Ashanti Alston (Photo: Wikipedia)
Hartford, CT – November 21, 2006. On September 26th, 2006, Creating Local Autonomy and Solidarity in Hartford (the CLASH collective, all SDS/MDS members) held a panel discussion to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party. The event, held in Hartford’s African American North End included local former-Panthers as well as Ashanti Alston from New York City, also a former Prisoner of War of the Black Liberation Army, and is also know as the @narchist panther. You can read more of his writings and listen to other interviews with him @ http://www.anarchistpanther.net. .
As a side note, the event was our most successful ever, with about 50 people attending, about 90% of which was Black. Our success was the result of a mix of venue location, advertising over the period of a month (despite our limited capacities) and focusing on a topic that sparked wide interest (not to mention some strokes of good luck).
Matt McLaughlin: Tell me what your experience with mentors and elders in the Black Panther Party or BLA was.
Ashanti Alston: Well one, even getting started in the Black Panther Party before we became members, one of the good things that the Panthers would do, they would have Panthers come out to your home town and talk with you and sort of walk you through what it meant to be a Panther. So folks from New York, me bring from Jersey, they would come to my hometown and we would walk the streets in terms of learning outreach and stuff, how to talk to people and what not. And you would watch them, and this is like, on the street corners just like if it was in Hartford, it’d be on those street corners that had a reputation of being dangerous, the hustlers and all the other people, and you would watch how they talk with folks. And I always like the fact that they talked to folks just like regular people, and most of the time the Panthers that we knew we street people themselves, so the language was street. But it was street in a very political way. It was like a political language for street people.
And so we would watch them and they would pretty much put us in a situation to talk. And I remember how nervous I would be, and stuff like that, but then once you fumble a few times you get better at it, and that was the whole thing. And it’s the same thing learning how to do study groups, like each one teach one, you’d go around in a circle, they would do it, and then you would just participate, and you would just learn through participation. Later on when it was clear we wanted to start an office they would show us how to set an office up, what were the different positions – so you would learn that that was the person that would greet the public, someone coming in wanting to learn more about the Panthers, that’s the person that’s going to be at that front desk. And that was from either them coming to our home town or us going to visit Panther offices whether in Jersey, Jersey City, Newark, or going to Harlem, or going to the Bronx office and you learning like that. You get close to some Panthers so that becomes a part too, so there was particular Panthers that were our mentors. And one was named Kimu, and Kimu would just take us through so much, it was learning by example. You watch him, and you participate along with him.
In the Black Liberation Army, it’s pretty much the same thing. I didn’t know nothing about being underground; all the secret identity, all the other stuff, the weapons stuff. But there was Black Liberation Army soldiers that would take you through trainings, walk you through stuff, or even when it came time to do expropriations, it’s like I’m a burglar, I wasn’t one that dealt with weapons. So it’s like now, I’m doing expropriations and stuff, you’re learning something a lot more different, a lot more dangerous, but you’re with experienced people and you learn on the spot, you know, how to carry out expropriations. and we were always governed by Mao Tse-Tung’s 8 points of attention, 3 main rules of discipline, all which dealt with how to treat people. You always treat people with respect. So this was also something really unique with the panthers. Even when you was going into a nightclub or a bank establishment, you’re not mistreating people. It was the thing about being a guerrilla; you’re there for the people, so you don’t hurt people, you’re there to either collect moneys or whatever. So those who were more experienced walked you through it. And I like today that something I wish I could see more, like even for us who’ve been through the stuff, even if we could walk what it was like to organize. The Panther party was a 10-10-10 program. The 10-10-10 was that you organize 10 people, those 10 people organize 10, those 10 organize 10, and that was how you were to organize your neighborhood, everything.
But it was good. There was always people who walked you through it. There was readings and all the other stuff, but the key thing was when you walked through it you got to implement all these readings and other inspirations you had. You got to see how it worked and practiced.
m(A)tt: That’s interesting because, it seems one of the possible goals, it occurred to me as you were talking, for MDS, is just that, to spend that time with young organizers, and you know, pass tools along to them. Was there some kind of approach that the Panthers who took that role, was there a specific program on how they went about that that you are aware of?
