Marilyn Buck (1947-2010)

The Certain Days collective was deeply saddened to hear of Marilyn Buck’s passing on August 3, 2010, just days after the 2011 calendar went to print.

Marilyn, a long-time political prisoner and acclaimed poet and translator, passed peacefully, surrounded by friends at the Brooklyn home of her attorney and long-time close friend, Soffiyah Elijah. A few short weeks earlier, on July 15, Marilyn had been released from the federal Bureau of Prisons medical facility in Carswell, Texas and paroled to New York City. She was 62.

Marilyn served a total of 33 years of an 80-year prison sentence for politically motivated actions undertaken in support of self-determination and national liberation and in opposition to racial injustice and U.S. imperialism. Throughout her years in prison, Marilyn remained a steadfast supporter of fellow political prisoners and an advocate for the women with whom she was imprisoned. Visit marilynbuck.com to read more about Marilyn’s inspiring life and work.

In her own words: “I am also a strong advocate to free political prisoners/POWs and also to take on the U.S. prison plantation system. Being a political prisoner is not my only work. I think it is wasteful and short-sighted to relegate political prisoners to only working around themselves. Just because we are prisoners does not mean that we have lost our reasoning, analytical powers. We still have a world views based on long years of experience. Too many, even in our political movements would prefer to relegate us to museum pieces, objects of campaigns perhaps, but not political subjects and comrades in an ongoing political struggle against imperialism, oppression, and exploitation. The state tries to isolate us, true; that makes it all the more important not to let it succeed in its proposition. We fight for political identity and association from here; it is important that political forces on the outside not lose sight of why the state wants to isolate and destroy us, and therefore fight to include us in political life — ideological struggle, etc. In many struggles many militants have been exiled yet they have still been considered part of their struggles, not merely objects. We, we here, could be considered internally exiled. Don’t lock us into roles as objects or symbols.”

Wild Poppies
by Marilyn Buck

I remember red poppies, wild behind the school house
I didn’t want to be there, but I loved to watch the poppies

I used to sit in the window of my room, sketching charcoal trees
what happened to those magnolia trees, to that girl?

I went off to college, escaped my father’s thunderstorms
Berkeley. Rebellion. Exhilaration!

the Vietnam war, Black Power, Che took me to Chicago
midnight lights under Wacker Dr. Uptown. South Side. Slapped
by self-determination for taking Freedom Wall photos
without asking

on to California, driving at 3:00 in the morning in the mountains,
I got it: what self-determination means
A daunting task for a young white woman, I was humbled

practice is concrete … harder than crystal-dream concepts

San Francisco, on the front steps at Fulton St.
smoking reefer, drinking “bitterdog” with Black Panthers and white
hippie radicals, talking about when the revolution comes

the revolution did not come. Fred Bennett was missing
we learned he’d been found: ashes, bones, a wedding ring
but later there was Assata’s freedom smile

then I was captured, locked into a cell of sewer water
spirit deflated. I survived, carried on, glad to be
like a weed, a wild red poppy,
rooted in life

Originally published in Rescue the Word. Available on the CD Wild Poppies from freedomarchives.org.

In her final days, despite her illness, Marilyn took the time to send this article for the 2011 Certain Days: Freedom for Political Prisoners Calendar. We are honoured that she kept the calendar and the freedom struggle in her heart and mind until the end. Because we received the article after going to print, we have included it here.

Alternatives While Waiting: Self-Reliance
by Marilyn Buck

Originally written for Critical Resistance

A community’s people, with their creative energy and labour, are the greatest resource it has, but an increasing number, mostly young, are MIA, in graves or prisons, into which so many rush obliviously when they act out Hollywood-constructed desires, images, and stereotypes to “make it” in the midst of still-white supremacist and hierarchical America. Far too many have embraced the 30 years of culturally-contrived amnesia that has mis-educated them to believe in the very system that exiles them to the cages. Valuable human beings – community residents, who could have and should have been the teachers, nurses, doctors, mechanics, public servants, and builders of their communities are disappeared.

