In this episode of teleSUR’s Days of Revolt, host Chris Hedges sits down with former Black Panther Eddie Conway and former member of the Black Liberation Army Ojore Lutalo to discuss their roles in the radical movements in the 1960s and early 1970s and the state violence used to crush them.
CHRIS HEDGES, HOST, DAYS OF REVOLT: Hi. I’m Chris Hedges. Welcome to Days of Revolt. Today we’re going to speak about the uprisings in the 1960s and the early 1970s that were a response to the failures of the civil rights movement and the draconian use of force and violence, even terrorism, by the state to crush radical movements that sought justice. Between 1967 and 1973, annual fatal assaults on law enforcement officials rose from 76 a year to 131 a year. We saw hundreds of rebellions. Many of them included the use of arms in American cities such as Detroit and Newark between 1965 and 1968. And the state’s response to this upheaval created the mechanisms of control that are in place today. As Régis Debray said, the revolution revolutionizes the counterrevolutionaries. And so we’re going back in time to look at that rebellion, at what the state did, at the response, at the efficacy of violence with two great revolutionaries who are in the studio with me today. First is Eddie Conway, a member of the Black Panther Party in Baltimore, spent 44 years in prison, framed for a murder of a police officer that he did not commit. The other person in the studio with me is Ojore Lutalo, who spent 28 years in prison, 22 of them in isolation, and was a member of the Black Liberation Army, a movement that unlike the Panthers exclusively focused on underground acts of violence against the state apparatus. Ojore, when you look back at that particular moment in time, a time when the state in cities like–for instance, Philadelphia had essentially open season on black people–and I think as conscious as some of us are about the indiscriminate use of force by police against people of color today, it was of course far worse in terms of numbers and in terms of even targeted assassinations, from Fred Hampton on down. As a young revolutionary, was your decision to embrace violence borne out of a belief that the nonviolent civil rights movement led by Dr. King had been a failure? OJORE LUTALO: Yes. Yes, it most definitely was. The state didn’t give us an option. We sat back and watched the numerous murders of our people take place across the country in America, right? So we had discussions about what should be done. And so what resulted from those discussions, right, we decided to form clandestine combat units and go underground and [incompr.] on a clandestine level to check acts of state-sponsored terrorism in our communities. As a result of our activities, some of us were captured, some of us were killed in action. HEDGES: Do you think that it had an effect in terms of the state? LUTALO: Yes, because the police in our communities, their murderous behavior slowed down somewhat. Now they had somebody to answer to their aggression, ’cause our position was, well, the only way to stop this aggression is oppose that aggression with aggression, right? So it definitely had an effect. And that’s what’s needed today in our communities, because police is back on a kick of just murdering us without regard, murdering us without any kinds of consequences, right? They don’t fear us or respect us. So that’s why they do what they do. HEDGES: Well, you see a similar process where you have nonviolent protests, Black Lives Matter walking through the streets of Ferguson, Baltimore, and New York, and yet they keep shooting poor people of color with utter impunity. Was that a very similar kind of experience, do you think? LUTALO: At that time, until people decided to take actions towards the state. HEDGES: And, Eddie, by the time the Black Liberation Army was formed, you were already in prison, I think. CONWAY: Yes, that’s correct. HEDGES: Right. And I know that your sort of conversion–or you were actually a sergeant in the U.S. Army, picked up a newspaper, saw tanks, I think, right, on the streets of Newark– CONWAY: Yes. HEDGES: With 50 caliber machine guns pointed at groups of women. CONWAY: Yeah. HEDGES: And I think, as you explain–and this is–Eddie’s book Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther lays this out, you understood, being in the military, that those mechanisms are electronic, and once you pull that trigger, if it was pulled, even if you wanted to stop it, you wouldn’t be able to stop it until 25 bullets are fired out. And 50 caliber machine guns have bullets about this size and this big around. CONWAY: Yeah. HEDGES: And that–you never put your Army uniform on again except to leave the Army. You went back, you joined the Black Panthers. Was your feeling the same as Ojore’s, that all of the nonviolent efforts on the part of Dr. King and others had failed? CONWAY: Not initially. Initially when I returned home, I joined the NAACP, and I thought the problems could be corrected, that some reform was necessary in America. I thought the civil rights movement was still working on that. It was only after I started working with them that I realized that the amount of