Category Archives: Summer, 2009 (04/24/09)

Out of the rut – can psychological insights be used in activist practices?

The recent expansion of radical mental health projects focused on burnout, self-care, mental health, communication, sustainability, and the like are exciting developments in the radical community. This kind of work is vital and these are important areas to focus our attention; I believe they are all a big part of making real change in our lives and in our communities. However, I don’t think these projects are enough. We are missing part of the equation here. We have law collectives, medical collectives, mutual aid collectives, mental health collectives, etc. but what about psychology collectives that could focus on understanding how to make our activism more effective?

The insights and tools of psychology have been used by the advertising industry and mainstream institutions that seek to control people, but most activist efforts don’t take the time to consider how a particular campaign plays psychologically. We fail to ask: how are our actions seen by others, how do we relate to the world outside of the activist community, what outcomes are we envisioning when we engage in particular actions, and what really makes people change?

I don’t mean to suggest we use psychological tools, methods and insights in a creepy way the way an advertiser might – I don’t want to manipulate people. In fact, it seems that activists are too often using manipulative tactics in their campaigns: shame, guilt, and “educational” campaigns without much depth, forethought, or follow-through are regularly employed. I’m tired of those old paradigms. When I was 14 I would go yell “shame” at the old ladies wearing fur coats to the opera. I highly doubt that those ladies stopped wearing their furs and it just made me feel sheepish and indignant, rather than empowered and engaged in making positive change. In more recent years I have dealt with how campaigns of guilt, social pressure, and coercion can turn in on us and eat away at our communities and make people turn away from activism and from activist campaigns. I no longer find these tactics effective or fulfilling.

What would it look like if we used psychology in a positive and genuine way in our activist work? Steve Chase has used the phrase “psychologically-smart activism” and asked questions such as “How can psychological insights and tools be shared to help people develop the capacity to join together in social movements and make the world a better place?” (2007 keynote speech at Psychology-Ecology-Sustainability Conference). I’d like to use this kind of inquiry to come up with new ways of “doing activism”. It might just break us out of the old molds and help us come up with new ways to engage in social change work, ways that have more lasting power, more depth, and more substance.

I don’t know what the “answers” are – what the “right” or most effective way to “do activism” is or precisely which areas of psychology may apply to social change work – but I’d like to bring the discussion to the table in the radical community.

Just as we are re-evaluating the ways we look at our own mental health, we could step back and really look at our activist tactics. We might ask: in what ways are we stuck in a rut? What are new and creative ways to engage people on a different level than we have before? What can be done on the ground to heal the rift between what we aspire to or think about and what we actually do? How can we have meaningful conversation with people about politics and social change who are outside of our usual political community and therefore out of our comfort zone? So often in past work I have felt like I was just yelling at “those people” or an unseen “THEM” – and where has that gotten us? I’m tired of seeing things that way. This kind of “us and them” thinking is part of the split that creates psychological barriers to actually making change.

I’m sure I am not the first person to ask these questions. In my studies of psychology and social change I have seen that there are psychologists and activist who are talking about the joining of psychology and change efforts. Joanna Macy has been doing her powerful Despair and Empowerment Work since the anti-nuclear movement (http://www.joannamacy.net/). Feminist psychologist and ecopsychologists have addressed the connection between society’s problems, psychology, and change efforts. Despite all the above, I don’t see these ideas really permeating activist circles, at least the often younger, often direct-action oriented, often anti-authoritarian groups that I am familiar with.

We are so often in a reactive mode – responding to one tragic occurrence only to find it followed by another and another. It is hard to get perspective when we are constantly witnessing all the horrible occurrences in the world that need attention and work. There is so much for us to do. Thich Nhat Hanh councils, “A student asked me, ‘There are so many urgent problems, what should I do?’ I said, ‘Take one thing and do it very deeply and carefully, and you will be doing everything at the same time.’” It seems we need to find work that we feel good about and that really engages us rather than always jumping from one thing to the next – that seems to be one of the roots of much of the burnout I have seen in the community. We could take a deep breath, step back and look at the bigger picture of our work. Take a moment to get some perspective and allow a vision of what we want to form. Then we can work for what we want, rather than against what we don’t want.

Please contact me to discuss things like this: counterbalance@riseup.net

Bicyclists get scraps – government offers tenuous reimbursement

I was excited to hear that, bundled up with the $700 billion federal bailout bill, there was a tiny provision to give bicyclists a $20 per month commuter reimbursement that some bicycle advocates have been seeking for the last 7 years. While there are tons of incentives, subsidies, and tax deductions for automobile drivers, this is the first federal law that financially recognizes bicycles as a mode of transit. Is this crumb of a provision better than being ignored?