Among the disappeared and exiled, many haven’t been formally educated or taught to read well, having dropped out or been driven out of the faltering California school systems, weakened both by funding and a general disregard for and animosity towards the children of the working and underemployed classes, particularly when Black, Latino, or Asian. There are a few, if any, educational or rehabilitation-geared programs within prisons. On a recent KPFA radio program, a freed elder pointed out that many of California’s prisons are on lock-down at any given time, meaning that the few programs that do exist, however reluctantly and apathetically, do not function much of the time.

In the prison charnel houses, forgetfulness or oblivion settles like quicklime on the spirit, intelligence and bodies of exiled and illegalized young people. A sense of responsibility to the community is replaced with rage, and beneath any posturing, despair, self-mutilation, and suicide.

Alternatives? To re-imagine communities with the resources to educate children, to provide work with sufficient income, to get drugs and the weapons of collective suicide out, to make the streets safe again for children, elders and the young women and men. This is similar to the 10-point program the old Black Panther Party called for, a program that in slightly different manifestations is still understood world-wide as necessary for community and nations’ health and well-being for peace and justice.

It’s never too later to learn, to get educated or develop the social or political conscience necessary to challenge the systematic social genocide of our communities. No one has to stay lost; no one is not subject to change. The question is: will you change yourself, have a hand in your destiny and development, or will you accept the changes forced at you by the prison systems’ dog-eat-dog programming that wants you to become a gladiator and a puppet?

There are many who are looking for ways to break such a decimating cycle. Meanwhile, what? The prisoner’s alternative is not to wait for alternatives and social change from the outside, but to begin a process of reconstruction on the inside.

To be a builder, or to be a demolisher, those are the choices. It’s easy to demolish, to destroy. You can be a one-man or a 100-man wrecking crew, but to build you have to become a bricklayer, willing to dig foundations, willing to take care of your neighbourhood and work with others. It means being humble and giving back because when you left you took a whole lot of human and community potential with you. It means learning what you need to know. Find a teacher, no matter whether they wear your colours, are your colour, or are low on the ladder of that peculiar prison concept of “respect.” (Prison culture doesn’t really give any prisoner true respect, or better-said, dignity; the man is still pulling the strings.) If you can’t earn a skill you want where you are (like being a doctor or an environmental engineer), learn all you can about the world. Learn about other societies; learn about communities’ fight for self-reliance and self-determination. Learn Spanish, or English, or Chinese. Or history. The more you study about the world, the better able you will be to see where you are and can go in the world. Choose to be on the side of the people who are not the greedy rulers and bosses.

Of course it’s easier to succumb to the haters who want to decimate your community, and to hang with those who participate in the suicide of their own communities through ignorance and individualism. Reignite your creativity and imagination that you may have put aside when you were 14 or that was discouraged in school. There is enough war from without, end the wars from within. Nothing can be build during a civil war, and certainly nothing can be defended from the war from without, without skills, knowledge and dignity of connection to and love for your community. Become a warrior for reconstruction.

Set a premium on education. No one can ever take it from you. Ultimately, knowledge and skills are more valuable than gold and SUVs, or anything you may have possessed for a few brief moments in life, before prison became your home with its prolonged lesson in absence.

Update! Calendar contributor FREED

Dear friends and allies… Here is an English translation of a recent article which appeared in the alternative paper “El Zenzontle” (www.elzenzontle.org) about the recent release of ex-ERPI militants and founders Jacobo Silva Nogales and Gloria Arenas Agís after 10 years of imprisonment in Mexico for their political work. Their freedom comes as a huge victory for those struggling for justice everywhere. Please feel free to forward widely!

For a complete overview of their struggle in Spanish, read:

*My heart is still with the ERPI, although now I’m with the social movement:
Jacobo Silva Nogales. Who is being repressed?: Gloria Arenas Agís*

In a press conference organized by the Collective Against Torture and Impunity (CCTI), the now ex-political prisoners, Gloria Arenas Agís and Jacobo Silva Nogales, declared they would continue in the struggle for human rights and for the freedom of other political prisoners.

Gloria, dressed in simple white cotton blouse, after thanking the CCTI, the Other Campaign and all those who fought for her freedom, reminded those in attendance that she was incarcerated in October of 1999 while she, along with her life partner Jacobo, was a member of the Insurgent Peoples´ Revolutionary Army (ERPI). Both were let out of prison on the 28th and the 29th of this October. Now both are free.

