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New Film Showcases How the Rainbow Coalition’s Struggle for Justice Lives On

Today’s grassroots community organizers and activists are continuing the work of the Rainbow Coalition.

A still from the film The First Rainbow Coalition (2019).

One of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton’s most famous quotes is: “You can kill a revolutionary, but you can’t kill the revolution.” Unfortunately, as the new documentary The First Rainbow Coalition demonstrates, the movement can be set back decades when a revolutionary of Hampton’s magnitude is killed. That struggle will continue for as long as people are subjected to racial discrimination, eco-apartheid, oppressive policing, displacement, a lack of affordable housing, jobs, health care, and other basic needs resulting from inequitable laws and government policies.

This great film shows how the shared experience of oppression and resistance led to the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords and the Young Patriots Organization forming an unlikely coalition. Young Lords leader José “Cha-Cha” Jiménez provides insightful commentary throughout the film, alongside other still-living members of the Rainbow Coalition who were interviewed by director Ray Santisteban. While the coalition first connected around policing issues, the Chicago Police Department (CPD) was not their only shared adversary; they took on the entire political establishment because they recognized their struggles as systemic. As Hampton said in a clip from The Murder of Fred Hampton that was included in the documentary, “We’re not a racist organization because we understand that racism is an excuse used for capitalism. It’s a byproduct of capitalism.”

Socialism was a driving force behind the original Rainbow Coalition. As former Black Panther Ericka Huggins states in the film,

Class consciousness cuts across all kinds of strata. For poor Black people to be working with poor white people was unheard of … [but] the motto of the Black Panther Party was all power to all the people. Not all power to some of the people.

Accordingly, socialist analysis heavily influenced the Black Panthers’ “survival programs,” which they introduced to the coalition. These revolutionary forms of mutual aid included the breakfast for children program, medical clinics, legal aid, transportation services, political education classes and more. The programs were all free, and the coalition made sure to let the people know that in a just world, they would be provided by city, state and federal governments. The coalition set out not only to meet the needs of the people, but to educate them about how the system of capitalism depends on poverty and produces precarity, and ultimately to empower them to work toward the liberation of all people.

However, the group’s increasingly political messaging led to intensified repression from the CPD, State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan and even the FBI. As Jiménez states,

The police were harder on us when we were political than when we were in a gang. If we were in a gang, we would get picked up on Friday, released Monday. When we were political, they were talking about life in jail.

City officials and the CPD constantly portrayed the group as violent criminals to justify their illegal and unconstitutional arrests and brutality. As former Young Patriot Bobby McGinnis says in the film,

Police [were] everywhere, aggravating everybody. And just any reason to get us in that police station. And they had a bench with the handcuff on the side so they can cuff you and beat the shit out of you with a phonebook or whatever they wanted to hit you with, as long as they didn’t leave any marks.

Though the Rainbow Coalition did not advocate violence, they did promote self-defense, which is a constitutional right of all Americans. This was a necessary survival tactic given the level of harassment that the groups faced, even in their community service efforts. One powerful shot from the film shows the aftermath of a police raid on the location of the free breakfast program, which CPD officers completely destroyed, needlessly trashing food meant for impoverished children.

Even though the promotion of self-defense was completely justified and deeply political, it made the Black Panthers and Young Lords an easy target for racist white Chicagoans. As former Chicago Tribune reporter Carolyn Toll Oppenheim states,

It appeared to me they wanted the white community to think that they could be violent if they had to on behalf of their people, so don’t mess with our people. They were meant to scare the police, but it was turned against them. It played right into the hands of [Chicago mayor Richard] Daley to say, “You see how violent these people are?”

This racist and political repression eventually culminated in the assassination of Fred Hampton on December 4, 1969.

Despite the fact that a Chicago police officer murdered a 21-year-old community activist in his sleep — after he was drugged by an FBI informant — no government official was ever held responsible. The 4 am raid on the Panthers’ apartment — in which the state’s attorney’s police fired over 100 bullets to the Panthers’ one (fired by Mark Clark as he fell to the floor after being shot and killed) — was followed up with criminal charges against the injured Panthers who managed to survive. Those charges were later dropped, and the Clark and Hampton families were able to secure a substantial civil settlement after a 13-year-long legal battle in which the city, police and FBI attempted to cover up their responsibility for the deaths.

Despite this blatant murder and cover-up, today the Chicago police and political establishment still portray Hampton as a thug who deserved to be killed. As Journalist Edward P. Morgan writes,

Stripped of their experimental context in violent inner-city America in the mid-to-late 1960s, and detached from their political analysis of economic and racial exploitation, the Panthers are easy targets for the ongoing effort by the powerful to restore the hegemony threatened in the 1960s era…. Within the mass media culture, state repression pays off twice. It adds to the likely visibility of militancy and violence, widely viewed as alienating by mass audiences, while it runs these radical fringe elements into the ground.

That is why documentaries like The First Rainbow Coalition are so essential. In this moment of environmental, political and economic crisis, we must continue their struggle.

A few days after the film’s release on PBS, the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy released a report about how racial inequality has contributed to Chicago’s Black population loss. Professor Barbara Ransby’s essential contribution to the report demonstrates that while poor Chicagoans still face the same troubles with police, housing, health, schools and jobs, the community-building spirit of Hampton lives on in the people who have fought this inequality and injustice. Ransby writes, “In Chicago, the cost of housing has skyrocketed, schools and services feel out of reach or only for the few, and surveillance and police violence make some neighborhoods feel under siege even as street level violence, fueled by economic factors, continues to destabilize where poor and working-class Black people live.… Yet, people have not only fled the growing inequality and injustice in the city, but have confronted and resisted it.”

Similarly, in The First Rainbow Coalition, former Black Panther Lynn French describes how the coalition’s struggles still resonate today,

We want[ed] true education, decent housing. We want[ed] people to have fair trials with a jury of their peers. We want[ed] an end to police brutality. Pretty much the same things that ring true now, unfortunately.

In 2020, grassroots community organizers and activists resisting oppression in Chicago and across the country are continuing the legacy of the Rainbow Coalition, described by historian Johanna Fernandez in the film as, “[giving] voice to the voiceless, and … demonstrat[ing] that ordinary people can change society through collective action.” Progressive organizations and lawmakers today fighting for policies like decarceration, decriminalization, ending cash bail, rent control, single-payer health care, universal daycare and school meals, and government investment in social housing, public schools, public utilities, jobs programs, reparations, decarbonization, and other climate emergency efforts are continuing the struggle of Hampton and the Rainbow Coalition. People promoting anti-capitalism and international anti-imperialist solidarity are continuing the anti-colonial efforts of the Young Lords and the Black Panthers.

The crises that face humanity share the same fundamental causes, rooted in a global system of racial capitalism that puts profit over people and the future of the Earth. It will take a mass movement to build the political will necessary to implement these policies, but the Rainbow Coalition provides one of the best examples of how to build that movement. More people are always needed to do the work, so as Hampton said, “Why don’t you live for the people? Why don’t you struggle for the people? Why don’t you die for the people?”

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