Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman

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Over the past several years, there have been a number of books published about Weatherman (later known as the Weather Underground organization). These have ranged from participant memoirs such as Bill Ayers’ Fugitive Days to secondary analyses of the movement such as Bringing the War Home and Outlaws of America. These have been joined by Thai Jones’s study of his parents (his father was Jeff Jones, who held a leadership position in Weatherman/Weather Underground) titled A Radical Line along with Sing A Battle Song a collection of statements, communiques, and poems produced by the Weather Underground. With the exception of poems written by women and republished in Sing a Battle Song, men have written most of this recent material on the Weather Underground. In that sense, Cathy Wilkerson’s Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman is a welcome addition and will hopefully be joined by other women who were involved with the group. Given the sexism that the entire radical movement grappled with in the late 1960s and into the early 1970s, Wilkerson has a different perspective than those that have written thus far, while at the same time, she articulates a different position given that she was not in the leadership of the organization.

Cathy Wilkerson was at one time probably one of the more famous members of Weatherman, having survived the 1970 townhouse explosion in which three of her comrades–Teddy Gold, Diana Oughton, and Terry Robbins–were killed when wires were crossed on a bomb that they were building. The bomb, which was being constructed to target the Fort Dix military bases, was a product of a frenzied time following Weatherman’s failed “Days of Rage” action in which only a few-hundred members of the group came to a “national action” to battle with the Chicago police. Following the lack of turnout for the “Days of Rage” event (and the even more problematic dismissal and criticism of it by the Black Panther Party, whom Weatherman saw as the vanguard of the movement), Wilkerson argues that the townhouse explosion was the consequence of:

“…a bright light burning itself out in its own intensity. We had become a voice of outrage whose single-mindedness had cut us off from the movement, from reality. We had created a bubble of our own reality, and the bubble burst.”

While the Weather Underground would eventually articulate its own analysis of what went wrong at the townhouse in the statement “New Morning, Changing Weather,” describing it as a “military error” borne out of a “tendency to consider only bombings or picking up the gun as revolutionary with the glorification of the heavier the better.” Wilkerson, while agreeing with portions of the analysis, criticizes the fact that the statement gave the townhouse collective sole blame rather than evaluating the context of what was happening politically, Weatherman’s own violent rhetoric, their actions (ex: the “Days of Rage”), and their political analysis, all of which “helped pave the way to the elevation of armed struggle as the only kind of struggle.” Wilkerson’s analysis of the townhouse explosion and what it meant for the Weather Underground–and to a lesser extent the movement–is interesting and she ultimately argues that:

“Only years later did I realize that it was only because our actions failed, because we had sacrificed some of our own, that our anger could be heard. Had our original plans been successful, any acknowledgment of our outrage against the war would have been overshadowed by others’ outrage at us, for we, too, would have inflicted chaos and hurt without a realistic plan–if one would have been possible–to move constructively beyond our anger and the damage.”

A significant portion of Wilkerson’s book is devoted to her work with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and her awakening to political consciousness in the mid-1960s. She begins by describing her family life in the 1950s, describing stifling gender roles and expectations that functioned as an early impetus towards rebellion in some form. When Wilkerson went to college she got involved in Civil Rights struggles by going to pickets and getting involved with neighborhood organizing efforts. This eventually led to organizing against the Vietnam War and ultimately, SDS. She worked at the national office as an editor of New Left Notes before becoming a regional SDS organizer in Washington DC. Her discussion of SDS is insightful as she addresses the organization’s many successes and failures. Moreover, Wilkerson was involved in SDS throughout most of its existence and she was one of the few who were involved in “early” SDS and the later SDS. Consequently, she discusses the divisions between the two, as well as the common failings, such as a lack of an overall strategy for change. Wilkerson also tackles sexism in the movement, COINTELPRO repression, and the continuing escalation of the war.

Wilkerson’s discussion of SDS is essential to understanding the Weather Underground, because without it, it is almost impossible to see what drove their group to engage in “armed struggle” within the United States. She aptly articulates the trajectory of SDS’s politics and skillfully draws out lessons that would be helpful for anyone doing antiwar and/or radical organizing in the current context. As she talks about the downfall of SDS, she describes the increase in radical rhetoric and imagery, with SDS publications featuring the rhetoric of warfare, imagery of guns, and exultations to militancy that became increasingly undecipherable to those outside the movement. Wilkerson argues that as SDS (and the emerging Weatherman and Revolutionary Youth Movement factions) began to cast itself as a “revolutionary” movement that sought ways to broaden its struggle, it became more narrowly focused and accountable. To her, Weatherman–which emerged out of the disintegration of SDS at the 1969 national convention–quickly became a product of its own rhetoric and began to believe its bold proclamations even when in reality there was not much of a movement behind them, nor were their particularly clear politics. At numerous points during her narrative, Wilkerson describes her doubts and second thoughts that she downplayed and overcame, convincing herself that “the leadership” had a clear plan or that there was no other way.

