Panthers on parade at Free Huey rally in Defermery Park (named by the Panthers Bobby Hutton Park) in West Oakland. Photograph © Stephen Shames

On the 40th anniversary of the Black Panther Party, photographer Stephen Shames finally published his monograph, The Black Panthers. The book, which had originally been set for publication in the early 1970s, had been driven off the presses by none other than then-Vice President Spiro Agnew.

But government intimidation was nothing new. Named “the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States,” by FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense stood at the vanguard of the most powerful movement for social change in America before being systemically destroyed by the United States government.

The Black Panther Party (BPP) used existing laws to challenge the power structure that subjugated an entire race of people in a country that decried freedom and equality as one of its basic tenets. Co-founded by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton in Oakland, California in 1966 in the wake of the assassination of Malcolm X, following the uprising in Watts, and at the height of the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Black Panthers were armed with a revolutionary agenda while availing themselves of the Second Amendment to ensure their own protection.

Employing their Ten Point Program, which called for “Land, Bread, Housing, Education, Clothing, Justice, and Peace,” as well as freedom, full employment, free healthy care, and an end to oppression, police brutality, all wars of aggression, hate crimes, and false imprisonment, the BPP organized community-based service programs including free breakfasts for school children, free busing for senior citizens, preventative medical health care, co-operative housing, people’s free-food programs, and mass voter registration drives in forty-eight states. The BPP organized to put members on the ballot during local elections around the nation, notably Eldridge Cleaver’s run for president in 1968 and Seale’s run for mayor of Oakland in 1974.

Widespread support for the BPP was first evidenced by the fist salute at the 1968 Summer Olympics by two medalists during the playing of the American national anthem (the athletes were later banned for life by the Olympic Committee). By 1969, the BPP was the primary target of COINTELPRO, who employed a campaign of disinformation, infiltration, and assassination. Much of what is known about the government’s activities at that time has come to light through the Freedom of Information Act. It is with these revelations that we may better understand the lengths to which the government went to destroy a revolutionary movement seeking to better the living and working conditions for the people of the United States.

During the height of the movement, from 1967 to 1972, photographer Stephen Shames had unprecedented access to the organization and captured not only its public face—street demonstrations, protests, and militant armed posturing—but also unscript­ed behind-the-scenes moments, from pri­vate Party meetings held in its headquarters to Bobby Seale at work on his mayoral cam­paign in Oakland. Shames’ prolific output has produced the largest archive of Panther images in the world. His remarkable insider status enabled him to create an uncommonly nuanced portrait of this dynamic social movement, during one of the most tumultu­ous periods in U.S. history.

Stephen Shames has graciously agreed to speak about his time with the BPP and share his photographs, which are collected in The Black Panthers, which also features an essay by Bobby Seale. Not to be missed.

Bobby Seale speaks at Free Huey rally in Defermery Park (named by the Panthers Bobby Hutton Park) in West Oakland. Bill Brandt, who later defected to Cuba is at left. Photograph © Stephen Shames


How did you get involved with the Black Panther Party?

Stephen Shames: I was a student at the University of California at Berkeley. I went on the first San Francisco Peace March (against the War in Vietnam) in April, 1967. I saw Huey and Bobby selling Red Books. I shot off a single frame (which accompanies Bobby’s essay in the Panther book).

There was something about them that attracted me. They exuded charisma and positive power. I was a revolutionary back then and saw them as the leaders of the movement. I wanted to work with them. I do not remember when I talked to Bobby or where – probably at their office. But I went and talked to Bobby Seale. We hit it off. He became a father figure to me. I think he thought I had talent as a photographer so he worked with me. The Panther were very media conscious and knew the value of photos.

I started taking photographs of the Panthers. I was a photographer for the Berkeley Barb and other underground papers. I also worked for the AP, Newsweek, and the New York Times as a stringer. I was one of the artists of the movement. I was very active and I became the Panthers photographer. I had a chance to photograph the public events but also had incredible access to the behind the scenes moments.

