Saturday, August 15, 2009

Black August and the Angola 3

Little did I know, back in 1970, when I entered the Black Panther Party headquarters in Oakland, California, with Eric, a red-headed Berkeley Barb reporter friend of mine (I was writing for the San Francisco Good Times myself), that when Eric went into the inner sanctum, leaving me to wait in the front office with three of the angriest looking and most silent Black men I've ever seen, he was going back there to talk with one of the most famous men in the world at that time. Huey P. Newton had just come out of prison to an organization that had waited for his release like a blushing bride. Jonathan Jackson -- only seventeen years old -- had just been shot down in an attempt to free his incarcerated older brother, George, whose book Soledad Brother had just hit the stands. And the place I stood was surely the center of the radical political world just then. It fairly boggles my mind to look back on it now and realize.

But I, being a middle-class White woman from the midwest who had just "dropped out" that spring and, at twenty-four, was somewhat older than many of those who were "on the road," was clueless. I had come to San Francisco like so many others, following I didn't know what. And because of my newspaper paste-up skills, I lucked into a prime spot in a long standing underground newspaper collective on Bush Street in the Fillmore. But while my intelligence and unapologetic nature (I hadn't dropped out to make nice) took me to some interesting places (like the Panther Party office), I was a blank slate when I got there and didn't even know it.

In fact, I'm only just now -- thirty-nine years later -- putting all the pieces together. And it's an impressive image, indeed.

It isn't that I hadn't already learned a few things about the BPP. I mean, I've been studying African-American/European-American relations -- formally or informally -- since I was in high school. I spent years in the prison abolition movement after I left San Francisco. I've been teaching racial and ethnic relations in universities for more than two decades, where I've been described by my students as "a flaming radical." I have a bi-racial daughter who's twenty-eight years old. I've been blogging on "the socially-constructed, political notion of 'race'" for nearly four years. And the more I learn, the more I get to learn (if this makes no sense to you, just keep learning till it does -- and it will).

I learned along the route, for example, that the Panthers started the breakfast program that virtually every public school in the U.S. now offers. I've shown "Passin' It On" in God knows how many classrooms by now, so I knew that the BPP had organized a lot of other social service programs, as well, all while being viciously attacked on every side by every imaginable law enforcement body in the country, including a couple that were developed just for them. And I didn't see anything in the Panther's Ten Point Plan that sounded insane to me, given the way African-Americans have continued to be brutalized and exploited for five hundred years by the establishment in this country.

I mean, once you understand that Black men are statistically FAR more likely to be stopped, to be rousted, to be charged with something, and to be arrested; to have the charges pressed by the local prosecutors and then to be convicted of those charges (appropriately or not) and to be sentenced to prison or jail for long periods for things White men wouldn't have been stopped for in the first place, then #9 doesn't seem unreasonable. After all, the criminal just-us sytem has always been one of the primary tools of exploitation used against Blacks, since under the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, anyone "duly convicted" of a crime (whether they did it or not) can be forced into virtual slavery.

And when you note that #7 calls for the stopping of all police brutality against any oppressed person, then you've come face to face with the reality that the Black Panthers never hated White people. They hated oppression. And unless you're prepared to argue that Black folks should accept oppression based on the color of their skin or you think police ought to have carte blanche to harass, torture, or even kill (accidentally or otherwise) poor and powerless people whenever they please without any responsibility whatsoever, then I'd assume you agree.

To what do I owe my new, improved awareness? As always, it seems the Universe packaged me up a very nearly overwhelming assortment of goodies to blow my mind (or what's left of it) one more time. For one thing, I've been talking with some VERY bright and VERY committed individuals connected to the campaign to free the last two members of the Angola 3, Albert "Shaka" "Cinque" Woodfox and Herman "Hooks" Wallace, who have now been held in solitary confinement here in Louisiana for more than 37 years -- for being Black Panthers. And I've begun to have phone conversations with Woodfox himself on a regular basis, as well.
So I just brushed off the demonization the Powers-That-Be have used in the media where the Panthers were concerned. And I painted a picture in my mind that was full of happy pancake-fed kiddies wearing cute little berets and little old ladies being accompanied to the store on check day and free clinics providing medical care for poor people regardless of their "race." As a sociologist, I know damned well that humans are just not that tidy. But J. Edgar Hoover wanted to see -- and portray -- the Black Panthers as a handful of rabidly violent Communists who were committed to overthrowing the government (something they never called for, though they felt pretty strongly about a badly needed overhaul). And I, on the other hand, wanted to see them as idealistic inner city superheroes with a spatula in one hand and a diaper in the other. While I knew Hoover was wrong-headed -- and for all the obvious reasons -- I have recently learned that there was MUCH I didn't understand before now about this highly complex and absolutely serious body of young Black warriors, a number of whom were prepared to die for the cause and some of whom did.

