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Former Black Panther Eddie Conway describes the political and social conditions that gave rise to the militancy and politics of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

This week is the anniversary of the formation of the Black Panther Party. That was 1966, 48 eight years ago. The original six members of the Black Panther Party were–and they are depicted in this photograph. From the top left is Elbert “Big Man” Howard; Huey P. Newton, the defense minister; Sherwin Forte; Bobby Seale, the chairman; and in the bottom row is Reggie Forte; Little Bobby Hutton, the treasurer.

To talk about all of this history, with us today is the former Black Panther Party member in Baltimore, is Eddie Conway. Eddie Conway was a member of the Baltimore Black Panther Party who spent 44 years in prison for an alleged crime of killing a police officer, a crime that he did not commit.

If you are curious–and you should be–watch the series that The Real News has with Eddie Conway on Reality Asserts Itself, or you can make a donation to The Real News and get a copy of his book, Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther.

Thank you so much for joining us, Eddie.


PERIES: Eddie, take us back in time and describe the conditions that the African Americans in this country were facing at the time the Black Panther Party was formed.

CONWAY: Well, I think the Black Panther Party grew out of the disappointment of the civil rights movement and its failure to make really significant changes. I think initially, from, like, the early ’50s on up to the mid ’60s, in the South there was a massive movement to desegregate things there, to make the buses, the interstate highways safe to travel on the buses for blacks and whites together. There was a number of bills and laws put in to get voting rights. And I think we thought in the black community that that would solve the problem of racism, that would solve the problem of police brutality, that would solve the problem of poverty, and that would solve the problem of a redline districting in terms of us being forced to live in ghettos.

After those bills were passed, after those minor victories were made, we found out that we still suffered the same conditions. Racism still existed. Poverty was still widespread through our community. We did not have enough money even though we had integrated our lunch counters. We had had the right then to send our children to college. We couldn’t afford to do that. We didn’t have the jobs that would afford us the kind of payrolls, paychecks that would allow us to do that.

So the brutality continued. Every week in some city, and in most cities across the country, young black men were being killed or beaten to death by the police department.

And as a result of all this, I think people decided that, well, they needed to organize a different way instead of nonviolent protests in order to change their conditions. And one of the things that they concluded, at least young people, is that if they were going to organize, they weren’t going to allow theirself to be attacked by dogs or water hoses or be beaten in the street by police. So they decided to organize in a self-defensive manner.

PERIES: Eddie, this was a time that the civil rights movement had actually made some gains–the ending of Jim Crow and racial segregation. And they did it through civil disobedience, they did it through peaceful means, as far as the civil rights movement was concerned. It was known worldwide for being a fairly peaceful and nonviolent movement.

However, the African-American community that was so disenfranchised, especially in urban cities, felt the need to take up arms to defend themselves. And this was particularly because of the police brutality that they were experiencing. Tell us about that experience.

CONWAY: It was the police brutality, but it also involved attacks against the people who were organized in a nonviolent manner. Churches were being bombed. Buses were being burned by unruly mobs. People were being attacked in the middle of the night and dumped in the rivers in Mississippi and in other places. So to organize–some of the key organizers were being assassinated on their front steps.

So I think younger people that decided that they would take up the banner of continuing the fight to organize for social justice and human rights decided that if they wanted to organize, then they needed to organize in a way in which they could defend theirself. So a lot of organizations sprung up, but one of them was the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.

PERIES: And that was taking up arms to defend themselves against police and, at the time, KKK brutalities that they were also experiencing.

CONWAY: Yes. And it was legal to do that, because the laws in America said that everybody had a right to have weapons. And all the other organizations–the States’ Rights Party, the Minutemen, the Nazis, the Ku Klux Klans, every organization was allowed to have weapons. And the individual citizens was riding around with weapons in the back of their truck on gun racks. So the reaction to the Black Panther Party was strictly a racist reaction, and it didn’t have anything to do with their legality of us being armed.

PERIES: In addition to the racism, the situation for–African-Americans in urban cities were exasperated by the fact that the jobs that most of them had come to the city to acquire had actually by this time moved out of the cities and into the suburbs, along with white migration out of urban centers. And describe that for us, joblessness, access to housing. And housing at the time was in substandard conditions when it came to African Americans. That added to this desire for a more militant resistance.

CONWAY: Yes, because they–at that time was something we call white flight. Black people were allowed to move in, because of integration, into other neighborhoods. The white residents in those neighborhoods fled to suburbia. A lot of federal money, a lot of money government money was going to build up suburbia, the interstate highways and all the rest of that stuff. And consequently, jobs and factories moved out to those areas. And inner-city people could not get out there, because of lack of transportation or because they were just not desirable as the workforce.

So the community continued to be impoverished. It got more impoverished. And this created a lot of rage and frustration, which led to a lot of conflicts with the police and police brutality, and ultimately riots. And so there was a period from 65 to 70 where there were hundreds and hundreds of riots all across America. Almost every major city had a major riot–as a result of police brutality, primarily, but as a real result of the poverty and the conditions that people were living in.

PERIES: And the levels of poverty you were just talking about were grave. And I don’t think enough people today realize the dire poverty that African Americans were living in. I know some stories that I’ve heard. You know, people actually used to just have one meal a day because they couldn’t afford it. And these are the conditions in which you were working and organizing the Black Panther Party here in Baltimore.

CONWAY: Yes. Well, one of the things that we discovered early on was that children were going to school hungry. I mean, this was a national epidemic. And we decided to start free breakfast programs for children. And we had no idea it would be successful. We created those programs, we opened the door. Hundreds of thousands of children came every morning on their own accord to get something to eat, because we learned that if you send children to school hungry, they don’t learn anything. They’re miserable most of the day, and then they’re not going to be very attentive in terms of finding out stuff. And I think that was one of the really–problems of poverty in our community.

