A Life In The Black Panther Party'
By Mumia Abu-Jamal
By Sukant Chandan
22 May, 2008
Having read many if not most of the books that have come out by or
about former members of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defence, We
Want Freedom is one of the best. This review cannot cover the many
angles from which Mumia approaches his experience in, the ideology,
practice and legacy of the Panthers. There are a few things that
stand out are worth highlighting in this book, more so than perhaps
other books on the same subject.
Panthers: "The history it sprang from"
This book puts the Panthers in wider historical context. This context
is one in which the one can track the continuing struggle of Black
people today back to the time when Africans were infamously kidnapped
en-masse and forcibly transported like animals into slavery in the Americas.
Other books that have put Black revolutionary movements in historical
context are Robert Williams's highly influential classic `Negroes
With Guns' (Williams and his book being one of the main inspirations
domestically for the Panthers), and also the generally excellent
biography of Williams called `Radio Free Dixie' by Timothy B Tyson.
Mumia explains in some detail that the militant example of people
like Malcolm X / Malik El-Hajj Shabazz and the Panthers is closer to
the experiences of Black people than the pacifist and class
comprising stand of people like Roy Wilkins and other more reformist
and milder leaders of the Black Liberation Movement.
Mumia gives many examples of popular Black armed struggle (at times
supported by working class Native Americans and whites), like the
nineteenth century struggle of the liberated Fort Christiana. He
explains in his book how the Panthers were a direct continuation of
the militant struggle of Black people in the Southern states,
something which Williams explains so graphically in 'Negroes with Guns'.
"A Women's Party"
There is a whole chapter on the exemplary role of the women cadres of
the Panthers who occupied positions from the rank and file to the
local and national leadership. He explains that possibly against
popular preconceptions most of the activities of the Panthers in
serving and struggling with the people were undertaken and organised
by women members. At the end of the first year of the Panthers women
comprised nearly 60% of the membership.
The Panthers were the FIRST social organisation, let alone radical
organisation, in the USA that had women in all levels of leadership.
Mumia explains that there were inevitably problems of sexism in the
party reflecting that which existed in society at large. Any
organisation which recruits from the oppressed and exploited will
have some of the problems that exist in the communities and homes of
the people. Mumia quotes Buhkari:
"there were three evils that had to be struggled with, male
chauvinism, female passivity and ultra-femininity (the `I'm only a
female' syndrome)." (p174)
Figures such as Afeni Shakur (more famously known as the mother of
rapper Tupac Shakur), Assata Shakur, Kathleen Cleaver, Angela Davis
and Elaine Brown were leaders in the party, and inspired
revolutionary movements across the world,
and were themselves respected immensely in the Party
"The Empire Strikes Back - COINTELPRO"
A group of radical activists broke into a FBI building and took a
load of secret documents which revealed the level of black operations
the US state was involved in against radical movements, the Panthers
in particular as they were the cutting edge of working class
revolutionary struggle in the country. This program of
black-operations was and is known as the Counter Intelligence
Program, or `COINTELPRO'. Snitches, frame-ups, the dirty and slavish
role of the media were some of the roles employed against the
Panthers and their supporters. Mumia explains how the increasingly
successful efforts of the Party in organising people from the
community and work therein was the main reason why the US elites
wanted the Panthers shut-down by all the dirty and brutal tricks at
their disposal. For example, the Panthers were having some success in
bringing anti-social gangs into popular community work, but the US
state sowed distrust and paranoia between the Party and the gangs.
Fred Hampton was a promising, highly intelligent and charismatic
leader of the Chicago chapter of the Panthers who was making headway
in recruiting gang-members into Panther work, but probably because of
his progress in this field he was drugged and shot dead in his sleep
by the authorities.
Other US State tactics included writing fake letters to the leaders
of the Party from other leaders, such as that what happened between
Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton which led to the biggest and most
debilitating split in the party. These letters stirred up ideological
differences into highly destructive splits and then many more splits
thereof in the Party. Unfortunately the State succeeded in creating a
situation between the Afrocentric Pan-Africanist organisation 'Us'
and the Panthers in California, the two organisations had killed one
member of the other. Many former Panthers now say that instead of
this tragic dynamic that the two organisations should have been
allies in struggle.
COINTELPRO type state activities still goes on in the West both at
home and abroad, as anyone involved in anti-imperialist or principled
working class struggle can attest to. One has to study a little into
the Irish and Basque independence struggles to know this is true, and
in terms of foreign policy there is a mountain load of evidence in
Western interference in Venezuela, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Iraq,
Palestine, Lebanon, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Bolivia and Muslim communities
throughout the West.
"A Panthers Life" Community dedication - serving the people
As always, reading about the dedication to the people of the Panthers
is an inspiration to any decent person, and eve more so to those
struggling with working class and oppressed communities, Mumia writes:
"The [Panther] offices were like buzzing beehives of Black resistance
… People came with every problem imaginable, and because our sworn
duty was to serve the people, we took our commitment seriously … In
short, whatever our peoples problems were, they became our problems.
We didn't preach to the people; we worked with them" (p197)
Mumia's open attitude towards the factions
There are a number of reasons as to why the Panthers collapsed in the
mid-1970s from being a growing dynamic revolutionary force
established less than ten years earlier in 1966 by a few friends:
Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and David Hilliard, in Oakland, California.
How did an organisation grow from a few friends to 10,000 within a
few years, and then more or less was crushed in less than ten years?
These reasons are too complex to go into here. A lot of the reasons
may still not be adequately understood, but as increasing numbers of
former Panthers publish their experiences one is able to gain an
increasing understanding as to the reasons for the descent of the Panthers.
Mumia entitles one chapter "One, Two, Too Many Parties" a play on Che
Guevara's famous speech 'One, Two, Three, Many Vietnams' at his
speech at the Tricontinental in 1967. The splits that occurred had
bitter, sometimes very violent incidents that went along with them.
This inevitably has created deep running resentments between former
Panthers that comes surfaces in some accounts of Panthers about their
experiences in those intense years of struggle. Mumia avoids emotive
denunciations of former comrades and explains in relatively
even-handedly terms the pros and cons of different tendencies in the Party.
In terms of an ideological definition of the Panthers Mumia clearly
points out the class and political nature of the party as one that
was uncompromisingly working class, inspired by the teachings of many
revolutionaries. Mumia explains that the Party's ideology was, in his
opinion, closest to being `Malcolmist' (as in Malcolm X), as well as
been known as a Maoist party inspired by people such as Fanon, Che,
Nkrumah, Castro, Kim Il Sung, Mao, Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, Giap,
Williams, and many other Latin American, Asian and of course African
Mumia; "the voice of the voiceless"
Mumia is still incarcerated in a frame up by the state. He has always
been true to the revolution of oppressed, voicing their struggle in
the US and across the world in his unique eloquent manner.
If any can, please pass on thanks to Brother Mumia for his book and
struggle from those still struggling with and serving the people
Sukant Chandan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org