Bobby taught me a lot. He taught me how to organize. He taught me “black”. He taught me how to use media. The Panthers were very good at conveying their message.

 

Huey P Newton holds a Bob Dylan album at home after he was released from jail. Photograph © Stephen Shames

From the outside Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale look like the perfect team: charisma and wisdom, fearlessness and forcefulness. Please talk about these two leaders, and how they effectively catapulted a platform of empowerment across the country.

SS: Bobby and Huey worked as a team. They started the Panthers together and wrote the 10 Point Platform together.

Huey was more introverted. He was the intellectual. He liked to think about abstract concepts, the ideology of the Panthers. He was more the professor.

Bobby was more practical. He was of the people. He loved people, mixing with them. Bobby was outgoing, a born organizer. Bobby could talk. His speeches were electrifying. I put him up there with Martin Luther King or Malcolm X. He could move a crowd.

Bobby built the Panther organization since Huey was in jail. He started the food programs and the other programs. But he consulted with Huey. They were a team.

The Panthers captivated young black men and women with their fearlessness. They patrolled the streets with a law book and a gun, monitoring the police. That was not done in those days.

They were the only organization that talked about self-defense. They wanted power for black people. The Panthers used their fearlessness and actions to galvanize people—to make them see they could stand up for justice.

They monitored the police but they stayed within the law. It was legal to carry guns in those days. The California Legislature made that illegal (with no opposition from the NRA or talk about the 2nd Amendment) because of the Panthers.

But they were a political movement. They were interested in gaining power for black people. They did not loose site of that. So, it was not about the media posture and the public acts. That is where the community programs came in. Huey and Bobby knew that you had to provide services for people to organize them. You had to do things for them—not just talk. They ran the free breakfast program so kids could eat and therefore concentrate on their studies, before the US government gave breakfast at school.  Their motto was “Serve the People, Body and Soul.”

Panther Jerry Dunigan, known as "Odinka", serves breakfast to children at Panther Free Breakfast Program. Photograph © Stephen Shames

How did the BPP use your photographs to communicate their political and social ideals?

SS: First of all, the Panthers portrayed their image of strength through photographs. They were sharp in their black leather jackets and berets. They were strong and organized. Photography showed these traits. Bobby and the other leaders felt my photographs captured the essence of their message. They were willing to let me do my honest photojournalism and realized that the images would speak for themselves. They never tried to tell me how to do the photos or tried to censor images. They had faith that the truth of the photos would push their agenda. And it did.

What was their response to you as both a white man and as a photographer?

SS: That was never an issue. The Panthers wanted to end racism. They believed in the words of Martin Luther King, in “judging a person by content of their character, not by the color of their skin.” They saw me as a comrade, a person who wanted to end injustice like they did.

Angela Davis speaks at a Panther rally in Defermery Park, West Oakland. Photograph © Stephen Shames

Please talk about how the government ordered the shutdown of the original book you had planned to publish back in the 70s.

SS: I had a signed contract to do a book on the Panthers. Huey Newton was going to write the text.  I drove from California to New York with my wife, photographing along the way.

When I got to New York to sign the contract, the publisher started making ridiculous requests—impossible things. I agreed to a few of them and then they came up with other things. We talked back and forth for a whole day. I took the editor aside and asked him what was happening.

He told me that the Nixon Administration found out that a New York publisher was going to do a Panther book. Spiro Agnew, the Vice President golfed with the chairman of the publishing house. Agnew told him that Nixon did not want the book to come out. In fact, the publishing house had fired him. He was only here until I left. They did not want me to know the real reason they were not doing the book.

He told me that they would never sign the contract, that their tactic was to make stupid requests hoping I would balk. That the book was never going to be published by them. I had two choices, take them to court for the money since I had a letter of intent, but I would never get the book; or to try other publishers.

I chose to try other publishers, but Nixon had gotten to them all, scared them all. It took another 35 years for the book to come out. In the meantime, Nixon was impeached and Agnew sent to prison. So there was some poetic justice.