The way this works is that if my employer chooses to participate (entirely optional), I can have up to $20 a month deducted from my pre-tax income, and get a voucher for the deducted amount to spend at a ‘dedicated’ bicycle shop. The $20 benefit is intended to reimburse you for bicycle related expenses like bikes, helmets, repairs, locks, etc. Thus, my pre-tax salary would be $20 less, but I would get a $20 voucher. My employer could instead choose to just give me a voucher as a subsidy, and this would be tax-free for them. It’s up to the employer if they implement the benefit as a pre-tax benefit or a subsidy — the latter is obviously a greater benefit to the employee, but a greater immediate economic cost to the employer.

All of these numbers are a minuscule fraction of the size of tax perks related to driving. These new bike benefits are similar (but smaller and more restricted) to commuter transit benefits and parking benefits. The same tax provision amended by this law already gives up to $230 a month for car parking and up to $120 for transit fares, but only $20 for bicycling expenses.

The anticipated cost of the new bike benefit is a tiny $1 million per year, compared to $4,400 million ($4.4 billion) the government already spends for parking and transit benefits according to the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation.

I currently get a commuter transit benefit in the form of discounted bus tickets every month — my employer pays for $4 of these a month, so I can get $10 worth of bus tickets and my pre-tax salary is $6 lower than it would have been. If I started getting this bike benefit, I could no longer get the bus tickets. This means folks who do a combined transit and bike commute could only get one of the types of benefits.

The voucher piece seems crappy to me. Employers can provide a cash benefit instead of a voucher, but because they might have to track receipts, most employers are expected to use the vouchers. Why is this little bike benefit so much more restrictive than the much larger benefits for auto-drivers? What does it take for a place to count as a “dedicated bicycle shop”? Could a time-and-money-donation-based non-profit bike co-op count? I cannot imagine you could use such a voucher to buy a second-hand bike or parts on craigslist. What about at a general sports store (which, in some places, might be your only option for buying new shiny bike equipment)?

The voucher system assumes we are now spending money if we need bike maintenance, and offers vouchers which we can instead spend. For those who prefer other economies (like volunteering at a local bike collective in exchange for tool use, or baking some cookies for our friend the bike mechanic), the voucher isn’t as valuable.

I work for a midsized constituent of the nonprofit industrial complex, where a decent amount of people bike to work regularly. When I learned about this benefit, I asked the human resources folks about signing up. It turns out that somebody else had already asked (the day the bill passed!), and they said they were looking into it. A few weeks later I asked again, and they emailed to say they were still looking into it. I have no idea what will come next, but I’m not actually interested in signing up — I’ll keep my transit passes.

The bill is motivated by a nice idea — since there are federal programs to encourage people to drive to work, there should also be incentives for bicycling. Maybe the reason the law falls short is that biking is already so cost effective, and so easy to participate in outside of the capitalist economy that offering bikers vouchers to bike shops doesn’t seems like such a great perk, as many of us bikers don’t regularly spend money at bike shops. Similarly, walking is a great way to get to work, but that has nearly no direct costs, so it’s not clear what sort of benefit the government could provide — new shoes? Affordable centrally-located housing would encourage human-powered transit, but that’s not the sort of thing that can hide in a government bailout bill. Maybe the best way to encourage biking and walking is making them easier, safer and less stressful by having less cars on the roads.

In other bike law news, in Idaho, bikers don’t have to stop at stop signs. Similar bills have been proposed for Oregon and Montana.

Equilibrium of the inner world – focusing on psychic balance

The inner processes of the psyche and the outer occurrences in the world connect entirely. Inner psychic pain generally results from our internal thresholds being exceeded. When our thresholds for stimulation, strain, isolation or superficiality are surpassed a subjective ache is experienced. Sensations exceeding our thresholds over too long of a period can result in anxiety, overwhelm, fatigue, apathy, anger or other related sentiments. If a person is reflecting on their inner state from time to time, the process of going from initial discomfort (i.e. feeling scattered) to more intense suffering (i.e. panic) can be witnessed and sometimes an intervening event can occur. However, feeling good is not always a goal as growth is typically correlated with some discomfort. Certainly feeling good is not something to be expected too frequently in a culture as shallow and asinine as ours. Energy and feeling whole are necessary nonetheless to combat the massive inequalities that are becoming more pervasive each day. Protections though, like numbness and indifference (that many in the dominant culture utilize), tend to dissolve when one has seen through to the mind control mechanisms inherent in our society (i.e. fear mongering or the invention of false needs constructed and promulgated by the power elite). When the psyche’s threshold is surpassed, defenses arise.

