Zibechi: Rebel Health and Anti-Capitalist Movements

People’s Free Clinics established by the Black Panther Party included free testing for sickle cell anemia.

By: Raúl Zibechi

More than half a century ago, the Black Panther Party was probably one of the first organizations to implement a health care system alternative to that of the hegemonic system. The booklet Medical Self-Defense. Black Panthers and Zapatistas,” not only reveals the similarities between the two health experiences, but details the achievements of the Black American Movement.

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was formed in 1966 after the uprising of the black community of Hunters Point in San Francisco, repressed by the National Guard with the same style of bayonets that fought against guerrillas in the Vietnam War, as recognized by the head of the operation.

The concept of “medical self-defense” was conceived as the defense against the medical and pharmaceutical device that reduced black communities to fields of experimentation, but also as the way of appropriating medical knowledge that reduces users to passive objects (patients), exercising material and symbolic violence against the most impoverished communities.

From 1968 the Panthers opened clinics in black neighborhoods in several large cities, such as Chicago, Seattle and Kansas City, Missouri, among the first, which they named as People’s Free Clinics, which expanded to thirteen cities. They were inserted into a broad radical care movement driven by the feminist health movement, among others. They were supported by volunteer medical personnel and were responsible not only for health but also for the education and organization of the population.

As part of their policy of self-determination of the Afro-descendant population, they decided that the communities would take health into their own hands, but at the same time they developed Survival Programs, highlighting primary schools, breakfasts, legal advice and free health, including a dental program, vaccination campaigns and housing cooperatives. They were very clear that it was not about welfare but about a step to the construction of power in the communities.

Community Information Centers provided information about all of the Survival Programs sponsored by the Panthers.

To equip the clinics, they counted on medical staff who donated radiology machines and provided various services, such as pediatrics, training activists as laboratory technicians and first responders. Thus, some Black Panther clinics managed to see a hundred patients per week.

One particular case is that of acupuncture. Two groups from the party traveled to China to receive training, which allowed them to learn acupuncture that they then practiced as a technique for treating addictions and post-traumatic stress. It was this movement that introduced acupuncture in the United States.

They organized community survival conferences that lasted several days as neighborhood parties and modes of collective protest, in which the history of black people was discussed and free clinics were promoted. They got a bus for prison visits for relatives and friends of the incarcerated, as well as thousands of free tests for sickle cell anemia that mainly affects black communities and that the government did not attend to at the time.

As the aforementioned work points out, “the Panthers had an enormous influence on health initiatives that go beyond the organization itself and its years of activity.”

Zapatista Municipal Clinic in San Manuel named in honor of Compañera Lucha.

I think this is a central issue. The influence of the Panthers transcends geographies and calendars, as is the case with the Zapatista movement. The achievements of the black movement are more than 50 years old and only in these times are we being able to recover them and appreciate their importance.

It is still too early to understand the transcendence of Zapatismo. We know that it has impacts all over the world, that autonomies grow in all corners of the Latin American continent and that its legitimacy and prestige go beyond Mexican borders. Even so, it will be years before we can assume that we are facing one of the revolutions that transformed the way people do things, the political culture of those below.

Originally Published in Spanish by Desinformemonos, Monday, May 15, 2023, https://desinformemonos.org/salud-rebelde-y-movimientos-anti-capitalistas/ and Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee

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