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Race and Revolution: What Being A Woman in the Black Panthers Was Really Like

Oct 22 2015 2:30 PM
Race and Revolution: What Being A Woman in the Black Panthers Was Really Like

Black Panthers at a rally in Oakland, 1969. Photo courtesy of Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch

Ericka Huggins was only a teenager when she joined the militant civil rights party. Decades on, the former Black Panther leader is one of the stars of a new documentary, "Black Panther: Vanguards of the Revolution."

At the beginning of Stanley Nelson's new documentary, Black Panthers: Vanguards of the Revolution, former member Ericka Huggins gravely says to the camera: "We were making history, and it wasn't nice and clean. It wasn't easy. It was complex." With the history of the Black Panther Party hotly contested between state and activist narratives, it is sometimes hard to know what to believe.

What we do know is that it was a party formed on the principles of black self defence against a brutally racist state; that many died in the struggle, and that FBI chief J Edgar Hoover launched COINTELPRO, a counterintelligence program comprised of secret and often illegal acts with the intention of undermining and discrediting the legitimacy of the party.

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After taking part in Martin Luther King's 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom at the age of 15, Ericka Huggins was deeply touched, making a vow to 'serve people for the rest of my life'. Four years later, as a student, she had joined the Black Panther party. Now a professor of sociology at Laney College in Oakland, California, she spoke to Broadly about surveillance, survival, and hope.

What compelled you to join the Black Panthers so young?
Ericka Huggins:
A lot of things compelled me when I was young. Youth is a time when human beings are inspired by, disturbed by (or both), the world that they live in.

I went to Lincoln University. It was one of the three historically black universities that opened during slavery. While I was there, I joined an organisation for the uplifting of students and community, and I saw systemic inequity. I tutored African American outside the Lincoln campus in a nearby village. It was very rural. But the educational standards were the same as Washington DC or New York City... That was my first way of understanding that it isn't individual people that make for disenfranchisement or racism. But it is embedded in society. So I began to study these things.

One day, while I was at Lincoln in my junior year, someone gave me a [now out of print] Ramparts Magazine. There was an article about the Black Panther Party for Self-defence, and the arrest and jailing of Huey Newton. There was a picture of Huey Newton, strapped to a hospital gurney with a bullet wound in his belly, and a police guard watching him while looking at the camera... It really moved me. I decided then to leave with my friend John Huggins, and travel across the country, to find and join the Black Panther party.

Two women with bags from the Black Panthers' People's Free Food Program. Photo courtesy of Stephen Shames

In the documentary, a narrative emerges about the difference in opinions of the point of the Panthers. For you, were the Black Panthers about survival programs, or radical change?
There wasn't a side. I was for both. [....] We knew that you cannot ask people to rally around change without also recognising the conditions of poverty that they live in. We developed the survival programs, not as the antithesis to radical change—it was radical change! We would get donations of food, we would get donations of shoes, and coats. We opened free medical clinics.

In the documentary, you speak of being spied on by the FBI's COINTELPRO agenda. What was that like?
COINTELPRO went to great lengths not only to place informants in our homes. Not just in our kitchens and living rooms, living with us, but in our beds as well. There were African American or Latina informants, who they bribed to do so, because these were people who maybe had some kind of stolen car or drug charge... they didn't want to go back to jail, so they convinced them to become informant agents for the FBI.

Ericka Huggins now, from a Peralta News documentary. Screencap via YouTube user Peralta Colleges

More recently, the NSA files released by Edward Snowden revealed mass surveillance by the US government on a global scale. Having been monitored by the state yourself, were you particularly surprised?
I was not shocked. I was not surprised. I was saddened that so many people's lives are impacted—not just activists, but so many people. It reminded me of how much surveillance my family was under during the time that I was a member of the Black Panther party. My mother and father, who worked both respectively for the United States State Department and the Pentagon were constantly harassed, because of me.

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What did feminism look like in the movement you were a part of? Was it something Panther women were receptive to?
All the women in the Black Panther party were feminists, if you take the basic dictionary definition, which is the belief in the political, social, and economic equality of the sexes. We all felt that way. The feminism at the time I joined the party in 1967 was very white, and very middle class. We worked with organizations who worked to bring about an understanding... that there are problems that women of color face, and poor white women face, that white and middle class women do not face. Reproductive rights was at the top of the mark. Not only that, but forced sterilisation was routine.

Now, it's called intersectionality. This belief that all things are connected, that gender, sexuality, class, age, ability, race, ethnicity, citizenship status are all interwoven. Sometimes, all in one human body. Members of the Black Panther party knew that we had to pay attention to all of it. This is why we worked with white people living in conditions of poverty as well.

Women with Black Panther flags. Photo courtesy of Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch

In the past, you've said your generation has not been willing to go out and talk to young people, and that we're being lulled to sleep as a result. Does the Black Lives Matter movement give you hope?
I was talking about my generation stepping forward with the skills and knowledge, experience and inspirations for their own lives, rather than complaining about what young people don't do. It was two young African American women—I know both of them-—who started Black Lives Matter. I'm always hopeful about young people. I want more of my generation to step forward. We have so much to offer... We complain a lot about young people, as if they were born into a world that was perfect, and then young people messed it up. That's not how it is. They were born into a mess. And we're not giving them the tools to navigate the world they were born into.

Black Panthers: Vanguards of the Revolution is out in select UK cinemas on October 23.

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