that we preach, instead of teach. And that we scare instead of share. The mistake that the younger generation makes is that they dismiss instead of witness. It’s a part of growing up. It’s recognizing legacy. It’s building upon legacy. And it’s that intergenerational communication and appreciation of what we all bring that’s going to lead to liberation.
EBONY: I was struck by something you said at a book signing I went to in Harlem. You said: “You have to meet the people at their needs.” Can you explain what you meant by that and the context behind that statement?
JJ: What the Panthers learned from the grassroots organizers of the Civil Rights movement –– many of them coming from the Black church –– was the need for dealing with food, clothing, shelter in the community. And the breakfast program is one of the greatest examples of that. You come into the community and you’re talking to people who are struggling to pay their rent, to put food on the table and you’re talking about liberation and capitalism. BUT liberation to someone who is hungry is a meal. Liberation to someone who is sick is medicine.
A movement that says that it loves the people figures out how to take care of the people. So the breakfast program came out of us hearing that Black kids are disruptive and they’re not as smart and they’re not paying attention but how can you expect a kid in kindergarten or first grade to listen and learn that 3 apples + 2 apples = 5 apples and his stomach is growling. So there were practical ways to organize folks and then to get folks to think about working together and then comes the bigger questions of liberation.
And also when the community had continuance vigils around brother Ramarley Graham in the Bronx, who was shot and murdered in his home, that was effective. It forced the police and the district attorney to look at the case and really come with an indictment to realize that was murder. And there was an amazing silent march that happened for the Stop and Frisk in Harlem on Father’s Day weekend. These things are great and important to do. They’re only one aspect to the struggle. It can’t be that we’re just reacting to an atrocity and tragedy. We have to be proactive.
EBONY: We do. But when we look at what’s going on today with online petitions and social media, do you think it’s an effective way of mobilizing? In the book you say if Bobby Seale and Huey Newton started the Black Panthers today, they would be “patrolling the streets with video cameras and laptop computers, because those are the relevant weapons of change for today.” So I’m curious to know how effective you think those tools have been in recent history.
JJ: The key part of that example is that the panthers would also be in the community patrolling. Not in chat rooms. Or in Google groups. But in the community actually patrolling, and still doing breakfast programs and doing health clinics. So it’s really about engagement. And to all of the people who are struggling from the Occupy movement to the Black Student Groups, the thing that I would be passionate about and a bit old-fashioned about is that need for us to be on the street together, in those meetings together, in the room together, giving service together because there’s no way to know a person like there is when you’re in contact with them and struggling together and winning together and losing together and crying together and hugging together.
EBONY: So we get to the part of Panther Baby where the party starts to unravel. And I think those of us who are students of that time period don’t like to focus on what went wrong. We like the image on our wall to remain strong and iconic, but I think it’s important for us to learn from that painful period. What do you think we can learn?
JJ: What the government did that was very vicious in terms of the effect –– and very strategic and clever on their part –– was to figure out the counter intelligence program (COINTELPRO) designed by J. Edgar Hoover. The program was designed to create tension and division and distrust between people who were a part of the same organizations.
But we have to understand, that this idea of gossip and slander and mistrust and climbing to the top by stepping on somebody’s back has become so (much) a part of what they teach us as apart of the American fabric. However, in the corridors of power, if you’re talking about government, military and business, they practice solidarity. They practice communication. They practice sharing that information. They practice watching each others' back in the name of