When defenses are utilized one may become rigid, disconnected, grandiose or irrational. Particularly with the economy in the condition that it is in, people are utilizing more defenses than before the “bubble burst”. Those less unfortunate likely deal with feeling frustrated, helpless and agitated. Those most sensitive or vulnerable deal with much worse (though of course the economy is not the only impetus for intense suffering in this culture). These more unfortunate individuals may experience psychotic breaks (psychosis/hallucinations are one example of defenses not being enough to help one cope), suicidal feelings and/or extreme rage. Many people fall somewhere in between mild frustration and severe suffering. The implications of neoliberal economics are agony and anguish for a great many; and numerous people suffer directly or vicariously because of this. In general our defenses remain erected in order to get through stress – simultaneously causing some additional distress due to the phony nature of defenses (rigidity or numbness is not authentic, but simply a way of coping). It never feels good to not be our true genuine nature, however many involved heavily in dominant culture do not seem to be aware that this is a great source of pain, or are so confused, conditioned and brainwashed that it does not matter to them as long as they can remain asleep, numb or distracted. Essentially our psyches erect defenses because of unfavorable conditions and these secondarily result in disconnected, false, simulated relationships with our self and with others.

Defenses arise to protect us from the emotionally charged contents of the unconscious that the unfavorable conditions of the environment provoked. The unconscious carries great power and paradoxically the unconscious can take control of those who have not explored its contents (many interested in the unconscious have studied the demagogy appealing to German citizens when Hitler was gaining power – the propaganda had a strong appeal to Germans both due to social circumstances and the particular unconscious contents of many Germans during the rise of the Third Reich; anyone interested in the powers latent in the unconscious may want to further explore this topic). Tolerance, respect and self-determination are often sacrificed when there is a heavy focus on the conscious and a repudiation of the unconscious.

When a culture has too heavy a focus on efficiency, rationalism, mathematics (meaning quantifying everything) and materialism, typically the focus has become too much on what is conscious. Unfortunately a highly conscious focus (and subsequent lack of focus on the unconscious) currently dominates the majority of the humans on earth. However, the majority of what drives humans is unconscious processes. Likely 95% or more of human behavior is due to processes of the unconscious (think about how many times your own behavior has surprised you or how many of your thoughts seem to just rise up into your awareness). This means that we as a whole are living in a pretty precarious manner.

Some practices and some psychoactive substances can make a number of unconscious processes known (including LSD, meditation, hypnosis, and dream interpretation). It is important to understand that the ecology of our psyche is in balance only when the unconscious has a voice and is given a chance to connect with our conscious mind. Such a balance has implications for the events of the world (because of the aforementioned connection between the inner and outer worlds). Combating control and inequality is done best when we have internal balance – and sooner or later some internal balance must be struck or we may burn out.

There are many ways of unifying one’s psyche, ways of rounding up the inauthentic fragments it has split into when under too much stress. Meditating and recording dreams are very ancient activities deeply rooted in the psyche that can help re-establish a natural and balanced rhythm for the mind. Meditating in a quiet outdoor location (that doesn’t charge admission) next to trees, water, etc or sitting in grass or dirt is ideal. The internal systems of the body are balanced by meditation. Also lingering emotions can be altered with meditation and general mental discomfort eased. For some people meditation is excruciatingly difficult (especially at first), while this is not the case for others. Some people quickly begin to see their mind differently upon first trying the practice. When one’s mind quiets down it can become apparent that the thoughts and the meditator are not one and the same. Anyone interested in practicing can do so by finding a quiet environment, turning attention inward and concentrating the mind on the breath and then gently returning the focus to the breath each time it drifts to the thoughts that are going by. By calmly accepting the thoughts that arise a natural letting go occurs.

Those who have become highly practiced in meditating sometimes realize in deep meditation that life is by its very nature cyclical, and that currently we are in an epoch of disease, death and destruction. Though these cycles are ebbing and flowing, ultimately we are moving toward a world of awareness and equality – if enough inhabitants of the planet wake up in time that is. If not then of course Earth will die. This belief that planets die when the inhabitants remain buried in too much ignorance for too long is common in many eastern spiritual traditions (and obviously the stage is set for terrible things to happen on this planet between nuclear weapons and fascist agendas). A change in outlook and the audacity to speak the truth are requisite for a new direction to arise. And any meaningful and lasting change must make use of unconscious forces.

