by Todd Steven Burroughs, Ph.D.

special to Prof. Kim's News Notes


Part Four:


By Todd Steven Burroughs

By the time Wes Cook began his second year in the Black Panther Party, he would see the hopes of a people hoisted and dropped by, respectively, the promise and failure of revolution. Returning home from a stint in the Panther national headquarters in Oakland, the teenager from Philadelphia who later re-named himself Mumia Abu-Jamal would see his family-in-struggle torn asunder from without and within.

The tension began to rise when the National BPP decided it was going to hold a national convention—a Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention—in Philadelphia in September of 1970. The cradle of Revolutionary War-era liberty would be the site of new American revolutionaries. Representing many different groups, these radical activists of all colors would also demand liberty or death.

The idea that revolutionaries of all stripes would descend on Philadelphia frightened the city’s law-and-order police commissioner, Frank Rizzo, to no end. His town was not going to be overrun by Black Power advocates and hippies. With revolution discussed openly throughout the country and the BPP-sponsored meeting on its way into the city, Rizzo put the Philadelphia police in ready mode. His worst fears—or hopes, depending on the perspective—were realized when, during a weekend of reported violence against police officers, one of his men was fatally shot. Although Party members were not involved, it was the excuse he needed.

Claiming the men involved in the fatal officer shooting were members of a local militant group called the Black Unity Movement, Rizzo announced the department would round up every Black revolutionary by sunup. The man who ordered his men to beat up Black protesting schoolchildren three years previously (“Get their Black asses!”) had now, in 1970, given himself authority to attack any and all Black militant organizations.

(“In his public statements, he [Rizzo] seemed unable to distinguish between Black criminals and Black activists who challenged authority on the basis of real grievances,” wrote Joseph R. Daughen and Peter Binzen in “The Cop Who Would Be King,” their biography of Rizzo. “In this, he was not unlike those whites who watched with mounting fury the television accounts of Blacks marching in protest, occupying public buildings. Demonstrators were seen as thugs. [In the minds of those whites], there were ‘good’ Blacks, who obeyed the law behind locked doors in their crime-ridden neighborhoods, and there were ‘bad’ Blacks, who stabbed and pillaged and defined authority, and encouraged others to do so.”)

Reginald Schell, defense captain for the Philadelphia Panthers (and Cook’s mentor), said branch members were used to police harassment. So he had an idea what was coming next. Schell recalled what happened that night in Dick Cluster’s book “They Should Have Served That Cup Of Coffee”:

“About five o’clock that morning I was asleep [in the Philadelphia BPP headquarters], and somebody woke me up (we used to pull guard duty in the Panthers anyway) and said, ‘They’re here.’ I looked out the window, and they’re lined across the street with submachine guns, shotguns; they’re in the alley. I saw the head man clearly[:] he had a pistol and a gas mask strapped to his leg. He was bending down, and then all hell broke loose. Finally, we had children in there and the gas got to them too much so we had to come out.

“Each cop took an individual Panther and placed their pistol up the back of our neck and told us to walk down the street backward. They told us [that] if we stumble or fall, they’re gonna kill us. They then lined us up against the wall and a cop with a .45 sub[-machine gun] would fire over our heads so the bricks started falling down. Most of us had been in bed, and they just ripped the g&^damn clothes off everybody, women and men. They had the gun, they’d just snatch your pants down and they took pictures of us like that. Then they put us in the wagon and took us down to the police station.

“We were handcuffed and running down this little driveway; when we got to the other end of it, a cop would come by with a stick and he’d punch us, beat us. Some of us were bleeding; I know I was bleeding, but really I thought it was gonna be a whole lot worse.

“We had three offices at the time—West Philly[,] where 14 Panthers had barricaded themselves, the North Philly office up here, and a small office in Germantown. They raided them, and they raided everyplace we stayed.

“When they took the office, they took everything; they even took the rugs off. And I couldn’t understand the reason, but they took all the clothes, the machines; they took everything. I mean, I[’ve] never seen anything as thorough as that—kitchen tables, kitchen chairs, everything we got, refrigerators; they didn’t leave us nothing. When we finally got out we had to pay for suits from the prison.

“They arrested everyone from the North Philly and West Philly offices, and set the bail at $100,000 apiece.

“But the support out on the street was really picking up. I think something about them stripping all the clothes off and taking pictures was the s*&t that backfired. Meanwhile, Rizzo was talking all this s*#t about how he wanted to take us all, one Panther and one cop, and we’d do battle on the street.”

The Panthers, especially those in Philadelphia, were not going to be deterred. The convention went ahead as scheduled. “Finally bail was lowered down to $3,500 apiece,” recalled Schell, “and we got out after a week or ten days and got together for the [convention’s] plenary session.” Huey Newton was not unaware of Rizzo’s terror tactics. “I understand Bozo’s off his leash,” the BPP Minister of Defense was quoted as saying to supporters and reporters at the airport when he arrived in Philadelphia for the convention. “That’s Rizzo’s name: ‘Bozo, The Mad Dog.’”

