Black & Proud
Interview with Black Panthers
Bobby Seale, Jamal Joseph, and Kathleen Cleaver
Jonathan Fischer (Editor of our Black & Proud Music-Compilations, Journalist, DJ, ) interviewed Bobby Seale in Summer 2001 in a cafe in Berlin. Originally exclusively published on TRIKONT website <http://www.trikont.com/basics/cgi-tdb/basics.prg?session=41591984465c7c38_951190&a_no=560&r_index=10.1>.
In Cuba Nehanda Abiodun and Assata Shakur told me about 80 former Black Panthers living in Cuba today. Are you in touch with these exiled people?
Jamal Joseph: Actually not, but I'm excited because I am going to Cuba in the end of June to direct a documentary. And for me a trip to Cuba will also be very special because my parents are Cuban. My mother died when I was young and my father died a couple of years ago, but I have lots of relatives in Cuba. It'll be my first time on the island. Because of my involvement with the panthers and me being in prison for a long time and then being on parole for a long time, I hadn't been able to travel, I hadn't a passport.
But the connection between the BPP and Cuba and Vietnam and China and North Korea and many liberation movements throughout the world was, that we saw the struggle for liberation as a global struggle and people were talking about the same issues: These issues came down to human rights, anti war, anti racism, economic empowerment, but usually we talked about class struggle. And you really saw that the struggle didn't come down to black or white, or red or brown but to the haves and the havenots. And so when you looked, who your brother really was, who was suffering for a piece of bread or a decent place to live or for decent housing and health care, you saw that you might have more in common with a white family that maybe lived a mile away than with a black family that was very very wealthy, just using it as an analogy: Talking about a struggle that cuts across class lines, then you discover that solidarity between the races not only is possible but it must happen. And the solidarity with other liberation struggles must happen because the human family wants a world that's peaceful, that has unity and that has love.
Put some children from different races together, they could be black, white, Asian, native American and the children will just play together naturally. So the things that we learned that divide us, that make us look at each other suspiciously and that make us think that we are different are things that we learn when we grow older.
Bobby Seale: In the early days we had party members that went to exile, I think especially of Eldridge Cleaver who went to Cuba, before he went to Algiers. But we hadn't have direct contact with those exiled in Cuba since the last ten or fifteen years. We hadn't had the chance to get that contact.
But as Jamal said, we were internationalists, understanding that we were fighting a class struggle, fighting for our constitutional democratic human rights.
I saw you in the film talking about not wanting your private life being invaded by anything political...
Kathleen Cleaver: Well I wasn't talking about my private life, I was talking about my private house, everything else is invaded by politics.
Are you feeling harrassed because you are a former Black Panther?
Bobby Seale: There are certain times when I don't let reporters come to my house. Then there are people that I get to know very well, with all the potential suspicions lingering in my head: On the other side I got some reporters in the Philadelphia aerea that can come to my house. With some of the top level reporters I do barbecues or go to the theatre.
Most of the interviews I do in the Temple University of Philadelphia where I worked for 12 years.
But other than that I had kids to raise, they are grown now, you gotta have some degree of private life.
Every once in a while I get someone jumping at me in the audience of a college lecture - I do 40 or 50 lectures in a year - who is trying to harang me, so I stop this speaking engagement and say: Let's get it on, you wanna take my microphone or what ...
Other than that I think the Cointelpro operation of the FBI they keep pretty good tabs of me, I'm sure they do. They got people reporting to them what I say, what I did. They are documenting this because I'm still speaking this, I' m still standing on my principles of human liberation.
Did you ever see your FBI files?
Well I've seen all of that stuff. That was done when we sued the city of New Haven when I was tried, they trumped up charges against me there, I was in prison there for more than 22 months, without bail. In effect what we found out, was that the local police chief - he later was elected mayor - he wire chapped everyone: he wire chapped our prison cells, he wire chapped our lawyers. We sued a file against the city of New Haven and the local telephone company. In that context I got all my files. Some of them are still hiding. You know what the FBI does: They are trying to hide files in other departments of the government. FBI files might be found in the agricultural department. And if you get them of course they black out all the names...
I got ten or fifteen boxes of Cointelpro operation files.
