All Power to the People

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Like so many involved in the militant struggle for black liberation—Kuwasi Balagoon, Assata Shakur, David Gilbert, Geronimo Pratt—the immense sacrifices and activism contributed to the struggle by the aforementioned people and Nuh Washington (among others) has been largely forgotten by the left and distorted by the corporate media and those on the right. Nuh Washington, a former member of the Black Panther Party and a member of the Black Liberation Army (BLA) spent 29 years in prison in the United States as a political prisoner who, in his own words, was a prisoner because he organized and “spoke out against racism and oppression” and was willing to defend the black community. Washington was arrested in 1971 and along with two other BLA members—Jalil Abdul Muntaqim (Tony Bottom) and Herman Bell—was charged with the murder of two New York City police officers and would become one of the “New York 3.” Washington spent 29 years in prison before dying in 2000 despite the fact that his first trial ended in a mistrial with only one vote cast to convict him and a second trial ending in convictions won after the prosecution used many illegal tactics including bribery, beatings, torture of one witness, and threats of putting the children of several witnesses into state custody. Yet, despite the conviction and his time spent in prison, Washington continued to write and remained intensely interested in the struggle for black liberation, with All Power To The People containing a broad selection of his writing including poetry, discussions on political theory, interviews, and thoughts on organizing against prisons.

Nuh Washington became politically aware at the age of 14 as he frequently heard about the rampant lynchings in the south and heard African and Caribbean students in his neighborhood talking about the struggles against African colonialism as well as the idea that colonialism existed within the United States. He joined the Black Panther Party (BPP) early on because he—like many others he knew—was impressed that they marched with guns and talked about defending their community and solving their own problems. He attributes the success of the Party to the fact that it “captured the imagination” of the youth who understood that the Panthers offered an internationalist ideology and real programs for the success of both the black community and poor whites. Initially, the Panthers grew because they had a strong focus on the people, but Washington describes at length how this focus shifted to internal struggles in the Party brought on through a combination of ego, questions relating to class, paranoia, and an incomplete theory and praxis. Following the end of the BPP, Washington joined the Black Liberation Army (BLA) because of what he says were the continued “atrocities” being committed against the black community in the form of police killings, people getting killed over property disputes, high rents in the ghettos, and the inability for people to pay for the necessities of life. The BLA, according to Washington, thought that the best way to address these issues was through what they called “armed propaganda” which consisted of a variety of tactics including withholding rent and backing themselves up with guns, expropriations of capitalist money to support the black liberation struggle, and killing police in retaliation for police killings. While such tactics would have minimal support in the current political context, Washington reported that people were “quietly supportive” initially but that the state propaganda system was eventually able to isolate them from the people and thus limit there support.

Washington, like many of his comrades who have been locked up, have successfully remained active in prison against all odds. Washington functioned as a sort of “spiritual” adviser to many of his fellow inmates and was always willing to discuss problems with others and attempt to find solutions in addition to his work as an AIDS counselor. While in prison Washington studied sociology and psychology in prison to help in his work within the prisoners and in one of the interviews in the book, he states that if he were not in prison during the 1990s he would have been working to help people in his community deal with their problems through a psychological and political lens. He also has addressed via letter several conferences on organizing against prisons and emphasized throughout the book that the best way to organize against prisons is to educate people outside. Washington also discusses how he believes education and study have a central role in revolutionary struggle.

All Power to the People is an incredibly readable and informative book on the black liberation struggle and it makes several important contributions to the literature on both the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army. Additionally, the book serves as a reminder that there are still several black liberation and anti-imperialist political prisoners in the United States (joined now by several animal and earth liberation prisoners) and that it is important not only to honor their struggle by writing to them and letting them know that their work was appreciated, but also by organizing for collective liberation. This point is echoed throughout the tributes section when those who knew Washington and worked with him reflect on his contribution to the movement, with the general consensus being that Washington would want to be remembered through acting and working for the liberation of political prisoners and for the freedom of the poor and oppressed around the world.

Nuh Wasington, All Power To The People, (Arm the Spirit/Solidarity, 2002).

Black Liberation and Socialism

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Ahmed Shawki, the editor of the International Socialist Review, has authored one of the most compelling books on radical black history and black liberation, with Black Liberation and Socialism easily being essential reading for anyone interested in the ongoing struggle against racism and the historical achievements and failures of the movement. Beginning with the context of Hurricane Katrina and the deeply-rooted racism in the United States and the prejudices and priorities of the federal government, Shawki begins from the premise that the United States is headed towards an “inevitable and tumultuous conflict” in which race—and African-Americans in particular—will be at the center. To Shawki, this is a logic conclusion as he argues in the opening of the book that blacks have always been at the center of every period of radicalization in US history.

