Across the country, Black Panther Parties are once again becoming more active. The organization was founded in the 1960s and was known for its militant self-defense and community-based programs. In Milwaukee, there are currently two active groups. WUWM’s LaToya Dennis went out with one, called the Original Black Panthers of Milwaukee, to learn about its mission.
It’s around 6 p.m. on a weekday evening when I arrive at the Original Black Panther Party headquarters. The group’s members are already hopping into two different vehicles. They’re heading out to businesses that they’ve heard are selling substances harmful to the community.
The General — who heads the Original Black Panthers group — goes by the name King Rick. “We’ve got some reports that there are three areas that are selling Legal Lean and High Tech syrup. Legal Lean and High Tech syrup is the equivalent to what the rappers drink. It dopes up our community, makes us lethargic,” he says.
After about a 15 minute ride, we arrived at the first location. The driver parks the car and runs in to survey the store, then comes back to the car with a report.
“They sell it, but they’re apparently sold out. But they have the signs and posters up.”
And with that, about 10 members of the Original Black Panther Party exit their respective vehicles and head into the store.
“How you doing, bro? Listen bro, we’re coming to you as black men. We have an issue with the Legal Lean and High Tech K syrup being sold in our community. And when we find out, we go to stores and ask them to stop selling it because it’s a detriment,” King Rick says.
The story owner agrees to take down the signs and stop selling the dangerous drink.
Once back in the car, King Rick says that people typically agree to stop doing whatever they’re being asked, but sometimes they don’t follow through. And when they don’t, he says the Black Panthers boycott and protest in front of their establishment.
King Rick says he was introduced to the Black Panthers as a child. He was a member of what was called “Panther Cubs” in the early 70s. The Black Panthers taught the kids about Black History and organized a breakfast program.
At the age of 54, he says he’s been a Panther for 44 years — although for a long time, the group wasn’t very active here. But King Rick says about two years ago, some black elders called for a reemergence of the party to tackle some of the problems in the community.
“We’re number one in so many negative statistical categories, education, housing, jobs, incarceration, hyper segregation. When you have those dynamics, it creates chaos,” he says.
King Rick says what’s at the core of the party’s reemergence is love.
“Love for community and strength and love and honor. Our goal for the community is the provision and protection of our queens, our family and our community by any means necessary,” he says.
And by any means necessary, King Rick says he’s not talking about violence.
“The day of violence is over. I mean violence is only necessary when it’s coming at you. But now it’s about economics because we as African Americans spend $1.1 trillion a year on goods and services and less than 2 percent of that is spent with our own,” he says.
King Rick says if black people unite, they have the power to change the way they’re seen in society, and gain the power to achieve economic freedom.
Across the country, Black Panther parties have never truly gone away. It’s just that they’re now becoming more visible, according to UW-Madison sociology professor Pamela Oliver. She says they parties are an outgrowth of Black Power movements, whose ranks have swelled in recent years.
“You tend to get social movements when you have that combination of grievance and the belief that there’s something you can do something about it,” Oliver says.
Historically, some Black Panther groups have been accused of racism — arguing they’re pro-black, at the expense of other groups. But back in the car with King Rick, he says the Black Panthers are not a racist group: “When has a Black Panther lynched somebody? When has a Black Panther burned somebody? When has a Black Panther stopped people from going to school?”
King Rick says the reality is that the Black Panther Party is against racism and oppression of Black people.