And they still go on collecting material. I made a speech in Syracuse eight years ago stating in a question and answer period, that I still believe in the right of self defense if any power structure moves try to stop me from exercising of my basic constitutional democratic rights in a violent threatening fashion. Yes I would use a gun to defend myself. And so the newspaper printed that, distorted that and in effect when whe got the files, it read: Bobby Seale continues the advocacy of guns...
But I found some very old stuff, even before the BPP started....
You were in prison for 22 months in New Haven?
Well I won the case in New Haven indirectly. They wouldn't give me bail, but I was never convicted.
Kathleen Cleaver: We know you won, if you hadn't won, you would have been executed on the electric chair.
Bobby Seale: If I hadn't won, I would have been executed on the electric chair
I got only 10 000 dollar refunds for the suit of the city of New Haven for the wire tap.
But what really upsets me: Fred Hamptons and Mark Clarks family received a million dollars, but many other black people that have been screwed, trumped over and several of them murdered have not been compensated at all for a lot of things that the US government has done. We had 28 BPP members that had been killed by the december of 1969. And a lot of the compensation is not happening.
We still have political prisoners, I can list 8 or 9 political prisoners in the US that are former BPP members, that are in prison to this day.
Jamal Joseph, while working with your students in a theatre company are you reminded every day , that you are a Black Panther?
Jamal Joseph: I still live in Harlem where I grew up and where I was a Panther. in the film I was volunteering with an organization called city kids. Four years ago we founded a similar program in Harlem called Impact. We have a hundred kids working on creative arts and leadership training. So the kids are kind of youth activists that seize the creative arts as a way to change their world in a positive way. So it's a grassroots organisation, we teach them communication skills and conflict resolutions and grassroots organizing and the go out and they fill out some community functions and do some community grassroots organizing. This is volunteer work I do every saturday and some days a week. In fact we fund the work ourselves. The money that I make from screen plays and from film, a good portion of that goes to run this program. That gives us the independence to really have the kind of curriculum and activities that we want to have with the young people.
I teach at Columbia University and I also write screen plays and produce and sometimes direct.
I'm reminded that I'm a Panther everytime I look into the community and I see police brutality, everytime I see the face of a young person who is lost or who is angry or who is in trouble, or every time I see a senior citizen who is sick and who is not getting proper medication or someone who is not eating well or is living in bad housings. And unfortunately that is every day.
When you see cops occupying your community like an occupying army you are reminded that you are a panther and that the work continues.
It's easier now to function, because the further you get away from a particual place in history, the more romantic it becomes to people. So when you meet people they are kind of very excited, that you were a young Panther leader and that you were part of a celebrated case like the New York panther 21 and you know there is almost a bit of a feeling of celebrity to it.
You meet a lot of people, that were Panthers, that you just don't remember (lautes Gelächter)
Kids will come up to you and tell you: You know my uncle was a Panther, he was in the Harlem branch, or: my father says he was in the Panthers. And I don't say anything, because I think if the kid is excited, and the person feels that the Panthers were good enough or worthy enough to claim their membership, this is a good thing in terms of the consciousness and how we remember.
But immediatley after, if you look at the ten year period after the demise of the BPP, talking about the 70s: People were afraid to be around you, people were afraid to give you a job, people were afraid to associate with you, people were afraid to tell that they had been there...
I know Panthers now who are proud and come to our reunions that were kind of afraid: You'd go by and say: Comrade so and so, right on, sister love, brother love and they'd be like shhhhhh... my boss is around the corner. Be quiet, the people in my building don't know.
Now they are yelling across the street: Power to the people.
But back in the 70s many of us or at least our memories and associations were partially driven underground. Remember we weren't an underground organisation. We were an above ground organisation organising people in a very active way. And that was a very painful period, it was hard to reconcile with your life, if you looked back how hard we had worked, how little sleep we got - it was a seven days a week, 18 to 20 hours a day commitment that we made for five, six, seven years of our life, that we all made to this movement.
And in the period immediately after to see everything decimated, to see people dead, to see the offices where you had been destroyed, a barber shop or grocery store had been done there and people didn't remember. That was a very painful thing.
So in a way the new interest in the BPP is gratifying. Personally you feel a little validated about the choices, that you made. More importantly you don't have to feel, that those sacrifices were in vain.
For the people who are not fortunate enough to be here: You have to now feel that they lived for something and died for something. And for those who are in prison: We have to keep on struggling, because they are making a very noble sacrifice.
