May 24, 2004

Bush, The “War” On Terror, And The Black Panthers: It Aint Just Black And White

In the bubble of the White House, Bush and Co. seem convinced they can aggressively and unilaterally pursue war in Iraq one day, then suddenly back-off and “finesse” the whole thing with a “Mission Accomplished” gesture the next. If it had been six months ago, the spin probably would have taken. But the mental environment has been shifting. I believe Bush’s “credibility bar” has been raised substantially in the past couple weeks. To what extent the White House Bubble Boys actually realize this is another matter. Having regained some sight after blind faith, however, I don’t see even the general population going back.

To that end, Bush must now contend with a press, a Congress and, increasingly, a Republican party with partially restored vision. In Congress, the John Warner’s, John McCain’s and Richard Lugar’s are no longer looking away. In the press, stories that wouldn’t have lasted a day (or wouldn’t have appeared) are not just gaining legs, but adding to an understanding that President Bush and this so-called “war” require real scrutiny.

In the midst of this growing resistance to the terror “story line,” I think it’s interesting there has been such interest in the mainstream press recently in a photography exhibition about the Black Panthers.

An important part of the Panther legacy involves the photographs by Ruth-Marion Baruch and Pirkle Jones, a pair of photographers who were given full access to the party in it’s prime. (A traveling exhibition of these photographs is currently showing in Los Angeles.)

What’s interesting is that, if you were to put the case of the Panthers in front of the Bubble Boys, I’m sure they would simply stuff them into their “one-size-fits-all” category of terrorists. When you look at the images, however, it’s not that simple. Just as the country today is (finally) beginning to bring some nuance to Bush, Iraq and terrorism, so do these pictures reflect the complexity of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam experience. With the aid of history, these images speak as much about commitment as about confrontation, and as much about about idealism and creativity as about anger.

As is happening already, I’m sure we will look back on this period and be shocked at the extent to which Bush steered even the thoughtful into a basic mindset of good and evil, black and white.

There are a couple images from Pirkle Jones in this photo exhibition (click the Gallery link) held at the University of California Museum of Photography in 1991. (Although these images tend to evoke more nostalgia than anything else, the image with Arafat brings the intensity of the times into a more contemporary light.)

Another site with Panther images is Greybull Press. Offering books dealing with either creative subjects (R. Crumb, Ron Galella) or creative presentation, they offer a short video montage for each. Here is the short clip based on their book “Black Panthers 1968.”


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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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