provide broad contextual history on the East Bay’s poorly studied civil-rights and “black power,” movements, as well as trace the connections between the epochal changes wrought by World War II, including the immigration of Southern African Americans to work in the region’s booming war industries, and the formation of the Panthers and other organizations.”

Taylor’s research plans were criticized and ultimately blocked for being about the work of the Black Panther Party. Her research, however, was intended to tackle a larger history of civil rights. She sought to provide a critical analysis that detailed the role of the Black Panther Party in producing and shaping other the movements for the equality and justice of women, LBGTQ+ communities, nonblack minority groups and the global environment. The conservative voices derailed her funding and halted her academic progress by minimizing and inaccurately belittling the overall purpose of her research.

That historical knowledge is being denied to the community by members of the government. When the federal government can come in and decide what is funded and what is not on the basis of political lenience and bigotry, rather than a fair democratic process, there is a problem that needs to be addressed. Ula Taylor is correct in saying that her academic freedom is being infringed upon. Further, the Black community’s right to preserve records of their own history in the ways that they see fit are being curbed without logical reasoning.

I’m sure this blatant show of anti-Blackness on behalf of the federal government comes as a surprise to no one. Records of Black history have undergone near-constant methods of suppression, censorship and silencing at the hands of intimidation, violence and other anti-Black sentiments. I believe it to be our duty as students at this institution to protect the legacy of the intellectuals and activists who came before us and to stand up for the academic freedom of our educators.

Shelby Mayes is a UC Berkeley student and the membership development director for the Black Student Union.