You should feel like popstars with all these cards and posters showing your faces...
Kathleen Cleaver: No,no, we are not feeling like popstars
Bobby Seale: These pictures remind us to the days, when we were police targets, targets of the FBI
In the BPP I had a rule that I wrote at the beginning of the party: No one could have marihuana or weed in their posession while doing political work.
Inadvertently partymembers themselves created a codework, wanting to hide the fact that they were smoking some marihuana at the side. So the codework became all across the country as the party grew, if you were getting ready to travel: By the way is brother Roogie coming with you? Well no, brother Roogie won't be with us. Or in another case: Yeah brother Roogie is coming with us, he is down with us. Now imagine this: Our phones are wire tapped. Every conversation that goes to any Panther Party office or any known BPP members house or appartment is wire tapped.
It was not until my trial in New Haven, Connecticut, in the summary by our lawyer, that he reveals to the jury in his closing arguments about how, by this very sealing of the FBI documents and the viciousness of the DA working with the FBI trying to kill and destroy the BPP...
then in the New York arrest of the Panther 21 there was also a warrant put out for brother Roogie.
We were such public enemy targets, that soon the FBI assumed, that he was a specialized underground BPP member. So when we see these pictures we remember a lot of stories how we were really public enemies.
Jamal Joseph: Huey and Bobby, Eldridge and Kathleen understood the power of public propaganda, which is now called marketing, very soon. In terms of counterculture art, just in terms of that imagery, we kind of did for the young people what hip hop does with its imagery today in terms of posters then, in terms of artwork then (artists like....), that wound up in peoples dormitories, that were plastered all over various billboards, slogans that were working their way into every day language: If you are talking about cooptation, you know that your stuff is really coopted when Richard Nixon says: Right On!
(Gelächter) as he did years later. But these things were created by the BPP that worked its way in the everyday language and attitude of people on the street.
I wrote an HBO about a guy called Willie Turner who spent 15 years on death row and who was executed - and I interviewed his lawyer who was a 50 year old white conservative big time corporate lawyer who had never taken a criminal case before, but who had just fallen in love with this one guy, whom he worked his case pro bono.
So I asked him about the state of virginia, the people who tried to execute his client and he said: You know, they are pigs!
And that really blew my mind. Something that started on the streets of Oakland to identify a police, so we wouldn't be afraid of them, came to be used by this conservative, white big time corporate lawyer - Language is an important thing: For black people even our slang about ourselves reflected our inferiority complex or what we call the colonisation process. The colonial mentality is that you are subject to the will of the mother country, and you should be grateful that the mother country is feeding you and clothing you and showing you, how to be civilized. We should be grateful for the crumbs off the table. We identified white america as the mother country and the black communities as the colony - so right away you begin to see a political relationship between where you live. But even how we talked about ourselves: The police would come in our community and we would call them "the man". Our house was the "crib", calling each other babies. Everything was subservient, growing up with the "Negroes ain't shit" mentality and even the dozens we would insult with each other: "Your mama's so black she could go to night school and marked absent... your daddy's so black he could go in the coal mine and leave a black streak. This was the dozens.
What the black power movement began to do and what the BPP took to a more political level was to say: Black is beautiful. Our nappy head is beautiful, our being black is beautiful. I remember one guy in the BPP he wrote a poem: I got up from my black bed with my black sheets, walked to the mirror looked at my black skin, got my black afro picked and put on my black black panther uniform, put my black gun in my black holster and stepped out to do my work for the black revolution, opened the door: Damnit, white snow!
But using terms to describe ourselves like brother love, sister love or comrade and talking about the enemies, greedy avaricious businessmen and pigs, was empowering for people to think about themselves in a positive and a revolutionary way.
So we had that with the language and with posters and with songs. We had songs that we sang in the process, we had a group called The Lumpen doing R'nB songs. And we had poetry done.
And we had a saying with the Panthers that the only culture we had was a revolutionary culture.
So that the posters are here again excites us in a sense, that when the word is going out and people can connect these images to the meaning and connect that meaning to a movement then that's a good thing.
When you were posing for this poster with a pumpgun...
