Body, Soul, Survival

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University of Washington, Seattle. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2017

“Health is politics by other means,” asserts Columbia University professor of sociology Alondra Nelson in her fascinating book Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011). Nelson acknowledges that her statement is inspired by French philosopher and scientist Bruno Latour’s assertion that science is politics by other means. For anyone who ever doubted either of these assertions—or thought they were alternative facts—you must live in the Land of Narnia.

Before reading Nelson’s book I knew that Black Panther Party for Self Defense had created community-based primary care health clinics in many major U.S. urban areas in the late 1960s/early 1970s. But I did not understand the true breadth of their healthcare activism. I worked as a nurse practitioner for about six years at Seattle’s Carolyn Downs Family Medical Clinic , originally formed in 1968 as a Black Panther clinic. It is located in the Central District of Seattle, a traditionally black neighborhood that is now significantly gentrifying. It is named after an early Black Panther community organizer, Carolyn Downs, who died at an early age of breast cancer—something that most likely could have been detected and more effectively treated if she had had better access to the primary care now provided by the clinic she helped develop. A highlight for me of working at Carolyn Downs Clinic was being able to care for one of Carolyn’s granddaughters.

The Black Panther Party for Self Defense was formed in Oakland in 1966 as a survival tactic “to afford protection for poor blacks from police brutality and to offer varied other services to these same communities.” (pp. 5-6) These services included the establishment of no-cost community-based primary care clinics, sickle-cell and blood pressure screenings, free breakfast programs for children, and after-school and summer tutoring programs. They also formed teams of patient advocates who accompanied their patients to hospitals or specialty care, heralding our current system of patient navigators. The Black Panthers were also instrumental in challenging the formation of the Center for the Study and Reduction of Violence at UCLA, a research center backed by the California governor Ronald Reagan, and which promised to find the origins of violence. It was to be headed by psychiatrist Louis Jolyon West, whose previous research included experiments with sleep deprivation, LSD, and correlating the era’s student activism with antisocial behavior. (pp. 153-154) The Black Panthers contended that aggression for people within marginalized communities was a legitimate response to oppression. They, along with many other activists, were successful in blocking funding for this center.

The American Journal of Public Health (AJPH) dedicated its entire October 2016 special edition issue to the public health work and legacies of the Black Panther Party. As physician and AJPH editor-in-chief Alfredo Morabia writes:

“Now that a new generation is carrying on the ideals of the health activists of the 1960s, it is time to revisit this history, understand the strengths and weaknesses of the BPP public health initiatives, and have a frank debate about what really happened. The stakes are huge for an emerging generation unwilling to accept that certain lives matter less than others, and that, as the recent massive lead contamination of the Flint, Michigan, water system shows, many poor (and Black) communities still remain defenseless against such overtly aggressive assaults to their health in a context in which, as Angus Deaton puts it, the infamous one percent is not only richer but much healthier.”

Read more in this AJPH special issue: http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/full/10.2105/AJPH.2016.303405

Additional resources:

The Seattle Black Panther Party History and Memory Project, part of the University of Washington’s Seattle’s Civil Rights and Labor History Project, led by UW professor of history James Gregory—contains videotaped oral histories, historical photographs and news coverage and more.

 

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