Purchase The Black Panthers Here

www.stephenshames.com
www.leaduganda.org

www.itsabouttimebpp.com

Photograph © Nat Finkelstein

Nat Finkelstein was a photographer with the photo agencies PIX and Black Star during the 1960s. He was a successful mainstream photojournalist, published in major media outlets. In August 1965, Nat was assigned by Life Magazine to photograph protesters in Washington DC. The protest – known as the Assembly of Unrepresented Persons—was designed to link opposition to the Vietnam War with support for voting rights to create a broader peace and freedom movement. Urged on by a young woman holding a “DEFEND FREEDOM” sign, the protesters tried nonviolently to enter the Capitol to present a “Declaration of Peace.” But police intervened and a melée ensued—with Nat Finkelstein there to capture every frame of it.

After the protest, Nat gave his negatives to a messenger from Life’s Washington office. Those negatives promptly disappeared. For almost 30 years they remained missing and this hole in the historical record persisted. But fortunately, the contact sheets of the images Nat captured that day were recently re-discovered. Below is Nat’s story, as he lived it.

Photograph © Nat Finkelstein

Defend Freedom
Photographs and Story by Nat Finkelstein
First published by The Blacklisted Journalist, 2004

The Free Press is free only to the man who owns the presses. —A.J. Leibling, The Press

Liberty is murdered when the Free Press is Murdoched

It was the eighth of August ’65.

There’s hardly a person still alive Who remembers that date and time and year when insurrections were here and the protest was clear: all comparisons stop there.

I was a stringer with two major photographic agencies, Black Star and Pix. I specialized in civil rights, politics, and the counterculture.    I was younger then and still believed that it was possible to change the world 35 millimeters at a time.   That as a photojournalist working for nationally distributed magazines, I could contribute to change and betterment:

”Show them the light and they will follow” sort of elitism. The Liberal trap: a fallacy.

BULLET: True that Playboy helped bring about certain temporary changes in societal attitudes towards sexuality.   But Hugh Hefner never was and never would be a politically progressive publisher.   He was never much more than a brilliant huckster of titillations, sex, and lightweight literature: An apostle of materialism and masturbation, the perfect exemplar of capitalism…

LOOK MA! ANYONE CAN DO IT. GET ON THAT RAFT AND COME TO AMERIKA CARLOS AND ROSITA, LOOK WHAT WE GOT AND YOU CAN HAVE IT TOO.

Photograph © Nat Finkelstein

I had a good reputation for handling myself in competitive situations.   I had acquitted myself well during Pope John’s visit, Marilyn Monroe’s circus performance, Castro’s visit to the U.N., and the previous Civil Rights demonstrations (as well as fending off sneak attacks of Warhol’s pack of grave-robbers, whiners and sycophants).

Furthermore, I was deeply involved in what was then called “The New Left”—both as a journalist and participant.   Long before the onset of “The Struggle,” I had joined the Y.P.A. in the Fifties and had friends and contacts in the movement.   I was trusted.   So, when Howard Chapnick, the president of Black Star, was asked by Life Magazine to cover an upcoming anti-war demonstration in Washington, he gave the assignment to me.  Before I left, Howard warned me of a feud between New York and the DC office.  New York, being slightly more liberal of the the two, was less prone to sucking the Luce/Chenault ass.   Sabotage was not unheard of—the rivalry was intense.

Photograph © Nat Finkelstein

I arrived at Union Station in Washington the day before the march was scheduled and met up with a group of kids from Columbia University.  They were students of Professor Paul Goodman, a well respected, left-leaning political philosopher, and I spent the day with them.  I was surprised that they knew who I was and some of the previous articles that I had published.  (This was to rebound on me later.)

As the evening progressed, the group became more diverse, as veterans of the civil rights struggle came in: The DuBois Society, CORE (Congress Of Racial Equality), SNCC (Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee).   Fresh from voter registration drives in Mississippi, militants from Newark and Harlem were joining up with kids from Y.A.W.F. (Youth Against War and Fascism).   White middle class kids and black militants coming together in an uneasy alliance.   Together with the various Pacifist societies, as well as the followers of Martin Luther King, who previously had eschewed the anti war movement, they joined to form an Assembly of Unrepresented People, determined to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed right of free assembly in order to petition their government and declare the war in Vietnam to be a racist war.

