Mention "Black Panthers" to a young person today and if the words have any resonance at all, they might bring to mind the two knuckleheads who made a scene outside a Philadelphia polling place on Election Day 2008.
But there was a time when a powerful revolutionary movement of the same name -- with infinitely more damaging consequences -- actually did infiltrate urban America.
Tigre Hill's new movie, "The Barrel of a Gun," which premiered Tuesday at the Merriam Theater in Philadelphia, is a grim reminder of that era. The movie is a full-screen documentary about the murder of Daniel Faulkner by Mumia Abu-Jamal on Dec. 9, 1981, in Philadelphia.
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At a time when the only thing some may wish to hear about Abu-Jamal is news of his passing, Hill does a public service in "Barrel" by placing his actions in historical context and providing a compelling answer as to why Abu-Jamal pulled the trigger.
The movie chronicles the rise of the Black Panthers and the peak of their power in the late 1960s. The FBI defined the Panthers as a "black extremist organization" that "advocates the use of guns and guerrilla tactics to bring about the overthrow of the United States government." J. Edgar Hoover called them "the greatest danger to the internal security of the country."
The Panthers preached black militancy and the use of violence not only to achieve revolution, but also to enliven the consciousness of those behind it. In short, they wanted to overthrow the establishment, so they targeted its most visible representatives: police officers.
For the blueprint of this revolution, the film notes, Panthers cofounder Huey Newton looked past figures like Karl Marx or the Soviet Union. Instead, Newton's Panthers drew inspiration from Mao Tse-tung. The Panthers' kinship with Chairman Mao was so pronounced that Newton and his foot soldiers handed out copies of the Little Red Book -- essentially Mao's manifesto.
Abu-Jamal, still a teenager when he helped found the Panthers' Philadelphia chapter, was one of those distributing the book.
He was proselytizing for an organization whose rallying cry at the time was "Off the pigs." And indeed, in 1967, Newton was convicted of voluntary manslaughter after an altercation in which an Oakland police officer was killed. He was released two years later on a technicality.
Of Newton, Abu-Jamal wrote in 2004: "It is beyond dispute that Huey P. Newton was a man of signal brilliance and truly remarkable courage. ... He was a model that all Panthers aspired to." Of police officers, he wrote in 1970: "I for one feel like putting down my pen. Let's write epitaphs for pigs."
When the Panthers' influence waned in the 1970s, Abu-Jamal became infatuated with MOVE, itself a supposedly revolutionary "back-to-nature" organization with local origins.
By this time, Hill's film notes, Abu-Jamal was working as a radio journalist.
In interviews with Hill, observers and colleagues describe an increasingly confrontational Abu-Jamal injecting MOVE's agenda into every story he filed. They recall a man whose political leanings were so radicalized that peers felt uncomfortable engaging him. "A number of people had said he's going to snap," one observer says in the film. Eventually, Abu-Jamal had to become a taxi driver because the news organizations for which he worked no longer wanted to run his stories.
All of which makes a mockery of the way in which the murderer's supporters often describe him -- as a "brilliant" or "award-winning" journalist taken down by a corrupt system. Far from it. When he ran across the street to execute Officer Faulkner, Mumia Abu-Jamal was nothing more than a cabby with a history of radicalism so pronounced that the FBI maintained a file on him.
Therein lies the real value of "The Barrel of a Gun." The film's most notable accomplishment is placing Officer Faulkner's murder in historical context, while also reminding us of an era fraught with extremist domestic groups whose central focus was to perpetrate violence against the state.
Today, the term "radical" is trotted out to describe a political opponent. Or the president of the United States. And the most infamous deed of the New Black Panthers, who make a brief appearance in "Barrel," consists of standing outside the old Richard Allen Homes with a billy-club on Election Day.
It all pales in comparison to the reality that men like Officers Faulkner and Ramp or Sgt. Frank Von Colln, executed in 1970 amid a fit of anti-police violence, encountered throughout their careers.
Contact Smerconish, a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer, via www.smerconish.com.