Kathleen Cleaver: It wasn't a poster. Let me explain. The ... and tax squad had come to our home at two o' clock in the morning and kicked the door in our apartment. Six of them rushed in, searching for guns. Next morning there was a rallye at Huey Newtons preliminary hearing and they wanted to arrest Eldridge Cleaver, because they knew he would speak there. But whoever told them, that there were guns in the apartment gave them a wrong information. They couldn't find the guns and they left. Other panthers had their doors kicked in in midnight raids.
After Eldridge was in a shootout and freed on bail. As an ex-convict he was not allowed to have weapons. But I was living in the house, too, and I said, wait a minute: We are the panthers, they are chasing us, am I not allowed to have a weapon just because Eldridge is an ex-convict? So I went and bought a big shot-gun, and a 3.57 Magnum. And instead of making it a secret we called two reporters from underground papers telling them : We want you to put a story in the papers that I have a gun in my house. So we took a picture of my holding a gun in front of my house and it would run with the stories in the paper. that was to send a message to the police: Here you see, I have a gun.
It happened to be a very good picture. I was also a candidate for the state assembly and I used that photograph for campaigning. But it wasn't to make a poster. It was to say that I have a gun and I will use that gun if you come to kick down my door.
Later on, people that was not subjected to this, they identified with these people, who are brave, or people that they admire. So they take the picture and make many many copies and put that up in their dormitories to support this. But I was not there to make a poster, I was there to make sure, I didn't get shot. This was about political reality.
Even when we made a poster with Huey later, that was done to protect him by this kind of publicity.
We were using art in a political way. It later became something else.
We did not think in terms of pop culture. Pop culture began to think about us.
My picture with the pumpgun with taken in 1968. And if you go around the newspapers of that period you won't find the word pop culture.
We didn't want to create pop culture, we wanted to make revolution.
That was the difference...
Nowadays the political content has been deleted and has been replaced by something that is commercially viable and non politically threatening.
Do you feel that it's a sell out when HipHoppers and other popstars use the emblems of the BPP as a cool kind of fashion?
Kathleen Cleaver: Sellout is the wrong word. But you have a depolitisation. You have a whole generation that has had nearly no education on politics and no conception of how teenagers or young adults could believe in something so powerfully, that they would sacrifice their lives for. They don't understand that. And they don't understand the political conflict that we faced in a world that was racially polarized and where the american government was fighting a war in Vietnam.... the larger culture does not want them to understand that world. So if they take this little pieces, it's out of context.
It's like what we saw yesterday: People walking around with this little pieces of the Berlin wall and they want to sell it to you. But what's the meaning of this piece of the wall?
Jamal Joseph: If somebody who is a rapper is wearing a BPP button or a Free Mumia button, then we know there is something about that image that attracted them. And it is better to see them with that button on in a video then to see them with a gold chain and a gun.
And when we get a chance to meet that person, they will have questions, about what the movement was really about, or we can challenge them, what they are doing with their music and for their community.
There are a lot of conscious rappers who are using their music as a platform to talk about social issues and to talk about revolutionary issues. I am talking about bands like Dead Prez, Common, Mos Def...
For example Dead Prez they are part of a collective and once a week they have political education classes. They study the autobiography of Malcolm X for example and talk about what they can do..
The Black August movement is connected with the Malcolm X grassroots movement, working consistently about community issues and political prisoners.
In New York and all across the country there are now a lot of these poetry cafes and bookstores, where people are meeting and doing hiphop and poetry every week.
The Nu Yorican Poets cafe used to be the only place to go to experience that kind of culture. Now in Harlem I could name five different places where you can go to hear poetry and people doing political hiphop. All of this is encouraging. So what you get in the music videos and what the record label is pushing along are kids, who are driving big cars and who are blingblingin' and women who are being objectified. But what I see in the hiphop scene, is a lot of young brothers and sisters sporting afrocentric looks and listening to underground hiphop that is very politicized, and talking about what they can do in the community.
One of the wonderful thing about my work with youth: I'm getting a steady dose of inspiration because I see the activism and the politics that is out there among young people, it's not getting the coverage, there's nothing about it for Time magazine, or the record labels to push it, because it is not making sales, but it is out there, it is alive and it's growing.
Bobby Seale: My son Malik Nkrumah Seale, now 34 years of age, is basically a profound rap artist, we found out. He is producing his first own album. I was out just two months ago in California where he lives. He said: come on dad, you gotta come to the studio with me. And I went down to the studio and he had one rap song titled "Seize..." after my book "Seize the time". And he puts me in front of the microphone: All you have to do is, dad, say it like you said it on the streets back in the old days: We want peace and houses and shelter for our people!
