Eddie Conway, executive producer at the Real News Network, and Paul Coates, founder of Black Classic Press, the publisher of authors like Ethelbert Miller and Walter Mosley, have been friends since their days working in the struggle as Black Panthers in Baltimore. On this episode of “The Marc Steiner Show” they talk about their new book, “The Brother You Choose,” which highlights their friendship born from a deep, shared commitment to the resistance.
Studio: Tunde Ogunfolaju
Production: Ericka Blount
Post-Production: Sebastian Pituscan
Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News. It’s good to have you all with us once again, as always. Now, the two men who you’re about to meet, who are going to join us today, you may know. Eddie Conway is an executive producer here at The Real News, he’s host of Rattling the Bars who came here after serving 44 years as a political prisoner because he was a leader and a member of the Black Panther Party. The other man is a guest here as well. You may have met him before on The Real News. Eddie’s best friend, former defense captain with the Black Panthers, founder of the Black Classic Press, Paul Coates. Now, their friendship is powerful and has a depth that most men yearn for.
That relationship was captured in the book called The Brother You Choose. Paul Coates and Eddie Conway talk about life, politics, and the revolution. It was edited by Susie Day, who, from a long series of interviews she did with them, created this book. It’s a sojourn of two men, one incarcerated, the other on the outside, always with him, having each other’s back. It’s a story of a deep friendship and the political struggles that defined it and our whole nation. Paul Coates, Eddie Conway, join me now via Zoom to explore the friendship, the politics, the revolution, the racism at the center of our world and the center of their world as well. Brothers, welcome. Good to have you both with us.
Paul Coates: Marc, thank you.
Eddie Conway: Thanks. Thanks for having me.
Marc Steiner: This is an amazing book. Susie really did an amazing job. I look forward to talking to her just about how she did this. I mean, she captured something. And clearly, it made me think of this as I was reading it. For you to have this conversation with Susie, there had to be trust all the way around for this conversation to happen.
Paul Coates: That’s a good point, and something that I didn’t so much think about at the time, because the conversation – At least from my perspective – The conversation was preceded, really, by me knowing Susie on the outside, Eddie knowing Susie on the inside. But also Susie had done such a wonderful article, Marc, when Eddie got out, and it was the best capture that I had seen of what was happening around Eddie getting out and his transition from being confined. I think that article and knowing her, knowing her partner, Laura, created that trust, and it didn’t give me ground to think about it again.
Marc Steiner: No, I just thought about it, just from the book made me think that. I mean, clearly you wouldn’t have been able to do that without it.
Paul Coates: I think that’s a good point.
Marc Steiner: Let me begin this way. Unless Eddie, you want to jump in on that as well?
Eddie Conway: No, I’m good.
Marc Steiner: All right, cool [all laugh].
Paul Coates: Obviously we trust her.
Marc Steiner: I’m going to take this back to the beginning here. Let’s talk about the way your friendship grew after your initial meeting. The way you put you in the book is that neither of you quite remembers how it happened, nor quite remembers whether you really liked each other. But you met at the height of COINTELPRO, which we can talk about. I know, Eddie, on page 67 of the book and early in the book, you just make these horrific descriptions of COINTELPRO and what that meant. Your almost friendship began in the Panthers, but really developed as a result of that war on the Panthers, the federal government’s on the Panthers. Talk about that beginning of the two of you, both of you Army veterans, both of you coming into the Panthers. Eddie had already been there and you walk into it, Paul. Eddie, why don’t you jump off?
Eddie Conway: During those days, because you’re talking now ’69 when COINTELPRO operations was in full effect, it was a hectic time with the chapters, with people that we were training in other locations and so on. For me, it was beyond working and working with the breakfast program, it was always hectic trying to find out what was going on, who was who and that, and investigating things and so on. Paul, actually, the real first memory I have of Paul and I interacting was around the problem with the newspapers out at the airport. The newspapers were under attack by the FBI. Of course, they were damaging them, mis-shipping them, putting various chemicals in them to make them unsellable. We were having this backlog problem out at the airport, and Paul was in the position at that time to help straighten it out. I think that was the first thing that I can remember us actually doing together, was fixing that problem.
Paul Coates: It’s real interesting, because that period is an early period for me as well. I remember Eddie as being this established Panther. He was a Panther, I was a community worker. This is interesting, the incident that he’s talking about, I used to work for United Airlines, I used to do ground service, and so I had some access and facility around the airport, but I also was able to use some of that knowledge to help get the Panther paper in. I think it’s critical with what Eddie’s talking about, because people may not understand now why the COINTELPRO would be so interested in the Party’s paper, but that paper actually was lifeblood to us. The chapters around the country supported themselves by selling the newspaper. They kept a portion of the proceeds to fund their operation. They sent a portion of the proceeds from selling the newspaper back to our central headquarters in California.
