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The Side of the Black Panthers That's Been Virtually Ignored: Their Fight for Healthcare Justice

In her new book, Columbia professor Alondra Nelson documents the multifaceted (and under-reported) health activism of the Panthers.

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Alondra Nelson: Yes, it's true. The Black Panthers' health activism has been under-reported across the ideological spectrum. Their critics obviously did not want to cast them in a positive light. And, as your question suggests, even the party's supporters said little about this important aspect of the BPP's work. I think its plausible to say that many on the Right and some of us on the Left--in very different ways and for completely opposite reasons--were captivated by a vision of the party that did not include its health politics. Depictions of African Americans working in their neighborhoods, wearing white medical coats, was unspectacular compared to images of black radicals wearing leather jackets and carrying guns.

It is ironic that our collective memory of the Panthers remains so incomplete because their health activism--from their political writing about medical issues in The Black Panther newspaper, to their practice of DIY healthcare--exemplified the anti-racist, anti-capitalist stance for which they are known. In fact, the reality of health inequality brought the BPP's political perspective into sharper relief because it offered stark and specific examples of how economic and racial oppression literally damaged bodies, families and communities.

As you know, the BPP was originally the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, a name that reflected that protecting communities from police brutality was a primary motivation for the group's founding. The BPP exposed the misuse of power whether it was at the hands of police officers or physicians. So, it's also useful to think of the Panthers as being engaged in medical self-defense.

In Los Angeles, party members Ericka Huggins and Elaine Brown, nursing professor Marie Branch, Dr. Terry Kupers, and others established that chapter's People's Free Medical Clinic. But, like all of the BPP's health activism, this work extended beyond the clinic, including in this case, confronting police brutality. (Branch shared meeting notes with me from the 1970s from her personal archive where the formation of BPP health programs and prisoners' protection from medical discrimination were seamlessly discussed). The LA Panthers advocated for and provided health care for incarcerated persons; some of these men and women needed medical attention because they had been abused while in police custody.

A3N: How does the story of the BPP's health activism, as presented in your book, contribute to and challenge the traditional presentations of the BPP by both the mainstream and alternative media?

AN: Body and Soul offers an account of the BPP that moves away from the narrow confines of the so-called "culture wars," in which the party can only ever be a positive force or a negative element. Paying attention to the party's health activism calls into question the inaccurate stereotype of the activists as aimless thugs.

We also gain a different perspective on things we thought we already knew about the BPP, like the fact that the Panthers were avid followers of Fanon, Che and Mao, whose writings were required reading for all members. Through the prism of health, one can see very clearly the influence of Fanon's dissection of colonial medicine in Algeria on the Panthers' understanding of medical discrimination in the U.S. We can take seriously the fact that Fanon and Che were physicians as well as political thinkers. We can appreciate that Mao, who established the "barefoot doctors" lay health worker program, made available to the party not only broad revolutionary principles, but also specific ideas about healthcare as political practice.

A3N: What do you think were the most successful tactics employed by the BPP as part of its health activism? Strategically speaking, what lessons from the BPP's health activism do you think are most applicable for today's activists to learn from?

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