Photograph © Nat Finkelstein

Neither Martin Luther King nor any of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference were present, here preferring to lend their support from a safe distance.  They later lent their full support, but at this point in the struggle, the Afro-American section of ‘The Movement’ was represented by SNCC and CORE.

At this point I was encountered by a photographer assigned by Life’s Washington office (I believe Dennis Brock), who informed me that he was there to assist me and that I would get the best shots by climbing to the roof of the Smithsonian Institute, overlooking the parade route and getting an overhead view.  This, of course, would take me away from the action and put me on the sidelines.  I refused the advice.

Upon leaving the Mall, the march, led by David Dellinger, Stuart Lynde and Robert Moses was attacked by uniformed members of the American Nazi Party.  They threw pails of red paint on the leading marchers, of which I was one.

The Nazis were gently led off by the Washington police.   I followed, photographing the entire incident.

The Life representative then asked me if I was shooting in color, & I told him that I was shooting in both color & B&W.   In that case, he said, you’ve got a cover.

Photograph © Nat Finkelstein

When we reached the House of Representatives, the group was divided by Dellinger and Lynde, the pacifist wing.  Those that wished to encounter the government’s forces should sit on the steps, while the pacifists would absent themselves from any physical action and stand on the side.

A short time after this was done, we were refused entry into the House of Representatives.   A young Black lady (wearing a “Defend Freedom” sign) with a young white lady stood up and exhorted the crowd to exercise their legal rights and cross the police lines.   At this point, I believe the photos speak for themselves.   I was busy doing my job.

But you can observe that the first people to be accosted and intimidated by the police were the Afro-Americans.    During the march, an apparently late Nazi threw some of his own paint, and was also roughed up by the police.   However, he was not arrested.

At this point, the police forces were led and instructed by a non-uniformed, unidentified man, who apparently commanded the police to be rough.   In fact, you can see this man in the pictures.   Who he was, no one may ever know.

As you can see from the photographs, the other photographers stayed at a short distance from this action, whereas I was fully involved, as you can see one picture, to the point of being punched in the stomach by a policeman during the melee, even though I was wearing official press credentials identifying me as a photographer from Life magazine. I did my job recording the information before me; the brutality, the obvious concentration on people of color, the fingernails crunching nerve endings, the faces squeezed, the glee of the oppressors, the courage of the kids.

Photograph © Nat Finkelstein

At the conclusion, I immediately headed to Union Station to return to New York.   While at Union Station, a messenger from Life magazine sought me out, telling me they needed my color shots immediately as they were preparing for a cover.   My ego, at that point bigger than my brains—I was thinking about my picture getting on the cover of Life magazine—handed the film to the messenger and returned to New York.   Where I received a chewing out from Howard Chapnick, who told me these pictures would be lost forever, which they were.   The black and whites—buried—were not retrieved until recently.   Time-Life tells me they no longer have the negatives.

(Until recently I fully believed that there was a bureaucratic or interoffice rivalry that resulted in the lose of the story but in July the New York Times frontpaged a similar instance where an early civil rights [1964] story was similarly “lost”: More will appear.)

At that point, I decided to put down my cameras & pick up my militancy.  The time for poetry ended, the time for political action began for me.    I left for San Francisco soon after, and joined with people such as the Diggers (Emmett Grogan and Peter Cohen (aka Coyote).

As you’ll notice from these photographs, there were no “long-haired freaks”: no Abbie Hoffman, no Jerry Rubin, no Allen Ginsberg.   No pot, no gratuitous violence on the part of the protestors.   This came later.   It is my firm belief this was done by the so-called capitalist “Free Press.” The mainstream media that appointed theatrical clowns such as Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Allen Ginsberg, and Timothy Leary, as representative of the antiwar movement. When actually, the antiwar movement consisted of the students and the ordinary American working class. The mainstream press persuaded middle America that William Burroughs was making opiates the religion of their children while their daughters were getting knocked up by commies and Blacks.