AA: I’m not quite sure. I guess it came from reading, like what we knew about Huey Newton and Bobby Seale and them started, for example, Huey’s thing was like black people learn from observation and participation. And so, much of the way things was done in the party was observation and participation. There was always readings but everything was about, readings meant nothing if you didn’t put into practice to see if it actually worked, if it was practical, if it brought you something. And that was the style we learned from those Panthers we met to when we started to do our own thing on our own. Reading and stuff is good, but if you can get people to participate they’re going to learn more. And people seeing yu doing stuff is always a better way of getting your message across than to hand somebody something. I don’t know if there was any official training. Plus at the time that I got involved with the party, there was definitely changes from the way it began because of the repression and the levels of security that we had to go through that wasn’t there in the beginning. There was a lot of paranoia and stuff so we didn’t get to go through a full training that earlier Panthers went through.
m(A)tt: What has your experience been with working with primarily white student groups?
AA: In the Party, it wasn’t a lot, 90% of the work was in our communities, and then the whole underground experience was just a whole other story. Above ground what we was doing the community work, we did have relationships with antiwar activists, and our work with young white students was mainly in terms of alliances, didn’t really have a chance to build long term relationships. It was just like, we didn’t have time, we were just on the move. And because of the repression, a lot of us quickly went underground.
Coming out of prison, I think was where I had developed more closer relationships with young white activists. But at this time I’m also beginning to be considered to be the elder, this is even when I’m in my 40′s, they’re referring to me as elder. All of this stuff I learned in the Panther Party, it made us very open to developing relationships anybody who was about revolution, about changing. So I began to develop, pretty much for the first time, more long term relationships with young white activists. And I think the good thing about it was that I learned a lot in prison from the anarchism, to the other anti-authoritarian styles of working, relationships, but also heightened consciousness of racism, and the importance of anti-racism, where it helped me and others to develop better healthier relationships with young white activists, or white activists in general in terms of what’s healthy relationships between folks of different ethnicities from a racist environment, how does one deal with racism from being a white activist, or being a person of color activist. You realize you just cant act like it’s all okay. You gotta really confront the issues. I’ve learned methods with others on like how we can really talk about the issues. And that became very important because there was demos, marches, or other projects where we worked together that racism of white activists tended to come out , whether it was through control of resources, or just pushing an agenda that didn’t really reflect us and we would really have to fight to make sure they are not silencing us, or making us invisible. And I think I’ve been fortunate enough, especially with anti-authoritarian white activists who were open to that kind of interaction. I’m not saying it wasn’t still difficult. But I never got that from more the hierarchical ones, you know, they always had a set thing going, they got the right ideology, rather than figuring our what’s a healthy relationship. So today, you know, more so that back when I was a Panther, I have more long term relationships where they’ve been much more healthy, and where I’ve learned a lot more, and hopefully they’ve learned a lot from me and my experiences.
m(A)tt: In your more recent experience, since you got out of prison, what have the positive aspects of multiracial student groups, that have contributed to their success been?
AA: I think maybe there’s two things. One thing back in the Party they used that was really inspiring, was that when the Panthers did the Revolutionary Peoples Constitutional Convention, this was like 1970 I think, Philly or DD, this was supposed to have been this gathering of all the different revolutionary movements and groups from the black nationalists, to the Latinos, to the poor whites from the Appalachian mountains, the White Patriot Party, the White Panther Party, it was all these groups coming together, the workers groups, the women’s groups, and the idea was to rewrite the constitution, or to write a document that reflect this new revolutionary vision for the United States. It showed that we could figure out ways that we could work together. But one of the problems that I saw in reflection was the vanguard thing; it was like the Panthers initiated it, everybody was putting us up there as the vanguard, and we followed that, we became the vanguard. In the process, silencing others who didn’t agree with us.