Bottom line is everybody loved Eddie Conway. I mean, he was Eddie and he was the Panther, and he was loved. I couldn’t figure out what was so big about this guy [Marc laughs]. I just couldn’t figure it out. Later, when I became in charge of the chapter, and of course Eddie and so many of us were under charges, and by this time Eddie was in jail. I had been arrested, I was in jail for a period of time with him. We actually formed a trust and a relationship out of the whole experience of that. It was a matter of being incarcerated. It was a matter of understanding that he was behind the walls carrying the banner of the struggle that we were carrying on in the street. It was our responsibility and my responsibility, of course, to support him and the other people, because we all were in it.
Marc Steiner: I want to come back to that.
Paul Coates: Closer, we became closer out of that, for me.
Marc Steiner: I want people to understand because, the many people who are watching us now don’t know what COINTELPRO was, don’t know what that moment was. You, in your conversations with Susie and Paul, really captured it. I’m going to give you a little hint, it was around page 67, you really captured this when you talked about Fred Hampton and Bunchy Carter and John Higgins and the Klan possibly blowing up the offices in Des Moines, the Panther 21 in New York. All that was going on. Getting a sense of the horrendous weight that was on top of the Panthers at the moment you two met and when you were both active.
Eddie Conway: One of the things I think it’s important at this point is that we did not know about COINTELPRO. What we knew was that there were attacks taking place against our members. There was disruptions in our logistics and activities. There was death and destruction randomly across the country, whether it was in Texas or wherever. We didn’t know it was a coordinated effort, but we knew that we were under attack, and most of it seemed to be random or locally orchestrated. We were addressing it as a local issue all the way up until probably the middle of ’69 when we put together United Front to combat fascism. At that point, we had already realized that what we were experiencing was some type of fascist attack, but we did not know that the government was orchestrating it all in a manner that coordinated from… Actually we were under attack around the world, not just in the United States of America, but in London and in Africa and in other places, too.
Marc Steiner: Picking up, Paul, what you were talking about last was, I was thinking about what really began to cement the world between you. Eddie was falsely accused and arrested of murdering a cop and began his 44 years as a political prisoner. The beginning, it was actually Eddie’s incarceration and your fallout with the Panthers that also may have involved COINTELPRO, unbeknownst to either one of you, that led to you becoming, as you put it, brothers for life, right?
Paul Coates: You’re right there, Marc. Something about that, one of the things… I was talking to my wife about this last night, and this is in part, I think it’s covered in the book as well. Eddie is charged. Eddie goes to trial. They don’t really have witnesses against Eddie. They have a cop that claims he saw him for 30 seconds. They have another jail informant that was put into his cell, a professional informant that was put into his cell. Those are the two witnesses, and they build a case around that. The thing about it is that witness, Charles Reynolds, in order to add credibility to his story, he said that Eddie was on a mission the night of his birthday, and that I had given him marijuana and cough syrup and sent him on that mission.
Now you have to remember, I wasn’t even in the Party at the time [marc laughs], but by the time Eddie went to trial, I was and I was in charge of that chapter by the time. But remember what I’m saying, Eddie was Mr. Panther. What, I looked like sending him on a mission? The point is, knowing that that was false was one thing. Proving it to be false was something that we could… I mean, for 30 years until that man, I guess he’s dead now because he was very close to death.
Marc Steiner: Who’s that?
Paul Coates: Until we found him… The informant, Charles Reynolds, who we did find. We found him and had people talk to him about testifying to the truth that he lied about. We could never get that done, and consequently Eddie stayed in jail. But what always struck me, Marc, was the fact that I always would say, there, but for the grace of God go I, because the fact that he said I sent Eddie on that mission, if the police had wanted to, really, really, if they had wanted to, they would have constructed a case against me. I always knew that whenever I visited Eddie in the jail, I knew that what was holding him in the jail was this flimsy testimony largely from this jail informant that he had insisted he didn’t want in his cell, but the informant was put in his cell, and that’s how the state got him. That’s how the state held him for 44 years. Anyway, our friendship was grounded in that knowledge, Marc, as part of it.
