Flipping the Script on Panthers’ Bobbie Seale and AFL-CIO’s Rich Trumka

Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale checks food bags. March 31, 1972.

New Orleans   It’s a topsy-turvy world out there. What was down, is up, and what was up seems down, and we’re all looking for solid ground.

Take Bobby Seale, the controversial political and cultural icon of the 1960s and former Chairmen of the Black Panther Party. Steve Early, labor representative and journalist (and regular contributor to Social Policy), noted these same ironies in a recent piece in Counterpunch on the way what goes around has come around for the 81-year old Seale in his homecoming in the Bay Area and the Panther’s work in Richmond, particularly.

As Seale recalled last week, the BPP’s first local organizing in Richmond involved policing complaints. In its Richmond heyday, the BPP fed up to forty-five kids a day in a lower-budget breakfast program not funded by Big Oil. Panther volunteers did testing, door-to-door, for sickle cell anemia and hypertension. They gave away hundreds of free shoes to people in need. Although the BPP promoted black empowerment, Seale describes the Party today as a “populist movement” committed to “crossing all racial, religious, and ethnic lines.”

As the Richmond Progressive Alliance, a multi-racial political formation, has gained municipal clout in recent years, Panther history has won official and unofficial recognition locally. The RPA operates out of downtown storefront office renamed the Bobby Bowens Progressive Center, in honor of a Richmond Panther leader now deceased.

As Seale noted during his visit, a city hall proclamation in 2009 thanked him personally and “his organization and all the Black Panthers who…emerged from Richmond to activate, unite, organize, educate, mobilize, rally and increase awareness and hope for a better future for all the residents of our city.”

That local appreciation was expressed again in the standing ovation Seale received after his hour-long speech, to a crowd of 350, at a second Black History Month event hosted by For Richmond last Friday. Chairman Bobby began his talk with the observation that, once again, it’s “time to struggle and stand up for what you believe in.” He concluded, as expected, with the famous Panther salute, “Power to the People!” But, in between, he reminded his listeners that “the methodology of grassroots community organizing” remains key to gaining political power in Richmond or any place else where it hasn’t been well shared in the past.

Down comes up, it seems when the arc of history is long.

On the other hand, a message hit me from another friend and comrade calling attention to a visit by Rich Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO to Fox Business News. He was red-hot mad that Trumka, seen as the voice of American workers, had called Trump’s speech before Congress his “finest moment” and expressed his willingness of labor to “partner” with Trump on trade and other issues. I listened to the clip, and, inarguably, Trumka said those things, but it wasn’t totally upside down, because he was also clear that Trump has promised, but hasn’t delivered, and has to balance the playing field, rather than toadying to the rich. It seemed clearer that President Trump has labor leaders like Trumka walking a tightrope without any net. They want him to deliver on jobs and trade, but know that they are going to get hammered almost everywhere else. This is a dangerous act though, since Trumka, like most union chiefs, have to understand that Trump can start and stop the merry-go-round any time he wants, either tossing them aside or making Trumka and his team, in the famous British expression of the relationship of George Bush and Tony Blair, his “toy poodle.”

Maybe Trumka has not totally flip flopped from up to down, but he – and the rest of us – have to be worried about whether we can survive with Trump anywhere near the middle.