Note: This article was posted
on the black commentator site on April
2nd of 2009. Thanks to all who
let us share this piece with our readers.
Nyasha is a San Francisco-based journalist
and former member of the Black Panther
Party (BPP). Kiilu hosts a weekly TV
program, "Freedom Is A Constant
Struggle," on SF Live (Comcast 76
and AT&T 99), which can be viewed
live at www.accessf.org every Friday
at 7:30 pm (PST), and rebroadcast Saturdays
at 3:30 p.m., and Mondays, 6:30 p.m..
She writes for several publications,
including the SF Bay View Newspaper and
BlackCommentator.com. Also an accomplished
radio programmer, she has worked for
KPFA (Berkeley), SF Liberation Radio,
Free Radio Berkeley, and KPOO in SF.
Some of her work is archived at www.kpfa.org.
This is an edited interview, featuring
excerpts from Nyasha’s article: “Ruchell
Cinque Magee and the August 7th Courthouse
Bennett (HB): How did you join
Nyasha (KN): I started running into Panthers
when I worked for President Johnson's
so-called “War on Poverty,” at
The Community Action Institute (CAI)
in New Haven, CT. We were supposed to
organize the community, and of course
they didn't really mean it; but I was
politically naive. So I took them literally
at their word and plunged into organizing,
going to various community meetings.
A young Panther named Belva, just a
teenager and known as "sisterlove," was
sent to New Haven from Oakland to organize
a free breakfast program. A town hall
meeting was organized to decide whether
or not they could institute the breakfast
program. I was employed at the teen center
where they wanted to house the breakfast
program. I wound up being the Breakfast
Program Coordinator after being eliminated
by CPI when they closed the auxiliary
Community Action Institute, absorbing
those they wanted to stay into the main
body, CPI. Later on, I was recruited
from the Chapter to work as office manager
and secretary to the attorneys for Lonnie
McLucas, Ericka Huggins and Bobby Seale,
including the late Charles Garry, Esq.
When I found myself jobless, I applied
for welfare because having worked for
Yale and the government, I didn't qualify
for unemployment insurance. I had a 9
year-old son and rent for my apartment
was $80/month, but they would only give
me $25 a week. What was I supposed to
do with that? So I joined the second
chapter of the BPP in late 1969, created
after the first chapter got locked up
for murder charges, along with the Chairman,
Bobby Seale -- basically recruited to
organize around the Panther trials by
Robert Webb [martyred] and Doug Miranda.
At this time, I was still “Pat
Gallyot”, because I changed my
name later in the 1970’s.
HB: Tell us about the BPP.
KN: The BPP was initiated by Huey Newton
and Bobby Seale, who were students at
Merritt College in Oakland. They saw
the needs of their community and began
to address them with the Ten-Point Platform
and community programs. They confronted
police brutality by following the police
around with law books and guns, because
at the time, it was legal to carry arms
openly. They witnessed arrests to make
sure the police didn't go into their
brutality mode. Eventually, there was
a shoot-out between the police and the
BPP when Huey's car was stopped, and
an officer was shot and killed in self-defense.
Huey himself was shot in the abdomen
and the picture of him handcuffed in
the hospital went around the world.
An incredible movement swept this country
like wild-fire, because police abuses
were a national epidemic. The BPP developed
a 10-point platform demanding self-determination
for our Black community, including land,
bread, housing, clothing, education,
justice and peace. We started free medical
clinics, and in New Haven, the clinic
was staffed by doctors and nurses from
Yale. In Oakland, Dr. Tolbert Small initiated
the sickle cell anemia awakening with
education and free tests.
We propagated revolution and formed
the original “rainbow coalition.” We
worked with many groups, including the
Young Lords, the Young Patriot Party
from Appalachia, the Peace and Freedom
Party, SDS, the Red Guard, the Brown
Berets, I Wor Kuen, and the American
Indian Movement. History books have omitted
the fact that Blacks were leading the
revolutionary movement in this country.
Other communities adapted our programs
for themselves. We organized within our
own separate communities, but we all
came to the same rallies. So then you'd
have this huge multicultural rally led
by the BPP. It was also intergenerational.
I was practically an elder at 30 because
most Panthers were teenagers.
HB: What is the BPP’s legacy?
KN: Once instituted, our free breakfast
program was in high demand because kids
were hungry. Subsequently, a free school
lunch program was started in New Haven,
and similar free food programs were instituted
across the country.
is Beautiful” campaign
elevated the mentality of Black people
in terms of what we thought about ourselves.
Don't forget, James Brown's song “I'm
Black and I'm Proud” came on the
heels of the BPP. Music and culture reflected
the Movement. That legacy has endured.\
The BPP ushered in a whole crew of Black
politicians, but what did that do for
Black people, especially poor Black people?
