Reading Mumia Abu-Jamal’s We Want Freedom: A Life in The Black Panther Party (2016) felt like embarking on an extensive and enriching conversation with a respected friend; page after page, I experienced an unfolding story, told by Abu-Jamal himself, about his life, the life of his peers in the Black Panther Party, and the vast knowledge he holds about the Party in relation to histories of Black resistance and existence in the United States. We Want Freedom was written from a barren cell in a Pennsylvania prison, where Abu-Jamal has been confined since 1982. Through podcasts and various other publications, Abu-Jamal has acted as an activist behind bars, delivering to audiences important and difficult truths about America’s prison system and what it means to be a brown or black person in the United States, among other issues. We Want Freedom is one of the latest of his publications and draws upon his master’s degree thesis at California State University in which he places the Black Panther Party in the context of an incredibly long duration of resistance against the imperial American State and the violence done onto black Americans. Abu-Jamal’s decision to reflect upon the Black Panther Party was no easy task; communicating his own experiences and the experiences of his community was and remains challenging when the dominant rhetoric promoted by the American government and media has shredded the idea of black nationalism, casting the Black Panther Party in a violent, reckless, and confusing light. Abu-Jamal succeeds in recrafting the memories of the Black Panther Party, serving to honor the sheer commitment, nuanced complexities, and incredible body of passionate people that composed the party in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.
Abu-Jamal joined the Party at the age of fifteen. Like a vast majority of Panthers, he was only a teenager when he was compelled to commit his life to the Party and join a movement that strove to invoke a revolution of black resistance to State violence and oppression. One of the Party’s founders and the man whom the party was often referred to as belonging to, Huey Newton, drew upon the texts of Malcolm X, Mao Zedong, and other revolutionaries to educate himself and the growing number of Panthers. Newton sought out a constituency that internalized the Party’s mission of unprecedented commitment to the movement. The Panthers, Abu-Jamal describes, were deeply troubling to the white psyche, rendering them quite different from many other black liberation groups of the era. Unlike Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other nonviolent activists advocating for racial justice, the Panthers choose to militarize and meet state violence with violence. The Party began as the Black Panther Party of Self Defense, based out of Oakland, committed to patrolling the streets and ghettos where black folks lived to monitor the actions of police, and protect black folks, if necessary, from state violence. The Panthers also channeled their efforts of resistance through the publication of “The Black Panther,” a weekly news publication; political education classes; extensive reading and information-gathering; and community “survival programs,” run by the Panthers in service to struggling Black communities. The penetration of the Black Panther Party into cities across the United States was far-reaching and deeply appreciated by the communities in which they belonged. The Party’s activism was brave and effective, to say the least, at harnessing the enraged black spirit and channeling it into action, while also providing tangible infrastructure and education for black folks to rely on. Abu-Jamal notes that this militarization, fortitude, and black pride shocked many as excessively aggressive and in some cases random. He further explains, however, that the rise of a militant black nationalist party was in fact inevitable, considering the many armed struggles African Americans have come together to invoke when enslaved through the economic system of slavery and the following political and legal enforcement of oppression of black and brown people. Black communities were – and still are – being attacked, and the Party responded.