Then, I've read the award-winning new book, From the Bottom of the Heap, by Robert King, the third member of the Angola 3, who won his freedom from the Louisiana state prison system in 2001 after 27 years in solitary confinement for crimes he didn't commit. I also read the 90-page precurser to Orissa Arend's book -- just out -- entitled Showdown in Desire: the Black Panthers Take a Stand in New Orleans (which is on its way to me even as I write). I'm nearly done reading The Shadow of the Panther: Huey Newton and the Price of Black Power in America by Hugh Pearson, who in the name of being "unbiased," sometimes appears to be somewhat anti-Newton'esque, but has unquestionably done all his homework. (If everything in that book is the truth, I can't imagine how he got all those details, though he offers more than fifty pages of notes at the book's end to tell me, I guess, if I was serious about wanting to know.)

I've watched a whole string of videos and movies, including, for example, "Black August," an excellent film that came out in 2007 about revolutionary writer George Jackson, who was shot to death inside San Quentin Penitentiary in an alleged escape attempt. And, of course, I've been all over the internet, including a mind-bending site called It's About Time. I can guarantee that if you follow in my footsteps, your mind will get boggled, too, one way or the other.

Regardless, what I slowly, but surely came to understand was that the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was conceived to be and called by such Party leaders as Fred Hampton, Sr., who was mercilessly murdered in his bed by "law enforcement officers" at the age of 21, "the revolutionary vanguard." A revolutionary vanguard sacrifices itself to organize and raise the consciousness of the mass population so that it will rise up to act in its own best interests against entrenched oppression. I had heard Hampton talk about "the vanguard" in his speeches. Hell, I had posted his words on this blog. But apparently, it didn't compute.

I was a child of the sixties, you must remember. We not only used the word "revolution" routinely, but in a whole gamut of different applications. People would come to blows over arguments about whether Trotsky or Lenin got it right theoretically, for goodness' sake. And in the end, what did it matter? Drugs were the new chocolate anyway. Rank strangers passing joints of marijuana with deadpan faces would have conversations about what things would be like "after the revolution." And women were being sucker-punched into casual sex to prove their commitment to some horny guy's version of touted revolutionary ideals. (Lest you see this as stupid, consider the fact that once, when I impulsively had sex with one of the men in our collective who had a steady girlfriend who was also a collective member, my report on his lack of prowess in bed became the topic of a discussion behind his back out of concern that her probable lack of sexual satisfaction might give an opportunistic government agent access to inside information about us through her...!)

I somehow understood that Newton, Hampton, Cleaver, Carmichael and others meant what they said, but by the time I heard them say it, it was so long after the fact that Hampton and Newton were dead and Cleaver had become a "born again" Christian and conservative Republican. So I spun their speeches as nostalgia, appropriate only to the context of a time when we were all a little "crazy," but not wrong.

What I forgot, though, was that I wasn't raised as an African-American in a country where the default position is White Supremacy. The Panthers were not being rhetorical. They were fighting for their lives and the lives of their people. Duh.

Further, the Panthers were prepared and committed not only to fight on the side of right and lead others to do so, but to lead by example. That's a helluva thing, if you think about it. If you're the only one who's keeping tabs on you, then you can let yourself off the hook from time to time, as the occasion calls for it. You can make up your own rules as you go along. But, if you say publically, "Follow me," then you have no wiggle room without failing to keep your stated commitment. Whew!

Some of the Panthers and some of their leadership will go down in history as doing some bad, bad things. Not just illegal things, you understand, but some uncool stuff. We know about it because, by and large, they did what they did right out there on front street. But they saw themselves as at war -- a war they could not win, but were committed to fight. In her book on the showdown in the Desire Project in New Orleans between the Panthers and the police, Orissa Arend talks about how some young soldiers wept as they went about the work of preparing for what they assumed was probably going to be the day of their death. Sad. Scared. And committed to demonstrate by example how to take a stand to defend yourself and your community -- no matter what the cost.