violence directed toward organizers in the black community and activists was enormous and that it would be foolish and crazy not to defend ourselves if we were really intending on organizing. And so that forced me to kind of, like, look at other organizations that had the policy of self-defense, and the Black Panther Party at that time was advocating self-defense in the process we were organizing. HEDGES: Which is different from the Black Liberation Army. CONWAY: Which is different, because self-defense in the defense of the community and the defense of our survival programs, in the defense of educating our people, in the defense of organizing our communities, as opposed to aggression. HEDGES: Right. I mean, the Black Panther Party, for all intents and purposes, was a political organization. CONWAY: Yes. That’s correct. HEDGES: The Black Liberation Army was an armed militant group, did not really do political organizing. Would that be correct? LUTALO: It was political-military. HEDGES: Right. Now, I mean, black people constitute, what, 12 percent, roughly, of the population. So there’s no hope of a rebellion by the use of violence. What did you hope at best to achieve? LUTALO: To encourage people that they had the human right to defend themselves and their communities. We felt that examples needed to be set to check the state-sponsored acts of terrorism going on in our communities, right? We felt that the best way to do that was by opposing aggression with aggression. And so matters–it evolved from that. HEDGES: I mean, you could argue that the use of violence on the part of revolutionaries essentially created, as Debray says, that it revolutionized the counterrevolutionaries, because it created the mechanism, starting with COINTELPRO, which doesn’t exist in name but exists in reality today, it created many of the mechanisms that have created the carceral state, the prison-industrial complex, and the militarized police, and the use of–the stripping of civil rights, I mean, the RICO Act, which was passed in 1970 by Richard Nixon, ostensibly against organized crime, and is immediately used against leftist groups, including the Panthers. In a sense, that’s a language the state knows how to speak really well, which is violence. And I’m wondering if it was more that you reached such a saturation point where you just couldn’t take any more violence and you reacted in terms of affirming your own dignity and your own sense of self-worth, even with the acceptance that that reaction would give the state an excuse to create the mechanisms that are in place today. I don’t know what you think about that, Eddie. CONWAY: Well, I think, one, we have to look at the time. I mean, it wasn’t just the state that was exercising violence domestically, internally. The state was exercising violence across the globe, around the world. You had Vietnam happening. You had all sorts of rebellions in Africa. You had rebellions and conflicts in South America, in Europe, in Greece, in Italy, in Ireland, etc. It was a global reaction to the violence that the state was perpetrating around the planet in its effort to steal resources. I think what happens with the Black Panther Party first in terms of self-defense and then the Black Liberation Army in terms of reacting to that violence is the fact that people realize that even though we were 12 or 13 percent of the population, the planet was really at war with the empire, if you want to put it in those kind of terms. And it did cause a reaction like all empires react when the colonies or colonized people or the domestic people rebel. They come up with solutions. And America has been so far the most powerful empire in the world, and they have all those lessons. And so, yes, they have–came up with systems now that’s oppressed and surveilled everybody on the planet. HEDGES: Well, the systems that they used in Vietnam, I mean, they looked at the radical left in the 1960s in the same way they looked at the Vietcong. I mean, they were quite explicit about it, and they used the same counterinsurgency techniques which are in place today that they used in Vietnam domestically, including bringing in helicopters, including creating SWAT teams. LUTALO: Informants. HEDGES: Informants, centralized databases that were hooked up nationally. All of that came out of the militant rebellion that you were both involved in in the 1960s. CONWAY: Right. But let me just add, because if you go to Indonesia, if you go after World War II, those same tactics were used that were used in the reclaiming the [incompr.] in Indonesia, they were used against Vietnam early on, those same tactics were used around the world. They were used in Algiers against the Algerians. And they just became more sophisticated as the people that were losing their empires upped the ante. LUTALO: So the government, they refined their tactics, their methods of approach to our resistance, right, because they learned from the ’60s and ’70s, right, what worked and what didn’t work. And they just took it to another level, right? They would create more informants inside and outside the system, within the prisons and outside the prisons, right, with [incompr.] awful lot of