Of `We Want Freedom:
A Life In The Black Panther Party'
By Mumia Abu-Jamal
By Sukant Chandan
Having read many if not most of the books that have come out by or about former members of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defence, We Want Freedom is one of the best. This review cannot cover the many angles from which Mumia approaches his experience in, the ideology, practice and legacy of the Panthers. There are a few things that stand out are worth highlighting in this book, more so than perhaps other books on the same subject.
Panthers: "The history it sprang from"
This book puts the Panthers in wider historical context. This context is one in which the one can track the continuing struggle of Black people today back to the time when Africans were infamously kidnapped en-masse and forcibly transported like animals into slavery in the Americas.
Other books that have put Black revolutionary movements in historical context are Robert Williams's highly influential classic `Negroes With Guns' (Williams and his book being one of the main inspirations domestically for the Panthers), and also the generally excellent biography of Williams called `Radio Free Dixie' by Timothy B Tyson.
Mumia explains in some detail that the militant example of people like Malcolm X / Malik El-Hajj Shabazz and the Panthers is closer to the experiences of Black people than the pacifist and class comprising stand of people like Roy Wilkins and other more reformist and milder leaders of the Black Liberation Movement.
Mumia gives many examples of popular Black armed struggle (at times supported by working class Native Americans and whites), like the nineteenth century struggle of the liberated Fort Christiana. He explains in his book how the Panthers were a direct continuation of the militant struggle of Black people in the Southern states, something which Williams explains so graphically in ‘Negroes with Guns’.
"A Women's Party"
There is a whole chapter on the exemplary role of the women cadres of the Panthers who occupied positions from the rank and file to the local and national leadership. He explains that possibly against popular preconceptions most of the activities of the Panthers in serving and struggling with the people were undertaken and organised by women members. At the end of the first year of the Panthers women comprised nearly 60% of the membership.
The Panthers were the FIRST social organisation, let alone radical organisation, in the USA that had women in all levels of leadership.
Mumia explains that there were inevitably problems of sexism in the party reflecting that which existed in society at large. Any organisation which recruits from the oppressed and exploited will have some of the problems that exist in the communities and homes of the people. Mumia quotes Buhkari:
"there were three evils that had to be struggled with, male chauvinism, female passivity and ultra-femininity (the `I'm only a female' syndrome)." (p174)
such as Afeni Shakur (more famously known as the mother of rapper
Tupac Shakur), Assata Shakur, Kathleen Cleaver, Angela Davis and Elaine
Brown were leaders in the party, and inspired revolutionary movements
across the world,
and were themselves respected immensely in the Party
"The Empire Strikes Back - COINTELPRO"
A group of radical activists broke into a FBI building and took a load of secret documents which revealed the level of black operations the US state was involved in against radical movements, the Panthers in particular as they were the cutting edge of working class revolutionary struggle in the country. This program of black-operations was and is known as the Counter Intelligence Program, or `COINTELPRO'. Snitches, frame-ups, the dirty and slavish role of the media were some of the roles employed against the Panthers and their supporters. Mumia explains how the increasingly successful efforts of the Party in organising people from the community and work therein was the main reason why the US elites wanted the Panthers shut-down by all the dirty and brutal tricks at their disposal. For example, the Panthers were having some success in bringing anti-social gangs into popular community work, but the US state sowed distrust and paranoia between the Party and the gangs. Fred Hampton was a promising, highly intelligent and charismatic leader of the Chicago chapter of the Panthers who was making headway in recruiting gang-members into Panther work, but probably because of his progress in this field he was drugged and shot dead in his sleep by the authorities.
Other US State tactics included writing fake letters to the leaders of the Party from other leaders, such as that what happened between Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton which led to the biggest and most debilitating split in the party. These letters stirred up ideological differences into highly destructive splits and then many more splits thereof in the Party. Unfortunately the State succeeded in creating a situation between the Afrocentric Pan-Africanist organisation 'Us' and the Panthers in California, the two organisations had killed one member of the other. Many former Panthers now say that instead of this tragic dynamic that the two organisations should have been allies in struggle.
COINTELPRO type state activities still goes on in the West both at home and abroad, as anyone involved in anti-imperialist or principled working class struggle can attest to. One has to study a little into the Irish and Basque independence struggles to know this is true, and in terms of foreign policy there is a mountain load of evidence in Western interference in Venezuela, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Bolivia and Muslim communities throughout the West.
"A Panthers Life" Community dedication - serving the people
As always, reading about the dedication to the people of the Panthers is an inspiration to any decent person, and eve more so to those struggling with working class and oppressed communities, Mumia writes:
"The [Panther] offices were like buzzing beehives of Black resistance … People came with every problem imaginable, and because our sworn duty was to serve the people, we took our commitment seriously … In short, whatever our peoples problems were, they became our problems. We didn't preach to the people; we worked with them" (p197)
Mumia's open attitude towards the factions
There are a number of reasons as to why the Panthers collapsed in the mid-1970s from being a growing dynamic revolutionary force established less than ten years earlier in 1966 by a few friends: Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and David Hilliard, in Oakland, California. How did an organisation grow from a few friends to 10,000 within a few years, and then more or less was crushed in less than ten years? These reasons are too complex to go into here. A lot of the reasons may still not be adequately understood, but as increasing numbers of former Panthers publish their experiences one is able to gain an increasing understanding as to the reasons for the descent of the Panthers.
Mumia entitles one chapter "One, Two, Too Many Parties" a play on Che Guevara's famous speech 'One, Two, Three, Many Vietnams' at his speech at the Tricontinental in 1967. The splits that occurred had bitter, sometimes very violent incidents that went along with them. This inevitably has created deep running resentments between former Panthers that comes surfaces in some accounts of Panthers about their experiences in those intense years of struggle. Mumia avoids emotive denunciations of former comrades and explains in relatively even-handedly terms the pros and cons of different tendencies in the Party.
In terms of an ideological definition of the Panthers Mumia clearly points out the class and political nature of the party as one that was uncompromisingly working class, inspired by the teachings of many revolutionaries. Mumia explains that the Party's ideology was, in his opinion, closest to being `Malcolmist' (as in Malcolm X), as well as been known as a Maoist party inspired by people such as Fanon, Che, Nkrumah, Castro, Kim Il Sung, Mao, Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, Giap, Williams, and many other Latin American, Asian and of course African revolutionaries.
Mumia; "the voice of the voiceless"
Mumia is still incarcerated in a frame up by the state. He has always been true to the revolution of oppressed, voicing their struggle in the US and across the world in his unique eloquent manner.
If any can, please pass on thanks to Brother Mumia for his book and struggle from those still struggling with and serving the people against oppression.
can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org