Marc Steiner: I think part of what really… I’ve heard you say this in different ways before over the years, but something you said in the conversation with Susie and Eddie was how you define the power of friendship, which really to me was like, it’s really important to talk about that, because it’s something that I think we lose all too often. Again, it was under that piece in the book that’s called These Cats Were My Responsibility. You talked very clearly about what commitment and friendship means and why that happened between you and Eddie while he was inside and you said no to how some of the Panther leadership and how she wanted to handle things and how you thought they needed to be handled, because of your notion of what it meant to be a friend and what it meant to stand by somebody through the revolutionary stuff. You actually [inaudible] didn’t quite agree on some stuff, but this was cemented. To me, it’s a defining moment, just in terms of the two of you. You started out, Paul, I want Eddie to jump in.
Paul Coates: I mean, that’s a grounding and it’s true. Eddie went into the jail as a Panther, and that meant a whole lot of things. It meant that people in the jail had expectations of him. People were waiting for him to come in for the leadership, the prison authority was in there waiting for him to come in because they had their imagination of him. Of course, he had his own feelings about the environment. Through all of those pressures, he remained consistent. He remained a principled person. And most important to me, he didn’t break under the pressure. He held his own. And always there was pressure, there was always pressure, but he proceeded in a cool-headed manner. Most importantly, I could always count on what he said. I could always count on what he said coming out of his mouth, and I could bank on that.
He never went backwards on me. He never betrayed the person that he set out to be. From day one until he got out of there, he fought for the people who were in jail with him. He did it in a principled way, a way that I could support. I definitely loved that about him, and still love it about him, because he still committed. The day he got out, I told him to take a break. This guy goes to work down in Gilmore Homes or some old stuff, man, you going to take a break? Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. He did lie to me about that. Now he did, but I still love him. He’s my brother. You know what I mean? [Marc laughs]
Marc Steiner: Eddie, I don’t know if Eddie understands what it means to take a break. Eddie? At that moment, it was also, as you talked about together in the book, in these conversations, Paul had gone West and Oakland, the Panthers wanted to stay out there. They wanted to change their whole way of doing things. Paul said no, he has men to take care of back here in Baltimore. You had very different views of that sense of the relationship with the Panthers of that moment. But something was also occurring both in terms of you being inside and how you had to stand up, and this man Paul Coates on the outside who was standing with you. Pick up on that, Eddie.
Eddie Conway: I think at that time also, the Party was having some internal problems in terms of Huey and Eldridge Cleaver’s relationship and the split between the Party itself, and a couple chapters actually decided to go underground. Not the whole chapters, but some of the people from the chapters informed the BLA, the Black Liberation Army that is. And Paul and everybody else was pulled to California, shut everything down, forget everybody that’s left behind. And not exactly because in my particular case, Richmond, Virginia was assigned, and of course you know how far away that is, assigned to keep up with me and stay in contact. But it wasn’t the kind of support that you needed on the ground when you were in the Maryland Penitentiary environment with all of those different factors. Paul saw that and decided to come back and organize here and give that support.
Of course, it’s in the book, it was a conflict like, Paul is no longer an acceptable comrade to deal with, and you need not to talk to him, and your loyalty and relationship is with California. Basically I said, all that’s true, but Paul is here for me, and Paul is back here to make sure that we aren’t abandoned. I’m going to stick with him. If you all get mad, you all just get mad. Whatever happens. I had always sided with the Party central and in general anyway, but on that particular thing, I said no. We was establishing from the time we spent in jail, the time we worked on the street until the time he actually got back, we had established a friendship.
Somewhere in the middle of that, I knew I could depend on him and I could rely on whatever he said was going to happen. I knew that I wanted to make sure that that was true on my part also, whatever I said was going on would be what would be happening or what I would do. I think the struggle itself cemented our relationship, and COINTELPRO forced us to make some choices that ended up resulting in a lifelong friendship.
Paul Coates: That whole period, I left Baltimore, I was one of the first people to go to California. What Eddie talking about is that whole strategy that the Panther had of closing down chapters that were all around the country, bringing those people out to Oakland, California, and building a base of operation in Oakland, and from Oakland, taking over the city politically and what have you. Following that they ran Bobby Seale for mayor and things like that.
That may have worked fine, but it wasn’t working for Baltimore, and it wasn’t working for the people who were under charges in Baltimore. I left and went out to California thinking that I was going out there for training, not that I was going to leave those people in jail. I ended up staying out there. I also thought I was going out there and we were going to discuss the case. How are we going to bring legal support to these people in jail? That was the farthest thing from central headquarters’s brain. I was out there all of November. I was out there December. I left in January. Not one time, not one time was there ever a meeting or a discussion about people who were in jail in California.