COOK WAS NOT arrested the night of the raid because he wasn’t in any of the Panther offices at the time. But he played a role of minor importance at the convention. Cook—“always a small fry in the Panther organization,” as he would describe himself years later—was assigned to bodyguard Newton. “I doubted he knew my name, but I loved him,” Abu-Jamal remembered in “Live From Death Row,” his first book.

But Cook would share the disappointment of many when Newton, fresh from prison, delivered his plenary address. The masses had expected to hear the charismatic, dynamic symbol of the “Free Huey” movement rally the troops in a dramatic call-to-arms. Instead, they got a dry political science lecture about “democratic capitalism” versus “bureaucratic capitalism.”

(David Hilliard, one of the Party’s national leaders, recalled the moment in his autobiography, “This Side Of Glory”: “The crowd wants to love him—he’s the star. But they don’t understand anything of his treatise on American history…. Huey’s frustration with public speaking builds up…. ‘These people have no analytic sense,’ he tells me [offstage after his speech], referring to the crowds. ‘They’re hung up on [BPP Minister of Information] Eldridge [Cleaver]’s slogans and revolutionary talk. They’re not used to analytic lecturing.’”)

Schell recalled years later not just the symbolism of the failed moment, but its importance in context of the tensions within the Party:

“Masses of people in this country were beginning to side with the Left wing, both white and Black. But I think the U.S. has got a system that people have got to be very, very conscious of. That is, it projects leaders, and then it breaks leaders.

“I was out in California that summer when Huey P. Newton got out of jail, and I watched it when people from the community came up and talked with him, congratulated him for coming home and told him how much they missed him and supported him. And I saw that he couldn’t talk to them. His conversation was gone[;] he was a million miles away from them.

“At the [convention’s] plenary session what he said just lost people. When he spoke to the people at that session, he spoke to ordinary people in the street way over their head[s], while they were talking about committing themselves to going back to their areas and making some very fundamental changes in people.

“I’m not sure if it wasn’t a pre-arranged plot to allow Huey to come out at that time. Because, you know, everyone was talking about turning the Party around. Internally there were certain things happening that left a lot of people across the country dissatisfied.

“There was drug use, there were problems at the top; and Bobby Seale was in jail in New Haven, Connecticut, and Eldridge Cleaver was outside the country [in Algiers] and couldn’t return. We were hoping that Huey could turn it around, but when he came home we found that he wouldn’t or couldn’t do it, and the Party just started falling, people just started leaving it. The desire was gone.

“It’s not a question of individuals, really. But the people at the top, the [C]entral [C]ommittee of the Party, they were the ones that we looked up to, the ones that inspired us to do more, and when we couldn’t get that inspiration any more, then chapters and branches across the country just started to fall apart.”

The Philadelphia BPP Defense Captain said the behavior he saw of some Central Committee members, in town for the convention, bothered him:

“I know one thing that happened to me when I came out of jail after the [Rizzo] raid. Money was needed for bail and to replace the things that the police had taken from us, even our clothes. I tripped up when I came out to find about some [C]entral [C]ommittee members talking about buying some expensive jump suits so they could look sharp for the plenary session. It took me down to the lowest, just about the lowest point I’d been since I’d been in the Party.”

SCHELL WAS CONVINCED these problems were not going away and that the Party had tried too many coalitions with too many other groups too soon (“It seemed like the Party was more interested later in projecting itself rather than dealing with a program”). So he left the Party after the convention.

Wes Cook, who helped found the Party before he turned 15-years-old, left, too. He had been in the Party for less than two years.

Schell, Cook and other activists set up the Black United Liberation Front, another militant organization. But Cook’s very brief tenure as a fulltime revolutionary had come to a close.

Schell said the Party would remain in Philadelphia until about 1973. That was the year the Central Committee would order all the chapters and branches to shut themselves down in order for members to move to Oakland to help with the Party’s unsuccessful campaigns for local elected office.

In the coda of “Live From Death Row,” Mumia Abu-Jamal remembered his “sickening” rage over watching his beloved Party destroying itself, thanks to a feud between his “hero,” Newton, and his “idol,” Cleaver. Strongly encouraged by behind-the-scenes FBI machinations, the two Party leaders had divided the Party into two factions: East Coast (Cleaver) and West Coast (Newton). The organization that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had once called the greatest internal threat to America’s security was degenerating into a kind of political gang rivalry.

Although Cook’s FBI files show him listed as a correspondent for Babylon, a Cleaver-factioned publication, Mumia Abu-Jamal has said he did not choose a side between Cleaver and Newton because he wanted no part of a family feud. “I didn’t join the BPP to get in a g**damn gang war!” he recalled he thought at the time. “S*&t! I could’ve stayed in North Philly for this dumb s$#t!…. Frustrated, angry, I drifted away from a Party that had drifted away from its moorings in the people.”