money. HEDGES: Well, because they had so many informants and because these radical left groups employed violence as a mechanism by which they resisted, these informants were able to orchestrate internal divisions, a splitting of the Panthers between New York and Oakland, and even at some points orchestrate assassinations by one faction against another. And that raises the very issue that you faced in the streets and I know you exposed–was the name Warren Hart? CONWAY: Mhm. HEDGES: Who founded the Black Panther Party in Baltimore, and yet it turns out was a member of the National Security Agency. Is that correct? CONWAY: Yes. HEDGES: Then went on to wreak havoc in Canada, where–then he went to Jamaica after that. CONWAY: Caribbean. HEDGES: Caribbean. And so the question–and this is also true within the prison system, that ability of the state to saturate movements like that with informants raises the question of whether the only effective form of resistance is one that is completely transparent in a sense that Dr. King’s movement was transparent, because with that many informants and with even the head of the Panther Party in Baltimore being in essence a police agent, doesn’t that give the state the capacity to make these entities self-destruct? CONWAY: Well, I want to jump in here. And first I want to point out that Jesus had his own informant, Judas. I want to point out that the whole idea of agents provocateur come from all the way back to the czar in Russia, etc. Every movement has always been infiltrated. Dr. King’s movement was infiltrated. The key photographer for all of that civil rights stuff had always been working for the FBI. I mean, that’s always going to happen, because even when you don’t participate in warfare or resistance, false flag organizations develop. There are agencies like what happened in Germany, say, with the [incompr.] There are groups that are sent out to do things that’s blamed on movements that are not participating in violence, and in turn the reaction is still the same. So, I mean, yes, you need to organize in transparent ways and you need to organize on the ground, but you also have to be aware that even when you’re doing that, they still can put an informant in the area, like the New York 21, say, for instance. Gene Roberts was a police officer. HEDGES: Explain who the New York 21 was. CONWAY: The New York 21 was 21 Panther leaders that were locked up in New York as a result of a massive conspiracy to bomb the garden in New York, Botanical Garden, etc., etc. Well, it was orchestrated by a police officer that brought in the materials, brought in the maps, accused them. They end up going to jail. They spent two years in jail. It destroyed the New York Black Panther Party leadership. And they never broke a law. They never did anything. They got exonerated after two years of their trials. But here was this one state official that did that to them. So even when you don’t engage in violence, you still can be set up by the state. HEDGES: Right. But the point is that that kind of a discussion would have never happened in the Southern Christian Leadership. So they used these conspiracy laws to get you to discuss the possibility. We’ve seen this with Black Bloc anarchists today. They get you to discuss the possibility of violence, and then they can throw you in prison for even discussing it. And I think that if we look back on that moment, which was extremely important moment in American history, where there was real pushback against white supremacy, the white elite, capitalism itself, the state effectively destroyed not only these radical movements but the consciousness that these radical movements sought to create, unless you would disagree. LUTALO: Well, I don’t disagree, because you can organize publicly, and then [incompr.] about being infiltrated is more so than if you organized on the clandestine level. And then even on a clandestine level, we have people that might be becoming informants. Like, in my situation, I was captured in 1982, and I was set up for the FBI by the former Black Panther who was recommended to assist me in my efforts to avoid capture, right? So we have to be more selective in what we do and who we pick to choose to operate with, the person that can have any, like, drug shortcomings or other kinds of weaknesses that the government can exploit, ’cause what the government do, they study us as a people and find out what we like, what we don’t like, and take it from there, right? So you have to be more selective in your approach as to who you pick. HEDGES: But part of the problem is that the state has such immense resources. CONWAY: And that’s not just part of the problem. That is what gives the state the advantage, because even as the black liberation movement and other movements were being attacked, the organized capitalists also offshored all the industry. It completely gutted the workforce. And that left, especially in poor communities, in black community, that left massive unemployment, in which they then in turn pump drugs in. HEDGES: No, you make a very important point, and this is–Christian Parenti makes this point in his very good book Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis. And