Throughout her writing, Wilkerson criticizes the politics and actions of the Weather Underground, arguing that it had “tremendous influence and iconic status, despite its small size and enormous, even absurd, failings.” She repeatedly talks of herself and the Weather Underground as an organization moving over “the blurry line between reality and delusion” as they convinced themselves that they had the right analysis and tactics. When people did not show up, they simply convinced themselves that they were the only ones who were willing to make the sacrifices and that they would have “to go it alone.” For the most part, Wilkerson’s analyses of the Weather Underground’s political and tactical failings are insightful, although they do seem colored by her own experience in the group and subsequent political thinking. One of Wilkerson’s assertions that are more questionable is that:

“Presented with both national and world events that were emotionally overwhelming, and ill-prepared to make the choices that lay in front of me, I made a series of decisions, from a standpoint of rage, hopelessness, and fear, in which I accepted the same desanctification of human life practiced by Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and William Westmoreland. I accepted their supposition that, in the end, violence is the only effective strategy for social change; that might makes right, despite the fact that treasuring humanity–and each life within it–was one of the values that I had fought for. I abandoned myself to the sanctimoniousness of hating my enemies.”

Honestly, it is somewhat difficult to accept portions of that analysis, especially when throughout the book Wilkerson advances a far more nuanced critique of the group.

Beyond on her evaluation of the politics and tactics of the Weather Underground, Wilkerson also describes life underground. Following the townhouse explosion, Wilkerson moved from a series of “safe houses” and often subsisted on bare necessities. In part because she was so well-known following the townhouse and in part because she was not part of the leadership collective, Wilkerson reveals only minimal involvement in the group’s activities and much of her life underground appeared tedious and served to isolate her from what remained of the movement. When reading the section, the hierarchy of the group’s operation is striking. The organization operated in a way that left the individual collectives and members often having no idea who else existed and rarely being asked to contribute to the strategic and tactical discussions at hand. Moreover, Wilkerson explains that there was often a significant disparity between how people lived, with those who were more connected to money living in significantly better conditions.

Despite her criticism, Wilkerson makes it clear that among Weatherman’s success was its ability “to serve as a powerful voice of outrage that spoke for thousands of angry young people,” its ability to elude capture and provide inspiration to 1960s veterans who were in the 1970s settling into long-term work, and its addressing racism as a central aspect of struggles in the United States. While recounting its many errors and asserting that it added little to “the broader conversation about change,” Wilkerson argues that despite all of its flaws, “the gravest mistake is inaction.” Flying Close to the Sun–while not the best book on the period–is an important contribution to the writing on the Weather Underground and the radical movements of the 1960s and 1970s and is certainly worth reading by anyone seeking to develop a more comprehensive understanding of what happened during that period.

Cathy Wilkerson, Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman, (Seven Stories Press, 2007).

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Sing a Battle Song: The Revolutionary Poetry, Statements, and Communiques of the Weather Underground

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Sing a Battle Song: The Revolutionary Poetry, Statements, and Communiqués of the Weather Underground 1970 – 1974 is a new anthology edited by three former leaders of the militant anti-imperialist organization known as the Weather Underground. From its origins in the student antiwar movement of the 1960s through its ongoing support of liberation movements around the world in the 1970s, the Weather Underground became one of the most controversial groups to emerge from the 1960s movements due to their support for armed struggle and use of political bombings as a means of practicing active solidarity with third world movements. The anthology collects three texts from the Weather Underground’s most active period, a collection of poetry titled “Sing a Battle Song: Poems by Women of the Weather Underground Organization,” “The Weather Eye: Communiques from the Weather Underground May 1970 – May 1974,” and “Prairie Fire: The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-imperialism.” By collecting these texts in one place, the editors make an important contribution to recent literature on the Weather Underground and to those in current movements against war and racism who want to learn from past struggle as a way of drawing out lessons for the present. In their respective introductions to the text, the editors reflect on the Weather Underground and the lessons that can be learned, with all three former leaders concluding that they were right to challenge white supremacy and imperialism as demonstrated by Bernadine Dohrn’s arguing that “Weather had an unequivocal lucidity about white supremacy and race.” Similarly, they argue that the Weather Underground helped to advance a theory of imperialism that looked at its domestic consequences–economic collapse, incarceration, ecological assaults, etc.–that presented a more comprehensive analysis of power to the antiwar movement and attempting to recast it as an anti-imperialist movement. While still supporting the goals and many of the theoretical positions of the group, the editors agree that Weather’s major failure was in its sectarianism, inflated rhetoric, and its unwillingness to build meaningful alliances with other organizations. To this end, Jeff Jones’ comments that Weather defined only by its tactics is a relic of the past, but if it is considered in terms of its opposition to imperialism and racism it has a relevancy for the present, seem particularly apt.