Similar to meditative practices, dream interpretation facilitates a relationship between the conscious and the unconscious, and aids in creating a more balanced mindset. If we focus on what is going on in our dreams we can look at which archetypal themes are active in our psyches. Archetypes are symbols that are shared by every psyche. Common items, relationships and events are symbolized by archetypes, for example a mother or a child archetype. If we are feeling quite fearful, stressed or scattered we may dream of an animal or scenario that symbolizes these feelings. Frequently our dreams have nothing to do with our waking experiences, they represent unconscious processes pertaining to much larger, more timeless matters.

When contemplating a dream, consider how the dream felt overall and also how various isolated elements of the dream felt. Consider how you feel in general towards the elements of the dream. For example if you dream of an old roommate consider how you felt in the dream towards that person, how you used to feel about this person, and think about the ways you identify with this person (does this person symbolize your motivated, lazy, grandiose, shy, hyper, side?). Once we document our dreams and contemplate the meanings of the symbols within (even if we do not come to an understanding of what the symbols may mean), energy from the unconscious can be mobilized. This energy can be used to stay balanced and to continue on in the uphill trek.

The relationship with the symbolic grants us permission to acknowledge where we are at in our psyche; and this understanding frequently allows a more peaceful state of mind to arise and stay around. (There are many websites dedicated to identifying meanings for various symbols – these can be helpful for dream interpretation). Keeping a pad and pen next to our sleeping place encourages us to document our dreams as soon as we awaken. Then, interpreting immediately or later works – though immediate is better to keep in mind all of our complex and contradictory feelings towards the dream objects. Much of the time our dreams speak in metaphor and often go in the format of a story or play (when we have a longer dream or a vivid memory of the whole dream at least). There is often an introduction to the elements of the story, then there is a problem or conflict, then an increase in action and then there is often a direction or outcome alluded to. With some very special dreams, this direction that is hinted at can be hugely beneficial in guiding the direction in which our lives are moving. In general, dream themes can give a good hint about what attitude to honor, what action to take, what occurrence to notice in our surroundings or where to go next as the battle continues.

Between meditation and dream interpretation much psychic maintenance occurs. These powerful activities can be done by most people and have produced results for many centuries. Being attentive towards our psyche can help keep us sane long enough to witness and cause transformation. But, practical applications aside, non-ordinary states of consciousness have been of value to humans for ages. It is tough to deny the feelings we have when caught in dreams that seem endless. Our feelings are no less real in these instances than in waking consciousness. This can lead one to wonder if there is a bigger dream going on. And what it actually may mean to wake up.

Raise the pressure – cutting emissions in the kitchen

I keep having moments when I really appreciate the quiet wisdom of my mom. She grew up in modest economic circumstances in the 1940s and 50s as the daughter of a farm manager and so she learned all kinds of do-it-yourself skills and techniques that people now are trying to recapture. Nowadays, many of us are trying to figure out ways to live more simply and use fewer resources in response to a global ecosystem brought to its knees by the over-consumption of advanced industrial capitalism. My mom’s 4-H skills were just her being practical — but they are like a time capsule of hints at how people used to live just fine with a lot less ecological destruction.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been learning to cook with a pressure cooker — something you don’t see much anymore but something my mom always did.

If you want to cook beans, doing so without a pressure cooker uses much more energy. It can take 3-4 hours to adequately cook black beans in a pot — 3-4 hours that your gas or electric stove is spewing emissions into the atmosphere. With a pressure cooker, it takes 20 minutes, i.e. only 20 minutes of emissions. Garbanzo beans — which are notoriously difficult to cook on the stovetop — are an even more dramatic example. Just 25 minutes in the pressure cooker. This is because water boils at a hotter temperature when it is under pressure, so the food cooks significantly faster.

So here’s my rough how-to guide, because when I started using a pressure cooker, I was a bit lost. This is just for beans or vegetables because I’m vegetarian — let me know what you learn about other stuff.

1. First, you have to find one. Check second hand stores — there are a lot of them around not getting used. You need a weight for the top that fits with the one you buy. It has to have a rubber seal around the lid so be careful the rubber still looks good. There is also a pressure relief plug to avoid explosions — make sure it hasn’t blown out. I would suggest testing a new one carefully to make sure it won’t blow up on you — heat it carefully in an empty kitchen and keep hands clear and eyes protected during the test. If it survives the test, you can cook calmly. Or you could buy one new.

2. For beans, you cover them with at least twice the amount of water as beans, if not more. It still helps to pre-soak beans but you don’t have to. It can be fun to first soak, and then sprout the beans for a day for extra-woo woo health benefits. Be careful about putting too many beans in — they expand a lot. I add spices and salt after cooking except that I put in bay leaf, clove and garlic, if applicable, before hand. You can’t add them while you’re cooking because you can’t open the lid once it is under pressure. Salt changes the boiling temperature of water at sea level — it makes sense to me it would change things under pressure, too, which is why I avoid putting it in first.

