The Black Panthers in Portland

Kristian Williams

by Sarah Mirk; illustrated by Khris Soden
published by The Dill Pickle Club, 40 pages, black and white, soft cover, $3.
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PORTLAND’S BLACK PANTHERS, the fourth in the Dill Pickle Club’s 10-part Oregon History Comics series, briefly recounts the highpoints in the local organization’s revolutionary activism — the founding of the Portland chapter, police harassment and court cases, and the breakfast program and free clinics.

The work of the Portland chapter seems to have been very much like that of the Party’s organs in other cities, but the setting was obviously very different than that of Oakland, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Philadelphia: In 1970, Portland, Oregon (population 383,000) was 96% white, and only 2.3% Black.  This context must have had some significance for the Party and its work, but unfortunately the comic leaves the question largely unexplored, and gives no real opportunity for comparing Portland to the larger or more famous branches.

Stylistically the comic’s chief feature is its simplicity. It is clearly written and the story is told with a minimum of sensationalism, melodrama, or overt propaganda. Likewise, the illustrations are very cartoonish without lapsing into caricature (an important consideration with a white artist illustrating a racially-charged narrative).

However, nearly all of Soden’s characters look friendly and harmless — including the cops, which is actually something of a problem. As a result, the sense of sharp conflict essential to the story, and the real danger accompanying the Panthers’ work, fail to come across clearly in the images. Even the scenes of actual violence look strangely innocent.

Taken purely in comics terms, Portland’s Black Panthers is fairly unremarkable. But, as a project and an artifact, it may yet be important.

For one thing, it is part of a series that represents an effort to popularize stories from Oregon’s history. The format — short, accessible comics published as inexpensive zines — is a crucial element to that effort, as it will surely appeal to people who would never set foot inside the Oregon Historical Society.

Furthermore, there’s been very little written about the local chapter of the Black Panther Party, in any format. I believe the bibliography included in this booklet — listing three articles, two books, two films, and some online resources — is practically exhaustive. The writer, Sarah Mirk, overcame this obstacle partly by examining the initial newspaper reporting on the Panthers, and, more notably, by interviewing some of the people responsible for the activities described — chiefly Panther leaders like Kent Ford and Percy Hampton, but also a pair of nurses from the Party’s free clinic.

It’s exciting to see original historical research published in comics form, and so these small pamphlets may point to some greater possibilities both for comics as scholarship, and history as a popular genre.

The hipster appeal of the zine format makes the comic something of a political intervention in a mostly white city, populated in large part by transplants.

A great many Portlanders — especially the young arty types settling in the city’s historically Black neighborhoods — have no grasp of the context into which they are stepping, and thus are prone to misunderstanding the politics of gentrification, policing, and race in general. Portland’s Black Panthers fills in some of that history and very gently points the reader back to the present, by indicating how the geography of the city has changed, and how inequality and state repression continue to affect the lives of the aging revolutionaries.

July/August 2012, ATC 159