And he's splicing this in between his rap renditions. This is gonna be tough, my son said.
Afterwards I started reading all of his lyrics: And I found out it was some profound and progressive stuff. It blew my mind. I didn't know he had this artistic ability. so I started pouring in money in his artistic studio time. (Gelächter)
If you had your children getting the same ideas that you had 30 years ago, acting in a very radical way, going underground, would you kind of support them or would you say: We made a mistake don't do it again?
Bobby Seale: I was interviewed with my daughter, my son, and my other son Romain, when he was two years into medical school. And the press asked my children: What did they think about all the exploits that their parents did in their days in the BPP. And my son said: Mom and dad never talked or emphasized so much, what you may call exploits or battles as much as they talked about ideas and concepts, what human liberation is about. And he is right.
I always told my children, that you have a basic human right and that is a constitutional right under the law, to create a program in the community and raise concepts to people, to criticize government police departments and any kind of institutions that practises racism or extreme exploitations. You have that right. And if somebody wants to take it away from you by threatening your life with guns, you have a right to defend yourself. Because what you are defending is that constutional democratic right.
So they understand that. And they would make their own decisions, if it happens. And I hope it will not. Idon't want to have my kids shot or murdered. We didn't try to be martyrs in the 60s. Nothing like that. We were dedicated to human liberation.
My son is doing his two years residency as a doctor. All through the process this kid wanted to be a doctor, since he was 5 years of age. By applying to medical school he wrote that his interest is, to involve himself in world health care advocacy. And he asked him: Why did you write about advocacy? Why did you use that term? Damn' dad, he said, you and mama were two of the biggest advocates in the world. I didn't tell him to do so, he found out for himself.
He joined the nation of Islam when he was in undergraduate school, and he got tired of them. You left the Nation of Islam I asked him? Yeah, he said, I outgrew them. I was messing around with alcohol and drugs and that's the real reason I joined. I didn't tell him, you can't join the Nation of Islam...
Definitely good education is about, whether or not your ideas, notions, your beliefs even your new realizations as much as possible they respond correctly to reality.
Jamal Joseph: Joyce and I have tried to talk to our kids a lot about human rights and giving service especially, serving the people. that was the foundation of what the BPP was about.
The basis, what we did was serving the people. The primary idea about being a panther was loving the people...
(spricht über den Panther film von Mario von Peebles)
That is something that is missing from most of the Panther films: If there was one thing that we were taught about, neary brainwashed in the BPP - and forget about the ten principles for a moment : We were taught to have an undying love for the people. And if you have that, that's a strong motivation. this can make you get up at four, five o'clock in the morning when it is freezing to go crosstown to feed some kids, that are not your kids. that's what makes you stay up late at night, standing at certain bus stops or subway stations in your community, to escort working people and elderly people to their house, that are not your grand parents or parents.
And that makes you riding in your car, even when you are not on duty as a Panther, and you see some cop having some black man or woman stand up against the wall, that makes you go into the middle of that situation and make sure that brother or sister is alright and challenge that cop and get in front of that cops gun and risk your life for someone whose name you even don't know, but you love them because you understood, that this is your brother or your sister and that translates to a greater love to humanity.
We tried to pass that on to our kids. They kind of discovered their panther legacy on their own. Because if you come to my home you won't find any Panther posters or slogans kind of hanging over their bed.
The kids would find out themselves: My wife discovered a book, titled "black history made easy" that children between the age of 8 and 15 can read. And my son reads that book, comes to the film festival, that Kathleen and I staged, got excited about the story and then ran into my living room at 10 o'clock and shouted : Daddy here's your name!
You're in the book! I hadn't read the book. I just said, that's cool Jay. So they have that excitement on your own. And whatever course their lives will take: I will be happy if their heart is connected to humanity. If they decide to take a more radical path, I will try to give all the advice that I can, I will be very concerned, because I know what this government will do to people who are frontline revolutionaries, but whatever path they take in life, I will be happy if in some way they will give service to humanity.
Kathleen, as a law professor do you have discussions in your seminaries concerning your experiences as a Black Panther?