After 10 years of a social and legal struggle, Gloria Arenas confirmed that freedom came as a surprise while she was awaiting the approval of the latest legal recourse and at more than a year of having completed a 9 year sentence for the act of rebellion (for which both were condemned).

She spoke of the existence of a social movement that has suffered many blows though continues without fear or terror and a country whose situation is more difficult than it was 10 years ago. She maintained her deep commitment to other political prisoners, “though they hit me again in the future”, because when they [she and Jacobo] were prisoners, “they were free and stood in solidarity with us, like Ignacio del Valle. Without regard for the
particular organization, we have a serious commitment with all of them”.

Jacobo said that after 10 years of being imprisoned in maximum security prisons “there is disinterest from some sectors about the prison conditions which violate human rights”. There are murders that go unpunished, Silva presented a penal denouncement of the case of a murder of a prisoner at the hands of prison guards, “but it was never investigated and nothing happened”. He lived under those very prison conditions without even being
able to look at himself in a mirror. “They are wounds to your dignity… We’re not allowed to read any newspaper or magazine. In La Palma, in Matamoros, we’re not allowed to read newspapers and there is no possibility of family members bringing us books”. This causes us to undergo depersonalization, I’m not sure if I’m a victim of it, but “it’s possible”, affirmed Jacobo, who is also a painter. In some of us it’s easier to see than in others. Despite everything, it’s possible to get out. In our case, we got out. “This popular movement not only fought for our freedom, it also gave us back hope”. ” It also made us want to get out to share new forms of struggle… Prison is an external and internal exile and permits one to find
what one never realized one had”. “Without ever having painted, one paints.

Perhaps writing, one can survive the loneliness. Also taking up one’s own defense… It’s another route to find one’s way out”.

Far from the stern expression of the man who was known as comandante Antonio of the ERPI, Jacobo emotionally said: “No price can be placed on what you’ve done for us. I thank so many of you, my family, Marcos, all types of organizations… There is hope for the rest of the prisoners, because we’re neither the only ones nor the most important ones. Now we must fight for them”.

The once Coronela Aurora, Gloria, affirmed that legally speaking, it was unsustainable to keep them in prison. “If the social movement had been terrorized, we would not have gotten out”.

Jacobo Silva said that accusing them of a non-punishable act, referring to the act of rebellion, was very stupid. “The authorities did the ridiculous”. Stating that the complaint about torture that he presented before the Interamerican Human Rights Commission would be irrefutable, he confirmed that the same would happen in 10 months from now as was happening now, their freedom. In response to a question, Jacobo declared: “Before we had arms to fight, now we have the arms of reason and of art… Our incorporation will be easy. We arrived at a moment of struggle and we can contribute something there. It will be easier to incorporate ourselves after returning from exile, after having been dead”.

“We were accused of homicide and attempted homicide. If we hadn’t been rebels, this would be a crime. That part of article 37 permitted us to declare ourselves as rebels. Even the State had to recognize us as such. In terms of the charge of rebellion, we never argued against it. When they asked me what my occupation was, I answered, “a guerrilla”. Or when the prison doctor asked me why I was there, I said: “well, I was neglectful and they captured me”, explained the former guerrilla leader of the ERPI in simple terms.

Before a full room in the Journalists’ Club (Club de Periodistas), Nogales Silva declared: “With respect to armed struggle, we were guerillas for a long time. How long? A long time. For that reason, they sent me with the dangerous prisoners. And to the prison doctor, I would say that I had all the right to be a rebel and I had nothing to apologize for. And if I wanted to reincorporate myself in the guerrilla movement I would do it because I don’t have to answer to anybody”.

“My heart is with the guerrillas, my heart is with the ERPI, with the EZLN… and with many others whose names are not even known. But now we’re obligated to be in another kind of jungle, and you all are the trees and amongst you I camouflage myself. I still consider all forms of struggle to be valid. Because of our circumstances we are best suited to be part of the popular struggle… but I haven’t stopped being with my compañeros”.