he writes exactly the point that you raise, where he says that while the Nixon era buildup had been a counterrevolutionary war by way of criminal justice and a technocratic reflex to social chaos, the second ongoing wave in the crackdown is not so overtly political. It is not about suppressing an American maomao. Rather, it has been about managing and containing the new surplus populations created by neoliberal economic policies, even when these populations are not in rebellion. And so what you get within poor communities–and you’re right to raise this point, because we had two things going on, neoliberal economics, which created endemic, chronic poverty and joblessness, coupled with an assault on people like you who were attempting to resist. You create what Stephen Spitzer, criminologist, describes as castoff populations, produced, of course, by capitalist exploitation. And one segment he calls, perhaps a little cruelly, social junk. These are the alcoholics, the people who’ve been broken in spirit, physically, the drug addicts. And then the other are people like you who are the social dynamite. And the way you control what he calls the social junk is essentially to contain them. So we’re here today, now, at a situation where while the state is not killing in the numbers that it killed in the 1960s, it’s certainly killing at a terrifying rate–two today according to The Washington Post–many of these people unarmed. It doesn’t matter how much protest there is. We have seen in New York and other cities in the last few weeks assassinations of police officers [incompr.] not been whether they were political acts or not, they have not been characterized by the mainstream as political acts. And I’m asking you as revolutionaries, as people who rose up against this system, what are the lessons that you’ve learned that are applicable today? Ojore. LUTALO: That resistance is possible, ’cause we don’t have any choice but to–we can remain slaves or rebel. We have to learn from our past mistakes to avoid future ones. HEDGES: And what have you learned? What is the lesson? LUTALO: I was too trusting, for one. I made liberal excuses for people that I shouldn’t have been dealing with. I made liberal excuses for people who had been using drugs, and I should [incompr.] been outed from formation. And, like, a lot of people have personal shortcomings, family ties that they maintain contacts with whereas they shouldn’t have. We just have to still be–. HEDGES: But was your decision to go underground in an armed revolutionary movement–that’s not a decision you would take back. LUTALO: No, because I’m still being oppressed. I don’t have a choice in the matter. Either like I just said, I can remain a slave or rebel. I chose to rebel. HEDGES: Eddie? CONWAY: Well, I think the things that we’ve learned, hopefully that we have learned, is that you have to organize in the communities, community by community, and you have to try to do it legitimately. You have to recognize that you can still be framed. I’m an example of that. But in the face of all that, the alternative is to accept the fact that there’s not just violence being committed by police or law enforcement elements or other kind of elements against individuals. It’s massive violence by the capitalist system itself on the population. I mean, the infant mortality rate in the poor communities is astronomical. HEDGES: Which I just want to interrupt by saying it’s worse today than it was when you were a young man. CONWAY: The houses are collapsing. The hope is gone. HEDGES: The joblessness is worse. CONWAY: The poverty is there. I mean, that’s violence. All that’s violence. And it’s violence that will destroy your people. It’s violence that almost rises to the point of genocide. The Native Americans suffered that kind of violence. HEDGES: But it’s violence that Spitzer points out, I think, that creates this category that he calls social junk, people who are so broken, which is the point. CONWAY: And that category continue to grow as the violence intensifies and the jobs disappear and you have your school-to-prison pipelines, that area which–and I disagree with his terminology–humans are humans. HEDGES: Right. No, this not a good term. CONWAY: Yeah. But the amount of humans that are broken and shattered and destroyed as a result of this economic arrangement, it has to be checked or it will continue to grow. HEDGES: Yeah. LUTALO: And then [incompr.] communities, in order to effectively organize, we need money, ’cause you can’t organize a hungry belly. So if you don’t have the money to meet people’s basic needs, right, they’re going to turn away from you. That’s when the government steps in and offer what they call reforms. HEDGES: Right. Alright. Thank you very much. You’ve been watching Days of Revolt with my guests Eddie Conway and Ojore Lutalo. We’ve been talking about the rebellions which they were part of in the 1960s. In our second segment, we’re going to talk about rebelling inside prison, which was also part of a major segment of their lives, 44 years in prison for Eddie and 28 years for Ojore. Join us next week. Thank you very much.
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