Free 'Em All: 50 Years Later, Black Panthers Are Still Fighting for Freedom

News & Politics

It's early on the Monday morning, post-snowmaggedon 2016, and I have an unexpected 10 minutes to spare. I know I should close my eyes, center myself for the day ahead, but instead I FaceTime Baba Sekou Odinga. I don't really have anything to say. Mostly I just pick on him, tell bad jokes, make faces, sing off-key. "Why you do that to that man," the homie Everton who has been navigating me through the storm all weekend, asks, laughing.

And as soon he asks, it's like I slip through a wrinkle in time, back 14 months to November 25th, 2014 when, after near 34 years in prison, more than half of which was spent in solitary confinement, former Black Panther, Sekou Odinga, walked out of a New York State prison into the loving arms his children and his wife, Dequi. Nine hours later, he would be greeted in Harlem at the National Black Theater by over 200 people who had found out 48 hours before that a day we had worked for but did not know we would ever see, was here: Sekou, one of nearly 100 American political prisoners, activists from 1960s through the 1980s, was free.

Soffiyah Elijah, executive director of the Correctional Association, former deputy director of the Criminal Justice Institute at Harvard Law School (HLS), and one of the attorneys who has worked diligently for years on political prisoner cases, including the Herculean effort to secure parole for Sekou Odinga, wrote:

Political prisoners are men and women who have been incarcerated for their political views and actions. They have consciously fought against social injustice, colonialism and/or imperialism and have been incarcerated as a result of their political commitments. Even while in prison, these men and women continue to adhere to their principles.

This, Elijah writes, is the internationally accepted definition of political prisoners, and most of us rightly associate it with people like Nelson Mandela. What we don't generally jump to, is that apartheid was the progeny of Jim Crow, and the struggle against apartheid was deeply informed by the struggle against Jim Crow and for human rights for Black people living in America. In short, what we believe is deserved for people living in other countries, we don't always appreciate should apply to us. We should.

Indeed, as I write this, many of metrics that quantify what makes a life quality--fair employment, decent education, affordable housing and meaningful health care--are as disrupted today as they were for Black South Africans during apartheid and African Americans pre-Civil Rights Movement. In other words, the name-calling leveled against the Black Panthers, resurrected recently because of imagery in Queen Bey's Formation, was ahistorical (read: a outright fucking lie). The Panthers were a human rights organization and as we know given the history of the slave patrols, the three branches of the US government, the KKK and today's police forces from Ferguson to Baltimore, from LA to New York, any organization or person calling for the full human rights of Black people has been met with, um, resistance.

Which is why it's infuriating to hear some people argue that the Rapture or some shit has come because the Obamas look mighty fine and Oprah has a network where you can experience Tyler Perry's imagination to your heart's content, no disrespect. I mean, rock on and whatnot but let's understand at least this: elevating the exception to the rule to the level of the rule itself doesn't make for sound reasoning--anymore than toxic water poured down the throats of Black people by a governor who probably washes his ass with bottles of Voss or Black people getting dead every 28 hours by police, is progress just because we can hashtag it.

Two generations ago, the man who was born under a Gemini sun in 1944 and raised up in Queens, New York in a world where poverty in Black communities left children hungry and hurting, and where killer cops regularly cut #BlackLivesShort with impunity, Sekou Odinga was inspired to revolution by Minister Malcolm X. He would hang around Malcolm's organization, the OAAU (the Organization of African American Unity) but didn't officially become a member until after Minister Malcolm was assassinated. Roughly 18 months later, on October 15, 1966, two young men who were also inspired by Minister Malcolm, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, would stand on the steps of the Alameda County Courthouse in Oakland, California and announce the birth of The Black Panther Party and its 10-point program that demanded human rights for all Black people. Two years after that, Seale traveled to New York to get things kicked off in the City that Stays Woke, and talked that good Let's Get Free talk to group of young brothers and sisters who'd gathered in an apartment in the East Village where Sekou Odinga was in the mix.

