There’s a new documentary worth checking out, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975. It is streamable on Netflix. It’s full of old footage Swedish filmmakers took while following the Black Power movement in the United States, footage which has just recently been found.
The documentary mentioned something I was unaware of – one of the gravest threats the FBI saw in the Black Panther movement was their Free Children’s Breakfast Program. And I just saw that program mentioned on Larisa Mann’s tumblr, originally from nativethoughts:
If you read the FBI files you will see that even Mr. J. Edgar Hoover himself had to say that it was not the guns that were the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States of America; it was not the guns, it was the Free Children’s Breakfast Program that was the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States of America. Grits. Now why was it the Free Children’s Breakfast Program?
As proposed by the Black Panthers in 1969, “The Free Breakfast for School Children is about to cover the country and be initiated in every chapter and branch of tile Black Panther Party. This program was created because the Black Panther Party understands that our children need a nourishing breakfast every morning so that they can learn…It is a beautiful sight to see our children eat in the mornings after remembering the times when our stomachs were not full, and even the teachers in the schools say that there is a great improvement in the academic skills of the children that do get the breakfast. At one time there were children that passed out in class from hunger, or had to be sent home for something to eat.”
Here’s what Hoover wrote: “The Breakfast for Children Program (BCP) has been instituted by the BPP in several cities to provide a stable breakfast for ghetto children. . . . The program has met with some success and has resulted in considerable favorable publicity for the BPP. . . . The resulting publicity tends to portray the BPP in a favorable light and clouds the violent nature of the group and its ultimate aim of insurrection. The BCP promotes at least tacit support for the BPP among naive individuals .. . and, what is more distressing, provides the BPP with a ready audience composed of highly impressionable youths.. . . Consequently, the BCP represents the best and most influential activity going for the BPP and, as such, is potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities . . . to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for. ” (FBI airtel from director to SACs in twenty-seven field offices. May 15, 1969.)
It’s funny, because if you listen to libertarians and conservatives this is precisely what they want to see – private charity stepping into poverty and providing welfare locally. Yet this was the major threat the FBI saw in the Black Power movement. Beyond books and speeches and marches and guns, providing food to hungry young people, unconditional on anything, had their greatest power.
One thing that wasn’t noticed enough was the focus in Occupy on providing basic, unconditional infrastructure on necessities and care in occupation spaces. Sarah Jaffe has written about this, first in this good Alternet article: “Free health care, a sanitation team, a public library, solar power, and free childcare are just a few of the services the Occupy Wall Street protesters are providing.” Free childcare! Also here: “They are building that other world. They have given up on asking for political action and have simply modeled the world they want to see. That world provides free childcare.”
I’ve heard some critics say that these spontaneous infrastructure projects reify a certain mode of neoliberal governmentality. The process of anarchists taking it upon themselves to provide an unconditional welfare state in miniature locally simply removes the demand for the state to do these things broadly. It makes austerity look ok, because dedicated citizens and community will just step into the breach and make their own, entrepreneurially-focused, welfare state in the new neoliberal-era.
If so, why did Hoover find the breakfasts so worrisome? Is it because, as the ethnographic literature tells us, participation often proceeds beliefs – and participating in this unconditional welfare state creates the belief that it is a deserved human right? And did Occupy’s unconditional care infrastructure propose a similar type of challenge? Mental note: need to think more about this. Your thoughts?