Jacobo continued speaking about torture: In this country, there continues to be torture. In this very moment they are torturing someone. Its not because of resentment but we can’t let it happen to others. That’s our obligation. Two of the disappeared, one of whom was an EPR [Revolutionary Popular Army] leader, they tortured him until death. It wouldn’t be difficult for someone who has military knowledge to take revenge… but this isn’t about
resentment, it’s about justice”.

Always with one hand on top of the other, the once comandante Antonio explained: “It was probable that upon our release they would re-apprehend us”, with the possibility of charging them with new crimes. “We are guerrillas, our only crime is rebellion. We have nothing to deny. They can attack us in other manners. That’s how the state is…”

About prison, he returned to the theme of impunity: “I came to know people who tortured, people who were involved in the October 2nd [1968] massacre… It was a river of blood. He told me that he was soaked with blood because he had to drag bodies. The State doesn’t make exceptions, the white glove is of no use. I came to know people who participated in the death flights (vuelos de la muerte)… No one has complete security. No one. With respect to other groups, 10 years ago, a death sentence was proclaimed against us, in particular against me [on behalf of the EPR, after the split which formed the ERPI], but now we don’t know [the status of that]… So this means that security doesn’t exist. There isn’t security but we’re proud of having done what was most appropriate. So come what may, its welcome”.

Arenas, the other now ex-political prisoner, questioned why of 26 cases of repression that she studied, 23 were carried out against the pacific social movement. “So… who is being repressed? The pacific social movement.”

During the press conference organized by the CCTI, Silva Nogales became introspective: “Freedom…freedom… A sweet word. The mere ability to hear the voice of a child, the ability to touch the hand of someone who appreciates you… without being aware that they are filming you, like now [laughs heard from the crowd]… it’s beautiful to be amongst people. You all don’t see each other as beautiful because you see each other every day…It’s beautiful to be able to walk. It doesn’t bother me that people greet me, now I want hugs and hugs and greetings until they tire me. Now children don’t bother me, even if they’re crying… Freedom is the greatest thing. And as part of that freedom, the right to want to change things… That’s freedom. But sometimes the cost of wanting to exercise freedom is to
lose it. We lived that. And not for the fear of losing it will we give up exercising it… Enjoy it… It’s very beautiful”.

Of course, at the end of the conference, there were hugs, hugs and more hugs.

Alan Berkman, ex-Political Prisoner; AIDS Activist & Doctor

September 4, 1945 – June 5, 2009

Alan Berkman passed away on June 5, 2009, at the age of 63, but his towering contributions to the struggle and humanity live on.

Alan’s activism went back to the 1960s and upon completing medical school he headed down to Alabama to set up a clinic for a medically neglected Black community in one of the poorest counties in the country. When the Attica prison rebellion erupted in September, 1971, Alan went there to treat the prisoners. During the 1973 Native American occupation of Wounded Knee, he and his wife Barbara Zeller, M.D., sneaked through the government blockade to provide medical care for the people there.

In the 1980s, Alan was charged with treating, and not reporting, a militant wounded during the Brink’s armored truck expropriation (robbery for political reasons). He went underground and in 1985 was captured, with multiple charges as part of the “resistance conspiracy” case. While in jail awaiting trial, Alan started what was probably the first prisoners’ peer education effort on AIDS. He ended up doing eight years as a political prisoner.

In jail, he discovered he had symptoms that indicated cancer. If it had been left to the jail’s doctor, Alan would not have been diagnosed or treated. Thanks to his knowledge and a strong campaign by outside supporters, he got the medical care needed to save his life. Alan battled cancer, with something like seven recurrences, over the next 20 years – but oh what he did with those 20 years, including medical support for political prisoners, an AIDS practice in the South Bronx and, naturally, being a loving husband, father, and grandfather. Most notably in 1998 Alan was a prime mover in the initiative to make the drugs that treat HIV available in the third world. Back then, virtually no one in the poor countries was getting these prohibitively expensive treatments. The conventional wisdom, even among AIDS activists such as myself, as that there was no way to achieve that goal. Alan launched Health GAP (Global Awareness Program) and a major, multi-faceted campaign; he also worked as a direct medical consultant to help set up programs in several of those countries. Today, 3-million-and-growing AIDS patients in the third world are receiving these life-saving medications and the struggle to expand that coverage to the millions more who need it continues.