Photograph © Nat Finkelstein

The culture war had begun.

www.natfinkelstein.com

The Art of War, 1980, Photograph © Jamel Shabazz

On a slow, sunny summer day during 2000, while working at powerHouse Books, there was a knock on the door. I jumped up to open it. A tall and stylish man stood before me, graciously introducing himself as Jamel Shabazz.

As Jamel recalled for this interview, “I decided that it was time to move forward and produce my first monograph, so I found the address to powerHouse Books and took a chance. Once I arrived, I remember standing outside the hallway to the office for a few minutes, going over my strategy, one final time. I then took a deep breath and knocked on the door. My world would never be the same. Once in, I introduced myself to the vibrant, Miss Sara Rosen, who greeted me with a million dollar smile, she then referred to Craig Cohen, Associate Publisher, whose disposition was warm and genuine.”

Although Jamel did not have an appointment to meet with us, when he showed us a catalogue from an exhibition of his work in Paris, Craig and I nearly fell over from excitement. We had never seen anything like his work before—bold portraits of people on the streets of New York City during the 1980s revealing the original style and fierce pride as hip hop first made its way into the culture. I remembered my childhood in the Bronx; Craig recalled that of his in Brooklyn; and we both decided to publish Jamel Shabazz’s first book, Back in the Days, the following year.

Nearly ten years have passed since that fateful day, and powerHouse published additional books by Jamel Shabazz including The Last Sunday in June, a ten-year retrospective of New York’s Gay Pride Parade, Seconds of My Life, a thirty-year career retrospective, and my personal favorite: A Time Before Crack, which revisits Jamel’s archive and reaches new depth and understanding of street culture with a collection of images which span 1975–1985. I am honored to have helped introduce Jamel and his work to the world, and humbled by the outpouring of love and admiration his photographs have inspired. I thank him for giving me the opportunity to speak with him about his work. Enjoy the interview!

Best Friends, Photograph © Jamel Shabazz


I developed a theory a long time ago about why your work inspires so much love among people who see it. I believe every photographer is “in” their photographs just as much as their subject is. For example, when you see a cold photograph, you also see a cold photographer. I always thought what was amazing about your photographs was that you had first spoken and connected with the people in the photos by engaging them in conversations about pride, self-love, respect, and self-empowerment. And after your conversations, you had taken their photos. So when they looked into your camera, they radiated back to you the positive energy with which you imbued them. And that we, as viewers, look at these people looking at us with so much love, pride, respect—power—that we get a jolt. It is as if what you said to the people in these photographs is now being then transferred to us, the viewers.

So that’s a long theory yes, but it is the only way I can understand how people react so strongly to these photographs. Believe you me, I have seen a lot of people look at a lot of photos but never have I seen the reaction your photos get. And I don’t think it’s because of the shoes, or the glasses, or the coats. I think it is because there is something about Jamel that is coming back through these photographs, and we feel it when we look at it. But I wanted to ask you: why do you think people have had the reaction to the work?

Jamel Shabazz: Your observation is 100% right on. Before each photograph, I took the time to engage most of my subjects about life and making the right choices, in order to survive. I did this because when I was younger, the older guys, in my community did it to me, so it was ingrained in me as a young child to give back, and I vowed that I would reach out to the youth in my community at all cost. They respected me because I wasn’t afraid of them, and I took an interest in their lives. It was beyond the photograph—I help many make career choices; I spoke to them about diet, education, and  how  to select the right mate.

Each image that you see in my book is a visual record, of the countless encounters that I had with young people. I did it out of love and concern. I saw  the crack epidemic making it’s way to my community and I wanted to avert as many as I could away from its destruction. So when you study the faces of those in my book, you are seeing faces of young men, women and children, who I just finished bonding with, young people who I told were special and were our future.

Often times I would departed them with the words, “Everything you do today will reflect on your future.”