For example, President Obama is a friend
of capitalism, imperialism, and fascism.
Fascism needs a new brown face to deal
with the so-called Third World. Obama
cannot and will not produce real change,
like moving from capitalism to socialism,
redistributing the wealth, abolishing
the prison system per se, and changing
domestic and foreign policies.
HB: How did the BPP fare against US
KN: We were defeated. They pulled every
dirty trick in the book to wipe us out
and succeeded. They organized fratricide
and had us killing each other. They jailed
and assassinated us. By 1969, 28 Panthers
had already been murdered by the police.
There was the blatant murder of Fred
Hampton and Mark Clark in Chicago in
President Richard Nixon and FBI Director
J Edgar Hoover orchestrated COINTELPRO
and another program that was behind the
walls called “NEWKILL.” We
were targeted and declared the most dangerous
threat to the internal security of the
US. This came out when the secret programs
were revealed after files were stolen
from the FBI office in Media, PA. Later,
Senator Frank Church conducted hearings
further documenting the repression.
HB: What impact did the BPP have on
police brutality and prisons?
KN: We may have caused a temporary calm,
but it actually got worse. For example,
Panthers Harold Taylor and John Bowman
(currently of the SF8) were chased down
in Los Angeles by plain-clothes police
and shot at. They shot back, were eventually
arrested, had a capital trial, but were
acquitted on grounds of self defense.
However, today we're getting shot left
and right. The incarceration rate is
the highest in the world. President Clinton
ushered in a prison boom that has our
prison population up to 2.4 million today.
Here in California there are 180,000
prisoners, with many more on probation
and parole. We're living in a police
state and have a cradle-to-prison policy
for our youth. We have to regroup and
develop new tactics and strategies that
address today’s conditions.
HB: What can we learn from the successes
and failures of the BPP, so that we can
be more effective today?
KN: Organizing worked! As in, door-to-door
street organizing, on the ground, rolling
up our sleeves and going right to the
people, and helping them meet their own
needs. People have gotten far away from
that. Stop knocking on city hall’s
door! Why are we asking our enemies for
help? Working within the system only
works if you consider yourself an infiltrator.
We have to draw the line and stop supporting
it. Today, we should organize gardens
to grow our own food.
Propaganda is a necessary tool and our
job right now is to raise consciousness
to educate to liberate. The BPP had regular
political education classes. That needs
to happen again. People need to get into
small study groups and discuss politics.
Also, students aren’t organizing
on the campuses like they used to. I
think it's partly because the lower class
isn't on the campuses these days, because
nobody can afford it.
HB: What do you think of recent events
in Latin America, where people are fighting
US domination and local ruling class
KN: I’m inspired! I highly recommend
the recent documentary film about Venezuela
titled “The Revolution Will Not
Be Televised.” The people’s
reversal of the attempted coup is such
a wonderful demonstration of people's
power and what an impact it can have.
Watching it recharged my batteries. I
was like "Oh my goodness!" It's
very exciting, promising, and I hope
we have sense enough to be in solidarity
and support the struggles there and everywhere
else oppressed people are fighting. How
else is the US empire going to be defeated?
The global economy is here to stay.
HB: This issue of global solidarity
reminds me of Huey Newton's idea of “revolutionary
that in today’s age of transnational
corporate power, the US working class’ liberation
is inherently tied to that of workers
everywhere. Globalization is a popular
topic today, but do you think Huey gets
credit for talking about it back then?
KN: Huey’s theory was brilliant,
prophetic, and is a perfect solution
in today's world. Of course Huey has
not been given proper credit and it’s
the same thing with Malcolm X. Now more
than ever, oppressed people around the
world need to unite against the common
enemy that is transnational corporations.
We can’t let them divide us. We're
in the throes of a death spiral right
now, and if we don't hurry up and deal
with climate change, for example, things
will get horribly worse for ordinary
people and we can kiss this planet good-bye,
probably within this century.
HB: When did you start working in media?
KN: Because of my years of secretarial
work, I had typing skills. At the time
of Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins’ trial
in New Haven, on behalf of the Panther
Defense Committee, we printed a tabloid
and I co-wrote and typeset an article
covering the story. I also wrote articles
for the national BPP paper, and eventually
learned how to put a newspaper together.
After moving to San Francisco, I was
working for a local Black newspaper called
The Sun Reporter, but left in anger after
they chopped up an article that I wrote
about the uprising at NY State Prison
in Attica that resulted in the massacre
of some 39 prisoners and guards. Afterwards,
in late 1971, a bunch of us had political
education classes that met at my pad
in the Fillmore, and we put together
a tabloid called "By Any Means Necessary." In
'72, I wrote and published another tabloid
titled, "Niggahs of the World Unite."