When I tell Sekou I am writing this piece he says, "Tell them how we just wanted our people to be safe. Tell them how we fed our children. Tell them how we opened the first-ever free health clinic in America and that it was in the Bronx. Tell them we stood with mothers who were being harassed at welfare offices. And yes, tell them we fought police, but tell them we did it to defend ourselves because what we, a bunch of 20-year-old kids did, exposed what the government with billions of dollars refused to do. And they couldn't take that. Ultimately, that's what made us political prisoners. That's why we were targeted. That's why we were killed."

In fact, in FBI documents on the Party, the government noted that far more dangerous than any gun brandished by a Panther, was the fact that they fed children.

But in the Black Panther Party, Sekou, like thousands of young people across the country, found a place where he could lean in--elbows, shoulders and back--on the question of how we were going to finally demand and realize our human rights. It was a seminal moment in the long Black history of Black people giving no more fucks because then, like now, our lives were at risk simply by walking outside and say, not having taken a dog to the vet in 1967 or buying a bag of skittles for our little brother in 2012. And despite all the variance in stories I've heard about the Panthers since I was an undergrad in the late 80s and early 90s majoring in political science and Black studies, in the more than quarter century I've known Sekou, it seems that to a person, everyone agreed that he was kind of stand-up, straight-backed soldier you'd want on your side.

Which is why, I suppose the decision was made that he be the one to walk into Clinton Prison in New Jersey on November 2nd, 1979. And six years and six months to the day that unarmed/hands up Assata Shakur, was shot and arrested on the New Jersey Turnpike, Sekou would enter that dungeon, take his friend and comrade by her hand, and walk her the fuck out that joint.

As I write this, she remains free.

And her words are a rallying cry for Black Lives Matter activists across the world:

We have a duty to fight for our freedom
We have a duty to win
We must love each other and support each other
We have nothing to lose but our chains

How I wish the story of our freedom ended there, with victory in hand. But as Harding instructs, our struggle is a river flowing. And two years after Assata was liberated, Sekou was arrested, charged with the attempted murder of six police officers in New York State as well as federal criminal conspiracy charges related to the escape, an action, by the way, in which no one was harmed.

But Sekou wasn't afforded the same humanity he demonstrated toward the prison staff that was present during the escape. I will not share the details of how he was tortured when he was captured, but suffice it to say that what was done to him resulted in a hospitalization that lasted three months and 35 years later he still lives with residual effects. In the end he was convicted on both federal and state charges and shipped off to Marion Federal Penitentiary, which was a 23-hour a day lockdown facility.

Another way of saying this is that it was meant to be his burial ground.

I was never supposed to know Sekou's name.

Neither were you.

In 1990 I was the president of my student government at Hunter College when Tanaquil Jones, an activist I'd known from our work to end apartheid and a woman who was married to former Black Panther and political prisoner, Dhoruba bin Wahad approached me about supporting the Special International Tribunal on the Violation of Human Rights of Political Prisoners and Prisoners of War in United States Prisons and Jails. What was happening to the men and women who had stood up for freedom 25 years ago demanded recognition--the way the world had recognized and supported the men and women of the ANC, Black Consciousness Movement and PAC in South Africa. I was down.

Dhoruba, like Sekou, was one of the original members of the New York chapters of the Black Panther Party; he worked out of the Harlem office and Sekou, the Bronx office. And like Sekou, he'd been a defendant in the 1969 Panther 21 case in which the leadership of the New York chapters--specifically the men and women charged with maintaining security for the Panthers and protecting the organization from infiltrators--had been falsely accused of a major bombing campaign across the City. After a year locked down, enough bail money was raised to release a few Panthers who were charged with ensuring everyone knew the bullshit. Dhoruba was head of the Clapback Committee and worked tirelessly to bring attention to the case of his comrades.

In the end, all of those arrested were acquitted but the Panthers were ever more in the crosshairs of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. Hoover had headed the outfit since its official post-WW I launch in 1924 and was determined to root out anyone he thought was "anti-American." Communist Party members and Suffragettes were among his first targets, although under his watch, and despite his stated hatred for Communism, he ran his agency KGB-like, with at least one sitting president, Harry Truman, opining the FBI director had his own secret police. Gestapo was the other comparison Truman made. And while none fighting for social justice it seemed escaped his reach or wrath, arguably no group caught it like the young men and women of the Black Panther Party.