Alan, delightful
dancing to defy death and
sow life for millions

david gilbert, 12/17/09


by Alvaro Luna Hernandez
(A supplement to the 2010 calendar on Indigenous Resistance)

The 1519 European colonial conquest and annihilation of Mexico’s Aztec tribe resulted in a forced European culture, religion and the assimilation of the natives as “Spanish-speaking indians.” The Aztecs had resisted the invasion and continued to struggle against the tyranny of the Spanish invader, who destroyed Aztec civilization, stole its riches and erected institutions in Spain’s own image. To this day, there are still many indigenous, autonomous communities in Southern and Central Mexico that survived the pillage by Spain. These tribes have retained their heritage and native language NAHUATL, among other indian dialects native to the region. Indigenous leaders have always sparked rebellions against Spanish rule. One such revolt led to Mexico’s independence from Spain in September 16, 1821. Mestizo, or “mixed blood,” warriors have been catalysts of guerrilla wars of resistance to reclaim their stolen lands, and demand respect for their culture and for basic human rights. Warriors such as Cuahutemoc, Emiliano Zapata and Benito Juarez led armed struggles to resist the invasion, for agrarian land reform, for cultural rights and for self-determination of Mexico’s indigenous peoples in the 19th century.

Chicanos, Mexicanos, or Mexican Americans, are direct descendants of the indigenous Aztec blood lineage. The Aztces had its genesis in the north, in what is now Southwest United States, their legendary birthplace named “AZTLAN.” Aztecs had a spiritual divine vision ordained by a prophecy to journey South until they saw an Eagle perched on a cactus, devouring a serpeant. At such sighting, they were to build their civilization. The vision appeared to them in a small islet in the middle of a huge lake where Mexico City sits today. The Aztecs drained the body of water and began to construct their nation-state millions of years ago. The magnificent Aztec pyramids still stand today, incomparable to any other archaeological site in North America, as a testament to the mighty Aztec empire. That Aztec vision represents the symbol of what is the Mexican flag of today.

In the history of indigenous civilizations, the Aztecs made enormous contributions to the sciences. Many unearthed codicies, stone monuments and glyphs, such as the Sun Calendar, have been preserved. These glyphs predicted the apocalyptic doom of the Aztces, but their prophetic rise in the coming Fifth Sun, or El Quinto Sol, yet to arrive. Hundreds of Aztec sites await discovery, such as the artifacts discovered in 1968 dating back to 800 B.C. in El Pantano in Central Mexico. These discoveries refute the negative myths and lies perpetuated by the apologists of Euro¬Amerikkkan colonialism that the Aztecs were “barbarians.” The lie that Columbus “discovered America” and the falsification of history were created solely to serve the colonial powers and to justify these crimes against humanity, as FRANTZ FANON eloquently described it in his book THE WRETCHED OF THE EARTH.

Following in the murderous footsteps of European colonialism, in the early 1800’s a mass exodus of white colonial settlers departed Jamestown, Virginia, Amerikkka’s first colony, and moved South. It was sponsored by the U.S. government’s colonial expansionism, rooted in its racist ideological doctrines of race superiority, Manifest Destiny and Christian Doctrine of “just war,” as later institutionalized in U.S. Supreme Court decisions such as the infamous Dred Scott case, declaring that people of color were less than human and had no rights white society was bound to respect. The colonists invaded the Mexican State of Coahuila-Tejas, sovereign territory of Mexico. Mexico had outlawed slavery during this time period. The settlers were fierce advocates of the institution of slavery. They hungered for more land to impose their colonial rule against all peoples of color, as they had done to the Powhatan Indians in Jamestown. The settler’s revolt led to the division of Coahuila-Tejas into the “Republic of Texas” in 1836. The bloody battles at the Alamo and San Jacinto record that painful history for La Raza.