Kathleen Cleaver: I'll give you an example. One of the students complaints in the law school goes: The only professor that ever talks about justice is professor Cleaver. The law is very technical and they are trained to understand techniques and categories and reasoning, ways to win cases. But the fundamental issues is pretty much left out. What I discovered, is that the teaching of law the way it is expected to be taught actually doesn't interest me in the least. What I teach is what interests me: I teach a course called "the law of slavery and anti-slavery" and it shows how the law was used to support the institutions of slavery and also the opposition to slavery and how that was balanced off. I was always interested in black history. And you can be sure that not too many law schools care about black history.
The larger society is less concerned with basic human justice then during the 60s where you had civil rights protests... Right now there is a lot of interest in getting rid of the death penalty, in dealing with police brutality.People are moreand more possessed with wealth and money, partially because many people mistakingliy think that racial segregation and racial exclusion - that's all done with, we can actually go and make money. The teenagers and young adults,see that's not at all true.
Bobby Seale: It's not so much about the money, it's about where your heart, mind and soul is. What you are attached to. If you can get your energy towards evolving some new economic practice, that makes human sense, whether you have a big, nice laid out house sitting on some acres of land - I am not concerned about whether you make ten million dollars a year. I am concerned where your heart, mind and soul is located. What do you wanna do that is positive for humanity?
Some of my old orthodox socialist friends say: Bobby you are nothing but a capitalist. I say, money is a medium of exchange for services and goods but when the system is structured, that 3 percent of the US population are controlling 90 percent of the wealth and concentrate all political power. This is what the struggle is about: How you begin to increase an economic practice that allows for a greater amount of human survival. So you can keep your house. I want to design houses, I am an architect. I love to design houses, I never loved blowing up buildings. The question is: For what purpose. I am not so worried about a rap star earning a million. I am worried about: Can you attach yourself to making a new economic practice that makes sense?
People want to know why I wrote a cookbook: We had a meeting of former Panthers in the 80s trying to raise money for a youth jobs development program. So I wrote a barbecue cookbook to raise money, because we couldn't raise money in the old ways.
I was very astonished when I read a quotation from Mumia Abu-Jamal recently. After all the government had done to him he was speaking of his love for America...
Jamal Joseph: Going back to the idea of loving America: If we talk about the idea of loving jazz music or R'nB or hiphop or loving the Apollo theatre, or loving barbecueing or hanging out in Rockcreek in Washington D.C., well this is all a part of America.
I remember things, that I thought I was supposed to hate, the Panthers made me love and appreciate:
The first time I walked in a panther office I thought they would give me a gun - they gave me books. I was like shit: I cut school to come here today. (Gelächter)
Are you telling me, if I want to be a panther, I have to read some books?
You know, but I took the books home and I started to read and I realized how well-read panthers were. I started to lovebooks. The panthers made me to love something, that the teachers couldn't make: They made me to love education.
Well two months after I had been in the BPP they told us to report to the office with our uniforms really clean one sunday morning. I had my uniform really shining, as they told me: And then we go to Abessynian Baptist Church. I say: Are we going to church on a sunday morning? I thought with the panthers I wouldnt have to go to sunday school. They say oh yes, we have to go there, because we are starting to forming alliances with the churches for thecommunity programs. And I remember the pastor welcoming us and I thought, wait a minute, I am beingconnected to the things, that I thoughtweren't cool to be connected with. That was what the BPP did: We go to church not because of the church, but because to make all things relevant to serve to the people. So in that sense, we loved our people and we loved that institutions that we knew as the black American experience.
We didn't think about destroying things so much, like we were Mad Max and everything had to be levelled first to build something new: We were dreaming about the White House being painted red,black and green and Aretha Franklin and George Clinton were to do the new national anthem.
That's what we were trying to do of the New American Revolution, and loving black America.
Did you ever consider going in exile in times of extreme repression by Cointelpro?
Kathleen Cleaver: What means considering: I did it, my husband did it. The whole international branch of the BPP did it. And some are still there.
But what made you come back to America?
Kathleen Cleaver: I was not in exile because of any charges: I was with my husband because I wanted our family to be together. He was very tired of living in Africa and Europe and after Richard Nixon was no longer the president, the political situation was somewhat different and he thought he could get a fair trial, he would turn himself in. But there are still a lot a people in exile, living in Tanzania, Sambia, Cuba, France. And none of them will come back unless there will be some kind of amnesty. The legal system is not allowing them to return without being imprisoned and in Assatas case its a life sentence.
