The oft-cited high road in social settings is to not (never!) talk politics. Don’t make it awkward! Be the middle ground between the uber-polarized battleground of the left and right. If anyone asks where you may stand, take the position of neutrality, the middle-man, the mature arbiter — be apolitical.
In today’s day and age, it may seem as though taking no stance amidst the frenzy of American politics is the best route. Especially in a college setting such as our own, some of us think a surefire method of not making friends is to be vocal about our political stances — the last thing we want to do is alienate ourselves by potentially alienating a group of others. William O’Neal exhibited a similar mindset preceding his infiltration into the Black Panther Party (BPP) in the late 1960s, as portrayed in the highly-anticipated Shaka King film “Judas and the Black Messiah.” O’Neal, played by Lakeith Stanfield, sets to wave his own criminal record by informing the Federal Bureau of Investigation on the proceedings of one of the most influential Black revolutionaries of the 20th century — the BPP’s Chairman Fred Hampton played by Daniel Kaluuya. Though the film offers many lessons, one of its loudest is the eventual assured disintegration of apathy. What begins because of a sense of political indifference ends in the death of the Chairman by the hands of the United States government. What starts as no stance eventually teeters one way or the other, and in the case of O’Neale, slips too deep to the wrong end.
Throughout the unfortunate tragedy, the FBI wields O’Neal like a puppet, hanging his potential prison sentence over his head in an effort to keep him docile in his informancy. At one point, the agent working with O’Neal discusses his own thoughts on the Black Panther Party and likens them to the Ku Klux Klan, and O’Neal mumbles in neither agreement or disagreement — the neutrality persists. As the film progresses, the agent observes O’Neal at a rally during one of Chairman Hampton’s speeches, later remarking to him that it looked like he believed what the Chairman was saying. And here and there, it really did look so: O’Neal’s glass shield of apathy seems to chip as the crowd shouts in vigor “I am a revolutionary!” It makes sense why the American government would see Chairman Hampton as a threat: He wove together similarities in groups that would never have seen the commonality in their causes prior. With the Rainbow Coalition, Hampton created a multicultural coalition with the most unlikely participants at face value, the Young Patriots Organization. The film displays Chairman Hampton walking into their meeting, with him on one side and a group member speaking on the other, the Young Patriots Organization’s Confederate flag hanging proudly in the background. By the end of their discussion, members of the Young Patriot Organization realize the common goal that unites their interests with those of the BPP: minimizing and eventually ending poverty. In the same way, Chairman Hampton also joins forces with Young Lords, a predominantly Latinx based organization that, through his convincing, realize the same common goal. Following the creation of this organization, many of its subgroups advanced social programs like free breakfast programs, medical clinics and clothing drives. It seems as though the BPP isn’t as extreme as most media and historical recounts push us to perceive them as; it seems as though at the end of the day, their stances and programs were nowhere near extremist, rather increasingly applicable and greatly beneficial to a wide array of Americans from varying backgrounds. This may be why FBI director J. Edgar Hoover cited them as the country’s biggest threat — they, and as this film aptly displays, certainly Chairman Hampton, filled the void created by the American government in its disregard for and perpetuation of racial and economic injustice, by serving as the unifying, benefactory role that many would expect a just government to do.
But fear-mongering of the other unfortunately works too well, and combined with the FBI’s pressure on O’Neal, he undoubtedly was more of a pawn than a willful perpetrator. However, it’s important to note that O’Neil’s initially nonexistent stance became grossly misappropriated to serve another stance, a vested interest by the preservers of the status quo. Moreso, the film provides a contrast that may be even more telling — groups that initially solely looked inwards in their advocacy realized the inherent universal political deterrents of their own causes — realization spurred by conversation, debate and for lack of a better term, initially awkward encounters. While O’Neal ran from ascribing to any political or social movement, he actively worked against the interests of his own community; whereas Chairman Hampton unearthed commonalities in the pursuits of communities that, until that point, were others to one another. The real kicker to me? As I watched the film, picking up my phone every other second to research if that aspect they just mentioned was real or made up, I came across the ages of both O’Neal and Hampton at the time of these events. 20 and 21, respectively. Any of us could be either of them right now: We could either be a vessel for vested interests that aren’t ours, or we can be an instrument to deliver long-awaited justice in a world that seems devoid of it. The decision we make incrementally becomes clearer and clearer based on the stances we take, or more significantly, don’t.
MiC Columnist Eliya Imtiaz can be contacted at email@example.com
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