And so I left. The contradictions was too much. I also had young children here in Baltimore, and I would’ve separated… I separated myself from my family, but not on this. Not on betrayal, not on abandonment. I couldn’t do that. That wasn’t revolution to me, Marc. I come back and I shared that with Eddie. Now he’s saying he told them no, but the truth is I went in to see him. There were two other brothers, I went in to see each of them. In that moment, I told them what had happened. I told them I had been out in California. They had not even been informed that I had been suspended from the Party or booted out of the Party, whatever. They hadn’t been informed of that.
I informed them of it and told them that, you guys are not going to be able to deal with me and stuff like that. And they say, I’m not supposed to deal with you, but I’m going to be here for you anyway. Eddie’s response was, F that, man, I’m going with you. At the moment. It wasn’t like he took a week to think about it. It wasn’t like he took a day to think about it. When I left that jail, I knew that I was going to that… Because I told him, I said, look, whichever way you go, it doesn’t matter. I’ll be there, I’ll help you with it and what have you, but if you deal with me, the Party’s going to ban you. He made a decision on the spot, and that said to me, I was in. I was in.
Marc Steiner: And stayed. I mean, but that also –
Paul Coates: Stayed. Of course.
Marc Steiner: You stayed. I also know you from years and years, and that’s part of your character. You stayed with your children, you stayed with your friends, you don’t abandon people, and neither does Eddie. But in that time when you were inside, Eddie, and you were on the outside, things were actually still bubbling and moving. There was this George Jackson Prison Movement, the Black Books, that the story you started, the organizing of the 1199 organizing inside, Paul taking his children inside the prison. There was something going on then that really the movement was alive inside, and you were in some ways called the conduit outside talking with Eddie all the time. But on the inside, Eddie, you were doing serious organizing. Stuff was moving, and the George Jackson Movement to the books Paul brought in, all the rest. Let’s give a sense of the flavor of that moment before we charge into a little bit later on in the book.
Eddie Conway: One of the things we had to contend with, we had several movements going across the country in the prison system. On the West Coast, you had the George Jackson, Black Guerrilla Family activities for self-defense because Black prisoners out there obviously were always under attack from either white supremacists, the guards, or Latinos, or so on. Everybody have to arm and train and organize to just take care of business and stay alive from day to day.
But on the East Coast, you had a different kind of movement up in New York where there was a massive prison organizing that eventually led to Attica. What we thought down here was that, in Maryland that is, inside the penitentiary, is that we would do a hybrid, we would do a combination of both. One, we would put ourself in the position to protect ourself, but two, we would do mass organizing, but not for riots. Unfortunately, we had a number of riots. That’s unavoidable, because you can’t control that. Somebody get mad over the chicken and the place would blow up.
But we decided to organize the population by organizing programs. And we thought that where the rubber actually meets the road in the prison system is slavery, the money, the fact that they could work us for 9 cent an hour, the fact that we were producing two, three and $400 worth of goods every day and we were just making enough to buy a pack of cigarettes at the end of that day. We figured if we organize a labor union, demand minimum wages, that would cripple them right there because they would stop making the money. Then they would also stop needing to lock people up because there was no more free jobs. That in itself was the course we went down.
What we found out after Attica, after George Jackson, there was more negative reaction to organizing a prison labor union in the prison system than there was for us doing violence or reacting to violence, or doing cases where there were massive riots. They welcome the riots. At the end of the riot, they’d sweep up, they’d clean up, they’d lock everybody in, they transfer people out. They’d charge everybody. For the next four or five years, the place was peaceful. They welcomed those riots, but they did not welcome massive organizing that threatened their money.
Marc Steiner: While that was going on, Paul, you were also building your life outside. You were creating Black Classic Press, you started a bookstore, but these were not disconnected.
Paul Coates: You know, Marc, the thing about commitment to Eddie, and one of the hardest visits I had with Eddie was going to see him in the jail, knowing that even at that time I had five kids, Marc. Five kids that I was concerned with, had no idea of how I was going to support them. But going to see him in jail and realizing that although we started doing it, I could not spend my life out on the corner holding signs. I could not with good conscience be doing chicken dinners and raising money for support when I knew that I had to deal with my family in some kind of way or the other. Not that I’ve been a big earner or anything like that, but that was a hard conversation for me to have with Eddie who immediately said, man, you’ve got to do what you think.
Once we had that conversation, I began looking for ways to support myself, support my family, and do political work. One of the things that came out of it, I used to drive a cab, me and a few other brothers, we used to drive a cab. Out of that money and out of money that we collected in the community, we were able to build a bookstore that had, as its component, the bookstore. Later it was supposed to grow to a publishing company, or later it was supposed to go to a printing company. That was to give employment or help give employment to the people who were incarcerated who came out, give them a place to get started, connect them to the political education. We were supplying books from the bookstore into the jail to Eddie in that early effort. Eddie ran into problems with the union and the organizing he was doing, we ran into problems early on too that caused a disruption and a change from the prison program, the active prison program that we had created.
