Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Black Panthers and the right to health care

 by Lisa Hane, RN, PHN, MSN

“They were so good and so caring and so intelligent.  They weren’t crazy.  They were about planning and strategizing”.  When you read accounts of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in the mainstream media, this description would hardly be one you’d see. But this quote is from Cleo Silvers whose interview appears in the October 2016 issue of the American Journal of Public Health.  Ms. Silvers, a life-long organizer and leader of the 1970 Lincoln Hospital take-over, shares her experiences with the Party and explains the role they played in demanding healthcare as a right.

The issue devotes a large portion of its pages to examining the public health legacy of the Black Panther Party. It explores the role of the Panthers in recognizing the crisis of health care in the black community, fighting for working class empowerment on all issues having to do with health, and laid the basis for many of the social programs that exist in the US today.

When the Party was founded in Oakland, California in 1966 by six members including Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, a 10 point plan was developed outlining the organizing principles by which the Party would be guided. 

The Program was as follows:

  1. We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.
  2. We want full employment for our people.
  3. We want an end to the robbery by the white men of our Black Community.
  4. We want decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings.
  5. We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present day society.
  6. We want all Black men to be exempt from military service.
  7. We want an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of Black people.
  8. We want freedom for all Black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails.
  9. We want all Black people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury of their peer group or people from their Black Communities, as defined by the Constitution of the United States.
  10. We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.

By 1970 the Party’s focus widened from a self-defense platform to a much broader revolutionary social justice organization and the program was adjusted to reflect the changing consciousness of the members and society.  Point 3 was changed to, "We want an end to the robbery by the capitalists of our black and oppressed communities." And point 6 became, “We want completely free healthcare for all Black and oppressed people.”

Party members throughout the US understood that access to health care was essential to the strength of communities and that the fight for free healthcare was a necessary step on the path to fundamentally changing society. The Panthers knew that the conditions Blacks were experiencing – poverty, unemployment, lack of adequate housing and education were directly linked to poor health. Over time, the Party developed what Panther leader Huey P. Newton called “survival programs”. They included the Free Breakfast for Children program (the inspiration for today’s Head Start Program), clothing distribution centers, and health clinics. One health clinic eventually expanded to thirteen. Thousands of men, women and children were served where they would otherwise go unseen in health clinics.

The volunteer doctors, nurses and health workers developed a much-needed and radical program for research, education, and screening for sickle-cell anemia  (a blood disease that predominantly affects people of African descent and that had been largely ignored by the mainstream medical community).  Even health care workers who were not party members were inspired and began setting up their own clinics including Chicago’s Free Peoples’ Medical Care Center which over a period of 14 months in 1970 and 1971 saw over 1,400 patients. In 1970, New York City’s Lincoln Hospital was occupied by workers demanding safe and accessible health care for all.  That occupation where organizers such as Cleo Silvers made the call: “Lincoln Hospital Belongs to the People”, was responsible for creating what every hospital has posted on it’s walls today: The Patient’s Bill of Rights.

It is at once inspirational and infuriating learning about the history of the Panther’s health programs.  People were cared for, and lives were undoubtedly saved.  Yet the government infiltration of the Party through the COINTELPRO and the assassination and imprisonment of so many of the greatest young fighters stopped the Black Panther Party efforts to transform society.   The Panthers would have had no time for the Obama  administration’s weak and largely ineffective Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act which is merely a gift to the insurance companies.

We need to look at the lessons of the past, see the potential for uniting all working people, students and youth of all backgrounds as the Panthers were attempting to do, and demand nothing less than free healthcare for all.

As Chicago Panther leader Fred Hampton said months before he was assassinated by the Chicago Police, “First you have free breakfasts, then you have free medical care, then you have free bus rides, and soon you have FREEDOM!”

1 comment:

Sean said...

Thank you very much Lisa for your article on the Black Panthers struggle for health care. It is very inspiring. No wonder the US capitalist state assassinated some of its best known leaders. Sean O'Torain.