Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from Edward Cervantes' "My Black Panther Re-education" post. To read the full version, visit www.oaklandvoices.us.
Recently, posters were plastered on an electrical box in front of the liquor store at 5th Avenue and Foothill Boulevard that demanded "vengeance for Alan Blueford" and called for a "war on the OPD." The sentiment struck me as a bit severe, frightening even.
Blueford was shot and killed by police in the early morning hours of May 6 after a foot chase. Blueford's family and supporters have held several rallies since the 18-year-old was killed, including a raucous gathering at a City Council meeting that disrupted proceedings. A federal wrongful death lawsuit has also been filed by the family, even though the shooting was ruled justifiable by the Alameda County District Attorney's Office.
Regardless of what may happened May 6, inciting further violence seemed counterproductive. And vengeance isn't justice.
The day after first seeing the poster, I attended a rally celebrating the 46th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party here in Oakland.
As part of Black Panther Party History Month in October, former members of the controversial political organization gathered at Frank Ogawa Plaza for speeches, awards and performances that highlighted the Panthers' good work in this city and other communities around the country.
The event later moved down the street to Geoffrey's Inner Circle for a meet and greet with influential early members and recognition of current volunteers who carry on the Panthers' legacy of promoting economic and social justice.
I couldn't stop thinking about the poster. I wondered if, with the passing of time, members of the Black Panther Party had changed their views on guns and violence.
I pulled up a picture of the poster on my phone and showed it to a former member, assuming he would tell me that the Black Panther Party wouldn't condone violence these days.
My ignorance of Panther politics must have been immediately apparent.
He got silent, leaned back in his chair, and like a frustrated professor, sent me away to do further research.
I was instructed to look into Robert F. Williams' "Negroes With Guns." After that, I could contact him if I still had questions. Leaning toward the more radical end of liberal politics, I've always assumed support for the Black Panthers.
But in doing the suggested research, I realized that I had a one-dimensional understanding of the party's politics and ideology.
It could just be a blind spot in my knowledge. Or maybe it would have been different had I not grown up in a mostly-white suburb.
But I see it now: The Panthers have a complicated history that has been mischaracterized and unfairly stigmatized.
"Black Panthers" for many conjures images of armed black militants. At best, the Black Power Movement invokes Tommie Smith and John Carlos -- the two Olympic medalists who were banned for life from the games after raising their fists during their medal ceremony in 1968.
I did not associate the Black Panthers with projects like the Lil' Bobby Hutton Literacy Campaign. Named after the party's first recruit -- a 16-year old who was later shot to death by Oakland police. The campaign is entirely volunteer-run and aims to cut Oakland's high illiteracy rate.
Coordinated by Eseibio Halliday and Melvin Dickson, the campaign struggles to secure grants for its work because funders are wary of its association with the Black Panthers. But they do what they can, where they can.
So what would the Panthers think about the call for a "war on the OPD?" The group's original full name points to an answer: The Black Panther Party for Self Defense.
In "Negroes with Guns," Robert F. Williams -- who heavily influenced the party's founders -- did not incite unnecessary violence. He believed that black communities should protect themselves from violent racism "by any means necessary."
In this vein, the Panthers organized "police patrols" to monitor OPD's behavior in black neighborhoods. The model was replicated in cities and towns around the country.
Today, mainstream media often depicts a Panther demise into pimping, drug-dealing and gangbanging, but that history is questioned and should not be the dominate narrative of the party's legacy.
In 1968, the police were the soldiers of a racist system and acted with impunity. The Panthers offered black communities much-needed protection, and through good works like teaching and feeding children, empowered and mobilized people to stand up against racial violence and rampant police brutality.
That history continues to dog OPD, as it has spent the past 10 years trying to reform itself and continues to teeter on the edge of federal receivership.
It is easy for those of us who are not regularly harassed by the police to condemn the unattributed "War on the OPD" posters, but peace and nonviolence don't block batons or bullets. Most of us would defend ourselves "by any means necessary."
When asked if the Panther ideology had a role to play in 2012, Dickson immediately said, "It's up to young people to create the change we need," before going on to explain that it's the responsibility of elders "to share the knowledge and experience they've gained."
Oakland Voices correspondent Edward Cervantes is a Los Angeles native and former New Yorker. He now lives in Oakland, with his partner, Jim, and their three cats. He is a candidate for a master's degree in public policy at Mills College.