We were still the George Jackson Prison Movement, but we became more focused on the bookstore and doing some of the work like the Panthers used to do with free food, free clothes and things like that. We would do that work out of the George Jackson Prison Movement and the Black Book on Pennsylvania Avenue. It began from that. It evolved over the years, Marc. It evolved over the years, and one day I looked around 10 years later and said, this thing actually is a business. It’s not a prison movement anymore. We’ve got to treat it like a business. We had employees, we had bills, and that became the Black Classic Press. We began calling it that after that time. But it began out of the work we were doing with Eddie. He and I put our heads together, we agreed on the program, and that’s how we began.
Marc Steiner: The fact that you two did this and Black Classic Press and all this stuff began while Eddie was inside. But the depth of your trust with one another, that you started this movement outside that became a business, which is an incredible business that brings us books that were lost to humankind from Black authors throughout the centuries. Amazing, amazing, powerful work. But then, Eddie, you were part of that, integral to it. It wasn’t something you were separate from. For some people it’ll be hard to wrap your head around, here’s Eddie doing life plus 30 and inside fighting to get out and fighting to organize, and you’re doing something outside, but it always remained connected. I mean, that’s crazy [laughs].
Paul Coates: It is. Ed, you got something? Because if you’re not going to say something else, I’ll say something [Marc laughs]. He’s doing life and 30. Now you have to understand, Marc, most days we didn’t have money to pay for nothing. I mean nothing at all. I’m going to visit him, but we aren’t necessarily talking about his case. I mean, we might spend some time talking about it, but other than that, it’s like a woe is me. He was my therapist [Mark and Paul laugh], so he needs a therapy degree, man. He would look at me, man, and shake his head. Boy, by the time I left, I was cool. We could go back out and start again.
Eddie Conway: Paul told me, and I can’t even remember what sparked the conversation, but we were talking about drowning, and Paul said, you can drown in an ocean or you can drown in a bathtub, but you’re still drowned. So that person in the bathtub, even though it looks like a bunch of little problems, has the same serious problem as that person in that ocean. They’re both drowning, and it’s both deadly serious to them. I always, when I came in contact with people when I interacted, that was one of the earlier things that came out of Paul and I’s discussion. I always would look at a person and I wouldn’t judge. Because probably, I can’t remember what it was, but somebody had pissed me off or didn’t do something that they should have did. It was a minor thing, but they had a minor excuse for it.
I was like, no, that’s not acceptable. That’s not like being in the ocean drowning. [Paul laughs] That brought me some clarity with how I would deal with people from then on in. It certainly helped me deal with people through that 44 years in prison, because I always had the ability to look at the large and the small and see them equally as serious for whatever that person would feel. I think that was beneficial. That was one of the things that I learned from our friendship.
I’m thinking the other thing, of course, is critical thinking. Because Paul was… I don’t think I was… I don’t know if I was full of myself, but I thought I knew everything. I don’t even know how I got there. I mean, I did know a lot, but I thought I knew everything. I wasn’t even doing critical thinking because as far as I was concerned, what I thought was the way it should be and I could… My paradigm covered the world and history.
I know, you can’t tell me anything. I would just jump on people if they tried to tell me stuff. Then Paul said, in his subtle way, which is he’s still subtle now [Paul laughs], he’ll say, brother, I can see that. I can see that. One of the things that always comes up to me is this, and he would throw in the monkey wrench that would make you step back and say, oh yeah, okay, all right. That critical thinking and that empathy for the big and small, I think, was something that I got from our friendship that was very valuable.
Marc Steiner: In the process of all that, one of the things that hit me in these discussions you were having with Susie Day was that, over the years, and even now, even after you’ve come home, Eddie, over the years, how both of you define revolution and being a revolutionary was really very different and changed a lot. It didn’t change your relationship, but clearly you have very different ideas. They’re connected but different. Your friendship not only survived that, but in some ways I think it helped each other grow, challenging each other on the way. But what you mean by revolution, what it means to be a revolutionary from the inside and the outside, that’s one thing I got out of this that was really heavy in this book.
Paul Coates: I think, Marc, for me, the Panther Party gave me revolution, and it took it from me. The insincerity toward all those people who had been arrested in Baltimore and arrested around the country, and the fact that you can operate an organization, supposedly revolutionary, and you can be concerned about some people who are in jail, particularly the ones that were in California. You can really be focused and concerned about them, but you can’t extend that to other people. It pulled the covers off of me, and when I came back to Baltimore from California, I was adrift. Clearly I wasn’t a revolutionary, because I had left the revolution in California. I didn’t do what they said do. I couldn’t claim being a revolutionary anymore. As I looked at this and looked at this, I was one of them cats that would’ve carried a revolution in a big R around my neck or something like that.