3. For vegetables, you can put a steamer in and just put water on the bottom of the pressure cooker. It only takes 4-5 minutes to steam whole potatoes in a pressure cooker. For softer veggies, just a minute or two.

4. Put the top on and lock it. Bring it to a boil gradually with the weight not on the top of the pressure cooker. After steam not mixed with water or other matter starts shooting out the top, you know it is boiling and you can put the weight on the top. Some beans like garbanzos make suds so it can take a few moments of sputtering before you get a nice clean flow of steam — you don’t want to put the weight on while it is sputtering.

5. Once you put the weight on, set a timer. Bigger beans take a bit longer but not too much. Experiment.

6. Once the timer goes off, turn off the heat and let the steam out gradually by lifting (but not removing) the weight from the top. You can’t open the lid or you’ll be seriously injured. Once you’ve released the pressure, open the lid and enjoy a faster and lower emissions dinner.

Interview with Kiilu Nyasha – remembering the black panthers

By Hans Bennett

Kiilu 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. and www.myspace.com/official_kiilu This is an edited interview, featuring excerpts from Nyasha’s article: “Ruchell Cinque Magee and the August 7th Courthouse Slave Rebellion.” Hans Bennett: How did you join the BPP?

Kiilu Nyasha: 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.

The “Black 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 government repression?

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 1969. 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 power?

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 intercommunalism,” emphasizing 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.

HB: How does the mainstream media today compare to 40 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 anymore.

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 truth today.

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 posthumously. 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 re-sentencing.

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 horrible.

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 Soledad Brothers. 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.” On 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. Davis was acquitted of all charges and released in June of 1972. Ruchell 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 207, simple 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 that acquittal.

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 in revolution.”

–Hans Bennett is an independent multi-media journalist (www.insubordination.blogspot.com) and co-founder of Journalists for Mumia Abu-Jamal (www.abu-jamal-news.com). Special thanks to Ed Mertex for help transcribing the interview.

Rabble calendar

May

May 1 – 31

Festival of Anarchy with over 20 events Montreal, Canada info@anarchistbookfair.ca

May 7 – 11

Santa Cruz Anarchist Convergence – Sub Rosa Infoshop 703 Pacific Av.santacruzanarchist.org

May 23 – 25

Cascadia Summer Campaign Action Camp www.forestdefensenow.org

May 23 – 24 • 12 – 7 pm

Soupstock FNB Anniversary Celebration & Regional Convergence Jerry Garcia Amphitheater McLaren Park SF

May 24 – June 6

Wild Roots, Feral Futures Green Anarchist gathering SW Colorado feralfutures@riseup.net

May 26 – 31

World Peace Week – Taos, NM — www.worldpeaceweek.net

May 28 • 7 pm

Start of Radical Women feminist theory series. 625 Larkin Street, Suite 202, SF www.RadicalWomen.org

May 27 – 31

4th Balkan Anarchist Bookfair with events in both Thessaloniki and Athens balkanbookfair.blogspot.com

May 28 – 31

National Radical Queer Convergence Chicago, IL radicalqueer2009@gmail.com

June

June 6

Hamilton Anarchist Bookfair Westdale High School Hamilton Ontario

June 8 • 9:30 am

AETA4 court solidarity – San Jose Federal Court 280 South 1st St Judge Whyte Courtroom 6 (4th Fl) aeta4.org

June 11 – 13

Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference PA Convention Center trans-health.org

June 20 • 1 pm

World naked bike ride – in Berkeley gather at People’s Park, Dwight & Telegraph.

June 20 – 26

Trans and Womyns Eco-Action Camp twac@riseup.net

June 29 – July 6

Earth First! Round River Rendezvous www.2009RRR.org

July

July 8 – 10

Protests vs. G8 summit Maddalena, Italy

July 20 – 26

CrimethInc Convergence – Pittsburgh, PA

August

August 6 – 9

Northeast Anarchist People of Color Conference Philly, PA

August 16 – 4 pm

Slingshot new volunteer meeting 3124 Shattuck Ave. Berkeley

Ongoing

East Bay Hella Free Day 1st Sunday each month 12-4 pm Northside Lake Merritt

Critical Mass Rides

1st Friday Oakland 14th & Broadway

2nd Friday Downtown Berkeley BART

Last Friday Justin Herman Plaza SF