FEBRUARY IS BLACK HISTORY MONTH
Readers this space may have noticed in my profile that I am a supporter of the Partisan Defense Committee, an organization committed to the defense of and freedom for class war prisoners. The author of the book under review death row inmate, former Black Panther and a `voice for the voiceless' Mumia Abu Jamal is currently the most publicized case of that organization as he faces continued threats to his life by the American justice system. Here he has written a lively and informative account of his `original sin', joining the Black Panthers as a teenager, that has since then put him in the crosshairs of the government and its courts. While one can honestly disagree, as this writer does, about the politics of the Panthers (see all my reviews for other Panther-related reviews) and about Mumia's current political perspective this book demonstrates why there is an extremely good reason why he is called ` the voice of the voiceless'.
Apparently, when the government gets you in its sights you are their forever, especially if you are black. Mumia is not the only former Black Panther still in prison, only the most prominent (see Partisan Defense Committee website for others supported by that organization). Although his politics have changed their focus since his Panther youth one of the most inflammatory statements made by the prosecution in his Pennsylvania murder trial in 1982- supposedly to support a so-called `motive' for his crime was his youthful membership in the Panthers. Accordingly, that made him some kind of kill-crazy cop hater for life. No, this characterization will not do. Like many black youth at the time the Panthers brought Mumia to political life at a time when thoughtful black militants were looking for a way forward in the black liberation struggle. That the Panthers could not succeed for various reasons described in the book does not negate their political, not criminal influence. One has to look to the government's reaction to the Panthers if one wants to find serious life-threatening criminal activity
Along with several other books I have been reading lately this book has made me think back to the days when we of the white left were head over heels in love with the Black Panthers as the epitome of revolutionary manhood (and it was mainly men) and of revolutionary struggle. Well, as we are all painfully aware, those days are long gone although the goals fought for in those days are still desperately in need of completion. Thus, some thoughts about the ups and downs of the Black Panther experience, the most militant and subjectively revolutionary part of the black liberation movement of the 1960's, and its role in the history of black liberation is in order. Mumia provides much anecdotal information, particularly about the rank and file and the effect that the Panther experience had on turning around some very tough lifestyle situations.
As any photograph taken of the Panthers from the period would demonstrate the Panthers and particularly the central leadership, Huey Newton, Bobby Searle, Eldridge Cleaver among others were not adverse to little provocative demonstrations or shock-value publicity. The FBI, however, early on had other plans for them and they were not pretty. If J. Edgar Hoover saw the placid Martin Luther King-led branch of the civil rights movement as some kind of communist conspiracy then he turned apoplectic at the thought of armed black men asserting their right to bear arms. Since early slavery times that possibility had always been the fear of whites and the response was no different this time. Over a very short period the Hoover-orchestrated federal and state drive against the Panthers left most of the key leaders and cadre dead, in jail, on bail or in hiding, This was not the first time a perceived leftist threat had been deal with this in this way. One can think of the International Workers of the World (Wobblies) in the World War I period, the Communist and Anarchist `red scare' raids and deportations after that war and more recently the anticommunist witch hunts of the 1950's. With this difference, however, in the case of the Panthers there was a concerted effort to kill off every one they could get their hands on. Read here if you want to learn more about what that did to the organization, particularly as it, in self-defense, had to turn into a de facto legal defense organization. Read and re-read this book.