The U.S. government’s war on indigenous peoples of the Americas, and against the “Spanish-speaking indians,” encompassed the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, which resulted in numerous massacres, lynchings and land theft of over 50% of Mexico’s national territory, ending with the illegal Gadsen Treaty Purchase of 1854. The colonial military annexation of the Mexican homeland set the international boundry between said countries at the Rio Grande River. Despite the existence of international treaties, such as the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the war, it was but another invalid and treacherous treaty forced on the Mexican people under military coercion, at the point of a gun and the threat of further invasion of the entire Mexican territory by the U.S. war machine. These treaties violate all international human rights laws and customs and constitute genocide and crimes against humanity that have gone unpunished. Such has been the tradition of the U.S. government, territorially comprised of a nation of imprisoned internal colonies, in all directions, including the Black internal colony in the South. Colonial racism was institutionalized in the occupied territories.

In contemporary times, Chicano/a activists embraced a distinctly revolutionary nationalism and indigenous identity as native peoples of the Americas. Such identity was popularized by leaders of the militant Chicano Movement such as Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales of The Crusade For Justice in Denver, Colorado. in his epic poem “I AM JOAQUIN.” And in the rallying call for Chicano socialist revolution articulated in the “SPIRITUAL PLAN OF AZTLAN,” a founding document of the 1968 Chicano Youth Liberation Conference in Denver. The Aztlan Plan called for the overthrow of the European-Yankee foreign invaders, the embracing of Chicano Indigenous Identity as “Mestizos,” for self-determination and for an independent Mestizo Nation in the occupied territories of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and Wyoming. Since the occupation many Chicano Mexicano resistance fighters and clandestine groups have emerged to wage guerrilla war against the U.S. government, the likes of Joaquin Murieta, Tiburcio Vasquez, Juan Cortina, Gregorio Cortez, Las Gorras Blancas, and the 1915 armed uprising in San Diego, Texas, that produced the “PLAN OF SAN DIEGO” calling for self-determination and independence of the occupied territories. The San Diego Plan called on Blacks in the South to join the armed struggle for their own national liberation from slavery and for the creation of their own New Republic of Africa in the South. It was violently repressed by the government. This celebration of Chicano revolutionary history and of its rich tradition of militancy continues today by groups such as the student MOVIMIENTO ESTUDIANTIL CHICANO DE AZTLAN (MECHA), Union del Barrio, Barrio Defense Committee, and the non-governmental organization the International Indian Treaty Council.

On January 1, 1994, shots fired in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, were heard all over the world, reminding us of the ongoing struggles of indigenous peoples in the Americas, in resisting the tyranny of oppressive governments. On that historic day, the ZAPATISTA ARMY OF NATIONAL LIBERATION, or EJERCITO ZAPATISTA DE LIBERACION NACIONAL, with Sub-Commandante Marcos at the helm, initiated an indigenous armed uprising, seized control of municipal governments and declared “free, liberated zones” in Chiapas, in defense of indigenous rights to land, to freedom, for elemental human rights, being trampled upon by the Mexican government. The uprising proclaimed revolutionary solidarity with all other oppressed Red Nations, and other peoples subjugated by colonialism and imperialism around the world. The EJERCITO ZAPATISTA was comprised mainly of indigenous tribes. They were an inspiration to all freedom and justice-loving peoples of the world, partcularly Youth, much like the Cuban Revolution had been.

It is this indigenous revolutionary solidarity manifested by the ZAPATISTAS that must be forged in alliances with the many oppressed peoples of the world, indigenous and otherwise, oppressed by tyrannical governments, not only in the Americas but around the world as well. The movement for indigenous rights must be inseparably linked with the movement to free all political prisoners, pows, such as Leonard Peltier, Oscar Lopez Rivera, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Sundiata Acoli, Russell “Maroon” Shoats, Jalil Muntaqim, Jaan Laaman, David Gilbert, Herman Bell Robert Seth Hayes, Marilyn Buck, and many others, currently imprisoned in the U.S. as a result of opposition to the crimes of U.S. colonialism and imperialism, freedom fighters that come from diverse anti-imperialist movements. This movement must incorporate all forms of struggle/ in the streets, in the classrooms, in prison, and united front actions must take place that will awaken the conscience of the world, as it relates to the movement to free all U.S. political prisoners.