With local law enforcement acting as the FBI's muscle-headed henchmen, nowhere was it safe to throw a fist in the air and cry Power to the People. Indeed, the very first SWAT action ever in the US, was an action against the Panther's LA chapter, and in the FBI's own words, the Black Panther Party was "the greatest threat to internal security," language used to justify the creation of the Counterintelligence Program, known more commonly now as COINTELPRO, whose mission was to "misdirect, discredit, disrupt, neutralize and otherwise eliminate" it.

Which they did. 

By 1974, much of the Panther leadership as well as key rank and file, had been killed by police, driven underground or imprisoned. The Party was effectively destroyed. Dhoruba, who had been set up and framed for a crime he didn't commit after the victory in the 21 case, was arrested in June of 1971. His case would become a defining one for Panthers because for everyday of the 19 years he did, he fought alongside his lawyers, Bob Bloom, Liz Fink (1945-2015) and Bob Boyle, and later his second wife, Tanaquil, to prove that the FBI used coached informants to lie on Panthers to ensure their convictions. And it might have gone off without a hitch except for a sister, Mary Johnson Lowe, who had been appointed to the Southern District Federal Court by President Jimmy Carter. She was the second Black woman ever to hold such a seat.

"She refused to let my case go and forced the government to eventually release the documents proving what they did," Dhoruba tells me. For the first time, and after a series of failed appeals, Dhoruba's lawyers, at last unhampered by a judge who skewed toward prosecution rather than toward simply justice, were able to get more than 300,000 pages of documents were released. They detailed the lengths the government had gone to frame Panthers and specifically Dhoruba. In March of 1990, the onetime field secretary for the Panthers at last got a hearing on the possibility of a retrial. If he won, he could be released from the court immediately, albeit likely with a bail attached.

"But Tanaquil brought the Juju up into that court," Dhoruba reminds me. "You know. You were there, asha. Liz [Fink], was working on pulling together bail because we knew we'd get the conviction set aside and a call for a retrial based on all the false evidence in my case. But Liz figured that the only way they'd go for that was if I had a bail on me. But I said don't worry."

And sure enough, that judge released Dhoruba in his own recognizance on March 22, 1990. And he and Tanaquil would write a bookmake a film and begin an organization, The Campaign to Free Black Political Prisoners and Prisoners of War, to raise national awareness on the reality--and the particular persecution--of political prisoners in America. I was their student. We traveled together, speaking on campuses, speaking in community, speaking truth to power to anyone within reach of our voices.

The Campaign no longer exists but it paved the way for other organizations, notably the Jericho Movement, to have formed with the express intent of fighting for the freedom of political prisoners. And since 1990, more than a dozen men and women, Black, Puerto Rican and North American (white), once political prisoners, have come home after long battles. But others, like Albert Nuh Washington, Teddy Jah Heath and Basir Hameed didn't make it out until they were bodies to be claimed, Spirits to be honored. And as you read these words, scores of others including but not limited to: Mumia Abu Jamal, Jalil Muntquin, Ed Poindexter, Chip Fitzgerald, Herman Bell, the MOVE family, Robert Seth Hayes, Russell Maroon Shoatz and Sundiata Acoli, Assata's codefendant, are aging and ailing in prisons where they've sat for three and four decades, convicted on evidence that in a human-centered and democratic world, would likely never take hold. Convicted because they knew that they, that we, were living in a time of war and somebody had to Solider Up.

The work to free them is the work to free us all, and it continues, even as we lift up every victory achieved along the way. Which we should do because it's these victories that provide us the will to go on when our backs are weary and our hearts are taxed. And which is why on that Monday when the homie Everton asked me why I do that to that man--'man' meaning Sekou, and 'do that' meaning calling him for no good reason--I look at my friend, my heart swollen with the love of a daughter, and say simply, "Because I can."

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