From Death Row, it seemed Abu-Jamal’s only regret about his Party involvement was how its destruction impeded the advancement of a new civilization, one perhaps glimpsed, only for a moment, at the Revolutionary Convention. “I felt that it was proper to fight the system, but when the system can manipulate you into fighting your own, then the system wins and the people lose,” he explained to an interviewer in the book “Still Black, Still Strong: Survivors Of The War Against Black Revolutionaries.”

(The Philadelphia branch was not immune to the “system’s” psychological warfare. In his doctoral dissertation, “War Against The Panthers,” Newton detailed how the Philadelphia branch of the FBI sent him phony correspondence from the Philadelphia BPP. The fake message was a cover letter from an anonymous BPP supporter, criticizing the Philadelphia leadership for “slandering” members. Attached to the cover letter was phony documents consisting of local BPP leaders criticizing Newton. The FBI also sent faux anonymous correspondence to the National Office about how the Philadelphia branch was stealing from the Party’s community service programs. The FBI report Newton quoted from is dated Aug. 19, 1970—the period the Party was preparing for the convention.)

But Cook was not one to live in the past. The new decade created new priorities which, in turn, created new responsibilities. He drew closer to Biba, the connection between his past with the Panthers and his future. By doing so, Cook’s new life would, in turn, help create a new life, and the forthcoming child would name the parent.

COOK MORPHED FROM Panther to father as quickly as he resumed using his Kenyan name permanently. In “Black Men In Their Own Words,” an anthology edited by Essence magazine, Mumia Abu-Jamal recalled how his definition of manhood changed—how he had changed—as a result of both leaving the Panthers and creating a new family with Biba. Instead of man meaning “militant defense, service, and sacrifice for one’s people, one’s community and one’s Party,” it now meant “becoming a committed lover, companion, and father. And it meant the tortured mix of love and dread that marked the birth of a brown-skinned boy in this land—a feeling as perverse as it is terrible, a feeling as true as that two plus two equals four.”

Jamal, Mumia’s first child, was born on July 18, 1971. To honor his son, he took the surname “Abu-Jamal,” which means “father of Jamal” in Arabic. The new dad was only 17 years old. But he had embraced and continued the cycle of being, constantly recreating himself and expanding his worldview. As the decade progressed, he would also expand his family with two more children, Lateefa and Mazi, the youngest child. His marriage to Biba, however, would not survive; Mazi’s mother was Abu-Jamal’s second wife, Marilyn, nicknamed “Peachie.”

By 1975, the new father had committed himself to a new vocation—radio newscasting. The teenage revolutionary transformed himself into a 20-something, card-carrying member of the mass media. Although his resume would include stints at white commercial and public radio stations, Black radio and Abu-Jamal fit perfectly. He would use his new platform to educate himself and his audience. Abu-Jamal’s silky baritone would come into its own, maturing through the 1970s as much of Black America transitioned from militant to moderate, from “Beep Beep/Bang Bang/Ungawa/Black Power” to “We’re Movin’ On Up,” the title sequence to CBS’s “The Jeffersons.”

Cook had left the Party for good, but he hadn’t escaped the FBI’s metaphorical riflescope. The bureau followed his activities with the Black United Liberation Front. It documented his return to high school. Agents unsuccessfully attempted to spy on him when he became a student at Goddard College in Vermont in the early 1970s. After the public discovery of the FBI’s counter-intelligence program (COINTEL-PRO), however, Cook’s FBI file officially closed in the mid-1970s. It would be updated after Mumia Abu-Jamal became involved in an early-morning altercation between his brother Billy and a young, white Philadelphia police officer named Daniel Faulkner at a city streetcorner in late 1981. Both Abu-Jamal and Faulkner were shot during the scuffle. Faulkner died at the scene. A nearly all-white jury convicted Abu-Jamal of first-degree murder in 1982.

Abu-Jamal’s Party service would loom over his trial. By the time he was sentenced to death, his very public adolescence had been looped into a large knot—not unlike the way a rope is prepared for a lynching.

(NEXT: “The Barrel Of A Gun:” The Party’s Impact On Abu-Jamal’s Trial—An Oral History)

Copyright © 2004 by Todd Steven Burroughs. Used with permission of the author.

Table of Contents

Todd Steven Burroughs, Ph.D. ( is an independent researcher/writer based in Hyattsville, Md. He is a primary author of Civil Rights Chronicle (Legacy), a history of the Civil Rights Movement, and a contributor to Putting The Movement Back Into Civil Rights Teaching (Teaching For Change/Poverty & Race Research Action Council), a K-12 teaching guide of the Civil Rights Movement. He is writing a biography of Abu-Jamal.




photo of Mumia Abu Jamal

from Internationalist Group

photo of Steven Todd Burroughs

from Research Channel