Fly Guy, Photograph © Jamel Shabazz


When you began work on A Time Before Crack, you were adamant that this book not through of as Back in the Days Part II. Please elaborate.

Jamel Shabazz: The book was originally called Strictly Old School and I decided to change not only the name, but the images. With the success of Back in the Days, I felt at first that a continuation would be a good ideal, however I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as a fashion photographer, so I came up with a title that reflected a social condition rather than trying to make a fashion statement.

To make the book different from my first, I used photographs that I took in the mid-70’s and that alone separated it from Back in the Days. In addition I included more group shots, women, children, and families. Using the collage in the front and back gave it a little more edge and allowed me to have over a thousand faces in this work.

I enlisted four writers (Claude Gruntizky, Charlie Ahearn, James “Koe” Rodriguez, and Terrence Jennings) to give commentary of their choice, each one from a different racial back ground, African, White, Latin, and African American.

A Time Before Crack is about a people who lived in a time before crack cocaine destroyed communities, and ruined lives. This book books serves as visual medicine for those that were affected by the epidemic.

Homeboys, 1980, Photograph © Jamel Shabazz

You have been labeled a “Hip-Hop fashion photographer,” but you would prefer to be recognized as a street and documentary photographer. Please explain why.

Jamel Shabazz: I have been called a Hip-Hop photographer on countless occasions and those that see me that way really don’t understand my history or work. Yes, I have shot Hip-Hop fashion for magazines but that only represents such a small body of my work. I started taking photographs, when the term “Hip Hop” wasn’t even in the dictionary. To accept this label would limit my creativity.

Photo documentarian is the proper term for my work. It’s broader and has greater leverage. For thirty years have traveled travel both far and near and document varies people and cultures. I have shot homelessness, prostitution, military culture, the law enforcement community ,the horror of 911, and so much more. I look forward to the day, when I can share that part of my work. Every chance I get, I make it a point to display images that reflect that side of my craft.

The international success of hip hop has allowed me to share it’s platform. I am very grateful for that and I will continue to incorporate it in all I do—but there is so many other things that needs to be recorded as well. For example, I have a desire to go to Vietnam and document the children of American service men that were left behind over thirty years ago. No one really knows that side of me.

East Flatbush, Brooklyn, 1980, Photograph © Jamel Shabazz

What do you hope the publication of these photographs, taken over 20 years ago, will do for the people and the culture today?

Jamel Shabazz: My objective with A Time Before Crack is to create conversation about how  life was before the great crack and AIDS plagues of the 1980s—when women were treated with respect,  when the majority of us had two-parent house holds.

Crack cocaine snatched the lives of so many innocent souls. Thousands of young men and women have had their lives ruined by drugs, and many linger in prisons through out America today due to them.

I have heard on numerous occasions how people broke down and cried while looking at my photographs, remembering a better time.

My goal is to make being positive and caring popular again.

Tupac, 1998, Photograph © Jamel Shabazz

www.jamelshabazz.com

Named “the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States,” by FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense stood at the vanguard of the most powerful movement for social change in America before being systemically destroyed by the United States government.

The Black Panther Party (BPP) used existing laws to challenge the power structure that subjugated an entire race of people in a country that decried freedom and equality as one of its basic tenets. Co-founded by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton in Oakland, California in 1966 in the wake of the assassination of Malcolm X, following the uprising in Watts, and at the height of the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Black Panthers were armed with a revolutionary agenda while availing themselves of the Second Amendment to ensure their own protection.

Employing their Ten Point Program, which called for “Land, Bread, Housing, Education, Clothing, Justice, and Peace,” as well as freedom, full employment, free healthy care, and an end to oppression, police brutality, all wars of aggression, hate crimes, and false imprisonment, the BPP organized community-based service programs including free breakfasts for school children, free busing for senior citizens, preventative medical health care, co-operative housing, people’s free-food programs, and mass voter registration drives in forty-eight states. The BPP organized to put members on the ballot during local elections around the nation, notably Eldridge Cleaver’s run for president in 1968 and Seale’s run for mayor of Oakland in 1974.