Following the introductions and a brief excerpt from the “Weatherman Statement” issued in 1969, Sing a Battle Song opens the book. The short book of poetry by “women in the Weather Underground” features a variety of poems that show the ways in which the Weather Underground sought to grapple with a host of different issues and interlocking systems of oppression. There are poems that challenge sexism and patriarchy, poems in support of the Vietnamese struggle for liberation, poems in support of political prisoners, and a host of other poems addressing important issues within both the Weather Underground and the greater left movement of the 1960s and 1970s. According to the 1975 introduction, the poems–like armed actions and written propaganda–are another means of communicating, educating, and building an anti-imperialist movement. The poem writing process itself was a product of the Weather Underground’s experimentation with different methods of collective organizing and structuring of political groups, with each poem being written individually and then critiqued and edited as a group in order to sharpen its clarity and effectiveness as a tool of struggle. Moreover, the book is firmly rooted in the Weather Underground’s internal debate over male supremacy and sexism, a debate that raged not only within the group but also within the movement press.

Weather Eye collects the communiques of the Weather Underground, from its opening “A Declaration of a Sate of War” in which the group announced that it was going to “attack a symbol or institution of Amerikan injustice” within the next fourteen days (it set off a bomb in the New York Police Department headquarters to protest the racist justice system three weeks after the declaration of war) to a 1974 communique explaining why the Weather Underground “attacked” a fundraiser for Nelson Rockefeller for his support of strict anti-drug laws. The communiqués vary greatly from over-the-top rhetoric talking about “pigs” and “amerikan” imperialism to longer, more theoretical pieces that analyzed events of the times and the state of the movement. As the organization became more experienced, its communiqués focused less on the bombing and more on the reasons behind the choosing of a specific target, opting to use the bombings as an act of “armed propaganda” that could potentially highlight an issue that was not receiving an appropriate amount of attention in the media or in the movement. The Weather Underground also released statements exploring their own tactical and political development, perhaps the most famous of which was the group’s “New Morning, Changing Weather” statement in which the group specifically expressed its “military error” in considering “only bombings or picking up the gun as revolutionary” and advocated the building of a movement that respected a diversity of tactics. Reading them some thirty years later, the communiques show Weather’s evolving analysis and its work towards developing a more comprehensive anti-imperialism theory and praxis and the obligation of white radicals to dedicate themselves to combating imperialism.

Billed as “the political statement of the Weather Underground,” Prairie Fire is an important document in understanding the theoretical development of the Weather Underground. It presents their longest exploration of imperialism, white supremacy, and the tactics necessary for revolutionary movements to succeed. While the statement’s politics have been criticized by some former members for emphasizing class over race, it represents an attempt by an underground organization to stay relevant at a time of lessening popular struggle. The book, published in the mid-1970s, is an attempt to give direction to the organization and to present a strategy for anti-imperialism and revolution. The book is very much written out of an analysis of conditions in the mid-1970s, interpreting imperialism as in decline, and as such sees the prospects of a revolutionary movement as being attainable provided that a new revolutionary organization is formed to guide the movement. It identifies anti-organization tendencies, cynicism, sexism, and racism as the primary reason for the movement being at a “low-point” and prevents its analysis as a means of sparking a larger anti-imperialist movement. To that end, the book presents a lengthy analysis of resistance movements in United States history while also articulating a detailed analysis of imperialism and recent (at the time) worldwide victories against imperialism. For those reading the analysis in the present, it appears quite flawed given that its predications about the direction of the movement and the decline of United States imperialism did not come to pass, yet at the same time, it does offer a number of points worthy of consideration by contemporary activists. The text presents a clear argument in support of an anti-imperialist analysis of United States foreign policy, explaining how the United States prosperity is based on the “super-exploitation” of the third world, how imperialism links domestic, foreign, corporate, and military policy, and how racism functions as a tool of imperialism. The book also presents a solid–although dated–critique and analysis of white privilege and asserts that challenging racism and white supremacy must be a primary focus of radical movements.

Sing a Battle Song is an important book in that it presents materials that were previously available primarily in university libraries and in the collections of aging radicals and makes them available for a new generation of radicals to consider and learn from. Of course, as primary text materials, they feature no secondary analysis and are often lacking the context necessary to completely understand them (the exception would be Jonah Raskin’s introduction to Weather Eye) and as such a reading of these texts should be undertaken along with a reading of Dan Berger’s excellent book on the Weather Underground, Outlaws of America. Nevertheless, these texts provide an intriguing and useful look into a movement that was willing to risk everything in order to commit itself to fighting white supremacy and as such, there is a considerable amount to be learned from them by radicals of this generation.

Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers, and Jeff Jones, eds., Sing a Battle Song: The Revolutionary Poetry, Statements, and Communiqués of the Weather Underground 1970 – 1974, (Seven Stories Press, 2006).

Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity

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The Weather Underground and the larger militant antiwar and anti-imperialist movement of the 1960s and 1970s occupy a precarious place in history. Its legacy has been largely shaped by conservative critics who have cast the group as spoiled rich kids who hated the United States for a variety of selfish psychological reasons ranging from being neglected by their parents to some members alleged feelings of inadequacy due to concerns over the size of their respective penises (see David Horrowitz’s Destructive Generation). However, at the same time the group’s legacy has been similarly colored by liberal scholars who have maligned the Weather Underground and dismissed the militant movement as a whole (for example, early Students for a Democratic Society president Todd Gitlin) while arguing that it turned away potential supporters and was morally indefensible. Such an argument has been used by activists in contemporary movements to attempt to enforce strict codes of nonviolence based on the so-called “experience” of the 1960s and largely based on readings of Tom Well’s lengthy examination of the movement against the Vietnam War in The War Within. However, over the past few years there has been more attention on the Weather Underground and the militant antiwar movement in the United States, with books such as Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity, Jeremy Varon’s Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies, former Weatherman Bill Ayers’ Fugitive Days, and the recently released collection of Weather books titled Sing a Battle Song: The Revolutionary Poetry, Statements, and Communiqués of the Weather Underground 1970 – 1974. While all of these books and the 2003 film titled The Weather Underground have brought renewed attention to the group, few of these works have attempted to engage the Weather Underground’s complex legacy and the lessons that can be learned by today’s movements from the Weather Underground, instead choosing to focus primarily on the group’s history and activities in the 1960s and 1970s. Berger’s book, subtitled “The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity” engages the question of the Weather Underground’s legacy and through extensive research of movement documents and newspapers, oral interviews, and reviews of relevant secondary sources, creating a work that both presents a critical history of the Weather Underground and articulates the contributions of the Weather Underground to the left in the United States.

Unlike many previous attempts at exploring the Weather Underground’s history, Berger’s interpretations are fresh and written from the perspective of an activist clearly interested in learning from past struggles. Berger begins by exploring the Weather Underground’s origins in the white “New Left” of the 1960s and describes the context from which it emerged. Berger describes Weather’s actions as emerging from an antiwar movement that, feeling pressure from organizations of color who articulated an anti-imperialist analysis of the Vietnam war that saw the war in Vietnam and racism in the United States emerging from the same system of white supremacy and capitalism, slowly developed an anti-imperialist analysis of their own. Berger explains the context of the Black Panther Party, the Brown Berets, the Young Lords, and other third world groups organizing and the sense among some in the white left–particularly in the major student organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)–that something more needed to be done to support third world movements both within and outside of the United States. This realization, coupled with government repression of third world movements within the United States and the increased antiwar militancy in 1968, led a group of activists in SDS to form the faction (Revolutionary Youth Movement) that would eventually split from the group and form Weatherman (the group later changed its named to the Weather Underground Organization after going underground). While this split did ruin the largest student and antiwar organization at the time, Berger reinterprets the split as white radicals breaking from white supremacy and clearly aligning themselves with people of color and third world movements and sees it as a major step in the development of an anti-imperialist movement. Following the split, Weatherman–overcome by their own egos and machismo–held a small number of highly militant actions around the country that culminated in 1969’s Days of Rage. After limiting their potential to build alliances due to their excessive egos and incurring significant legal troubles from their actions, the group decided to become an underground organization that would use bombings and other such tactics as means of highlighting the government’s repression of third world movements and–ideally–developing another front that would lesson repression against people of color. While Weather’s actions were cast by some at the time–and many now–as “extreme,” Berger argues that they need to be seen within the context of a government war on activists of color that resulted in the murder and imprisonment of several Black Panthers and a movement that became militant even without Weather’s influence. Berger explains that the militant tactics employed by Weather both before and after they went underground were common place in the antiwar movement by 1970 with street fighting and property destruction being used across the country.

While the book does of course mention the Weather Underground’s various actions–ranging from bombing the Pentagon to Kennecott Minerals for their role in the Chilean coup–its focus is less on the specifics of the bombings and more on how they were used as an attempt to foster solidarity across movements and as a way of building an anti-imperialist left. Berger’s history examines Weather’s attempts at building anti-racist and anti-imperialist solidarity by following Weather up to its end in the late 1970s, bringing the story of the anti-imperialist armed struggle into the 1980s, and exploring its present context by discussing at length the fact that many political prisoners remain in prison for anti-imperialist actions undertaken decades ago. Berger provides a critical history and analysis of Weather’s attempts at building an anti-imperialist theoretical framework, its numerous printed works (the group published and a newspaper while underground), its relationship with other organizations on the left, and its attempts to do mass organizing work in the post-Vietnam era. Berger describes how the Weather Underground, born out of a politics that emphasized an understanding of white supremacy and white skin privilege, shifted towards the end of its existence and advocated for a strictly Marxist-Leninist analysis of class that focused on the need for developing a mass communist organization, out of which the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee was born. At this point, several members started thinking about surfacing and eventually the majority turned themselves in and in so doing exercised a privilege that Berger points out was only available to white militants. Despite the shifting politics of the Weather Underground, Berger’s explanation of how they came to specific theoretical views, the internal conflicts within the group, and the response of the aboveground left is a fascinating read that holds many lessons for white activists and organizers seeking to build a stronger anti-imperialist movement.