How did you manage to stand the pressures, knowing what Cointelpro was able to do to you?
Kathleen Cleaver: The knowledge of Cointelpro came to us only after its results. Being in Algeria having a small child I was reading what was happening in the US: Raid and bombs in New York, and bombs in detroit and a shootout in New Orleans and murder in Chicago. So everytime we read about the Panthers it was warfare. So I felt quite protected in Algeria. Not that I wanted to live there, I just wanted to live. You don't feel it's a kind of choice if your choice is death or imprisonment.
You were kind of aware that you were risking your life working for the BPP?
Kathleen Cleaver: This was clear. If you don't wanna put your life on the line, you shouldn't join. But we come from a very long long struggle. We have ancestors who fought to eliminate slavery, we had grandparents who fought to put an end to very vicious forms of racist violence and then we had parents who fought segregation. So when we joined the movement, it was not like it was the beginning of a movement, it's like a continuation. We come from a culture that is conditioned to understand that we have to struggle and what the price of struggle is. And people are very clear: You don't have to join the movement. But if you put your life on the line for the movement you know what price that is.
Those people who were joining the BPP were admired by other people who were not willing to pay that price and in some cases they were feared: Are you crazy?
Jamal Joseph: We were also taught - and this wasn't suicidal or having a death wish - what the price was. We come from a people who know about sacrifice from the days of slavery: Pass the baby to this couple, so it can grow up free or in a better condition. Or everyone scraping their pennies together so that this kid will be the first that has a chance to go to college. So in that sense of struggling we had a context for. And after joining the Panthers we knew every day you woke up could be a day, that you got killed, or you got arrested.
But the goal of the BPP was not to recruit more panthers, it was not to make every black man, woman or child into a panther. We were taught, that we were a vanguard organisation to teach our people the possibilities of struggle and how to struggle. And that eventually would raise the peoples consciousness and an army and a party would form in the community. That's what the sacrifice was. We didn't talk about a panther flag on the white house. We talked about teaching the people how to struggle.
How did you handle the fear?
Bobby Seale: We had that history right in our face of all the struggles that had going down for our people to get rid of all sorts of overt and covert institutionalized racism going on. We learned all about this in our youthful days
I mean I was already an engineer working upon the Gemini missile program in the army, I was a design major and I knew nothing about my African American history. In spring semester 1962 some group across the street was calling itself the Afro American association. Are you guys communists - I never heard something like that? was my first question.
And so I happened to meet a friend over there who asked me: Who are the Sioux? And I knew that was a French name given to the people who called themselves Lakota. So Bobby, he continued, all we say, we are not Negroes, we are not coloured, we are not jigaboos, naming every derogatory term you could connect, but we are African Americans or Afro Americans or black Americans and we should be proud to be black Americans. I was really brainwashed: I got As in mathematics, I got As in any kind of architecture design, but I knew nothing about my African American peoples history of struggle.
I knew about my Martin Luther King and I knew about my father having to protect us during some riots in 1928. But suddenly this kicks me to go read a book. And it kicked back into:
I grew up with Jim Crow. I remember when I had to sit in the back of the theatre down in Texas...
A lot of youth in America today don't know Jim Crow like we know it.
This stuff feeds to you and suddenly it doesn't take much reading and digesting 10 or 12 books in two weeks and I'm on the street corner, I'm captured, swept into and I became a part of it. Forget it, I quit my engineering job after two years, I went into the community to make some changes.
Jamal Joseph: I joined the panthers when I was 15 years old. Well I had guns put to my head, I've had guns in my face, I've had bullets throughpassing my hat, I've been beaten and tortured by the police, on one occasion Dhoruba another member of the New York 21 and I were arrested and beaten for four hours nonstop, beaten beyond recognition. I spent a total of nine and a half years in prison, I've been to the toughest and most dangerous prisons in the country and I did a lot of this before I was 18 years old. Three different times in my life I've been on trial for my life, I've already stood before a judge who wanted to give me a life sentence when I was 16. And with the Panther 21 I was accused of conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy to commit arsony, attempted robbery, attempted murder and illegal possession of dangerous weapons, criminal mischief. And we were facing 354 years, that's what we were calling a reincarnation sentence, that's when you die and you're reborn as a baby they stick you back in the cell. (Gelächter)
I would get butterflies, and a lot of times I would think what it would feel like having a bullet entering your body, or how it would feel like if this beating was going on for another five minutes, or what it would feel like if they would give you that sentence and they actually give you life or double-life. But there was never fear. And there are two reasons for that. One is that I was around so many brave brothers and sisters that was just brave and unafraid. And they taught me, never to have fear. One morning Afeni Shakur - we were both on bail in the Panther 21 case - and we had been serving breakfast to 50 children in the Panther breakfast program and we were just cleaning up the kitchen, and about 20 cops come down and about three cops are just in plain clothes, and I had a sense that they had come in to kill us. And I said, oh shit, here it is.
