READY TO PARTY: MUMIA ABU-JAMAL AND THE BLACK PANTHER PARTY
|by Todd Steven Burroughs, Ph.D.
special to Prof. Kim's News Notes
NOTE: In his new book, "We Want Freedom: A Life In The Black Panther Party" (South End Press), Mumia Abu-Jamal, a Pennsylvania Death Row inmate, remembers his Party days. In this excerpt of "We Want Freedom," Abu-Jamal recalls his life as a founding member of the Party’s Philadelphia branch.
In this excerpt of "We Want Freedom," he recalls going to Oakland, Calif. for the first time. His mission: to work in the Party’s national headquarters. One of his tasks there was to write for The Black Panther, the Party’s national newspaper.
His mother, Edith Cook, calls him by his birth name, Wes, which is short for Wesley.
Writes Mumia of his experiences as a Panther: "The days were long. The risks were substantial. The rewards were few. Yet the freedom was hypnotic. We could think freely, write freely, act freely. We knew that we were working for our people’s freedom, and we loved it. It was the one place in the world that seemed to be in the right place." – Todd Steven Burroughs
A PHILLY PANTHER GROWS IN OAKLAND (PART II)
By Mumia Abu-Jamal
For most Panthers, Oakland was Mecca.
It was the homeland, the birthplace, the cradle of the Black Panther Party. For a 15-year-old from Philly, it was almost like going to Heaven.
Although assigned to National Headquarters in the tony town of Berkeley, the gritty port city of Oakland was the real shebang. That was where Huey grew up, it was where the Party came into being, and where most of the dirtiest fighting took place in the formative experiences of the organization.
I longed to go there and, one day, was sent there to sell some papers. I was thrilled.
WHEN I GOT to go West Oakland, I was struck by several things.
First, the ordinariness of it.
Second, I was again amazed at what folks here considered "ghetto" and how that term is often relative. Their houses, semi-detached and surrounded by green carpets of grass, closely resembled the houses in Philadelphia’s West Oak Lane neighborhoods, which were seen by the ghetto residents of Philly as good living. Compared to the fine homes in the nearby hills, they were, of course, of lesser quality.
Third, I was struck by the quiet level of hostility I sensed when I tried to sell the newspaper around the community. I had sold it in Philadelphia, in the Bronx, in Queens, and in Harlem, yet this was the first time I sensed such resistance. Nobody verbalized anything, but it was written on too many street faces to ignore.
I never learned why, but in retrospect, one wonders, was this an early reaction to an emergent "black ops" phase of the Party underground? No one spoke about it, but there was something there—quiet, yet discernable.
However unremarkable it seemed to me, it reminded me that, relatively speaking, ghettoes still possess a certain sameness about them; there is an unmistakable psychic aura of funk about them.
IT WAS INDEED in Oakland that I received my introduction to the local constabulary. But it was not in the green ghetto of West Oakland.
As the next week’s issue of The Black Panther had been laid out and was en route to the printer, a Panther sister named Shelia and I were sent out to sell papers, and we ventured in downtown Oakland to hawk our wares. We opted to hit downtown Oakland. She took one side and I took another. When I crossed the street, I did so in the middle of the block instead of at the crosswalk, where a lonely light stood. I didn’t hesitate to scoot across the street, as I had all my life in Philly if the traffic were light.
No sooner had I crossed when a cop car rolled up. Two dark-uniformed cops exited the sedan and explained that I had violated an Alameda County ordinance against jaywalking.
I was dumbfounded. I was under arrest for jaywalking. Moments later so had Shelia because she had crossed over after the cops pulled up to see what was going on.
I had yearned to be in Oakland, I thought to myself, and now I’m gonna meet the most vicious, racist pigs in America. I expected to get whipped unconscious by these creeps in black uniforms.
The cops handcuffed me and Shelia, as I braced for a pummeling or a rain of racist insults. The cops spoke with such politeness that I was indeed shocked. "Sir," this; "Sir," that; "Ma’am," this; "Ma’am," that; I had never heard cops talk this way, either in Philadelphia or in the Bronx. "Watch your head, sir," as I was placed in the vehicle, cuffed.
I looked at Shelia, and I just knew that when we got to the station, or precinct, or whatever they called it out here, the blackjacks, the kicks, the punches would rain like water.
To my utter surprise, they never came.
Our newspapers were seized, and, as we were juveniles, we were taken to the Alameda County Juvenile Hall.
It was then that the real meaning of what had happened dawned on me.
What does it matter how polite the cops are when they lock you up and put you in jail—for jaywalking!?
If we were not selling copies of The Black Panther, would this have happened?
I don’t think so.
They were beating us, softly.
WE WERE PLACED in small rooms; while not classic, barred cells, they were clearly rooms constructed for restraint.
We signaled to each other that we would agitate for a phone call, and when we were able, she called her mother who lived in Berkeley and could come to pick her up.
Shelia’s mom appeared shortly thereafter, a small bespectacled white lady (it was a day of shocks!), who nervously hustled her baby out of the clink. Shelia looked guilty as she left, as if she didn’t want to leave her Panther brother behind. But there was little choice. She bravely curled her fingers into a Black Power salute and raised it to her comrade.
I smiled and returned it.
I would miss her, but I was glad to see her escape the pig’s clutches.
Shelia went home.
I went to jail.
