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Black Panthers 35 Years Later

At the BPP reunion: Aku Njeri, widow of Panther Fred Hampton, escaped an apartment exploding with gunfire in 1969, when police killed her husband while he slept.
photo: Gerald Herbert/The Washington Times

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.


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