Unlike other authors, Berger is willing to criticize the Weather Underground while also critically engaging their history, theoretical writings, and actions to properly assess their role both on the left and among organizations working for social change. Berger argues that despite the organization’s flaws, particularly with regard to their sexism and bravado, it advanced an analysis of race that was unprecedented in the white left. Weather fought racism by showing that racism was a defining feature of the United States domestically and in foreign policy, calling for the white progressives to support people of color, and mandating that whites challenge themselves and other whites at a personal and institutional level in the struggle for racial justice. Berger argues that the Weather Underground injected an analysis of white skin privilege into the movement and developed an analysis of it years before it became a popular subject of academic study, and more importantly, developed a politics of active solidarity that saw anti-racism as something that needed to be lived. Of course, in a lot of ways–whether it was failing to communicate with organizations led by people of color or in failing to provide more concrete support to radicals of color–the organization was not accountable to people of color, but it did achieve success in making a staunch and unyielding opposition to racism a prerequisite for social justice movements in the United States. It was this opposition to white privilege–more than its symbolic bombings–that made the Weather Underground a real threat:

“The political threat to white supremacy–not physical damage to government or corporate buildings–is the central tenet of what the Weather Underground Organization means. White activists, mainly from the middle class, rejected what people of color were never offered, at least not in a meaningful way. The refusal of white people to embrace the system was significant because it tied their hopes and aspirations to the oppressed world majority rather than the oppressor minority. The organization grounded its strategic decisions in the issues facing most people of the world, rather than white North American people alone–a pivotal difference from most white-led social movements in this country.”

Outlaws of America is an important read for activists on a number of levels, but particularly for those wanting to build an anti-imperialist movement against the war in Iraq as part of an overall strategy of revolutionary anti-imperialism that presents a challenge to the status quo in the United States. To that end, Berger’s book provides numerous lessons and insights into one of the most misunderstood organizations on the left. Moreover, the book provides a valuable analysis and definition of what it means to be anti-imperialist for those who might be organizing against the war but have not yet developed such an analysis, and as such, a close study of both Outlaws of America and the politics behind it would bring great clarity to the seemingly directionless antiwar movement.

Dan Berger, Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity, (AK Press, 2006).

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).

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

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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).

The War Within: America’s Battle over Vietnam

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Almost immediately after the United States’ began its involvement in Vietnam a domestic antiwar movement arose that, along with the armed revolutionary movement led by the Vietnamese National Liberation Front (NLF), would be able to severely impair the capacity of the world’s greatest superpower to wage unrestricted warfare and would eventually force the United States to withdraw from Vietnam. The movement against the Vietnam war was varied and far from cohesive with members from the clergy, various communist and social sects, radical pacifist groups, armed left-wing groups, students, media workers, disgruntled governmental members, veterans, active-duty soldiers, and more all vying for influence and leadership in a national movement that despite having no set underlying goals or ideology beyond ending the war was able to rally millions of people in the years from 1964 to 1973 to participate in a variety of educational activities, protests, militant street fighting, community organizing, political campaigns, and other activities designed to end the United States’ military action in Vietnam.

The antiwar movement in Vietnam, spanning nearly ten years, adopted a host of different tactics that enabled it to exert a long-term effect on United States policy towards Vietnam. Unfortunately, as Wells frequently points out, at critical junctures the antiwar movement was unaware of its power, yet as early as 1967 the Johnson administration was curtailing decisions based on the possibility that they might unleash significant domestic unrest. Among the successes of the movement cited by Wells was preventing Nixon from significantly increasing the war in 1969, including the possibility of using nuclear weapons in a drastic effort to bring a quick end to the war. With antiwar protestors frequently unaware of their influence as the war continued seemingly undeterred, a healthy amount of debate over tactics in the movement occurred, with some organizers stressing the importance of educational activities and big demonstrations that “displayed” the power of the movement while others advocated direct action as a way of “exercising” power over the government. However, despite internal debates over their effectiveness, antiwar protestors were successful in focusing scrutiny on US policy, exposed the lies routinely told about the war, highlighted the costs of the war, encouraged questioning, and pushed Congress towards action on Vietnam. Both Presidents Johnson and Nixon were personally interested in antiwar protests and watched them closely, and while initially dismissive, both increasingly realized that the protests had the capacity, and in many cases were, changing the war.

