After 9-11 the reunion committee, dubbed "It's About Time,"
announced that the October Black Panther Party 35th-
anniversary reunion was canceled and rescheduled for April
18-20 in Washington, D.C. I thought this was a little odd
coming from the people that J. Edgar Hoover had named the
greatest threat to America's internal security back in 1969,
but even ex-Black Panthers were afraid to fly.
Still, I was glad to make alternative plans because I too
was a former Black Panther who was afraid to fly right after
9-11. Today I am an urban planner practicing in New York
City. I was a member of the Black Panther Party for 10
years, but it has taken a lifetime to come down from the
youthful exuberance of wanting to fight for my people. The
BPP had a 10-point program, and it was point number seven
that drew me into the party: "We want an immediate end to
police brutality and the murder of black people." I joined
when I was 16, and the party took my early years from 1968
to 1977. While most people my age were consumed in those
years with everything from high school football games to
college, and graduate school or a career, I spent them
selling Black Panther newspapers, organizing and staffing
Free Breakfast for
Children programs, and renovating the dormitories and school
complex of the party's Oakland Community School.
Rather than resembling a college reunion, it would be closer
to the kind an old army unit might have. Many of us suffer
from old combat wounds (I have one), and all have had some
degree of post-traumatic stress syndrome. And back in the
day, there were bad attitudes and people who just didn't
like each other, usually for good cause.
The 200 or so Panther veterans who showed up came for as
many reasons. Some came to maintain contact with people they
hadn't seen for decades and to share pictures and news of
their families. Some came to find the answers to questions
that no one wanted to answer years ago. Others were
investigating and seeking a type of therapeutic closure, one
that would satisfy and soothe the mental anguish we all
shared for dead comrades, people still missing, and for
political prisoners incarcerated for much too long. I came
believing I just wanted to see some old comrades who were
friends and to see others who weren't friends but people I
respected for their sacrifice in the struggle.
The day I arrived was an emotional one. I immediately found
myself confronting a past that had divided my family and
friends, but had created a new family and community that I
was to know for 10 of the most important years of my life. I
saw a graying and portly Bobby Seale, now 65, chairman and
co-founder of the BPP. We embraced and bid each other well.
Damn, it must be hard for people who are your heroes and
icons to keep up appearances. My image of Bobby is the one
where he's standing next to the late Huey P. Newton,
strapped down with a .45 automatic. Now Bobby's got
suspenders strapped to his pants supporting a belly. A
graying Congressman Bobby Rush from Chicago appeared. Rush,
55, was Illinois deputy minister of defense and one of the
brothers that ran the Chicago chapter along with the late
Fred Hampton, murdered in 1969, a major casualty of the U.S.
government's Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) to
destroy the Black Panther Party. We hugged, looked each
other in the eye, glad to see each other.
It had been years since I had seen many of my comrades.
There was a time when we used to make local and federal law
enforcement agencies take notice anytime we walked down the
street. No longer the lean fighting men and women I had
grown to respect, they were rounder, and most were graying
and some had no hair at all. A few limped or used canes
while others chose to remain seated as we talked about old
times. And some looked as good as they had the last time I
laid eyes on them.
Held at the University of the District of Columbia, the
reunion was well attended by Panthers, Panther sympathizers,
the curious, dozens of young people, and the press. The
three-day event was organized like a conference, with themes
ranging from amnesty for political prisoners to a full
discussion of COINTELPRO. There were dozens of workshops on
reparations, police brutality and civil liberties,
grassroots organizing, the prison-industrial complex,
economic development in the community, and, for former
Panthers only, a healing workshop led by Father Earl Neal,
the party's spiritual adviser.
Over the two days I was present, I only attended two
workshops: the community economic development session and
the healing workshop. The development group focused on
providing political and technical support to black vendors
in Philadelphia and touched on the issue of the black dollar
drain from the inner city. The two men who led the workshop
were friends I was very happy to see again. I was especially
glad to learn that they were doing work that was very
similar to the programs we developed while in the party. I
realized that I had not strayed far from my earlier calling
either, given the work I am now doing, planning and
implementing community economic development projects in
Harlem. This is part of the legacy.
The other session, the healing workshop, held the most value
for me and should have been packed to capacity, but there
were only two other Panthers besides myself present. I did
not know either of them, and it's possible this was a good
thing. They amazed me with their honesty and their
commitment to the struggle. This brother and sister mostly
discussed the isolation and despair felt during their years
in the BPP, a malaise still affecting them. This is another
part of the legacy. They talked about feeling betrayed and
abandoned by their family—the Black Panther Party—and how
they had made this trip to get answers to their many
questions regarding the transformation of the party from one
that placed an emphasis on armed self-defense to one that
focused on community service programs.
Because I was so close to the action in Oakland during that
period, I was able to give them good answers. The sister
cried, and the brother and I were near tears. Afterward, I
felt that those 10 years were worth every single day. I had
participated in a real reunion, finding some resolution with
two comrades I had met for the first time. It was probably
the one kind of session most needed in this group, and it
made me wonder that it took so long.
During the weekend I was also able to do this with friends
who were comrades and by reconnecting with others who have
become friends over time because we share the same struggle
to survive without the Black Panther Party. With some I was
able to clarify and apologize for mishaps, indiscretions,
and just plain old stupid shit I either did or said to them
years ago. This was one of the main reasons that I wanted to
attend the reunion.
The biggest revelation from the weekend was that most of the
major issues we all had were with each other or with the
organization. Thirty-five years after the founding of the
BPP, none of us seemed terribly upset or sad that we did not
win the revolution by the means chosen. I never heard anyone
complain or commiserate about that. The majority of the
people present, including myself, have found outlets to
continue to struggle for social justice by other means.
The African American Perspective
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