I want to be like Fred, I am a revolutionary, but it wasn’t working when I got back. There were people, actual people in jail that I didn’t have the power to get out. I had the power to stand with them, but I didn’t have the power to get out. I had children that I could barely take care of, and were it not for the mothers, were it not for the grandparents, I wouldn’t have been able to do that. What am I talking about revolutionizing? The only thing that I could see, the only revolution for me meant getting books to people. Fighting the battle on that end. But it wasn’t the same. I stripped myself of it, but I think it, in large part, it had to do with the Panthers taking that, showing me the reality for myself. I would never call myself a revolutionary. I just would not. I do engage in change. I like that.
Eddie Conway: I still consider myself a revolutionary. What I did not know at that time, and what most people don’t know most of the time when they use that terminology, is that it’s different in every different century. It’s different what was a revolutionary in the bourgeoisie period or the feudal system, et cetera, that changed the actions that they did in France, the French Revolution, so on and so on, that had a meaning then that changed stuff. Or we look at Chairman Mao or we look at the Russian Revolution, so on, all of that stuff changes constantly according to the time, the era, what’s at stake, and how you address that particular thing. Today, to me, a revolutionary is someone that’s concerned about saving the planet, saving the species on the planet, changing the conditions in which most of the people live in. That doesn’t necessarily mean socialism, because we don’t know what socialism actually is.
It’s different from experiment to experiment to experiment. But at the same time, we have no idea what the end results of all of this will look like. But we do know that change is one of those consistent things, and that we need to apply it, but we need to apply it in the parameters and the geography and the culture and the economics of our particular time.
That takes us forward. But having said all that, the Black Panthers themself didn’t sell me, because as I look back, I realized that, shit, we got our ass kicked really bad because we thought we could go up against an empire, and we felt comfortable enough to do it. And it was foolish, but it was also like Chairman Mao say, the foolish old man that thought he could move the mountain. We couldn’t, but other people now picking up shovels and they’re digging on that mountain. And had we looked back through our history, we would find out that people have been digging on that mountain from day one, and people will continue to dig on that mountain until it’s moved, and that changes how and when and so on.
But the Party made the mistake of thinking that we could move that mountain in our lifetime when that’s not the reality of what we’re dealing with, and it wasn’t the reality before we arrived. It’s certainly not the reality today. People are going to have to continue to dig on that mountain.
Marc Steiner: Very well said. I mean, I think that all of us, the three of us in this conversation now, we all were in that moment where we thought the revolution was going to happen. We had these fantasies where we were going to storm the prison and free Eddie Conway. I mean, that was going to be how it happened, but it didn’t happen that way. Let’s move to that moment when, after all the trials and tribulations, all the times, the push for Eddie to get you out and get you out of prison, they kept coming and going and coming and going and the frustrations, all that. Then there was that moment when it actually was about to happen.
Let me just add an anecdote here, Paul, if you don’t mind, because it involves you, and you remember you made a phone call to me and you also called… This is a funny story. You made a call to my first wife, [Sayeda] Strongheart, telling about this, what was about to happen. But none of us knew the other person knew. We all ended up in this courtroom when Eddie walked in and we were all there but kept the secret, and then Eddie was free.
Let’s wrestle with that for a minute. I mean, this moment and Eddie, you walk out that prison door and I’ll never forget the day when you walked out that prison door. What happened to your relationship since that time, and what the two of you have done in your lives and with each other since that moment you walked through that door? One of the things that… Let me just start here, because I think it’s important for people to hear this. It’s in the book. Paul Coates fell in love and moved to Washington DC He had a house in Toga Parkway, but he didn’t sell that house. He kept that house for Eddie. Am I right? Eddie has a home?
Paul Coates: It’s probably a little more romantic in the book [Marc laughs], and Eddie likes to make it romantic.
Marc Steiner: But you wouldn’t get practical on this, right?
Paul Coates: The truth of the matter is Eddie had been in jail for 40-some-odd years. Yes, that house on Toga Parkway was there. I always knew that Eddie needed a residence. That was going to be one of the things, so they say Eddie can come out, he needs a residence. That house was going to be his residence, that house was going to be his residence. The house was maintained so that it could be his residence. Fortunately, it became his residence. Things happened, I had moved to DC and in love and all this kind of stuff.