Unfortunately, Wells, like so many of the writers examining the antiwar movement against the Vietnam War brings a considerable amount of personal bias to his discussion which occasionally limits the lessons that can be drawn from the movement. Like most of the authors who write with strong personal bias, the bias stems from the shift among some groups in the New Left, most notably Weatherman (later Weather Underground), towards militant actions including bombings targeting state and corporate property that were necessary to the functioning of the war machine. While Wells’ critical view towards the militant aspect of the movement occasionally contains important insights, it also results in an almost complete write-off of student protest in the movement which he views as largely unorganized and often the product of “inexperience” and “frustration” rather than a genuine desire to end the war. There was certainly much to object within many of the militant groups—macho attitudes that reinforced the values of a patriarchal culture, tactical recklessness whereby decisions were made with little regard to overall strategic efficiency, and an unquestioning glorification of violence—yet Wells focuses solely on the tactics and dismisses those without any substantive examination of the questions about the effectiveness of peaceful protests that the militants raised, instead dismissing them as a vain attempt by militants to find “existential satisfaction.” Yet, despite all of his dismissals of militant protest, Wells recognizes that it was the totality of the movement’s varied forms, coupled with the armed movement in Vietnam that ended the war. Wells is equally dismissive of anti-capitalist sentiment in the antiwar movement, and while serious criticisms can be made of much of what was described as “revolutionary” thought and activity, dismisses it too easily with little substantive discussion as a distraction from antiwar organizing.

With the ongoing Iraq War, in some ways an imperial engagement similar to Vietnam, comparisons between the antiwar movements against Vietnam and Iraq inevitably arise. Even before the war on Iraq began, activists were comparing the two movements with many marveling at the speed at which protests against the Iraq War began, with many noted scholars commenting that the protesting of the Iraq War before it even started presented a significant improvement over the slow construction of a movement against the Vietnam War. In light of these comparisons, The War Within: America’s Battle over Vietnam can provide important historical perspective to the debates within the antiwar movement against the Iraq War and offer many examples of both what to do and what not to do when organizing opposition to the Iraq War. One of the key lessons for organizing that can be gleaned from The War Within is the importance of sustained organizing, whether that be anti-draft work, national mobilizations, coordinated days of action, letter writing campaigns, and other such activities, which occurring at regular intervals, exerted a continued pressure on the United States government. It is also important to understand that building an antiwar movement takes time, and while most involved in antiwar organizing would like to find the one action that could halt the war, it is necessary to understand that it will be a combination of tactics—letter writing, public protests, militant actions, and other activities, that will cumulatively work together to stop the Iraq War as they did with the Vietnam War. There is no simple blueprint for ending the war, but rather, activists must realize that a variety of well-organized and strategically chosen tactics will stop the war. Additionally, as was the case with the NLF in the Vietnam War, the Iraqi insurgency will play a significant role in bringing an end to the Iraq War as it is the insurgency that will raise the human cost of the war to the United States and open the way for increased resistance in the United States as casualties rise. The question of whether or not to support the NLF opened large division during the Vietnam War (and similarly posing the question of whether or not to support the Iraqi insurgency would open a similar question in the contemporary movement), highlighting one of the most destructive forces that acted against the antiwar movement, sectarianism. Sectarianism destroyed numerous antiwar coalitions during the Vietnam War, generally facilitated by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), there is a fair amount of sectarianism in the contemporary antiwar movement that threatens to both turn away people who unknowingly come in contact with sectarian front groups such as International A.N.S.W.E.R. and World Can’t Wait (front for the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP)The War Within) and isolates antiwar activists who get burnt out seeing their effectiveness diminished by sectarian infighting.

The War Within is one of the more comprehensive evaluations of the movement against the Vietnam War, and despite its flaws, offers a valuable analysis that will be of interest both to those interested in the movement against Vietnam as well as those who would like to see a more visible movement against the Iraq War. Unfortunately, given the wide variety of organizations participating in the movement against the Vietnam War, no single volume is going to give a complete overview of the movement, yet The War Within, coupled with a reading of Kirkpatrick Sale’s SDS, comes close to providing a workable history that can be used both to understand the period and provide important historical lessons for organizers. It is unfortunate that so few contemporary organizers have more than a simplistic understanding of the movement against the Vietnam War, because without a sense of historical understanding, the contemporary movement, despite its unique historical realities, seems poised to falter despite the fact that a shift to sustained organizing could produce a movement that could potentially rival that of the Vietnam War.

Tom Wells, The War Within: America’s Battle over Vietnam, (Henry Holt and Company, 1994).

