Media, Revolution, and the Legacy of the Black Panther Party
[An edited interview by Hans Bennett with Kiilu Nyasha featuring excerpts from Nyasha’s article: “Ruchell Cinque Magee and the August 7th Courthouse Slave Rebellion.”]
Kiilu Nyasha is a San Francisco-based journalist and former member of the Black Panther Party (BPP). Kiilu hosts a weekly TV program, "Freedom Is A Constant Struggle," on SF Live (Comcast 76 and AT&T 99), which can be viewed live at www.accessf.org every Friday at 7:30 pm (PST), and rebroadcast Saturdays at 3:30 p.m., and Mondays, 6:30 p.m.. She writes for several publications, including the SF Bay View Newspaper and BlackCommentator.com. Also an accomplished radio programmer, she has worked for KPFA (Berkeley), SF Liberation Radio, Free Radio Berkeley, and KPOO in SF. Some of her work is archived at www.kpfa.org. and www.myspace.com/official_kiilu
--Hans Bennett is an independent multi-media journalist (www.insubordination.blogspot.com) and co-founder of Journalists for Mumia Abu-Jamal (www.abu-jamal-news.com). Special thanks to Ed Mertex for help transcribing the interview.
Hans Bennett: How did you join the BPP [Black Panther Party]?
Kiilu Nyasha: I started running into Panthers when I worked for President Johnson's so-called “War on Poverty,” at The Community Action Institute (CAI) in
A young Panther named Belva, just a teenager and known as "sisterlove," was sent to
When I found myself jobless, I applied for welfare because having worked for Yale and the government, I didn't qualify for unemployment insurance. I had a 9 year-old son and rent for my apartment was $80/month, but they would only give me $25 a week. What was I supposed to do with that? So I joined the second chapter of the BPP in late 1969, created after the first chapter got locked up for murder charges, along with the Chairman, Bobby Seale -- basically recruited to organize around the Panther trials by Robert Webb [martyred] and Doug Miranda. At this time, I was still “Pat Gallyot”, because I changed my name later in the 1970’s.
HB: Tell us about the BPP.
KN: The BPP was initiated by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, who were students at
An incredible movement swept this country like wild-fire, because police abuses were a national epidemic. The BPP developed a 10-point platform demanding self-determination for our Black community, including land, bread, housing, clothing, education, justice and peace. We started free medical clinics, and in
We propagated revolution and formed the original “rainbow coalition.” We worked with many groups, including the Young Lords, the Young Patriot Party from
HB: What is the BPP’s legacy?
KN: Once instituted, our free breakfast program was in high demand because kids were hungry. Subsequently, a free school lunch program was started in
The “Black is Beautiful” campaign elevated the mentality of Black people in terms of what we thought about ourselves. Don't forget, James Brown's song “I'm Black and I'm Proud” came on the heels of the BPP. Music and culture reflected the Movement. That legacy has endured.
The BPP ushered in a whole crew of Black politicians, but what did that do for Black people, especially poor Black people? For example, President Obama is a friend of capitalism, imperialism, and fascism. Fascism needs a new brown face to deal with the so-called
HB: How did the BPP fare against US government repression?
KN: We were defeated. They pulled every dirty trick in the book to wipe us out and succeeded. They organized fratricide and had us killing each other. They jailed and assassinated us. By 1969, 28 Panthers had already been murdered by the police. There was the blatant murder of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in
President Richard Nixon and FBI Director J Edgar Hoover orchestrated COINTELPRO and another program that was behind the walls called “NEWKILL.” We were targeted and declared the most dangerous threat to the internal security of the
HB: What impact did the BPP have on police brutality and prisons?
KN: We may have caused a temporary calm, but it actually got worse. For example, Panthers Harold Taylor and John Bowman (currently of the SF8) were chased down in
HB: What can we learn from the successes and failures of the BPP, so that we can be more effective today?
KN: Organizing worked! As in, door-to-door street organizing, on the ground, rolling up our sleeves and going right to the people, and helping them meet their own needs. People have gotten far away from that. Stop knocking on city hall’s door! Why are we asking our enemies for help? Working within the system only works if you consider yourself an infiltrator. We have to draw the line and stop supporting it. Today, we should organize gardens to grow our own food.
Propaganda is a necessary tool and our job right now is to raise consciousness to educate to liberate. The BPP had regular political education classes. That needs to happen again. People need to get into small study groups and discuss politics.
Also, students aren’t organizing on the campuses like they used to. I think it's partly because the lower class isn't on the campuses these days, because nobody can afford it.
HB: What do you think of recent events in Latin America, where people are fighting
KN: I’m inspired! I highly recommend the recent documentary film about
HB: This issue of global solidarity reminds me of Huey Newton's idea of “revolutionary intercommunalism,” emphasizing that in today’s age of transnational corporate power, the
KN: Huey’s theory was brilliant, prophetic, and is a perfect solution in today's world. Of course Huey has not been given proper credit and it’s the same thing with Malcolm X. Now more than ever, oppressed people around the world need to unite against the common enemy that is transnational corporations. We can’t let them divide us. We're in the throes of a death spiral right now, and if we don't hurry up and deal with climate change, for example, things will get horribly worse for ordinary people and we can kiss this planet good-bye, probably within this century.
HB: When did you start working in media?
KN: Because of my years of secretarial work, I had typing skills. At the time of Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins’ trial in
Later, I lived in the Hunters Point neighborhood, and while practicing a very strenuous form of martial arts, my muscles started deteriorating. I wound up in the medical system for many years--a long, hairy story. Suffice it to say, I walked into the system in 1975 and rolled out in 1980, and have been in Chinatown ever since, living in a 12 story Housing Authority building that they said was the only place they could find that was wheelchair accessible.