Now my experience with learning since then, like being able to go to Mexico, and seeing how the Zapatistas construct things, create a space for others to come in, it shows me the importance of multiracial workings, whether its in alliances, coalitions, or organizations that feel like they just need to be multiracial. People still got to work out those same dynamics, whether it’s around race, class, gender. But in the process you’re working out a vision for a new society. You’re actually trying to work it out now, and in the way that you’re developing principles n the way you want to work. But I still see a need for groups that are like the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords, the Brown Berets, I think both have to exist, because of all the different dynamics. From the Combahee River Collective, which was a black feminist organization, it’s like there are some issues that need addressing through specifically issue-oriented organizations.
But, when there’s multiracial as well, we’re also breaking down those other barriers. If there’s other situations that allow us to connect, to work together, to share experiences, it helps to break down other barriers. So it’s like, both have to happen. Multiracial organizing has to happen, the same time the specific issue organizing has to happen. So I always see a need for organization that may specifically deal with organizing the black community, but at the same time those activists should always be actively developing relationships with other folks. And that’s a Panther thing, too. We’re one of the few groups that stood out in terms of willing to work with other folks. But the difficulty of multiracial tends to be when people avoid the tense issues, the emotional-packed issues around race, class, gender.
m(A)tt: What have you observed as effectively approaching those tense issues?
AA: Republican convention, not the last one, the one in Philly; the activism around shutting it down, the groups come together, so its close to the convention time, we meet in Philly. And already people of color were feeling like they were being silenced, so it’s like, when we go to Philly we need to address this and we need to make it an issue. The fact that there was this spokescouncil, you know, it meant a lot for me because you realized that this spokescouncil was one effective way for other voices traditionally silenced could be heard, and I witness that there, it’s like, white activists was kind of running the show, but when we came on the scene, we demanded attention, specifically the issues that concern people of color communities that weren’t being addressed. And there was a struggle. But it has to be a struggle, cuz you know, there’s a pattern here that has to be broken. And I listened to it, and I watched it and it was emotions on both sides to the point where people on both sides were just crying. But I’m like, okay, that’s what’s gotta happen. You know, struggle. It’s not this clean bourgeois thing, you know, it gets messy. But that’s struggle.
Out of that, some respect and some principles was laid down in terms of how the different groups had to relate, and I think it made for a much better, I’m positive it did, anti-republican convention project there. I mean, things really happened well, and people of color really felt respected at the end of that meeting. So that when the next day for people to go into action, it meant a lot in terms of the way people were allies towards each other, their courage in going into action, I think it meant a lot in all of that, because its like, not only in that you had to fight for it, you saw people were moving to challenge some of their old practices. And that told me that there are ways we can come together.
Organizationally, when its like a multiracial organization, I’m still not quite clear. I’m always searching for examples of what other organizations are doing, to make a multiracial organization function better. I’ll be on the Internet, and I’m listening to other people because that’s still a really difficult area. I just know that if people are not willing to talk about the things, around race, around class, which is the privilege thing, around gender, being willing to deal with issues around sexism and heterosexism, stuff like that, then this organization is going to have problems. It tends to be that the issues you avoiding speaking about, is the key issues. And it’s not whether you got the right analysis of the world situation, and all the other stuff. It’s how we relate to each other. All of us impacted by all the many oppressions that the society has put into us. There seems to be, for me, the key struggle is realizing that everything we’re fighting against is in us too. And that’s kind of like where the key struggle has to be. Because if we can relate to each other better, we’ve got power. We’ve got the power to change the world, because we’re not like reproducing this shit within our organizations.
m(A)tt: What are some good resources for organizations, like SDS, as a national organization, that is, and has the capacity to grow exponentially, to effectively challenge those things. not just on a chapter level, but on a national level. Because you’re going to have different chapters with different demographics. What are some good resources? A place to start.
AA: The place to start is the people who have been through the 60′s. I always think that’s the best place to start, is like where are folks at, and folks who are willing to share. And in that, I think people have to be careful not to put them on a pedestal, or to take everything that they say as just absolute truth. You’re taking it as this particularly person’s experience that may have some lessons in there for you. For many of us out of the Panther Party, my thing is, read the material, go get the books, but don’t forget that we’re still here. Whether on the streets or in the prisons. Primary resources should be come to us. And it would mean so much, even for us, to be involved in that way.