American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation

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Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was one of the key works of the Beat Generation and its debut at the famed Six Gallery reading in 1955 marked the coming out of a new dissent in American poetry and culture. In American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation, Jonah Raskin analyzes both the text of the poem and its key themes to demonstrate how they reflect the Beats’ uncertainty about and critique of American society. The Beats’ critique and departure from the stifling conformity of the 1950s represented the start of the cultural revolution of the 1960s and provided the initial glimpses of the radicalism that would become prominent during the decade of the sixties.

The Beats had an important influence on American society, and from the start of the Beat movement, many of the Beats most prominent writers identified themselves with the strong non-conformist literary figures and traditions in the United States, drawing their own parallels with poets such as Walt Whitman, and eventually, becoming nearly as influential. The Beats were profoundly influenced by the realities of the 1950s-they lived in the shadow of the nuclear bomb and were haunted by the possibility of death at the hands of nuclear machinery and by the state of the world. The major themes identified in Howl–madness, nakedness, and secrecy, were omnipresent features of the United States in the 1950s and the Beats took it upon themselves to recognize and challenge these themes through art. The Beats hoped that they could foster a generalized awakening of the populace and Ginsberg specifically sought to “jolt America awake” with the content and form of Howl, and in many ways, Howl would both echo cultural changes already under way and usher in new ones as the 1950s moved into the 1960s.

Aside from the historical realities, Howl was also influenced extensively by Ginsberg’s personal life. In his personal life and in his relationships, both with his parents and his fellow writings, a sense of madness pervaded-Ginsberg’s mother was in a mental institution, Ginsberg himself spent time in one, and numerous acquaintances committed suicide. As Raskin points, out “madness was the Beat badge of honor in a world gone insane with bombs, dictators, terror, and tyranny,” and Ginsberg, like many other Beats embraced the madness in his life and in the world and incorporated it into Howl. Ginsberg’s philosophy of personal liberation and desire to break down boundaries of expected behavior also influenced Howl, as did his life among the bohemians and political radicals in San Francisco.

Fans of Allen Ginsberg will find much to enjoy in American Scream, as Raskin does an excellent job collecting material from a variety of sources–Ginsberg’s journals, interviews with Ginsberg’s psychiatrist, and psychiatric reports from the 1950s–all of which contribute towards a clear and complete analysis of Howl and the milieu from which it came forth. For the casual reader who has not had considerable exposure to Ginsberg or the history of the Beat Generation, Raskin has included some history, a history that is necessary to fully understand Howl. Unfortunately, some of the historical information is fairly superficial and lacks the detail that readers not familiar with the period would likely desire. Nevertheless, American Scream provides an insightful look at the roots of the Beat Generation and the period of dissent that followed in the 1960s.

Jonah Raskin, American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation, (University of California Press, 2004).

Street-Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties

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There are no shortage of memoirs concerning the 1960s, but it would be hard to find one that covers more ground than Tariq Ali’s.

Because of the diverse people Ali encounters, and the many different locations he travels to, it is difficult to summarize the book. Ali begins his story growing up in Pakistan, and then later becomes involved in the emerging Pakistan student movement. The Pakistan regime’s brutal crackdown on the students causes his parents to fear for his safety, and send him off to Britain to continue his education. In Britain Ali becomes one of the leading figures in the New Left. He eventually travels to Paris, Berlin, Vietnam, Bolivia, and back to Pakistan.

Ali met Malcolm X in Oxford, and apparently spent one evening talking late into the night with him about politics and religion. He debated Harvard Don Henry Kissinger as part of the televised Oxford/Harvard Vietnam War debates. He was recruited, and worked with Bertrand Russell on a Vietnam War Crimes Tribunal. He was also sent by Russell on a mission to Bolivia to make sure the recently captured Regis Debray was still alive, and to send words of hope to Debray. He marched in Berlin with the German SDS and advised Rudi Dutschke on strategy. He appeared on TV with Daniel Cohn-Bendit and apparently advised the later on how to deal with the BBC. He apparently talked politics often with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and provided the inspiration for John Lennon’s song “Power to the People”. He talked about the Vietnam War one night with Ulrike Meinhof. The various people who pop up in this book represent a “Who’s Who” of the 1960s.

And to a certain extent this might represent the book’s greatest flaw. At one point in the book, since the BBC had banned the song “Street Fighting Man”, Ali rings up Mick Jagger to ask for the lyrics to publish in his magazine, “The Black Dwarf”. He receives a handwritten copy of the song the same day, but after photocopying it, throws the original in the wastebasket. He justifies it this way: “No one in the office thought this was sacrilegious. The cult of the individual is always, in the last resort, a substitute of collective action. Jagger sang well and he was helpful. That was all.”

And yet, by all the name dropping Ali does in his book, one gets the sense at times that he has been thoroughly seduced by the cult of celebrity. Although I suppose, if I had met all the same people, I would want to write about in my book as well.

