All Power to the People

Click on the image to purchase this book through Purchases help support

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).

A Soldier’s Story: Writings by a Revolutionary New Afrikan Anarchist

Click on the image to purchase this book through Purchases help support

In high school, and in some cases in college, the majority of students in the United States learned about the civil rights movement from a legalistic perspective where the majority of the instruction centered on the efforts of African-Americans to gain an end to de facto segregation, increased voting rights, and protection against legal and institutionalized discrimination. The victories achieved by the civil rights movement in this respect were immense, but the notion that this is all the African-American movement struggled for in this country is a betrayal, and in many cases a conscious betrayal, of history. From the civil rights movements groups such as the Black Panther Party emerged that wanted a complete transformation of society and what was termed “black liberation.” To this end, the Black Panther Party organized along the simple idea that it was important to “serve the people” and they did so by setting up free breakfast programs, clinics, alternative educational institutions, their own newspaper, and even organizing armed patrols of their neighborhoods to prevent police aggression. It was out of this context of working for the total liberation of African-Americans that Kuwasi Balagoon, a member of the Black Panther Party and a community organizer, became involved in the faction of the Black Panther Party that formed the Black Liberation Army (BLA), an underground organization dedicated to fighting for the liberation of the New Afrikan population in the United States.

While the Black Panther Party’s legacy has suffered from a lack of attention, the history of the Black Liberation Army has received even less attention, with incredibly little having been published on the BLA despite its ten years of armed struggle. During that time, the BLA engaged in a number of actions ranging from armed expropriations of capitalist banks and businesses to finance the struggle for black liberation to forcibly freeing their comrades from prison. Unfortunately, piecing together the history of the BLA is a difficult task as there is no single book that provides an adequate history of the movement. This collection of Balagoon’s writings is an important contribution to the literature on the BLA, but it unfortunately suffers from a lack of contextual information about the BLA and its history. Throughout the book the reader is able to discern a considerable amount about the philosophy of the movement, with Balagoon’s opening statement in the Brink’s expropriation trial providing a theoretical basis for his actions—with the opening statement providing a scathing critique of United States history and making a compelling argument that slavery was an act of imperialism and that to this day, African-Americans remain a colonial population within the United States.

Some of the lack of attention given to the BLA and its members has no doubt due been to its advocacy of armed struggle and questions about the efficacy of some of its actions, in addition to the fact that its legacy has been almost entirely controlled by the corporate media and the government who have portrayed the BLA and members such as Kuwasi Balagoon as nothing more than terrorists that did nothing more than engage in random acts of violence. While this may explain why the group has not received much attention from more “mainstream” sources, it does not explain the lack of attention the BLA has received from the left. When reading Kuwasi Balagoon’s writings, it should be abundantly clear that the BLA had a developed theory and greatly contributed to the anti-imperialist movement in the United States and North America. In <A Soldier’s Story: Writings By A Revolutionary New Afrikan Anarchist, Balagoon makes several important insights into both anarchist organizing and left movements in general within the United States. Balagoon calls on anarchists to abandon their “elitism” and to work to build grassroots movements for liberation, repeatedly stating that it is important for broad movements to be organized along anarchist lines that will the needs of the people if there is any hope of a revolution succeeding in the United States. After being imprisoned for an armed expropriation, Balagoon wrote extensively—with some of his letters excerpted in A Soldier’s Story—discussing the state of the left in the United States and his belief that we need to build a movement that addresses people who are not already “committed” to the revolution and that organizing needs to overcome the reality that “the so-called left doesn’t really represent a lot of people” in the United States. Anti-imperialism was also a focus of Balagoon’s writings—and the BLA as a whole—with Balagoon calling on anarchists and the left to provide both more assistance to oppressed groups struggling against imperialism inside the United States and around the world. Of particular importance to Balagoon was the idea that anarchists and the left recognize that Native Americans have been engaged in a struggle against imperialism for more than five-hundred years. Interestingly, Balagoon also talks about how anti-imperialism in the United States must involve working against the idea of borders and fighting against the right-wing backlash that he observed in the 1970s and 1980s against immigrants from Mexico. Balagoon’s writings on history also make it clear that all movements for liberation must be grounded in history and that in the current historical context that it is important to understand that the BLA formed out of the legacy of struggle by Africans against slavery.

Balagoon’s writings are important for the left, as they offer considerable insight into a struggle that has been largely forgotten or, when it has been remembered, often misunderstood. With so little having been published on the BLA and indeed Kuwsai Balagoon himself, A Soldier’s Story is an incredibly valuable book that is rich with insight into anarchism, black liberation, and the role that armed struggle can play in social movements, as well as the connections between underground and aboveground movements. For many, both within and outside of the contemporary anarchist movement, anarchism has traditionally been a very white movement, and while this has changed over the past twenty years with various groups such as Love and Rage, Anarchist People of Color, and Colours of Resistance working to make the issue of race central to contemporary anarchism, the traditional “anarchist canon” has remained overwhelmingly white. While many have read the writings of Emma Goldman, Peter Kropotkin, and Michael Bakunin; the writings of anarchist people of color, such as Kuwasi Balagoon, have been largely ignored. For this reason, along with the aforementioned importance of the book as a historical document, A Soldier’s Story is an essential read for those considering themselves anarchist or of “the left.”

Kuwasi Balagoon, A Soldier’s Story: Writings By A Revolutionary New Afrikan Anarchist, (Kresplbedeb, 2003).

We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party

Click on the image to purchase this book through Purchases help support

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

Click on the image to purchase this book through Purchases help support

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).