I like that, man, as an old man, as an elder in love. I like that. [inaudible] I had to think about it for a minute, but that’s cool. But it just was no question. There had to be a place. You don’t struggle for that long and there not be a place. That’s really all that there was about that. There just had to be a place, there had to be a job. Eddie was going to work with me at Black Classic Press, something that we had talked about and looked forward to.
As it turned out, other things opened up. We had been struggling for years. We struggling to bring Eddie Conway home so that he can serve our community. Fortunately, when he came out the door, he immediately began serving the community and things began opening up. He’s down at The Real News today because things opened up for this brother in a way that truth rises, and consequently he’s been rewarded. That’s really what that was. It was part of the plan. Nothing romantic about it, nothing all of that about it. It’s just part of the plan.
Eddie Conway: Dominique came at the time when I had actually three support committees, honestly, they were driving me crazy [Paul laughs]. It was an international fight, there was a national fight, and then there was this local fight, and my head was coming out, and I had already been in for 33 years. And at some point I just said like, look, I’m shutting all of them down. I’m just going to get some Star Trek books and I’m going to read books for the next 20, 30 years, whatever it takes until I get out, because I can’t constantly deal with all of this struggle back and forth. Everybody had a program, everybody had an idea, but it was always this constant infighting.
Along comes Dominique in, say, hold up, just slow down, chill out. We actually started working together. I think that was one of the things, that’s what endeared me to Paul, but that’s what also endeared me to her, because after she came back from South Africa and comrades over in South Africa say, that’s a brother, get him out of jail. She came back looking and found me. It was at that point that part of my position always had been, I need help, but the conditions in this prison system is breaking down men and young boys to such a degree that we need to stop that.
We need to figure out how to change the dynamics inside the prison. Because these are the same people that come back out in the community, angry, mad, frustrated, hostile, abandoned, and broken. That’s always a bad combination to have in the midst of a community. I said, if we can work together, then we’ll work together in fixing this. That’s what happened. We started working together to fix that. In the process of working together to fix it, I realized how brilliant she was. But also I realized that this was somebody in… Because now, by that time I’m a senior citizen, too, and probably an elder at that time also [Marc and Paul laugh]. This is somebody I could actually love, and it made a difference. It changed my life. But I want to jump for one minute from that.
Marc Steiner: Please do.
Eddie Conway: I want to jump over to Paul and this house. The house that I’m sitting in now is that house that Paul saved. I can clearly remember – And this is one of the things that also endeared me to Paul – Was that I kept insisting that Paul sell this house or rent it out to senior citizens, not realizing then that was me [all laugh]. Because it was such a burden, Paul was carrying it, he was paying it off, he was keeping… You have to keep the utilities on. He was doing all the taxes, the ground rent, the whole nine yards.
I said, Paul, it’s just sitting there, it’s a liability and it’s not beneficial if you don’t turn into an asset. Paul simply refused to do it. He wouldn’t listen. Most of the time he’d listen to me, but he wouldn’t listen to me that time. He was saying, no, somebody will mess it up. Just leave it there. That always… That was insight. That was insight that I appreciated the first night I went to sleep here. It was like, okay, all right.
Paul Coates: The fact of the matter is Eddie had a number of close encounters with getting out of jail. He had a number of them, as you know. We get to the threshold and the rug get pulled out. We’d get to the threshold, the rug get pulled out. The idea of getting rid of a place that he could identify as his residence was not good politics. It just didn’t work. That just would not have worked. It made sense to hold onto the house, as far as I’m concerned.
And about putting somebody in the house, we would’ve had to fight to get the person out, not knowing when he was coming out the door. And as it worked out, that’s precisely what it was. If somebody… Because when he got out, it was fairly quick compared to the long struggle and the other campaigns that we had run that we thought were going to work. I’m just glad that he’s out, that he has a place.
What I hold is this, Marc. This is a whole thing about that house and the whole thing about commitment. We have strong men, we have strong women also who will return to our community. I would just wish that they had the opportunity to have a base of support that Eddie has so that we can benefit as we’re benefiting from Eddie being in our community, as opposed to… Just think, Marc, he could still be in jail. He could still be in jail and we would have no benefit. Being out, he’s shown his benefit over and over and over to many people who don’t even know that he’s their beneficiary. I’m just glad there was a platform for him to transition into and that was the plan. That was the best of worlds. I’m glad, and he’s fortunate enough to have a beautiful, smart wife, and a beautiful family with that. I’m just glad to have him back. I love him. He is my brother. He’s the brother that I choose.
Marc Steiner: Amen to that.
Paul Coates: If I can take his words [Marc laughs].
Eddie Conway: I just want to say I said it first.
Paul Coates: You did! You did! You did, you did, you did, you did! [laughs].