And then there are the books, things like that, that’s out. There’s so much great writings on the 60′s now. There’s till some growing on the Panthers, not as much as it needs to be, but on the 60′s movements, from the SDS to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Snick, all that period, there’s some great stuff out there, which is worth reading, because they get into how that time period, especially SDS and Snick, impacted people. And the thing that you see that becomes focal, people went into communities, and they began working in communities, and not only did they help to change the lives of people in the community, but it helped change the lives of the activists who went in there. Because even if we’re dealing with the South, a lot of the people going down there, Black and White not from the South, but whose lives changed because they were willing to give not only the information they had, but to give their lives and integrate their lives with others, and in the process they changed too.
There’s resources. So there’s like, people, there’s readings, and then maybe on another level too, there’s a lot of folks who have material resources that would make it available if they saw some serious organizers, especially youthful organizers, who are willing to, as we say, take the torch and run with it; who would make available land, moneys, space to organize, whatever. And many who have been in the movement, but now are just trying to make it. But if someone came to them, they’d be more than happy. And that just means us, particularly y’all, just getting out there, letting people know what you’re doing. Because some of us older are going to see it and start remembering what we were at that age doing the same thing, happy to know that somebody’s carrying this stuff on. You’ll probably more coming to you than you imagined. And then you have to be ready for it.
m(A)tt: Seems like one of the groups that offers good services in that respect is the Catalyst Project. Do you know any others along those lines?
AA: Highlander’s in Tennessee, offers a lot. Even though they’re Southern based. And even many of them are from the 60s too. Who else? I may not pull anything off top, but I’ll say who to beware of. [Open Society Institute], George Soros and them, cannot fund this revolution. They cannot. It may be enticing because it’s quick money. And many, many young activists go for it. And you watch’em over a period of time, and it’s like, the language changes, the original intentions change, the language of the original intentions change, and they don’t realize also, that in the effort to get this money, they have to give reports, they have to produce figures, which in a sense also becomes intelligence on the very communities that they’re part of, that goes to these foundations, which is available to FBI, anybody else who wants to know what’s going on on the ground.
m(A)tt: Kind of getting back to what you were saying about Snick, the experience of Northerners working in the South, you think there’s a parallel with that, with what we’re seeing with the New Orleans social movements today, particularly the Common Ground Collective.
AA: There’s dangers, there’s dangers that’s worth being aware of. For example if you take common ground, you got Malik Rahim, former member of the Black Panther party who’s initiated that. It’s a desperate situation, and I’m sure when Malik put that call out, he’s open arms to anyone who comes. Of course those who are most able to come are those who have the privilege to come. So you’re getting a lot of young white activists coming, they’re coming to work though. But, classic, they come with certain tendencies that are racist tendencies. But the good thing about it is that when people recognized it, like this was going to be problems on some levels, other anti-racist activist, other white anti-racist activists, offered their services in terms of coming down and doing special trainings with these young white activists, in terms of being aware of tendencies, patterns that can reproduce when you come to do a good thing. And I was happy to hear that. And that’s different from the 60′s because I don’t think that type of thing happened. maybe we didn’t have that kind of understandings and them tools, but they’re definitely here now.
But on a deeper level, it’s one of the things that Malcolm and others would always say, in fact I think it’s just accurate, that white folks who really wanted to help the struggle should organize in their own communities. And today, you see basically the same thing. A lot of white activists will come to, for example New York. From Minneapolis and all these other places, to work in a community of color. And we’re like, yeah, but there’s racism in the white community. How come nobody’s willing to take that work on? Why are you romanticizing us? And we can do this work in our communities. We need to figure out a better relationship. But your work should be in the communities that you know. But if a person’s been in a community ten, fifteen years, and you’re a part of it, then you need to do it the same way that they did in the South, you need to really integrate your life into this community.