Shawki begins his analysis of black history with the abolitionist movement, which he describes as one of the most important social movements in US history in that it not only showed that racism was not immutable but that it can be successfully challenged both by blacks and whites. Abolitionism was a vibrant movement that grew from the margins of society to gather mass appeal, incorporated a variety of differing tactics and political philosophies, and set the foundation for black separatism and radicalism. Shawki moves on through the reconstruction period that challenged white supremacy and describes the failure of populism and the almost total disenfranchisement of blacks that resulted from its failures and the attempts of Booker T. Washington and the interracial unions in the early 1900s to confront racism. From here Shawki moves on to describe the Socialist Party, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and the Communist Party all of whom were integrated organizations that worked to organize poor workers regardless of race in an effort to challenge the working class. However, this progress was stunted by the anti-Communist witch hunts of the 1950s and retreat of the labor movement, which ultimately gave rise to the independent black civil rights movement because the left and the organized political parties failed to address the plight of black Americans. Out of this context, Malcom X and Martin Luther King arose, whom Shawki describes as the most successful and inspirational of African-American leaders. Shawki analyzes both the successes and failures of the civil rights movement and brings the reader to the present day, all the while making a variety of intriguing and useful interpretations of history.

For the most part, Shawki’s insights as a socialist give the book a strong focus on class—a focus that is often absent from history books and especially those dealing with the black liberation and civil rights movements. While there is one section in which Shawki gives a disproportionate amount of attention to fairly obscure socialist and communist political parties and organizations, his socialist background is otherwise a strong asset to the book. Shawki approaches the history of racism in the United States not only as a history of black oppression but also as a history of how the ruling class has been able to use racism to maintain its own power and wealth. To that end, Shawki examines the economic origins of slavery, examines the way class functioned in the populist era, examines the ruling class’ response to the upheavals of the 1930s, and examines the way in which racism continues as a tool of the ruling class. For Shawki, this class analysis is essential to understanding the struggle for black liberation and explains why these movements have failed many popular movements have been co-opted by the white ruling class that has been willing to accommodate some level of black integration—for example participation in the political process—as long as the underlying framework of capitalism is never challenged. Throughout the book, Shawki also describes how racism has been used to divide poor white and African-American workers, who on a basic level, are both being used by the ruling class and capitalism as a means to prevent each other from joining a common struggle for liberation.

Shawki presents his history as a means of continuing the struggle, making it clear that there is both much to learn from and much to be inspired by in the rich history of resistance in black history. His brief historical sketches and analyses of key historical movements provide valuable insights into the origins and functions of both racism and the movements against it, resulting in a book that helps illuminate why contemporary society functions as it does. Black Liberation and Socialism gives the reader an analysis and framework for understanding black history and resistance and charges the reader with the task of taking the lessons of history and using them to build an organized movement both against racism and for liberation. With the rich traditions of resistance profiled in the book, it is no easy task to be sure, but its necessity is indisputable.

Ahmed Shawki, Black Liberation and Socialism, (Haymarket Books, 2006).

We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party

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Despite both the somewhat legendary status of the Black Panther Party (BPP) and the state’s sustained campaign to destroy the Party and the black revolutionary movement, there has been relatively little quality scholarship concerning the Black Panther Party. While this is slowly changing as more work is published concerning the Party and its legacy, of which Mumia Abu-Jamal’s We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party is an example, there is still not a single book that encapsulates the history of the Black Panther Party and appraises its legacy. Although Abu-Jamal’s book is not the single volume history of the Black Panther Party that is so desperately needed, it is one of the better works concerning the Party.

We Want Freedom is not a complete history of the Party; rather it is one former Party member’s attempt to weave his personal experiences in the Black Panther Party into both the history of the BPP and the greater context of black resistance to their position as an oppressed population in the United States. Abu-Jamal opens the book with a chapter that places the BPP in the context of black resistance in the United States from colonial times to the Watts rebellion of the 1960s and the BPP’s attempt to bring a more organized form, and indeed revolutionary, mode of resistance as a manifestation of black discontent. This revolutionary resistance took the form of an organized and highly disciplined political formation with the modus operandi to “serve the people.” To this end the BPP organized armed patrols to monitor police behavior in black neighbors, free breakfast programs for children, free clinics, and free clothing programs–all of which were simultaneously political and concrete, meeting the needs of the communities in which they were based–a fact that led to the phenomenal growth of the Party in the late 1960s and early 1970s and the concomitant effort to neutralize the BPP by the state. Indeed, by 1969 over forty chapters had formed encompassing thousands of members while the party sold an estimated 10,000 copies of their Black Panther newspaper each week.

