Former Black Panther: Trump Win Gives Us Unique Opportunity to Organize the Ongoing Freedom Struggle
Elaine Brown talks to Eddie Conway about the role of women in the party, state repression against the Panthers, Black Lives Matter, Obama, and Trump
EDDIE CONWAY: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Eddie Conway, coming to you from Baltimore.
2017 is going to be a year of challenges and opportunities. So I thought I would take this opportunity to talk to Elaine Brown, who was the former Chairperson of the Black Panther Party. She led the Black Panther Party for a number of years. She’s the author of two books. She’s been engaged in work around prison and prisoners’ re-entry. And so I wanted to get her opinion on a lot of things, but I think first I would like to probably start with her leadership of the Black Panther Party.
Elaine, welcome. Thank you for joining me.
ELAINE BROWN: Well, thank you for inviting me. But, Eddie, you know how much I admire your incredible courage and heroism. So I appreciate it more than you know to be interviewed by you. And that we lived to do this interview, is even more amazing.
EDDIE CONWAY: Yes. Tell me a little bit about your leadership in the Black Panther Party, if you will.
ELAINE BROWN: Well, you know, in the party, it was a paramilitary structure in that we were assigned to do things. And as we used to say, quoting Mao Tse-tung, “No task too small. No task too big.” So whatever your assignment was is what you did. I joined the Black Panther Party in Los Angeles and I was working under the direct leadership of Ericka Huggins, who was my then, called, captain of a chapter formed by John Huggins and founded by Bunchy Carter. And it was just a matter of I had ability to write articles and so forth and, ultimately, I was given the role and the task of being a Deputy Minister of Information for the Southern California Chapter. And that was mainly because, as I say, I had writing skills and I could do articles to send up to the newspaper and the main headquarters.
And from that point forward it was a matter of doing different tasks at different times. I recorded a first album of songs for the party and that sort of brought me to the attention of the whole party and I just started doing more and more work. Eventually, I became the editor of the newspaper; I was brought up to Oakland. And then I became the Minister of Information, replacing Eldridge Cleaver and then, ultimately, I was given the role of being the Chairman of the Black Panther Party in 1974.
EDDIE CONWAY: Well, now I would be remiss if I didn’t bring this up — John Huggins and Bunchy Carter actually were assassinated on this day in UCLA. Could you tell me a little bit about that?
ELAINE BROWN: Yes. I mean, this was probably one of the most painful episodes of my life, much less my life in the Black Panther Party. These were my comrades so I am speaking of this from a personal level at this moment. But, generally speaking, Bunchy Carter, who had been the leader of one of the largest street organizations in the United States, the Slausons, which gave way ultimately the Crips in L.A. Bunchy was a leader, and the Slausons reportedly had about 5,000 members and Bunchy brought a lot of that into the Black Panther Party, which, as you can imagine, was very dangerous in the sense of these were street soldiers who were now looking to be, or potentially, revolutionaries.
We, in the Black Panther Party, as you know, advocated the leadership… for the leadership of the lumpenproletariat which was counter to the Marxist analysis that the lumpenproletariat were the scum of the earth. But, Bunchy, therefore, brought that element to the party and was a very powerful, powerful organizer. And the chapter was formed somewhere around February of 1968.
By January of 1969, Bunchy was murdered at UCLA along with John Huggins. The interesting thing about what happened is — and not necessarily the action, although we could talk about it. I don’t want to take a lot of time on this, because I know our time is limited, but J. Edgar Hoover had only months before, in 1968, declared that 1969 would be the last year of the Black Panther Party. And he certainly did everything humanly possible to destroy the party in that year. Only the last day of December, ’68, Bunchy had announced our coalition with the Brown Berets. They were in Southern California and that was another major effort that really put him in the FBI’s bullseye.
In January, during that period, Bunchy and John Huggins and Geronimo Pratt and myself were enrolled as students at UCLA in a program called The High Potential Program, which was sort of cordoned off, a program of blacks and others coming out of the ‘hood, giving them an “opportunity” to go to UCLA. And we were all in that program. And there came to be some discord as to the control over a new Black Studies program that was being recommended by the leader of the US Organization, Ron Karenga.
