J. Edgar Hoover and his nefarious counter intelligence program (Cointelpro) would have been salivating on a recent evening at Baruch College with a roomful of former Black Panther Party members and their friends in their deadly crosshairs.
Professor Johanna Fernandez, who teaches at the college, along with the school’s history department, Black and Latino Studies, and the Robert Freedman Symposium, was largely responsible for summoning the former Panthers and others under the banner of “Framed, Captured, and Gagged: State Repression of Black Radicals in the 1960s.”
From the opening comments from Fernandez, a baritone saxophone solo by Ben Barson in tribute to political prisoner Russell Moon Shoats, and the four panelists and several spectators, it was an emotional evening with each speaker exuding endless moments of passion about those bygone years of turmoil.
When Fernandez asked the panelists, Dhoruba Bin Wahad, who spent 19 years in prison; Ericka Huggins, another formerly incarcerated Panther and West Coast leader of the Party; Dr. Akinyele Umoja, a professor at Georgia State University; and local activist Dequi Kjoni Sadiki, the wife of political prisoner Sekou Odinga for their impressions of how the Panthers utilized their tactic of policing the police, it was something Huggins and Wahad could personally address.
“Mainly what we were doing was stopping the police from committing a wrongful arrest, wrongful brutality,” Huggins responded. She said the Panthers were often armed with unloaded rifles and copies of the U.S. Constitution. “The guns were symbolic and the Constitution was used to show we had the right to bear arms.”
Bin Wahad agreed that the guns were symbolic, but added, “There is nothing more fearful for white America than a Black man with a gun,” he said. “And this fear was derived from the notion of their feeling that Black men would never pick up a gun in self-defense. But point number seven of the Panthers Ten Point program stressed that we have a right to self-defense.”
Huggins went on to note that beyond the arms, what impressed her most about the Panthers was not just policing the police but “feeding the children, providing housing for the homeless, and giving our young people the education they needed.” In effect, she said, “I wanted to serve the people…and I would like to add that women ran the Party.”
Dr. Umoja was not a Party member but admitted that he was inspired by their action and commitment, particularly the late Geronimo Ji Jaga Pratt. He cited several examples of armed self-defense in the past, including “Robert Williams and the Deacons for Defense during the civil rights movement,” he began. In his book, “We Will Shoot Back—The Politics of Self-Defense in the Civil Rights Movement,” this point is thoroughly discussed and he further related the importance of other revolutionary movements in Cuba, China and Africa.
Sadiki, whose husband, Odinga, has been imprisoned for more than 30 years, said, “This is not just an event, this is about political prisoners who have spent much of their lives without embracing members of their family.” On the issue of self-defense, “it’s about providing health care, feeding your children, and taking care of your basic human needs.” Change, she insisted, will come only “if we change the way we live, that’s the only way we will bring about the transformation we need.”
One change that is absolutely necessary, charged Bin Wahad, was the decentralization of the police, particularly the NYPD. “To begin with we need residency requirements,” he asserted. “Most of our political prisoners are there because they killed a cop. And they will never get out of jail until the police are challenged. It’s not about whether they are guilty or innocent, it’s about the righteousness of their movement” he said of the political prisoners.
Fernandez posed a question about the international impact of the Panthers, and Huggins said the Party at one time had chapters all over the world, including Brazil, New Zealand, and Burma. But she used this opportunity to relate her own personal experience in the Party. “I was 18 when I joined the Panthers,” she began, “and Jon (her husband) and I began working in Los Angeles. He was later killed by the FBI. I was imprisoned for a murder I did not commit.
“For the young people here,” she continued, “I want you to do something that is a service to the community but maintain your humility. Visit a prisoner, or get involved in a juvenile detention center. But learn what your own truth is and hold on to it because we are in a war.” She was greeted with thunderous applause.
This was the personal reflection and advice that were the catalyst to an emotional wellspring and Bin Wahad had to fight back tears as he recalled some of the trials and tribulations he had experiences while living in Africa. “This struggle has affected all of us but I am here to let the crackers know they are not going to get away with” killing and imprisoning us.
Fernandez wrapped up the evening after a series of questions and statements from the audience with a scintillating treatise on American radicals other than members of the Black Panther Party, including John Brown, whom Bin Wahad had mentioned earlier, Eugene V. Debs, and Alice Paul.
“Man, this was a very stimulating evening,” said one veteran activist. “I thought I had seen and heard all I needed about the Panthers, but this was something else.”