And there are advantages to Ali’s approach. He paints a very vivid picture of Rudi Dutschke, and reading his book one gets a very good picture of the anger and despair felt by the New Left after Dutschke’s attempted assassination. Although Ali never actually meets Che Guevara, the section of the book dealing with his adventures in Bolivia and Regis Debray give a sense of the importance Che Guevara had to the period, and the shock felt at Che’s death, something that is sometimes lost with the over-commercialization of Che’s image.

Although it is hard to summarize the plot of the book, several themes can become evident. The failure of state communism is a major theme, both the failure of the USSR and China to help Vietnam, and the betrayal of May 1968 by the French Communist Party. Also the failure of liberal democracy during the Vietnam War, and the Vietnam War itself are major themes.

Although the book was originally published in 1987, the new edition contains a new 50-page introduction that helps to highlight some of the parallels to the present. “History rarely repeats itself,” Ali says in the introduction, “but it echoes.”

Many of these echoes are self evident even without the aid of the new introduction. Such as the crisis facing the anti-War left in Britain as to whether or not to support the pro-war Labour government. Tariq Ali and his friends support the anti-war candidacy of independent Richard Gott, only to be demonized by others on the left out of fear of a Tory victory.

Unfortunately the candidacy of Richard Gott ultimately ends in failure, and Tariq Ali is unable to provide an easy answer to the problem of the failure of liberal bourgeois democracy to provide an anti-war alternative. It is a problem that still faces activists today on both sides of the Atlantic.

To collect evidence for Betrand Russell’s Vietnam War Crimes tribunal, Tariq Ali travels to Cambodia and Vietnam, and he devotes a large part of the book to describing the human cost of the war. It is heart-breaking reading for any American. He describes how schools and hospitals are bombed, and the heavy civilian casualties on the Vietnamese side. Tariq Ali correctly concludes that the Vietnam War is genocide, and quotes for Jean-Paul Sartre at the War Crimes Tribunal: “The present genocide, the end result of the unequal development of societies, is total war waged to the limit by one side, without the slightest reciprocity – Indeed, genocide presents itself as the ONLY POSSIBLE REACTION to the rising of a whole people against its oppressors.” (Capitals in the original).

Parallels are highlighted in the new introduction when Tariq Ali focuses on the civilian cost of the Iraq War, citing a study that indicates the Iraqi death toll since the March 2003 invasion might be as high as 100,000. Ali continues, “When the World Health Organization claimed that the sanctions against Iraq had cost the lives of at least half a million children, the then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, told CBS that it was a price worth paying. No doubt the debased politicians and even more debased apologists in the media think the same of the hundred thousand killed in 2003-4. Nice of them to be so generous with Iraqi lives.”

Tariq Ali, Street-Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties, (Verso, 2005).

Viet-Cong at Wounded Knee

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The activities of the American Indian Movement (AIM), while often grouped with the radicalism of the 1960s and 1970s New Left, has received relatively little attention compared to the white movements of the period and the civil rights movement. Moreover, what scholarship does exist largely focuses either on the leaders of the movement or the United States’ government’s efforts to repress native movements for self-determination.

Within this context, Woody Kipp’s Viet Cong at Wounded Knee: The Trail of a Blackfeet Activist would seem to provide a welcome addition to the literature on the movement. Kipp is what one could describe as a “rank-and-file” member of AIM, he was not leadership at either the national or local level but was simply one of the thousands of native people that were attracted to AIM’s efforts. Nor was Kipp a life-long radical, he joined the movement after returning from Vietnam and encountering AIM members at his college. For Kipp, the realization that the United States government did not have his interests at stake was a gradual process. It began with his realization in Vietnam that the Viet-Cong looked similar to him and that there was little reason for people of color to be fighting other people of color in order to secure rights for them not afford to native people within the United States and concluded, in a rather startling manner, when, while sneaking into the AIM-occupied village of Wounded Knee, the United States government used the same machine guns that he was trained to use in Vietnam against him.

However, rather than describe at length his conclusion that he was, as far as the United States government was concerned, a Viet-Cong, Kipp’s book is filled primarily of his tales of “womanizing and drinking” of which there are many. In between these tales, the reader occasionally gets some interesting insight into the attitudes of the AIM rank-and-file but these insights are rare and are almost buried amidst page after page of explaining how Kipp and his friends were able to secure alcohol or how poorly they were faring do to the lack of alcohol. By the time of the epilogue, most readers will have wondered why they spent the time reading the book, as little of consequence can be gleaned from its pages. Such a conclusion is unfortunate, because the epilogue points to Kipp’s potential for great insight into AIM, contemporary issues facing Native Americans, and native spirituality. Had Kipp pursued these topics rather than writing a narrative encompassing his chaotic younger years, he would have made a valuable contribution to the literature available on the American Indian Movement.

Woody Kipp, Viet Cong at Wounded Knee: The Trail of a Blackfeet Activist, (University of Nebraska Press, 2004).

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).