The Panther Party members were dead serious and they were not alone. There were rich, White, educated people totally in agreement with the idea that we need a whole new system based on justice and equal opportunity for all. But they could move through their lives unmolested by those who had the power to define. They could stand around chatting amicably with BPP leadership, maybe even hand them a gigantic check once a month, and then get in their cars and go home, knowing they would not be drugged and shot to death in their sleep.

Oh, there was the Weather Underground, all right (the Weathermen taking their name from the line in Bob Dylan's song, "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows"). And there are no-doubt-about-it revolutionaries that look like me all over the world, including in the U.S. even now, some of them doing time right along side their Black compatriots. But one of the reasons the Weathermen could remain underground for more than a decade was that White folks got it like that in this country. And Black folks don't.

As it finally dawned on me last week how serious the Black Panther Party had been about its agenda and I matched that with the balls-to-the-wall commitment of those with the power in this society to stop African-Americans from achieving full citizenship at all cost, it scared the socks off me. While I was putting out a newspaper in San Francisco or organizing prisoners to stop the violence against each other so they could be empowered toward self-determination, the Panthers were at war.

And so, apparently, was the government.

Even now, in 2009, counter-intelligence program-style tactics are used to maintain control over and within the Black community and to manipulate the media. When "Shaka" Woodfox's conviction was over-turned (for the second time) last year and the judge was about to set bail so that he would be released after four decades in solitary confinement, Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell released false information to the media that Woodfox is a convicted rapist. The community Shaka was headed for balked, of course, and the judge acted accordingly, leaving Shaka locked in a cell for 23 hours a day doing dead time indefinitely when he has the legal right to be free.

Shaka issued a statement immediately that rape charges were, in fact, added to his record in his youth, but that it was done at a time when this was the method of choice for clearing the books of unsolved crimes while creating increased leverage over young Black men in jail. The charges would be brought, but never pressed because there was literally no connection whatsoever between the crime and the person being charged. Not only was there no follow-up on these rape charges against Shaka back when they were originally filed, but once the judge had decided not to award bail last fall, nothing further was said about the charges then either. The point is that the Attorney General had no intention of pushing these bogus charges, but the damage done by them to Woodfox's reputation in the media and in the courts at such a pivotal moment was quintessentially effective. So Cointelpro is, for all practical purposes, still alive and well, though it has long since been dissolved for being illegal. Why am I not surprised?

In any case, for thirty-nine years, I've seen myself as down for life in my commitment to social change across the board and around the world, but to commit to being a member of a vanguard? Never did that. Not even close. Inched up on it a few times. Talked a good game. And jumped in -- every once in a while -- where not only angels, but damned fools would fear to tread. Nevertheless, though I'm confident we all have it in us to defend ourselves under just the right circumstances, members of a vanguard make the circumstances. And therein lies the difference.

So this post is dedicated to the revolutionary vanguard who, flawed as they were (and they were), will go down in history with the Gabriel Prossers, the Nat Turners, the John Browns, and the Harriet Tubmans. Some died and some didn't. Some distinguished themselves as heroes and some were, on some levels, at least, infamous. But they were willing and that willingness is what tells the tale in the end. That willingness is the sunrise of hope -- however desperate -- that we can somehow implement a new dawn of freedom and justice for the human race where life is more important than money and peace is ultimately attainable through mutual respect for all people.

1966: (in back, left to right) Elbert "Big Man" Howard, Huey Newton, Sherman Forte, Bobby Seale; (in front) Reggie Forte, Little Bobby Hutton

My last post was at least partly about a man who sits on a bridge every day, come hell or high water, and reminds passers-by that the Black man has survived. The Black man -- and woman -- have survived, I would suggest, because of the revolutionary vanguard that has existed since the first African was kidnapped and worked to death wherever he or she was taken. Yes, more than a few bodies, minds, and even spirits have been broken. But what sociologist Emile Durkheim called "the collective consciousness" -- that combined and amazing amalgamation of Truth and Identity that humans carry and share as humans and, in this case, as African people of this nation and the world -- wounded as it has been, survives yet in all its courageous richness.