Marc Steiner: Let’s conclude with this. I’m curious about part of what you talk about at the end here, I was thinking about your son, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote the afterwards of the book, read beautifully afterwards to the book. One of the things in his afterward was talking about how, in many ways, Paul, he talks about you as being more a loner and into books, and seeing part of what you’re doing to change the world is also the books you put out and what that does for people’s consciousness. Eddie, you’re back, and you’re back in the street and building Tubman House by the Projects and all the work you’re doing. There’s Real News, but then after Real News and haven’t stopped doing that work. You both take this revolution, as we talked about earlier, in different ways, but still very much in the mix.
Talk about your reflections about now and where we are. One of the things I love about you, I think it was you, Paul, was talk, right? Talking about how the issue of maleness and the movements in the past, especially the Panthers, were a very male dominated movement. How the world is really changing and we’re seeing a different thing, and it’s maybe not as organized as nationally as the Panthers, but things were shifting and morphing into something brand new. Talk a bit about where you think all that is for us now. Where we are.
Paul Coates: Marc, I don’t know that I’ll get that one.
Marc Steiner: Fine.
Paul Coates: I definitely want to touch on something because you brought up Ta-Nehisi. The thing I want to mention in that forward that Ta-Nehisi wrote was he gets something wrong. He gets something wrong, folks! Headlines! Headlines!
Marc Steiner: What!
Paul Coates: He actually has written the right stuff before. But he talks about how I used to take him, his early memories of me taking him into the jail when he was young. When he was very young.
Marc Steiner: Right.
Paul Coates: To give full credit to it, a few weeks after he was born was the first time he went into the jail. His mother was the first one to take him into the jail, and she took him into the jail to see Eddie because Eddie wanted to see the baby. We go back that far – And look, this is important. This is important because when we are talking about maleness, when we were talking about maleness, it extends to the family, and it extends in the way of a wholeness. Eddie would come back and I don’t think we have… Eddie does talk about this in the book. Wholeness, again, that circle goes around. There’s this period in which Ta-Nehisi’s getting ready to drop out out of Howard or get kicked out of Howard, he probably wasn’t dropping out. Because he used to go to Howard even when he wasn’t enrolled. He was just trying to get him straight or something, man.
There was opportunity to go down to visit Eddie to do this story he wanted to do or something. I helped him do it. Eddie talks about how he was supposed to talk to him about staying in school, getting on track and what have you. He goes down to Jessup to visit Eddie, and he does this wonderful story on Eddie that’s published in the Howard University newspaper. Everybody says it’s the bomb. He gets celebrated for writing the stuff, and consequently he sees himself for the first time as a real writer.
What I’m trying to say is this is circular. This is fundamental about where the George Jackson Prison Movement goes and why today I still believe that some of our most brilliant, some of the most brilliant people we have are incarcerated. Eddie gets to touch him as a baby and then he gets to touch him and put him on course as a young man. I just think that’s great and profound. I hope, as the history of one of our great writers is written, that when they talk about his father, they’ll talk about his fathers and how they touched him.
Marc Steiner: Very powerfully said, very powerfully said.
Eddie Conway: I’m greatly encouraged. Obviously, throughout all those decades I have been watching the growth and the weighing of the movement in terms of when people stepped up and when people strapped off. Today we seem to be at a really historical crossroads in America. You are looking at a push toward a more inclusive, progressive society, or you are looking at a really hostile, fascist dystopian future. It’s up to young people. Young people have stepped up to the plate, they’re there. They’re going to have to learn, they’re going to have to organize, they’re going to have to push back, meet the challenges that exist, but also there’s an opportunity to create a world in which we think would be beneficial to the whole planet.
I’m encouraged. I’m encouraged at this point, and as even in the midst of a pandemic and really craziness here, but I’m encouraged that we’ll come out the other side of that as a better people. I don’t know what the process of going through there will be, but we are on our way.
Marc Steiner: I do agree, and this has been an important and joyous conversation for me to have with the two of you, Eddie Conway and Paul Coates and the book, The Brother You Choose. Thank you Susie Day for making this book happen, first of all, for making these conversations happen and putting this together. It’s just a marvelous book, one of the best things that came out of that period that I’ve ever read. Paul Coates, Eddie Conway, thank you all for joining us today, and stay healthy, stay strong, and it’s great to talk to you both.
Eddie Conway: Thanks for having me.
Paul Coates: Thank you.
Marc Steiner: Folks, this is the book. You need to read the book. Take care you all.
Paul Coates: Thank you, Marc.
Marc Steiner: I’m Marc Steiner here on The Marc Steiner Show for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Let us know what you think. Take care.