And a cop came and said: What is this? And Afeni said: Who are you? Are you a policeofficer? I don't talk to police officers. He said, well I'm just trying to ask you. She said: did you hear what I said. I don't talk to police officers, it's none of your business what we are doing. She turned away and looked at me: Jamal don't talk to them. And we turned our backs and started cleaning.
A lot about how to treat women and how to be a man I learned from women in the organisation. How can you be afraid in a moment like that, when you have a women like that guiding you. Even when I was alone in a hole, even when I was beaten my consciousness was directed to my other brothers and sisters in the BPP, I knew I was a panther. And I had nothing to fear. Because I knew that the BPP would live on and the struggle would live on, no matter what happened to me in that moment.... That's how you learn to handle fear when your spirit is connected to something greater than yourself.
You always look very solemn on the press pictures taken of Black Panthers. I never saw a Black Panther laughing in public....
Even when I was on trial in the Panther 21 case, we sang a lot, we laughed a lot, we would all be in the ball pen having a lot of good times. One time a young guard was asking me: Jamal you always have a lot of laugh, if I was in your position I would be shitting my pants. I said: you know what: Don't get in this position then. (Gelächter)
Kathleen Cleaver: There is something I read about a woman who had survived concentration camps in Germany, what she said was so striking: I have never in my life laughed as hard and laughed as long as when we were in the camp. So it's that persecution, and that pressure. And that threat, that you would be killed. You are freed from the possibility to feel sorry for yourself. And with your comrades and your friends you laugh just as hard as you can.
That's true: Have you ever laughed harder than when you were in prison?
Bobby Seale: Yes I was a standup comedian way back before the party started and I could break out after very good serious sessions and starting doin some satyrical rendition on "how the revolution's gonna come and we will take over". Various imitations of various speakers, even integrating John Waynes stupid walk (springt auf, schreitet breitbeinig und mit tödlichem Gesichtsausdruck durch das Zimmer). And party members would be cracking up...
I created names for specific guards in the great Chicago conspiracy process...
I played games with them. Well I've been chained in the cell, I've been beaten in the balls, I'm choked almost into unconsciousness, but it's another thing...
Jamal Joseph: And you can change the consciousness in a fight when you are laughing at your opponent. Muhammad Ali did this really good. Red Foxx once told Malcolm X : That's a good speech but you have to build in a few more jokes. If you told a joke just before you would make an important point, people would laugh and then get quiet and expecting the next thing coming...
He was a master in it, and Bobby, Kathleen and Eldridge were masters in it and we learned it listening to them... We did in the local chapters.
And then when you take someone who is supposed to be so fearsome and the cops do roll up at your home and you say: You come here like oinking early in the morning, smelling like pig shit what the fuck you want? That's a great weapon of demoralizing them.
In the Panther 21 case ... we were yelling at the state attorney all the time (What you gonna do judge, take away my drivers licence?) And he walked out and everybody was laughing even in the court halls.
So our struggle was very alive,
Bobby Seale: ...in courtroom: Anyway you are still a fascist, a racist and a bighead.
Mr. Seale if you continue this contemptuous behaviour... will you put me in prison?
When we were in court we had a lot of fun. Because people supported us. Some of the panthers, who were not arrested, brought a birthday cake in, my birthday was during the trial, the judge came in, arrested the cake...
Another time someone dumped a pound of Marihuana on the defendants desk, you should have seen how everybody jumped to the desk...
Another day they came in dressed in robes like the judge. So the judge comes in shouting: Huuh, I will have no mocking of the court in here... So they had to remove the robes but underneath they wore police uniforms...
I loved that shit. There's a power behind all of this, that doesn't put you in a state of depression.
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