Consequently, the prisoners in the belly of the beast created a living memorial to their collective consciousness, the revolutionary vanguard, some twenty plus years ago and they call it Black August. Because the first African slaves arrived in the Western Hemisphere in August of 1619; because the slaves in Haiti rose up against their oppressors in August of 1791; because Gabriel Prosser's slave revolt was discovered in August of 1800; because Nat Turner's slave revolt occurred in August of 1831; because the Underground Railroad was officially established in August of 1850; because Marcus Garvey was born in August of 1887; because Russell "Maroon" Shoatz was born in August of 1943; because Fred Hampton, Sr., was born in August of 1948; because Dr. Mutulu Shakur was born in August of 1949; because the March on Washington was in August of 1963; because the Watts Rebellion was in August of 1965; because the FBI circulated an internal order to "disrupt" Black Liberation groups in August of 1967; because the Courthouse Slave Rebellion (involving Jonathan Jackson, William Christmas, James McClain and Ruchell "Cinque" Magee) occurred in August of 1970; because the capital of New Afrika was attacked by the FBI and police in August of 1971; because George Jackson was assassinated in August of 1971; because Jalil Muntaqim and Nuh Washington were captured in August of 1971; because the police raided MOVE in August of 1978; and because Mumia Abu Jamal was scheduled for execution in August of 1995, though resistance stopped the execution. Some prisoners fast during daylight hours for the whole month of August to increase their level of discipline and re-commit themselves to the five hundred year struggle of African-Americans to be free.

Taken in the context of the Black Panther Party's spirit as the revolutionary vanguard to lead the rest of us, their brothers and sisters of all hues, into the promised land of self-determination and personal responsibility to the greater community that is the human race (past, present and future), it is no wonder that the Attorney General of the State of Louisiana called Albert Woodfox the most dangerous man in the world. It is not because "Shaka" Woodfox and "Hooks" Wallace are violent people. Quite to the contrary, they were actually originally targeted by the prison administration for stopping the prisoner-to-prisoner violence and rape that was making Angola a hell on earth for those incarcerated there. Rather than being violent, they put their lives on the line to prevent violence. What galled the administration about this so much was that, aside from the money they were losing through the cessation of vice and corruption on the prison yard (which was bad enough, in their eyes), they no longer felt that they were in control.

So they attacked and have continued to attack with all they have ever since. Rather than buckling under the pressure of four decades of vicious brutality, however, Woodfox, Wallace and King -- the Angola 3 -- have given not one inch. Even when told that they could be released, if they would only disavow their Black Panther principles and "take Jesus as their savior," they stood their ground, though it only measures 6 feet wide and 9 feet long. This continued resistance makes them frightening, indeed, to men who are so dead inside that they must inflict pain on others to feel anything at all themselves.

Black Panther Party members, as the revolutionary vanguard, sought to defend themselves in a nation committed to violently attacking people of color and, most particularly, African-Americans, wherever they raise their heads in the attempt to achieve full citizenship manifested as freedom, justice, and economic parity in the land of their birth. Frantz Fanon reminded us that the oppressed try everything else first, but that if the oppressor maintains its power through violence, then the oppressed may eventually choose similarly to defend themselves as a group or as individual representatives of that group also with violence.

These attempts of the oppressed to defend themselves are invariably and perhaps, necessarily seen by the oppressor as threats to the "social order" and the status quo wherein those with privilege through power continue to enjoy control over their own and others' destinies. Those who would suggest that the oppressed should simply suffer in peace either are not similarly suffering or, alternately, fear the oppressor. Either way, the revolutionary vanguard would remind them that no people will ever allow themselves to be oppressed forever and wherever we find oppression, we will find social conflict.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

A Tale of Two Henrys

When the first news stories about the arrest of world renowned scholar, author and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates appeared, I shook my head and swore that it was just too obvious for me to "waste my time on." I refused to even imagine writing a post on the situation because, for real now, what kind of moron would arrest a 58-year-old Harvard professor (regardless of skin tone) wearing an upscale polo shirt, standing on his own porch with his photo identification in his hand? (And yes, Sgt. Crowley, I called you a moron -- no matter what a nice guy you are -- and I don't drink alcohol, so I guess we're not gonna be talkin' about it all over a beer, are we?)

Then, as the days passed and I watched the mainstream media grapple with the "issues" of the case, I became increasingly mesmerized by the attempts -- from the President on down -- to make this incredible display of institutionalized White supremacy wearing a gun Gates' problem. How dare he, the media et al seemed to be saying, come home from abroad and unjam his own front door in broad daylight? How dare he ask his driver for assistance in doing this to protect the hip he's already had to have replaced once? How dare he run the risk of confusing some woman watching him do all this so that she winds up embarrassed for being a "good citizen?" And above all, how dare he become frustrated with and worse yet, berate a uniformed law enforcement officer who had treated him with no more than the same dismissive disdain reserved for all Black men in the United States? Didn't he realize he could've been Tasered or even shot? The media and everybody they talked to seemed to be saluting the cop for not really letting loose on this uppity old man with a cane who obviously didn't re-ca-nize who he was talkin' to. In fact, other than the President (for a hot minute) and a handful of bloggers*, nobody seemed to be taking Gates' side.