And over the winter break, or the Christmas break from December into January, Karenga had moved to create a leader for that program and installed a program. The students were upset, there was a lot of conflict. And on the day of January 17th, we were in a meeting there at Campbell Hall and the conflict escalated because Karenga’s recommendations were being rejected by the students. The meeting was breaking up, and out of the shadows of the back of a door in the cafeteria where the meeting was taking place, came the assassin Chuchessa, a member of the US Organization, shot John Huggins in the back and Bunchy Carter turned and was shot in the chest.
Of course, all hell broke out, but ultimately they died and we were all arrested at our space that we went back to on Century Boulevard. A number of us, everybody in Southern California Chapter that was available, was rounded up and put into jail charged with potentially retaliating for the murders of John and Bunchy. Never were any of them arrested at that time. And it was a very, very difficult thing.
People like to analyze that this was a conflict that was established or created by the FBI. And while the FBI certainly may have had something to do with it, it wasn’t that there was a conflict and we killed members of US Organization and they killed members of the Black Panther Party. It was the US Organization members who killed four of our members over that year. And it is my assertion now as then, that it was the US Organization leader who was, in fact, operating as an agent of the FBI.
EDDIE CONWAY: Okay. Now, I understand there’s a plaque in the UCLA building now honoring John Huggins and Bunchy Carter. And the bullet holes are still in the wall.
ELAINE BROWN: I don’t know about the bullet holes, but yeah, we worked for the last eight, ten years to at least commemorate January 17th at UCLA. My goal was to rename Campbell Hall, Carter Huggins Hall. That hasn’t been done. But the students have been regularly having commemorative events around this murder and assassination every year at UCLA. And they did at one point put up a plaque and they have a big stone or something out in the front of the building. But the building is still called Campbell Hall.
The main thing, though, is that each year there is some commemoration and people do recall that there was this assassination of two leaders of the Black Panther Party and we definitely recall that this was orchestrated by the Government of the United States.
EDDIE CONWAY: Can you share with me… you just recently — and I also attended — organized the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party. Can you share your thoughts on how that went?
ELAINE BROWN: Absolutely. I think it was magnificent in the sense that we were able to, in Oakland, pull together not only many, many former members of the party, such as yourself, but also coalition members like the Brown Berets, the Young Lords, the Young Patriots, AIM. People from as far away as New Zealand and the Polynesian Panthers. We had workshops for four days that engaged people in conversation around our team, which taking it from a great speech of Martin Luther King, was, “Where do we go from here?” So looking at the things the Black Panther Party did, the coalitions, the programs, the international relations, etcetera, we reviewed that with young people, with other people, and tried to at least engage people in some sort of pledge to continue the work. I think we were successful.
We had almost a thousand people at the main dinner that we had at the Oakland Museum. Every workshop that we had, we had four every two hours, operating at the same time and yet every workshop that we had, there was a filled-to-capacity on prisoners, political prisoners, on our social and survival programs, on questions of our coalitions and what they did, so forth.
I think that people had a powerful experience. Here in Oakland people have not stopped talking about it. So I’m hoping that gave that an opportunity to think about what we might do now. However, it was a powerful commemoration to the history of the Black Panther Party and the legacy that the party leaves. And it does leave a great legacy.
EDDIE CONWAY: Now, one of the things, I go frequently and speak on college campuses and whatnot. And one of the things that I’m always asked is, “What was the relationship in the Black Panther Party between men and women?” So I figured since you are the last leader of the Black Panther Party, you might be able to share your views on that.
ELAINE BROWN: Well, a lot of times people ask that question and it has a negative meaning. It suggests that there was some sort of negative relationship or, you know, the imagery is that the men might have been thugs and brutal or what have you. I would say that the real relationship between us, as to gender, was that we were in love because we were comrades in the struggle. And most of us never really knew each other on a personal level. We were yet willing to fight and die together — and many did.
And so, I think that the relationship was as comrades and we tried to evolve. And, of course, shed the stain of it being raised as in a slave environment with slave mindedness, in a racist society, in a chauvinist society, in a patriarchy — we had to rethink ourselves. And we did, we attempted to revolutionize ourselves. So we called each other comrade and that was just the sort of symbol of the other things that we did.
People were not assigned roles in the Black Panther Party based on gender, but on skillsets. So that most of the breakfast programs, for example, that we had were operated by brothers, by men, who were cooking and what have you. Sisters were in the security, sisters were in our office in L.A. when 11 people fought the LAPD SWAT Team, hundreds of them, by themselves, 11, for five and half hours, of which nine brothers and two sisters. So I don’t recall focusing on this. However, of course we had chauvinism that slipped its way back and forth into the ranks and into the minds of many people. But Huey Newton used to say, “I’m not a man, I’m not a woman, I’m just a plain born child.”
