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Black Panthers: Building Power through Prefiguration


Lucie E. White is the Louis A. Horvitz Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. 

This post kicks off a series on the power-building strategies of the Black Panthers, Gray Panthers, and Young Lords, focused on their efforts to organize around health.


Since its founding in the mid-1960s, the Black Panther Party was fiercely attacked by the US state as a terrorist group intent on toppling democracy by force of arms. Through infiltration, intimidation, assassination, bombings, imprisonment and more, the state sought to destroy the Party and disperse its network of allies. To undermine public support for the Panthers, the state portrayed them using false, viciously racist, stereotypes: a gang of aggressive Black youth clothed in fatigues and Che Guevara berets, brandishing automatic weapons and chanting Communist/Black-Power slogans. It also sought to erase any trace of the Panthers’ visionary social programs and campaigns from whites’ history books. Yet as many activists and historians have long known, and as a new generation of activist historians has begun to analyze in greater depth, the Panthers developed several community-based programs. Central among them were local Panther Chapters’ free health centers.

As Alondra Nelson has argued in her pathbreaking book, the Panthers’ revised Ten Point Program explicitly committed the Party to protecting the health – or in their terms, “Body and Soul“ – of Black and other oppressed people from the multiple forms of suffering inflicted by racial capitalist systems across the globe. In the US, a racist “healthcare” system, far from promoting well-being, has been the source of intense suffering. Injuries rooted in enslavement and systemic racism have been medicalized with a “blame-the-victim” stigma attached. Racist medical “science” has inflicted eugenics, forced sterilizations, and the Tuskegee “experiment.” And “healthcare deserts” have left impoverished Black communities with no care at all.

In the face of this threat to survival, the revised Ten-Point Program declared a right to free healthcare for all Black and oppressed people. This promise envisioned the US state as provider of healthcare but was silent about its institutional form. One could reasonably infer that the Program’s silence on that question thus implied that the free universal care would be delivered by the state in a bureaucratic and commodified way. Yet to implement the Program’s healthcare mandate, the Party’s leadership opted for a very different model. For it did not require local Chapters to use direct confrontation to increase funding for bureaucratic, hierarchical government programs like Medicaid. Instead, each Chapter was to fund and launch a “People’s Free Health Center.” Each Center would offer care and promote well-being while producing what I will call a three-dimensional dynamic of “prefiguration.”

First, the Centers engendered here-and-now innovation in the hierarchical, disciplinary, and commodified ways that healthcare was, and is, delivered in the systemically race-capitalist state. Second, the Center milieu reshaped the “subjectivities”of its participants, from state-licensed MDs to family caregivers, community-based and waged healthcare workers, neighborhood residents, and care-seekers. By coming together through the Centers, these diverse players gradually became more theoretically astute, strategically savvy, and politically “empowered” to engage in deep transformation. And third, the Centers offered an inchoate “imaginary” of the institutional shape of sites for maintaining well-being in post-race-capitalist worlds. In this way, prefiguration allowed participants both to envision and pragmatically move toward new political and institutional horizons.

Each of the Panthers’ seventeen local Centers was different. Yet we can identify at least five common design features that worked in synch to engender this tripartite dynamic of “prefiguration”.

First, the programs challenged role-based hierarchies and differences. All the players put aside their white coats or berets to join their respective know-how to relieve suffering at its root. Though the liberation of Black and oppressed people was the Centers’ mission, all players, including whites, were afforded equal respect. The know-how of elite MDs, called “trusted” or “authentic” when they had proven themselves, was readily used. Yet formally trained health-workers, like others, still had their distinct roles. In addition to diagnosis, basic clinical procedures, and triage, for instance, MDs and formally trained technicians would coach other community members in how to test children for sickle cell syndrome, draw blood, or sometimes, in the case of women, do cervical exams.

Second, the Centers were community-facing. In all the Centers, listening was a priority in every face-to-face encounter. “Trusted” MDs were challenged if they treated care-seekers in a cursory, dismissive, or patronizing way. The Centers were also community-facing in more structured ways. For a start, some Centers had mobile vans. Next, inspired by China’s “barefoot doctors”, many Centers had “community health workers” who would listen to people on the streets, at community gathering-sites, and in care-seekers’ homes, both to understand people’s histories and to sense troubles that the Center might address. Through their shared understanding, these workers and other Center participants could start to imagine the sorts of practices it might take to achieve enduring ecological wellbeing over time.

Also, drawing on themes from liberation theology, some Centers were “community-facing” by assigning partners to accompany suffering people who ventured into state-funded healthcare facilities. The partners would document conditions and monitor treatment, challenging micro-aggressions when they occurred. Based on such witnessing, the Centers slowly compiled “maps” zeroing in on problems and gaps in the state’s healthcare system.

Such mapping leads us to the Centers’ third prefigurative feature. They served as platforms for political action as well as healthcare promotion. Center activism sometimes involved confronting the state through conventional “health rights” demands, thus seeking more dollars or goods for inevitably racialized bureaucracies like Medicaid. But it was also sometimes more disruptively creative, and prefigurative, in its methods and critique. For instance, after making conventional demands about a state-funded ambulance service that refused to transport Blacks, the Winston Salem, NC, Panther Chapter created its own. Such political action, blending strategic analysis, confrontation, and pro-action rather than defeat, did not just manifest prefiguration. It also saved Black lives.

A fourth feature of several Centers was the formal political education in which all Center affiliates took part. This unconventional “education” complemented the informal coaching and partnership that infused the practice. Yet though formal, it was collaborative and participatory rather than rigid and hierarchical. Key theoretical texts by Fanon, Guevara, Mao, and others were read by the groups for their insights on Black and oppressed people’s liberation and the deep post-colonial transformation that would follow.

A fifth and final feature of the Centers’ prefigurative model was the explicitly democratic procedures for their day-to-day governance. Seale and Newton had both worked in the Oakland Community Action Agency, a program funded by the federal “War on Poverty’s” Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. One of the Act’s provisions was that all funded programs require “maximum feasible participation” from the people it served. Though Seale and Newton were critical of their experience, they were struck to see this deeply democratic commitment embedded in grassroots social programs’ institutional design. Meanwhile, they were inspired by democratic design-features in post-liberation Chinese, Cuban, Latin American, and Tanzanian social programs, particularly in healthcare. Though many of these precedents had run into problems, several of the Centers did make deep democratic governance a part of their “DNA”. This feature would offer all players both immersive training for intuitional governance after the transition and the political skills and hutzpah, call it “empowerment”, called for to move toward it.

Through these five features the Panther Centers offer us a template of prefiguration. This template has and might be used in other sectors of present-day social provision to the same effect. For not only do such features, working in synch, “deliver” optimal “services” in the here-and-now. They also empower people to envision post-race-capitalist social institutions, to move toward them, and to know how to live with them when they finally get there.