Later, I lived in the Hunters Point
neighborhood, and while practicing a
very strenuous form of martial arts,
my muscles started deteriorating. I wound
up in the medical system for many years--a
long, hairy story. Suffice it to say,
I walked into the system in 1975 and
rolled out in 1980, and have been in
Chinatown ever since, living in a 12
story Housing Authority building that
they said was the only place they could
find that was wheelchair accessible.
How does the mainstream media today compare
to40 years ago?
KN: It’s much worse! I used to
see BPP leaders Kathleen Cleaver and
David Hilliard on TV. The movement used
to get media attention. Now you can't
get any media attention on prisoners.
We can have a demonstration with 10,000
people, and they still don't cover it.
You don't even have good journalists
HB: Why do you think that is?
KN: Look at all the journalists who’ve
been fired for telling the truth. Not
to mention all the journalists who have
been murdered these past few years, particularly
by the US in Iraq. It intimidates people
and they need real courage to tell the
HB: How has the alternative media changed?
KN: It's not anywhere as bold. We had
the BPP newspaper and all kinds of badass
tabloids. Today they censor you. To me,
with a few exceptions, the Black press
and other alternative media have fallen
down on the job.
HB: Your recent Black Commentator article
titled “Black August 2008” focused
on the legacy of the late prison author
and BPP leader, George Jackson, who was
assassinated by guards at San Quentin
Prison on August 21, 1971.
KN: I initiated a correspondence with
George in early 1971, and months later,
got a one-hour visit in the holding cell
of San Quentin. I’ve met no one
before or since more dedicated to revolutionary
change. George’s book of prison
letters, Soledad Brother, was a best
seller, and his second book, Blood In
My Eye, had just been finished at the
time of his death, and was published
George was one of the three “Soledad
Brothers,” whose story began on
January 13, 1970 when a tower guard at
Soledad State Prison shot and killed
three Black captives on the yard, leaving
them unattended to bleed to death: Cleveland
Edwards, “Sweet Jugs” Miller,
and W. L. Nolen, all active resisters
in the Black Movement behind the walls.
Others included George Jackson, Jeffrey
Gauldin, Hugo L.A. Pinell, Steve Simmons,
Howard Tole, and the late Warren Wells.
After the common verdict of “justifiable
homicide” was returned and the
killer guard exonerated at Soledad, another
white-racist guard was beaten and thrown
from a tier to his death in retaliation.
Fleeta Drumgo, John Clutchette, and Jackson
were charged with his murder, and became
known as The Soledad Brothers. A campaign
to free them was led by college professor
Angela Davis, and George’s brother
Jonathan. The three were awaiting trial,
with a mandatory death sentence if convicted,
at the time of George’s death.
HB: You wrote that we should honor Jackson’s
legacy by working to free two California
prisoners: Hugo “Yogi Bear” Pinell
and Ruchell “Cinque” Magee.
Currently housed in Pelican Bay State
Prison’s notorious “Security
Housing Unit," Pinell has been in
continuous solitary confinement since
at least 1971. On January 14, 2009, Pinell
was denied parole for 15 years, a virtual
KN: The book titled “The Melancholy
History of Soledad Prison,” by
Min Yee, documents how Hugo Pinell was
one of the original members of the Black
Movement, led by George Jackson and others
in Soledad Prison. At that time, it wasn't
safe for Blacks to walk the yard. The
collusion between the racist, KKK-type
guards and white racist prison gangs
was horrendous. These conditions were
Yogi was eventually transferred to San
Quentin, and was there on August 21,
1971, when George was assassinated. That
day, in what was described by prison
officials as an escape attempt, George
allegedly smuggled a gun into San Quentin
in a wig. That feat was proven impossible,
and evidence subsequently suggested a
setup designed by prison officials to
eliminate Jackson once and for all as
they had tried numerous times. On that
fateful day, three notoriously racist
prison guards and two inmate turnkeys
were also killed. According to an eye
witness, when Jackson was shot while
running on the yard, he got up instantly
and dived in the direction of some bushes.
He was subsequently murdered while lying
on the ground wounded.
Six Black prisoners were charged with
murder and assault. Hugo Pinell, Fleeta
Drumgo, David Johnson, Luis Talamantez,
Johnny Spain, and Willie Sundiata Tate
became known as the “San Quentin
Six.” Johnny Spain was the only
one convicted of murder. The others were
either acquitted or convicted of assault.
Hugo is the only one remaining in prison,
and badly needs our support.