Abu-Jamal’s book is not an attempt to provide the complete history of the BPP but rather it is an examination of the political group that provided the author’s first experience with radical politics. Mumia Abu-Jamal joined the Philadelphia branch of the Black Panther Party at the age of fifteen and became actively involved at the local and national level. Using his own experiences in the Party as the foundation and expanding it with a critical reading of existing sources on the BPP, Abu-Jamal examines not only his own personal involvement but also the experience of women in the Party, the sort of “everyday experience” of being a Panther, the evolution of the Party’s ideology, and the responses of the state to the BPP. While the portions of the book dealing with the evolution of the Party’s ideology and the state response to the Party benefit from the eloquence of Abu-Jamal’s writing, the topics (especially the state response to the Party) have been given a fair amount of attention elsewhere. It is in the coverage of the experience of women and the rank-and-file members of the BPP that We Want Freedom makes a significant contribution to scholarship on the BPP. In his chapter titled “A Woman’s Party,” Abu-Jamal uses his own experiences with the strong leadership of women in the Party as a base for an exploration of the contributions of women to the Party–which were substantial–as well as a simultaneous debunking of much of the erroneous information that has been published regarding women in the Party. Much of the writing on the BPP has advanced the opinion that the BPP was a macho group that treated its women as second-class members, an assertion easily dismissed by Abu-Jamal’s insightful analysis of women’s role in the Party. Of course, as with all movement groups in the 1960s and 1970s there were issues regarding the treatment of women within the BPP yet the group provided opportunities for leadership by women and made efforts to address its own treatment of women.

“A Panther’s Life” is another chapter providing unique insights into the Party, focusing on the lives of the “ordinary” members of the Party, using Abu-Jamal’s experiences and other sources to come to a general overview of what life in the BPP. This chapter is particularly important in light of the published work on the BPP, much of which has focused on the “extraordinary” personalities within the BPP–Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, Fred Hampton, David Hillard, and the like–who, while clearly playing important roles in the history of the BPP, had little interaction with the non-leadership members that provided the energy for the day-to-day operations of BPP programs and organizing efforts. Abu-Jamal examines the living arrangements of Party members (most lived in collective houses with other Panthers), the realities of newspaper sales, member demographics, and relationship of Party members with their communities. While any study of the Black Panther Party is one of oppositional culture and resistance, too often these studies have fallen into the trap of focusing on the leadership without looking at the base that gave the Party its effectiveness, thus echoing the methodologies of the dominant culture. As such, Abu-Jamal’s analysis will hopefully provide a new direction for studies of the BPP.

While not the single volume history of the Black Panther Party that is needed, We Want Freedom is an insightful exploration of the BPP and its legacy. Readers seeking a better understanding of the BPP and its contributions to history as well as its place in the fabric of black resistance will find We Want Freedom an important and compelling read. The Black Panther Party has long been one of the most misunderstood radical groups of “the sixties,” although with the publication of We Want Freedom, hopefully a new generation will be exposed to the ideas of the Black Panther Party, and more importantly, learn from its history and use it as a starting point to advance revolutionary struggles in the present.

Mumia Abu-Jamal, We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party, (South End Press, 2004).

The Black Panthers Speak

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This is a reprint of Foner’s 1970 collection of documents from the Black Panther Party. Of course, given the date of publication there is a good amount of material from the Panthers that is not included, but this is nevertheless an excellent resource for anyone interested in the Black Panthers as it does something that most books do not do–allow the Panthers to speak for themselves. One does not have to deal with either critics convinced that the Panthers were going to cause the breakdown of American society, nor does one have to deal with white leftists who have an almost fetish-like fascination with the Panthers. There are theoretical essays and other writings from a number of well-known Panthers including Huey P. Newton, Fred Hampton, Bobby Seale, and David Hillard; selections from their newspaper, The Black Panther; a collection of writings by female Panthers; and writings about the various social programs they instituted.

Ishmael Reed is quoted on cover of the book as saying that the book is ìa rebuttal to [the current] organized attempt to destroy the Panthersí legacyîóa statement that is indicative of the importance of this book. The Panthers are generally portrayed as a group of armed racist separatists that wanted to violently overthrow the government of the United States, and as one learns from this book, such a portrayal is fraught with inaccuracies. The Black Panthers, while armed, did so for reasons of self-defense, believing it was the only way to protect their communities from the racist police that patrol the ghettos. Moreover, the Black Panthers were not racist separatists; rather they were willing to work with oppressed peoples of all colors as a way of building a movement of international solidarity. The Panthers were committed Marxist-Leninists who sought the replacement of capitalism with the dictatorship of the proletariat which was a theoretical threat to the state and ruling class in the United States.

The Black Panther Party saw themselves as the vanguard of the black movement in the 1960s, but rather than merely issuing proclamations and presenting their “line” to the masses, the Panthers made it their goal to get out into the community and help people by talking to them and finding out what it was that they needed. The Black Panthers initiated a number of programs in response to their conversations with the black communities–free breakfast programs, health clinics, and education classes–all of which are discussed in the book. These programs are what is left out in many books on the 1960s or the civil rights movementóthe fact that the Panthers tried, and had success, in addressing the needs of the people in the black community, does not fit in with the image of the Panthers as gun-toting racists bent on the destruction of the United States.

This is essential reading for anyone interested in the Civil Rights Movement or the radical movements of the 1960s and 1970s. With so much of the New Left’s later theoretical orientation being influenced by the Black Panthers, it would be impossible to understand their decisions without being familiar with the Panthers’ ideology and praxis.

Philip S. Foner, ed., The Black Panthers Speak, (Da Capo Press, 2002).