As I read page after page, the massive body of work and the explosive group of humans that comprised the Party became more and more real to me, their image figuratively swelling in growth of size, capacity, and influence in my own mind, framed in the youthful and vigorous tone of Abu-Jamal’s writing. One of my main takeaways from We Want Freedom was, in fact, the realization of the personhood and humanity of the Party. Truly, personality was a definitive aspect of the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party. The Party was established in response to the very real lived experiences of an entire racial group of people in a particular point in time, so it inherently worked on a grounded humanitarian level. It is is also significant that a vast majority of the Panthers were of young-adult, college age. These personal components were readily apparent in the way that the Panthers conducted their business: with an impassioned urgency and persistent hope in resistance-building. The personal drive of each Panther, from those on the Central Committee to mere Panthers-In-Training, contributed to the Party’s far reaching success. However, in many ways, the personality of the Party also added to its eventual downfall. As humans capable of making mistakes and feeling pain, the Panthers did in fact stagger under the weight of their goal and, dually, the scrutiny and repression of the State. More importantly, they undertook a massive amount of racial justice work as black people: the emotional toll was exhaustive, as it usually is for people of color that are committed to educating and invoking change without the aid of a more privileged entity that doesn’t experience the same mental and emotional toll. Nonetheless, the sense of pulsating, moving life within the Party sprouted from the very provocative and dynamic humans that called themselves Panthers. Abu-Jamal successfully interlaced the stories of many of his comrades, both men and women, into his discussion of life in the Party. Their personal stories seasoned the book with a unique flavor that speaks to how each individual personality strengthened and deepened the Party in a meaningful way.
Another significant takeaway of mine was an expanded sense of distrust for the government that dictates – and I use that word strategically – action within the United States. A large and disheartening component of We Want Freedom is a discussion about the Federal Bureau of Investigations’ strategic “neutralizing” tactics imposed on members of the Black Panther Party. Invasive spying, planted snitches, media smear campaigns, forged letters written with the goal of division, police raids of Party offices, and the sanctioned killing of Party members are only some of the extremely destructive tactics used by the FBI under Edgar J. Hoover as a part of their COINTELPRO Operations. Abu-Jamal goes to great lengths to show just how violent our reigning judicial body can and did act with relative impunity. He sheds light on the structural violence used by the State on targeted communities of activists beyond the Black Panther Party. Abu-Jamal confirms that essentially any party with an opinion dissenting from American conformity are criminalized and attacked by the FBI. Additionally, the monstrosities committed are concealed in a veil of silence and darkness; the silence perpetuates violence against communities of resistance and the darkness shrouds the truth about our governance. These truths of violence mirror the current pattern of state-endorsed violence imposed on communities of color in the form of police brutality in horrifying ways. Indeed, Abu-Jamal notes that the current platform of the Movement for Black Lives reflects that of the Black Panther Party in its stringent opposition to unnecessary killing and continued brutality on black and brown bodies by the State. What can be said about a society and a governance, in which the statement needs to be made, that black lives do in fact matter? Furthermore, what does it mean that this statement is perceived by the masses as somehow ‘radical’? I find myself repeating a question that Abu-Jamal himself asks: What does it even mean to be an American citizen?
With my head still spinning at the depth and breadth of historical accounts of black realities and resistance in the United States, and their relevancy to the meaningful work of the Black Panther Party, I finished We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party with a pronounced reminder of the importance of racial justice work. As a historian and a person who experiences the privileges of white skin, I have a responsibility to critically educate myself and engage in fighting oppression. The Black Panther Party was able to accomplish great feats, disrupt and challenge systems of violence, and tangibly impact communities of color, despite State repression and lived experiences of daily oppression. Their lasting legacy and impact testify to the Party’s fortitude and grit. It is notable that the Party, however, was not able to fully withstand the repressive tactics of the FBI. An entity so grand and impassioned, so disciplined and committed, so expansive and knowledgeable, was dragged down because the privilege of the dominant governing force was perceived as threatened. If this does not prove that advocates of privileged identities are necessary in the fight against oppression, then I am not sure what will. Abu-Jamal expresses that his fight for liberation is that that is experienced by oppressed folks all around the world. While there was not space for certain privilege-holders in the Black Panther Party, there is now that space. Mumia Abu-Jamal speaks to these advocates and those that are oppressed in We Want Freedom: let his own lived experience, the experiences of the vibrant people of the Black Panther Party, and the emergent lessons that can be reexamined after being lost in the fog of history serve as “…nourishing, enriching food for the revolution(s) to come,” (Abu-Jamal, xxiii).
PJC Racial Justice Summer Intern 2017