HB: How does the mainstream media today compare to 40 years ago?
KN: It’s much worse! I used to see BPP leaders Kathleen Cleaver and David Hilliard on TV. The movement used to get media attention. Now you can't get any media attention on prisoners. We can have a demonstration with 10,000 people, and they still don't cover it. You don't even have good journalists anymore.
HB: Why do you think that is?
KN: Look at all the journalists who’ve been fired for telling the truth. Not to mention all the journalists who have been murdered these past few years, particularly by the
HB: How has the alternative media changed?
KN: It's not anywhere as bold. We had the BPP newspaper and all kinds of badass tabloids. Today they censor you. To me, with a few exceptions, the Black press and other alternative media have fallen down on the job.
HB: Your recent Black Commentator article titled “Black August 2008” focused on the legacy of the late prison author and BPP leader, George Jackson, who was assassinated by guards at San Quentin Prison on August 21, 1971.
KN: I initiated a correspondence with George in early 1971, and months later, got a one-hour visit in the holding cell of San Quentin. I’ve met no one before or since more dedicated to revolutionary change. George’s book of prison letters, Soledad Brother, was a best seller, and his second book, Blood In My Eye, had just been finished at the time of his death, and was published posthumously.
George was one of the three “Soledad Brothers,” whose story began on January 13, 1970 when a tower guard at Soledad State Prison shot and killed three Black captives on the yard, leaving them unattended to bleed to death: Cleveland Edwards, “Sweet Jugs” Miller, and W. L. Nolen, all active resisters in the Black Movement behind the walls. Others included George Jackson, Jeffrey Gauldin, Hugo L.A. Pinell, Steve Simmons, Howard Tole, and the late Warren Wells.
After the common verdict of “justifiable homicide” was returned and the killer guard exonerated at
HB: You wrote that we should honor
KN: The book titled “The Melancholy History of Soledad Prison,” by Min Yee, documents how Hugo Pinell was one of the original members of the Black Movement, led by George Jackson and others in Soledad Prison. At that time, it wasn't safe for Blacks to walk the yard. The collusion between the racist, KKK-type guards and white racist prison gangs was horrendous. These conditions were horrible.
Yogi was eventually transferred to San Quentin, and was there on August 21, 1971, when George was assassinated. That day, in what was described by prison officials as an escape attempt, George allegedly smuggled a gun into San Quentin in a wig. That feat was proven impossible, and evidence subsequently suggested a setup designed by prison officials to eliminate
Six Black prisoners were charged with murder and assault. Hugo Pinell, Fleeta Drumgo, David Johnson, Luis Talamantez, Johnny Spain, and Willie Sundiata Tate became known as the “San Quentin Six.” Johnny Spain was the only one convicted of murder. The others were either acquitted or convicted of assault. Hugo is the only one remaining in prison, and badly needs our support.
HB: Tell us about Ruchell Magee.
KN: I first met Ruchell in the holding cell of the
Ruchell was fighting charges of murder, conspiracy to murder, kidnap, and conspiracy to aid the escape of state prisoners. Although critically wounded on August 7, 1970, he was the sole survivor among the four brave Black men who conducted the courthouse slave rebellion, leaving him to be charged with everything they could throw at him. On August 7, 17-year old Jonathan Jackson raided the Marin Courtroom and tossed guns to prisoners William Christmas and James McClain, who in turn invited Ruchell to join them. Rue seized the hour spontaneously as they attempted to escape by taking a judge, assistant district attorney and three jurors as hostages in that audacious move to expose to the public the brutally racist prison conditions and free the Soledad Brothers.
McClain was on trial for assaulting a guard in the wake of Black prisoner Fred Billingsley’s murder by prison officials in San Quentin in February, 1970. With only four months before a parole hearing, Magee had appeared in the courtroom to testify for McClain.
The four revolutionaries successfully commandeered the group to the waiting van and were about to pull out of the parking lot when Marin County Police and San Quentin guards opened fire. When the shooting stopped, Judge Harold Haley,
Magee had already spent at least seven years studying law and deluging the courts with petitions and lawsuits to contest his own illegal conviction in two fraudulent trials. As he put it, the judicial system “used fraud to hide fraud” in his second case after the first conviction was overturned on an appeal based on a falsified transcript. His strategy, therefore, centered on proving that he was a slave, denied his constitutional rights and held involuntarily. Therefore, he had the legal right to escape slavery as established in the case of the African slave, Cinque, who had escaped the slave ship, Amistad, and won freedom in a
Moreover, Magee wanted to conduct a trial that would bring to light the racist and brutal oppression of Black prisoners throughout the State. “My fight is to expose the entire system, judicial and prison system, a system of slavery. This will cause benefit not just to myself but to all those who at this time are being criminally oppressed or enslaved by this system.”
On the other hand, Angela Davis, his co-defendant, charged with buying the guns used in the raid, conspiracy, etc., was innocent of any wrongdoing because the gun purchases were perfectly legal and she was not part of the original plan.
Ruchell fought on alone, losing much of the support attending the
Ruchell is currently on the mainline of Corcoran State Prison doing his 46th year locked up in
HB: Let’s conclude with a quote from George Jackson.
KN: He wrote in Blood In My Eye: “Settle your quarrels, come together, understand the reality of our situation, understand that fascism is already here, that people are dying who could be saved, that generations more will live poor butchered half-lives if you fail to act. Do what must be done, discover your humanity and your love in revolution.”