It is Friday night, and I am waiting for a friend at Brixton. We sometimes meet at the Ritzy, a local cinema and other events venue, and then decide where to go. As I am reaching the place, I come across a small group of people piqueting outside. An old man hands out a leaflet to me and informs me that this is about supporting the workers at Ritzy to be given a living wage (as opposed to the minimum wage). Of course, now I remember. There has been a dispute between the owner and the employees for quite some time.
The old man does not work at Ritzy, but is a member of their union. I show some compassion and I apologise that I have to enter the building to wait for my friend. I also foolishly perhaps say that I am not going to buy a ticket of any sort, but perhaps have the first drink for the night. “There are many pubs around that you could go to”, he says, “you don’t have to pay Ritzy for your drink!”. Ok, then, I will just enter and only wait for my friend to arrive.
On my way in, I encounter a very long queue, an immediate sign that the venue definitely earns enough to support a living wage for their staff. I kind of struggle to reach to the ground floor bar, which is much busier than usual. “Black Panther Party starting at 9.30” says on the board. What is that supposed to mean? There is an increased black presence, not unusual for Brixton, but still not quite what I expected at the Ritzy. They are dressed well, for the party I reckon, and some of them seem to be part of the organising team, dressed in eccentric outfits.
In the meantime, I have been in and out of the venue, and then my friend arrives. We have a brief chat about having the drink elsewhere, but we decide to compromise our solidarity to the protest outside and see what this party is all about, postponing looking for an alternative place for later.
The piqueting has certainly given a ‘way of seeing’ for the night, and the living wage for the workers at the Ritzy is what comes up for discussion, after we found a place to sit. We agree that the venue is ridiculous if they have the ability to pay more and they do not do it. After absorbing a bit more of the atmosphere, what gradually becomes strikingly apparent is how the context of the night is a great mockery to what has been happening outside the venue and…some time after the Second World War!
Black Panther(s) Party. It is spelled without an “s” on the announcement board, but obviously if this refers to the political group of Sixties America, then it should be in plural. Anyhow, this is what sparks some heated…sips of beer. The people around us are here for a black panther-themed party. They all look well-dressed, which most of the times means that they earn a comparable living. They are of a mix of ethnicities, black and white, and possibly a few EU like us. The bartenders are also both white and black, the ones earning the minimum instead of the living wage.
And we start to see a bigger frame for our picture. The white and Hispanic piqueters outside trying to stop more-than-living-wage customers to enter the venue and stay in front of a bar, behind of which are minimum wage earners. Between the piqueters and the workers, there is a Black Panther party on for the night, which is not for them, but for the ones in the middle. Historically though, the least association the middle class group of the night that could have to a movement like the Black Panthers, could be Martin Luther King’s (soft) side of the civil rights movement.
This is more or less what passed our minds and what we talked about for half an hour or so. It does not matter so much whether our speculations are true, but more that there is a certain symbolism in the space and time we are in, which is quite profound. It is created by words, by the quality of clothes, by the colours of the skin, not by what is really happening and what these people are thinking. Not even by what the party was actually about, as it turned out the day after.
Apparently, there is a film with the title “Black Panther” just released. And this is when it made sense that some people near the starting time of the party were dressed as comic characters, who must have been immitating the ones appearing in the film. From what I read very briefly, the film is about black empowerement, and its title may be referring to the actual Black Panthers, but certainly the party was dedicated to the film and not the political movement. This coincidence kind of reduces the mocking in relation to the piqueting and the living wage, as people (customers) were there for a comic-based film and its party, the title of which was not taken from the political movement.
Nevertheless, the great irony of the night was the intersectionalistic craziness of what seemed to be happening. Privileged black and white people partying over a theme which reads as politically radical, in the presence of black and white low earners, who would have preferred not to party, but to close the place (which actually happened the day after) until they get what they want. The “black panthers” present, whether white or black, were actually indirectly obstructing a protest of rights, just like some white people were doing to the real Black Panthers in the 60s.