HB: Tell us about Ruchell Magee.
KN: I first met Ruchell in the holding
cell of the Marin County courthouse in
the Summer of 1971. I found him to be
soft-spoken, warm and a gentleman in
typically Southern tradition. We’ve
been in correspondence pretty much ever
since. I was then working for The Sun
Reporter, and covering the pretrial hearings
of Angela Davis and Ruchell Magee. By
1971, Ruchell was an astute jailhouse
lawyer. He was responsible for the release
and protection of a myriad of prisoners
benefiting from his extensive knowledge
of law, which he used to prepare writs,
appeals and lawsuits for himself and
many others behind the walls.
Ruchell was fighting charges of murder,
conspiracy to murder, kidnap, and conspiracy
to aid the escape of state prisoners.
Although critically wounded on August
7, 1970, he was the sole survivor among
the four brave Black men who conducted
the courthouse slave rebellion, leaving
him to be charged with everything they
could throw at him. On August 7, 17-year
old Jonathan Jackson raided the Marin
Courtroom and tossed guns to prisoners
William Christmas and James McClain,
who in turn invited Ruchell to join them.
Rue seized the hour spontaneously as
they attempted to escape by taking a
judge, assistant district attorney and
three jurors as hostages in that audacious
move to expose to the public the brutally
racist prison conditions and free the
McClain was on trial for assaulting
a guard in the wake of Black prisoner
Fred Billingsley’s murder by prison
officials in San Quentin in February,
1970. With only four months before a
parole hearing, Magee had appeared in
the courtroom to testify for McClain.
The four revolutionaries successfully
commandeered the group to the waiting
van and were about to pull out of the
parking lot when Marin County Police
and San Quentin guards opened fire. When
the shooting stopped, Judge Harold Haley,
Jackson, Christmas, and McClain lay dead;
Magee was unconscious and seriously wounded
as was the prosecutor. A juror suffered
a minor injury.
Magee had already spent at least seven
years studying law and deluging the courts
with petitions and lawsuits to contest
his own illegal conviction in two fraudulent
trials. As he put it, the judicial system “used
fraud to hide fraud” in his second
case after the first conviction was overturned
on an appeal based on a falsified transcript.
His strategy, therefore, centered on
proving that he was a slave, denied his
constitutional rights and held involuntarily.
Therefore, he had the legal right to
escape slavery as established in the
case of the African slave, Cinque, who
had escaped the slave ship, Amistad,
and won freedom in a Connecticut trial.
Thus, Magee had to first prove he’d
been illegally and unjustly incarcerated
for over seven years. He also wanted
the case moved to the Federal Courts
and the right to represent himself.
Moreover, Magee wanted to conduct a
trial that would bring to light the racist
and brutal oppression of Black prisoners
throughout the State. “My fight
is to expose the entire system, judicial
and prison system, a system of slavery.
This will cause benefit not just to myself
but to all those who at this time are
being criminally oppressed or enslaved
by this system.”
the other hand, Angela Davis, his co-defendant,
charged with buying the guns used in
the raid, conspiracy, etc., was innocent
of any wrongdoing because the gun purchases
were perfectly legal and she was not
part of the original plan. Davis’ lawyers
wanted an expedient trial to prove her
innocence on trumped up charges. This
conflict in strategy resulted in the
trials being separated. Daviswas acquitted
of all charges and released in June of
fought on alone, losing much of the support
attending the Davis trial. After dismissing
five attorneys and five judges, he won
the right to defend himself. The murder
charges had been dropped, and Magee faced
two kidnap charges. He was ultimately
convicted of PC 207simple kidnap, but
the more serious charge of PC 209, kidnap
for purposes of extortion, resulted in
a disputed verdict. According to one
of the juror’s sworn affidavit,
the jury voted for acquittal on the PC
209 and Magee continues to this day to
challenge the denial and cover-up of
Ruchell is currently on the mainline
of Corcoran State Prison doing his
46th year locked up in California gulags
- many of those years spent in solitary
confinement under tortuous conditions!
In spite of having committed no physical
assaults or murders. Is that not political?
HB: Let’s conclude with a quote
from George Jackson.
KN: He wrote in Blood In My Eye: “Settle
your quarrels, come together, understand
the reality of our situation, understand
that fascism is already here, that people
are dying who could be saved, that generations
more will live poor butchered half-lives
if you fail to act. Do what must be done,
discover your humanity and your love
--Hans Bennett is an independent multi-media
and co-founder of Journalists for Mumia
Abu-Jamal (www.abu-jamal-news.com). Special
thanks to Ed Mertex for help transcribing
comments and questions email us at politics or
email the author.