Amelie Alchin | Love, Justice, and the Black Panthers

By Amelie Alchin

Love, Justice, and the Black Panthers

“Rooted in survival is the idea of love, education, and empowerment.”

– Jamal Joseph

For Coöperism 10/13, we turned to the Black Panther Party (BPP) and the ways in which oppressive or negligent states form the conditions of necessity for cooperation (we also looked at this for 11/13 ‘Rescue at Sea’). This cooperation developed through various urban social welfare programs for Black communities, including health clinics, free breakfast and clothing distributions, and armed defence patrols. Party members were required to perform community service and would work together to understand and meet the needs of beneficiaries. The Black Panthers were thus not simply an armed resistance group but a movement for compassion, solidarity, and collective resilience. Jamal Joseph, a former member of the Party and the Panther 21, reflected that these cooperative welfare programs were guided by an “undying love for the people.” In Panther Baby, Joseph writes that the Black Panthers’ political education, drilled into new members, explicitly rejected hatred of anyone–even the oppressors. Loving fellow citizens, many of whom continue to face oppression by the state, means deconstructing the system that prioritises profit over people. A system built on hatred and exploitation arguably cannot be tackled by hatred, but by love. As such, joint action for the collective good–rent parties and strikes, sharing food, communal home renovations–was done out of love for the collective, reflecting empathy and compassion for the shared suffering of others. The Black Panther’s cooperation, perhaps, was love put into practice.

Nowadays, love is often invoked in identity politics. To claim you act out of love–for the people, the country–is to justify your action. By loving something, then, you associate and align yourself with it. It becomes an ideal, and through your association, you are legitimised. Love is thus deeply political. But while love is frequently found in politics, it is entirely absent from state justice. Indeed, if justice is about equity and fairness, then that seems to require the state to act impartially. It should not discriminate nor give preferential treatment–but isn’t this precisely what love is? Love is partiality. The loved object enjoys a privileged status, and other objects are inherently excluded. It would thus seem that justice is deeply incompatible with love, as love is unjust when conducted outside of the private sphere.

For the Black Panthers, however, love itself was a form of justice. Justice had been withheld from Black Americans by the state since its conception. Police brutality, for instance, was–and still is–an ongoing violation of justice for African Americans. So too is the systemic poverty of Black families, which is itself a legacy of slavery, redlining, and discrimination. These injustices created the conditions of necessity of the BPP and drove its cooperation. Police brutality motivated the Party’s armed defence patrols (which served as a makeshift police force and also sought to protect the community from the NYPD and the police brutality itself), and the free breakfast program intended to alleviate some of the effects of systemic poverty. These welfare programs, then, were direct responses to correct the injustices imposed by the state. The BPP’s love, underpinning all its cooperative programs, was a way of achieving justice. Hatred was injustice, and love was justice. They were not incompatible at all; they were the same.

Perhaps, then, it is a privilege to separate love from justice. If state justice is designed and carried out to maintain your position of power, then love is indeed redundant. The state already treats you fairly, perhaps even leniently and compassionately. But for those excluded and abandoned by state justice, love is never separate from justice. As such, this supposed separation–which is often described as both a descriptive and a normative one–mirrors a racial divide. White Americans can perhaps legitimately say that love does not–and need not–factor into their legal proceedings. But it is not the same for Black Americans. A racist state incorporates hatred into its justice. And, with miscegenation laws, justice occupied itself with love: some love itself was unlawful. How, then, can we maintain that justice has always been separate from love? In its embodiment of hatred, the state has also always been deeply intertwined with love. But The Black Panthers offer a new conception of justice which recenters love, putting hatred to the side. This is justice as love.

What would it look like for a state to adopt justice as love? Would love undermine the impartiality of justice? What would happen to the rule of law? At first glance, it seems possible that justice as love would merely replicate a hierarchy, in which those who are loved–whether it be a certain racial group or the whole country–are placed above everyone else. But this is not necessarily the case. Jamal Joseph emphasised that the Black Panther Party’s love for Black people was not about hatred for others. It was merely about recognising that certain groups had been abandoned by the state and affording them compassion and care. So love as justice does not necessarily yield unfair or preferential treatment. In general, corrections for previous preferential treatment are not themselves unjust. Affirmative action, for instance, works towards eliminating all preferential treatment by acknowledging and correcting for previous preferential treatment, from which African Americans were excluded. So love as justice need not replicate hierarchies. It evens the playing field; it can make justice more just.

But perhaps the argument can be made that love as justice is only valuable when the existing system already incorporates hatred. The Black Panthers’ love for one another brought justice for Black communities because the existing legal system had neglected these communities for centuries. If the state had been properly fair and equitable from the beginning, then love would legitimately be irrelevant to questions of justice. In this view, the love which underpinned the Party’s cooperation is only appropriate as a response to hatred, but not desirable in and of itself. An ideal state, the argument goes, would permit no hatred in the law, promoting peaceful coexistence and tolerance for all. Such a vision looks attractive–it is arguably how the state portrays itself at present–but we can aspire to more. Shouldn’t we strive for more than just the absence of hatred in our laws?

A society based on love, even without existing hatred to combat, would be a deeply cooperative society in which people work together to realise shared goals and communal welfare. Indeed, there seems to be some significant overlap between cooperation and love in the public sphere. For instance, both reflect consideration and care for fellow citizens and contribute to mutual solidarity. Justice in such a loving and cooperative society would not merely resolve disputes and fairly distribute punishment, but achieve reconciliation and forgiveness. It would thus presumably be far less punitive, instead extending compassion to those who have committed crimes, understanding that one is not fully to blame for the circumstances which lead to crime. In our most recent seminar, we discussed severing the link between crime and punishment. Punishment does not have to be an inevitable and unavoidable consequence of crime–this was a purposeful and intentional decision made for profit and to maintain racial hierarchies. Instead of criminalising NGOs like Sea-Watch for its rescues at sea, for example, European states could have empathy for both the immigrants making life-threatening journeys and the organisations trying to help them. While these parties were both committing crimes, that does not automatically mean that they should be prosecuted and punished. States should examine the complexity of the context–as well as whether the act is worthy of punishment–in weighing their decision to act (or not). Arguably, the decision to prosecute Sea-Watch reflects a conception of justice in which love is wholly absent. Love, then, can rehumanise justice. Justice without love can lead to unjust and morally wrong outcomes.

A state which embraces a conception of justice rooted in love would look radically different to the current one. Not only would hatred and oppression be absent, but people could live harmoniously through cooperation and joint action to realise shared goals. The Black Panthers, with their cooperative welfare programs and love for fellow citizens, show us a way t0 achieve this. And as philosopher Cornel West famously said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Love, when put into practice, does not undermine justice. On the contrary, it promises to reaffirm it.



Delgadillo, Jorge Medina. “Love: Complement or Redundancy of Justice? A Levinasian Revisiting of Ricœur’s Dialectic of Love and Justice.” Iyyun: The Jerusalem Philosophical Quarterly / עיון: רבעון פילוסופי 63 (2014): 289–310.

Holland, Sharon P., Tiz Giordano, and Iris Gottlieb. “What Love Looks Like in Public: Mutual Aid Makes for Sustainable Communities.” Southern Cultures 28, no. 2 (2022): 40–47.

Joseph, Jamal. Panther Baby: A Life of Rebellion and Reinvention. 1st ed. Chapel Hill, N.C: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2012.

Yuille, Lua Kamál, Rúḥíyyih Nikole Yuille, and Justin A. Yuille. ‘Love as Justice’. Utopian Studies 26, no. 1 (1 April 2020): 49–76.