Our cases must be brought before World Human Rights Organizations, U.S. Congressional Committees, including pushing for the re-opening of COINTELPRO hearings in the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, a special petition to the new Obama administration, and the forging of alliances with all other progressive countries and movements from around the world, commensurate with the power of the people that freed Nelson Mandela. These actions for 2010, launched by the Native Youth Movement in Mexico in February 2009. must culminate with events on December 10th, International Human Rights Day, and protests at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, in support of Six Nations, First Nations and Mohawk Indian’s rights to sovereignty, and to protest the Canadian and U.S. government’s refusal to support the United Nations Declaration on The Rights Of Indigenous Peoples! RED NATIONS, UNITE! PATRIA 0 MUERTE! DEATH TO COLONIALISM, IMPERIALISM! LA LUCHA CONTINUA! FREE ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS, POWS! VENCEREMOS!

BPP community programs

by Dan Berger
(A supplement to the 2008 calendar on the Legacy of the Panthers)

At the time and all the more so since, popular perception of the Black Panthers revolves around revolvers. But this violence-laden image misses the group’s substance. The multifaceted community programs made the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense such a success—and target—after its 1966 founding. Both the programs and the repression expanded after the party became a national, even international, phenomenon in 1968.

Formed in the cauldron of cities wracked with poverty and seething with anger, the Black Panthers attempted to meet people’s immediate needs while building for revolutionary change. Out of the politics of Malcolm X, the armed defense of Robert Williams, and the urgency of the call for Black Power, the Panthers fashioned a strategy for self-determination rooted in the demands of Black communities. Support for the Panthers blossomed quickly, from one chapter and a dozen people to hundreds of chapters, tens of thousands of members, and millions of supporters worldwide.

Each chapter was involved in addressing the issues plaguing Black communities: poor housing, inadequate education, drug infestation, street and traffic safety in densely populated Black neighborhoods. Although the programs differed in strength and vitality based on chapter, typical projects included breakfast to children programs, health clinics (especially testing for sickle cell anemia), childcare centers, clothing distribution centers, community education courses, legal services, aid to seniors, and transportation to and from prisons for people to visit their incarcerated loved ones. Steeped in socialism, the Panthers offered these programs for free.

Participation in these programs was expected of every Panther. “The average Panther rose at dawn and retired at dusk and did whatever job needed to be done to keep the programs going for the people, from brothers and sisters cooking breakfast for the school kids, to going door-to-door to gather signatures for petitions, to gathering clothes for the free clothing program, to procuring donated supplies from neighboring merchants,” wrote Mumia Abu-Jamal in his history of the group.

Beyond sustenance, Panther programs proved a source of inspiration, radicalization, and participation. Along with the Panthers’ nationally distributed newspaper, these programs proved successful in winning the hearts and minds of Black communities across the country. This brand of revolutionary social(ist) service influenced Native American, Puerto Rican, Mexican, poor white, and Asian American groups in the United States. Its success, its appeal, and its radical vision of autonomy for America’s oppressed also captured the state’s hostility. Repression and infighting closed many chapters. In each case, however, chapters maintained their community programs until the very end.

Fred Hampton, the dynamic Chicago Panther leader who was 21 when police murdered him in his sleep, described the political potential of the programs in a 1969 speech. “A lot of people think it is charity, but what does it do? It takes the people from a stage to another stage. Any program that’s revolutionary is an advancing program. Revolution is change. Honey, if you just keep on changing, before you know it, in fact, not even knowing what socialism is, you don’t have to know what it is, they’re endorsing it, they’re participating in it, and they’re supporting socialism.”

It was this practice of Black self-determination that made the Black Panther Party so threatening—and so liberating. This dedication to “serve the people” informs the organizing work ex-Panthers still do, whether in communities or in prisons, to meet people’s needs and mentor a new generation struggling for freedom.

Dan Berger is a writer, activist, and grad student in Philadelphia. He is the author of Outlaws of America: the Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity, co-editor of Letters From Young Activists, and a member of the NYC-based anti-imperialist collective Resistance in Brooklyn.