But the pattern keeps repeating, and it means that the work in the white communities is not being done because everybody’s leaving. And I think it’s because, yeah, you recognize it’s very hard. And not only very hard, but it’s very dangerous, for you young white activists to go into your own neighborhood and say Â‘listen, we’ve got to deal with racism, we’ve gotta deal with neo-liberalism, anti-colonialism, whatever.’ And you know that could be very dangerous. But it’s dangerous for us, there’s all kinds of different dangers. But at some point we really do need to push it, push it, that white activists cannot just keep coming to our communities.
The arrogant ones are from the more hierarchical groups who come, and I think it’s just a form of racism, they’re gonna come with an already-made ideology and a plan, and they’re gonna tell us Â‘this is the only way that you can be free, or you can effect change, revolutionary change in your life. Here’s the program. Here’s the way that it can go.’ And for me, I don’t want to even deal with it, get out of my face, in fact, get out of my community. And I would love to even get to the point where we even stopped them from coming to events in our community, pushing that kind of racist dialogue. Don’t tell us that this one guy, who made this analysis a hundred years ago, is the basis of your freedom. Like we don’t have brains, we can’t analyze. But I can at least appreciate more the anti-authoritarian white folks who at least come conscious that they come with racism, but are trying to also be accountable and aware, constantly, at least in trying. But still, the thing is like, someone’s got to do the work in the white communities. You can’t just keep coming to ours.
m(A)tt: Going off of that, it seems like in the situations where maybe the best, or at least the most interesting multiracial work, where whites come into people of color communities, is emergency type-situations, such as New Orleans. Or the voter-registration campaigns in the South, things like that. In your experience, is there someone who’s really nailed that down, looking at those emergency-type situations, and really dissecting them, working on a theory on that, and how to kind of approach that in more of a methodical way than just kind of a haphazard way it sometimes is?
AA: As far as I know, no. But this is very interesting. Because that sounds like a worthwhile project pursuing in terms of a worthwhile intellectual work to see just how that might go. It makes me think though, one of the things I like about my experiences in Chiapas in observing the Zapatista struggle is that, the role of the international observers. The Zapatistas are very clear that these international observers is white folks, in general. And what it means to the Mexican government to have these international white folks, observing, being in these Zapatista communities, and not wanting anything to happen to them that would give the government a bad rep. And the Zapatistas see that as a way of also providing a level of protection to their communities. Because as long as these observers is there, the government is going to be very careful about what they do. And it gives the Zapatistas the space to develop their community, they bases. And I always wonder how that would work here.
What would it mean, what would it be, what would it look like, if there’s certain emergency situations here, like Hartford, some family’s getting evicted, and they refuse to leave, and the police are getting read to do their number, and all of a sudden there’s all these white folks who show up with cameras, and everything, and be some kind of presence. What would it look like? Could it stop a potentially dangerous situation, where you know that if nobody else is around the police may just get them out with them guns. Just start firing in there and claim anything.
I sometimes imagine what if some armed group gets cornered somewhere in the United States, and I’m not even talking about terrorists, but a Black armed group, and the house is surrounded the FBI, police is just going to shoot the house up, like how they did with the Symbionese Liberation Army, or how they did MOVE. And what if white activists just started showing up in numbers? It looks bad, for them, then to do something, because eyes are on them. And eyes that are very important, because now you’re playing on the skin color. It’s white eyes on you too. Maybe those kind of situations, they could be helpful. And you know it’s temporary, you know you’re not staying; I’m here to provide some real emergency help.
But, even what you said, that gives me stuff to think about. I would probably google, because, I love to google, to see if anybody has done things right. Because I really believe we still need to do a lot of readings. And there are people looking at these situations differently that offer some really important thinkings on how we might need to struggle better. We’re dealing with situation that yeah, in some ways is the same, but in a lot of ways there’s nuances. There’s very different levels of surveillance and control, and the role of the media, it doesn’t stay the same, it advances, it evolves too. So as activists we gotta like is there other things we could be doing to be more effective, instead of just repeating the same stuff.