With the 1967 incarceration of Newton for killing a white police officer came the rallying cry: “Free Huey!” Widespread support was first evidenced by the fist salute at the 1968 Summer Olympics by two medalists during the playing of the American national anthem (the athletes were later banned for life by the Olympic Committee). By 1969, the BPP was the primary target of COINTELPRO, who employed a campaign of disinformation, infiltration, and assassination. Much of what is known about the government’s activities at that time has come to light through the Freedom of Information Act. It is with these revelations that we may better understand the lengths to which the government went to destroy a revolutionary movement seeking to better the living and working conditions for the people of the United States.

Seale, who led the BPP for eight years as its chairman, is the author of Seize the Time: The Story of The Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton, which he tape recorded and wrote as a political prisoner in the San Francisco County Jail in 1969 and 1970. With the publication of Stephen Shames’ book The Black Panthers (some 36 years after Vice President Spiro T. Agnew crushed it’s first plans for release), Seale agreed to speak with me for That 70s Show, powerHouse Magazine issue 2, about the Black Panther Party.

Bobby Seale on the Black Panther Party, as told to Miss Rosen:

Everyone has a level by which they’re going to deal for self. But in dealing for self you can or cannot be considerate of your fellow human being next to you or near you or around you or in your neighborhood. It was the 60s protest movement that captured the imagination of a lot of young people, including myself. For me to go and hear Martin Luther King speak in 1962 when I was first introduced to, beginning to understand, what that 60s protest movement was about, I was a young college man, I was an engineering/design major, and at night I worked a full time job in an engineering department. I was working on the Gemini Missile project, a government-financed framework putting the satellites up around the earth. I placed myself in the high tech world I loved. So that’s where I was; but I became sensitive, was made sensitive by people like Martin Luther King, by the plight of Nelson Mandela in South Africa. They made me understand, made me take the time to research and know the history—not only the colonization of Africa but the history of African Americans in this country. And I had already identified with the history of peoples—when I was 16, before I knew any African American history, I knew Native American history and their plight. It was easy, I guess, that the civil rights protest movement should get to me and cause me to be concerned a young man—not married, to get involved in the protest movement, to the point of literally quitting my engineering job to go to work in the grassroots community and not even make the kind of money I was making.

Now the Constitution of the United States of America and the First Amendment that Huey Newton had pointed out before we started the Black Panther Party gave the people the right to peacefully assemble and peacefully address their grievances. That’s important to understand—morally, correctly so—but more importantly from a legal standpoint. The people had a right to peacefully redress their grievances and peacefully protest. Before the Black Panther Party came along, peaceful protesters were getting murdered shot, killed, brutalized. Peaceful protesters who declared that they were holding peaceful protests. It happened to a lot of protest efforts around the country because they gained momentum, because they were saying, “Let’s make a change.” Violence was getting heaped upon peaceful protesters.

It’s important to understand what we said in our Ten Point Program, when we called for full employment, decent housing, an end to exploitation and robbery of our communities, free preventative medial care for our communities—these were basic civil rights issues that peaceful protesters were about across the board. But politicians would order their police, order their National Guard, order their state police to literally beat the heads of and brutalize the peaceful protesters. So by the time we came along, Huey and I, creating the Black Panther Party, we took the position that if anyone attacks the people of the United States, if any racist or others attack the people of the United States, it’s wrong. Because we would take arrest, that was always our policy: if the police say we’re under arrest, we take the arrest. We were never afraid of the courtroom, but if they come in shooting and not recognizing our human right to live, as a means to try to terrorize us, we will defend ourselves—and that’s what we did. By 1969 every Black Panther Party office across the United States of America was attacked and half of those attacks resulted in shootouts—because the police came in shooting. They didn’t come in saying you were under arrest, they just came in shooting and we defended ourselves. And in that heavy period of 1969, twenty-eight of my Black Panther Party members ended up dead, a couple of them killed by provocateur agents working for the FBI inside our organization. And then they attempted to blame party members for doing it. Now this is why I was heating up, but we defended ourselves. And we had many a rally that was basically peaceful; we had many a gathering that was basically peaceful; we had many a free breakfast for children in churches or in other halls that were basically peaceful efforts. The point is they heaped the violence upon the United States and we defended ourselves from it.