"He oughta know better," said one article, speaking of Gates rather than the policeman who, we are told teaches other cops how to resist racial profiling -- which would certainly explain why some of them are so good at it. They're being trained by a guy who's surely gotta be one of the best since he can profile even a guy like Henry Louis Gates. I mean, if Crowley is the standard, it's a wonder there are any Black men at all still out of jail.

After hashing our blogospheric outrage to death, some of us even finally got around to asking the harder questions. Like why the President of the United States, himself a Black man, only stepped up to defend his "brother" when his brother was also rich and famous. Like why what happened to Gates was horrific, but when it happens to other, poorer, less privileged Black men every few minutes day and night in this country, it bearly gets a mention and a shrug. And like how this experience might affect Dr. Gates' work now that he's discovered what poor African-Americans have always known: that Blacks are virtually helpless in the face of institutionalized racism in this country and most particularly when it's wearing a badge and a gun. He never seemed to get that before. I suspect he'll have much less trouble believing it now. What more could we hope for, right?

Of course, eventually, the charges were dropped and everything went back to business as...well...usual. Which is where I come in, I guess, now that everybody's tired of reading and thinking and talking about what the Governor of Massachusetts called "every Black man's nightmare". What could I possibly have to add that hasn't already been written?

Just one small anecdote about another Henry, a man I watched for two years before I recently made it a point to meet him.

This Henry is also an older man -- maybe in the same age bracket as Gates -- but he isn't a Ph.D. He's a much more ordinary person, a working man, a Vietnam veteran who still looks into space and wanders a bit when he recalls what it meant to be Black and a soldier at war.

This Henry doesn't sit at a big, fine desk in an ivory tower at Harvard. He sits on a curb on a bridge across from my building. And he sits out there a lot.

Being a sociologist and all, I knew I had to approach him and even went so far once as to lean out my car window when the light was red and call out to him my name and a request to talk with him. He was agreeable, he said. But months more slipped by before I finally got there.

I crossed the busy street and stuck out my hand, introducing myself.

"Mind if I sit down?" I asked.

He was steady and welcoming, though not effusive. And we spent a half hour or so comparing notes on life.

Henry feeds the ants and the birds and he sits on his throne in the kingdom he has created, watching his subjects go about their daily lives while the trees behind him and across the street grow and move in the Louisiana breeze. He used to work in a restaurant, but it moved to another town. And now, Henry works here and there as he can: an afternoon's yard work or a handyman job for a day or so. At night, he goes home to his step-brother's house, where neither has steady employment. One wonders how they eat.

"The student's call you 'The Bridge Man.'" I told him. "How do you feel about that?"

"'S'all right," Henry answered.

"This is kind of like your front porch, huh?" I pushed a little further. "You sit out here and watch the cars go by...?"

Here Henry reached back into Vietnam and brought me up through the decades of his existence to the present. He's seen the world. He's lived up north. And he came back to Louisiana -- a Black man in A-merry-ca. Then, he reached back even further into history and touched the bases that the White establishment made such a crucial part of the game.

"They enslaved us and they worked us and they sent us off to war. They brutalized us and put us in schools without books and locked us in jail even when we didn't break any laws. But we're still here..."

At this point, Henry turned his head and, looking me straight in the eye, said, "I sit out here day after day -- in the rain, in the sun, in the cold, year after year -- and every person that goes by has to see me whether they want to or not. I am the Black man and in spite of all they've done to break us down and try to wipe us out, I'm still here. And I make them know that -- every day."

That, as Paul Harvey used to say, is the rest of the story. The Powers-That-Be can arrest Henry Louis Gates, proving once again that they are the Powers-That-Be and even the President better be careful what he says about it, no matter what. But there is no power that can best the spirit of Henry the Bridge Man. However quickly the cars speed by, the drivers who pointedly keep their eyes on the road have to work hard to ignore Henry the Bridge Man. He's the Truth sitting there on the curb. And the truth, Dr. Gates, will set you free.


*See, for example, Nordette (who re-visited the highway trooper attack on the EMT in light of this newer situation), Carmen (who reminded us that the police -- ostensibly, at least --work for us), field (who shown a light on the way oppression uses language), and Macon D. (who wrote on how clueless White people are about what it's like to be Black in the USA).