The other thing I’d like to point out in this context is that many times people ask this question without recognizing that no other organization, black revolutionary, black liberation, progressive or radical organization ever had women in leadership. And yet the Black Panther Party had more than… certainly, I was not the only woman, you had Kathleen Cleaver and you had Ericka Huggins and you had Audrey Jones and so many other sisters who were in leadership positions. So I think that assessment, that question, carries with it an incorrect premise that I always like to correct.
EDDIE CONWAY: Recently Martin Luther King’s holiday just happened, celebrating his birthday, and I’m wondering if you have any assessment of the Civil Rights Movement then and the Black Lives Matter movement today. Are they similar or different in any kind of way?
ELAINE BROWN: Well, you know, we sometimes talk about these days the Black Power Movement versus the Civil Rights Movement, but at the time we all knew that we were part of a freedom movement. Dr. King was certainly a hero of the Black Panther Party, the notion that there was some sort of conflict over questions of nonviolence versus violence or the imagery that the Black Panthers were violent and King was nonviolent, therefore were in opposite positions, is not a correct analysis.
The correct analysis is that we absolutely understood, certainly when Bobby Hutton was killed two days after Martin Luther King was killed, that King was a revolutionary, and certainly, at the end of his life, in organizing the Poor People’s Campaign.
So that’s important to understand in the context of what was our movement at that time? It was a freedom movement and in the end of the day, like the Black Panther Party, King called for fundamental revolutionary change, redistribution of wealth, a new paradigm, a new society, and the end of the existing scheme. We both called for that. Others may not have, they have been more in line with reforming the current scheme and thinking that that would somehow bring about the freedom of black people.
The question today is I’ve looked at the website of Black Lives Matter and it lays out some of the positions of the people who wrote it, but, what I question is, where is the Black Lives Matter movement? There is an assertion that they are existing in so many different cities that I’m not clear — and I’ve made this statement before many times — what is the Black Lives Matter movement, in the sense of is it an organization? Does it have a platform? Does it have any ideology? Does it have a plan for action? Does it act, and if so, where? So I would say that the only link between the notion of Black Lives Matter and the movement that we knew back in the day, is that we could concretely talk about action, community involvement, efforts to make fundamental change that were clear and that could be clearly identified. I’m just not sure what there is. I think there’s a great sentiment out here for a freedom, but Black Lives Matter does not express the notion of liberation, self-determination or freedom.
EDDIE CONWAY: The final question, ’cause obviously the studio is telling my time is short. So we’ll go into the future here with Donald Trump getting ready to take over. How do you see our immediate future as black people or people in America, in general?
ELAINE BROWN: Well, Donald Trump is just a clear view of what America has always been — which is a country that has been dominated by white, rich men to the disinterest and oppression and repression of black and other people of color, and even other white people. So I don’t see that there’s any major change taking place other than in the color of things or the style of things.
Needless to say, this man is absolutely one of the crudest human beings I’ve ever even seen and just really rather ridiculous.
But, in terms of concrete agenda, we have had 50% of the population of the prisoners black in America and it has been that way since Clinton passed the 1994 Amendment to the Omnibus Crime Bill, which we call the Three Strikes Crime Bill. That wasn’t Donald Trump, that was Bill Clinton with the support of his wife, Hillary. Obama has never addressed this question. We have Welfare Reform which means the criminalization of poor women, in the sense of poor woman can barely get food stamps anymore. The fact that he’s putting in this goofball, Ben Carson, as the head of HUD. HUD has almost no housing anyway for people. If you know what the practical reality of HUD is, section 8 is almost not available to people. Certainly not available to formerly incarcerated people.
So I don’t think that Trump will do anything that different because the die is cast. The system is in place. He’s going to maintain the system. He’s certainly not going to break it down because it serves his interests. I think he offers us an opportunity, however, because people are so concerned and see that there’s going to be sudden change as though something different happened under Obama for black people. I think that Trump offers us an opportunity to organize and keep our struggle moving toward the ultimate goal of freedom.
EDDIE CONWAY: That’s the final word. Thank you for joining me, Elaine.
ELAINE BROWN: Thank you for having me, Eddie.
EDDIE CONWAY: Okay. And thank you for joining The Real News.