Now people forget how and why all those attacks and all those shootouts—shootouts with the police were largely the police attacking the United States—now why did those police and those attacks stop? People have to remember that by 1970, going into 1971, the United States Senate, Senator Ted Kennedy and Senator Church headed up an investigation hearing on the FBI because they found out the FBI was going to police departments and setting up and laying plans months in advance to attack the Black Panther Party offices. Now with this hearing the FBI was in the hot seat and the United States Senate asked—it was right on live television—“Why are you running around here attacking these Black Panther Party members?” Now if you take note of history, those investigations were caused by the last two attacks in December 1969. December 4 in Chicago, a predawn raid where the police busted into a house and came in shooting, shot up everybody, and killed and murdered Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. We later proved and showed, and as the Freedom of Information Act documents, that in fact the FBI had an infiltrator who got the plans for the layout of the house. Those plans were given to the State Attorney’s Special Police Force. Six to eight years later, a suit was filed and the families of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark eventually won millions from the FBI and the State Attorney.

Two days after that shootout they attacked the Los Angeles office, and a month or two after that they laid out plans to attack the national headquarters, the central headquarters of the Black Panther Party here in Berkeley California. I was in jail at the time, but a young white policeman in the Berkeley Police Department had overheard the plans. This young white police officer, hearing them laugh and carry on about how “We’ll kill 10 or 20 of these Black Panther Party when we come in shooting from the downstairs up to the second story through the ceilings,” all this kind of crap—this young white policeman stole the plans and gave them to our lawyer and we called a press conference and put them in the press.

I am trying to show you that there’s smoking gun evidence of how the politicians and others had agreed that they needed to wipe out and terrorize the Black Panther Party. Further, the mayor of Seattle, Washington, a young white liberal mayor, got on television after he discovered the FBI had planned attacks on the Seattle chapters. He said, “We want the FBI out of our department. We will not have the FBI try to spearhead and cause an attack on the Black Panther Party here in Seattle.” Now notice something: after the investigations there were never any more shootouts between the Black Panther Party members and the police in the United States again—ever. That’s the evidence.

This is what people forget or don’t know or don’t understand about our position. The difference is between taking the right of self-defense and at the same time having all kinds of programs around the country. Party members went to do breakfast programs without guns. It’s what we did when we started that Free Breakfast for Children program—it’s one thing to say the racist pig power structure is brutal, it’s murderous; it’s another thing to articulate and specify all the hysterical particulars of how racist discrimination has affected the United States; but it’s another thing to say we’re not only observing the police, we’re going to organize political, electoral campaigns and we’re going to run for political office and we’re going to try to win some of these localized seats where we have these large African American groups.

We were ready to write legislation that deleted the racist discrimination, policies, and institutionalized racism. Because the city council is nothing but a local legislative body—just as a county seat is a local legislative body, as states are local legislative bodies, as the federal government is a local legislative body—it can make laws and policies that make human sense. This is what our revolution was about. Not only had the Black Panther Party spread out in 49 chapters with branches in cities across the United States of America but we had working coalitions with all ethnic groups, including our white, left radical friends, so we had another ten thousand working in our framework called the United Front Against Fascism: The National Committee to Combat Fascism. So to the power structure we were on the proper move to make a change.

What people have to take time to understand was that we, as young college students, injected something into the movement that was relevant, and that legacy is about uniting people and creating greater political electoral empowerment. You have to remember we ran for political office with our names on the ballot: a critique of and opposition to institutionalized racism in the United States. Trying to unite people with electoral and community empowerment and to change legislative bodies as a means to fight against institutionalized racism here in the United States of America: that is what we were about, that is what I stood for, that is what I organized.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 844 other followers