But the other problem, which was a major problem, was the lack of health care. The only way you got medical care in the black community during that period was that you had to have some sort of a traumatic event, a wound or injury of–.

PERIES: An emergency.

CONWAY: Emergency. And then you could go to the emergency. Other than that, there was no health insurance for most of the population. There was no way to get medical care. There was no preventive health. So we organized health clinics in the cities and ambulance services. And also at that time, even though it was just beginning, the prison-industrial complex, the prisons were located out in rural white communities, and most family members could not afford to get out there, catch buses, have transportation back and forth, or make those long trips and stay overnight in those what was then very racist kind of communities. So we created free bus services and stuff. So there was a number of things that were going on. So we created a food co-op, say, for instance, because people were running out of food one week before they got their food stamps or whatever. Yeah.

PERIES: So the socialization that took place, I mean, the Black Panther Party is, of course, known for their militancy and taking up arms in order to defend themselves, but there was also a socialization that was taking place through the breakfast programs, and the politics were getting more radical and different than the civil rights movement. And take us through that path of the difference between the politics of the civil rights movement and the politics of the Black Panthers.

CONWAY: Well, the politics of the civil rights movement was pretty much we wanted a piece of the pie. We wanted to live the American dream. We wanted to have a black capitalist society. The Black Panther Party started off at the very beginning and said that this economic social arrangement wasn’t working for the majority of poor people in the community and we needed to organize around collective kind of economics or organize where we could talk about economic democracy and we could share the wealth of the community. And we did story after story in the Black Panther Party paper about that.

But what we found out was that in our community, people learned from example. So we organized the resources in the community to feed the children. We showed how you could take the things that was available to us, we could harness those resources and then direct them to solving a problem. And it was socialism by example. And so even though people could read and understand those ideas, they could actually live and see those ideas when they realize that they could collectively pool their resources, get a mass amount of stuff, and then sell it very cheap and undercut the capitalist merchants, say, for instance. And that idea transferred itself into other communities.

And I think that’s what made the Black Panther Party a pariah for the government is that the American Indian movement took up those ideas and principles. The Latino group the Brown Berets, they took up that idea. The White Panther Party sprung up, took up that idea. The Young Lords, the Puerto Ricans, they took up that idea. The Asian revolutionary groups, they took up that idea. And the Black Panther Party ideas of collective socialism and so on spread to India. So they end up with New Delhi Panthers. It spread to Australia. They end up with Australian Panthers. New Zealand Panthers. Israeli Panthers, of all things. The Panther Party sprung up in Africa. It sprung up in Europe.

And this became a problem for the American government, because those ideas were rapidly traveling around the globe. But they were also saying that the richest country in the world had a real problem of poverty in large segments of its population, white and black, and that it wasn’t racist issue; it was really an economic issue.

PERIES: Let’s fast-forward to today. I mean, the conditions that African-Americans were facing at that time–and you look at examples of Ferguson, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Orleans, and the list goes on. But some of the conditions that you were facing at that time is still present. You got out of prison 44 years later. The conditions seems to be more or less similar, with perhaps a few games.

What now for the young people that are organizing and working, trying to dismantle this horrid conditions, segregated conditions in large parts of Baltimore? What do you have to say to them?

CONWAY: Well, one, I’m going to disagree about the conditions being similar. No, the conditions are worse.

There is a segment of our population–I’m talking the black population right now–there’s a segment of our population that has, quote-unquote, arrived, you know, the P. Diddys, the Oprahs, the Bill Cosbys, the Jay-Zs or Beyoncés, etc., entertainers pretty much or whatever. But for the most part, most of our population is impoverished, unemployed, suffering from drug epidemics. Even those that are working and are working for large places like Walmart or Target and whatnot, they are receiving food stamps. They need food stamps to augment their salaries. So even those hard-working people that work 40 hours a week still can’t afford to live in America. So the conditions are far worse. And I think the brutality in Ferguson or Cincinnati or in New York or in Oakland–and there’s case after case after case–in Houston, in Baltimore, has gotten completely out of control.

And I think young people today probably need to go back to the basics. They need to organize in their community in ways in which they can create food security. They need to create their own particular jobs. They need to start talking about community control of the police. They need to make a determination of what they can do to gain control of the housing stock, the unused land, etc. But most of all, probably–and I don’t know how successful they will be with this, but they need to develop schools and academies, or even reading our study groups, where they can start studying history and studying what’s going on and come up with some solutions of what to do.

PERIES: Also, the community control of the media. This is why you’re at The Real News.

CONWAY: Yes, yes, yes, because obviously 85 percent of the media now in America is owned by six multinational corporations that certainly don’t have the interests of people down on the ground, poor people in particular, at heart. They work in the interests of an elite, and most of the key reporters and stars of those things, they’re millionaires theirself. And so they’re certainly not going to report the news from the ground. And I think that’s what The Real News does, anyway.

PERIES: Eddie, thank you so much for joining us.

CONWAY: Okay. Thank you.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Eddie Conway

Executive Producer
Eddie Conway is an Executive Producer of The Real News Network. He is the host of the TRNN show Rattling the Bars. He is Chairman of the Board of Ida B's Restaurant, and the author of two books: Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther and The Greatest Threat: The Black Panther Party and COINTELPRO. A former member of the Black Panther Party, Eddie Conway is an internationally known political prisoner for over 43 years, a long time prisoners' rights organizer in Maryland, the co-founder of the Friend of a Friend mentoring program, and the President of Tubman House Inc. of Baltimore. He is a national and international speaker and has several degrees.