It was a juvenile jail (as I was under 21), but it was a jail nonetheless.
I was remanded to the juvenile authority, because, unlike Shelia, I was some 3,000 miles away from home. There was no way my mom would, or even could, come pick me up.
For starters, she hadn’t the slightest idea where I was.
While I called home occasionally, and even came by the house as often as I could, I lived with the Party and was cautious about security by letting her know my every move. It would only worry her, which I didn’t want to do unnecessarily.
I loved her like crazy.
But I also loved life in the Party.
As Shelia left, and I went through the processing stage, I was placed in a single-cell-like enclosure.
IN THAT CELL, I thought about all the other Panthers in cells across the nation: Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins, facing death in New Haven; the "Panther 21" facing centuries in New York’s gulags; the Panthers who were recently busted in a Southern California shoot-out at the LA chapter, and brothers and sisters like me. Thoughts of them warmed me like a campfire near the soul.
They were facing real drama! [And] here I was, for jaywalking! I had nothin’ to holler about. I stretched out on the cool, plastic-covered mattress and slept.
I had just lain down and shut my eyes, it seemed, when I heard the sounds of the door being opened. I forced myself awake and stood up, feeling that an attack could come at any moment.
A big dude appeared at the door and began barking orders at me. I looked at him like he was speaking Korean. The only word I understood was "strip," and I certainly wasn’t going to do that. I had heard about prison rape.
"Strip," he said again, to which I again replied, "No."
He returned five minutes later and seemed genuinely surprised that I hadn’t removed a single stitch of clothing.
If we were going to fight, I wasn’t going to fight naked.
"Boy, didn’t I tell you to strip?" he thundered.
"Man, I ain’t doin’ a damn thing! We gon’ fight!" I answered.
"Well, you ain’t gettin’ no shower then!" he announced angrily and slammed the door shut.
Shower? What was this dude talking about? It never dawned on me that he worked there. He wore regular clothes. I just thought he was a guy.
Several days later, I was taken to the counselor’s office at the center, and a man began asking questions about who I was, why wasn’t I in school, and so forth. I explained to him that I was working for the Black Panther Party.
At one point he said, "Young man, don’t you know that we can keep you here until you’re 21-years-old?"
I looked him in the eye and said, "So what? When I get out, there’ll still be a Black Panther Party!"
He shook his head.
Moments later, he was dialing the phone to my mother’s house in Philadelphia, asked to verify her name, and passed the phone over to me:
"Wes—Is that you?"
"Boy—What did I hear this man sayin’—? Where are you?"
"I’m in Alameda County, Califor—"
"Cali—what? Boy, what are you doin’—? You better carry yho narrow behind—Boy? What in the Sam Hill—Cali-Whatt?!?!?!?!?"
"Mama—mama—I’m workin’ out here ona paper, for the Party—you know—"
"Boy—How long you been out California?"
"Yeah, Mom—I’m OK—"
"OK?—Didn’t I just hear this man say you was callin’ from some kinda jail--?"
"Mama—Mama—I’m in here for jaywalkin’—jaywalkin’! Out here they real strict about traffic laws…. I just crossed the street, and—"
" ‘Crossed the street?’—boy, you done crossed the whole country!—Wes—mph! Boy, if you don’t get yho bony behind back here—"
"Mama—Mama! I can’t, Mom—I can’t—I’m doing important work, Mom."
"Like gettin’ yhoself locked up, boy? How important is that?"
"Mama—It’s gonna be alright—we got lawyers out here that are real good—this ain’t nothin’ but harassment—when the last time you heard about somebody gettin’ busted for ‘jaywalkin,’ huh, Mom?"
"Boy—umph, umph, umph! Boy you somethin’ else, boy—I’m tellin’ you, Califor—! Umph, umph, umph! Boy, you are crazy, you know that, donchu?"
Her maternal fear was melting to pride that her boy was so aggressively doing something for our people. She was afraid. She was angry. But she was pleased as well. I could hear it in her voice, her high country laugh. She knew that I felt deeply about what I was doing.
As I listened to her pride and love override her fear, I thought about the many mothers like her; like Shelia’s mother, probably good, church-going (or temple-going) folks who were probably simpatico with the sweet teachings of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but who, deep down, were proud of the moxie shown by the Panthers. They might not help with the Breakfast Program. But when they read of us, or thought of us, in the private chambers of the heart, the mind, the soul, they admired us. Once I heard that tone in her voice, her deep sense of humor, I knew I was alright. Unlike perhaps thousands of youth throughout this vast state, I wasn’t here for robbery or rape. I wasn’t here for hurting my people. I wasn’t here for "crime." I was here for defending my people. I was here because I was a member of the Black Panther Party.
Within a few weeks, I was back out, no worse for wear.
I was out of jail and back in the swing of things. I was working on the paper, selling them and editing stuff coming in from all the branches and chapters across the country.
My boss, Editor Judi Douglass, seemed pleased with my work, and that pleased me. We worked hard to make the paper the best it could be.
This young Panther was home.
Copyright © 2004 by Mumia Abu-Jamal. Excerpted from "We Want Freedom: A Life In The Black Panther Party," published by South End Press. Reprinted with permission from South End Press.
Table of Contents
|photo of Mumia Abu Jamal|
|photo of Steven Todd Burroughs
from Research Channel