Intro to The War Before
In the following excerpt from The War Before, coming soon from the Feminist Press, former Weather Underground member Laura Whitehorn introduces Safiya Bukhari, who became a member of the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s. A longtime political prisoner, then prison activist, Bukhari died in 2003. The War Before is a collection of Bukhari’s writings.
For many, the iconic image of the 1960s is not a picture of hippies with daisy-wreathed hair dancing in the rain during the days of peace, love, and music at Woodstock. It is a photograph splashed across the front pages of Chicago newspapers in December 1969. Four grinning Chicago police officers—all of them white—carry a trophy: The bullet-ridden body of a young Black man.
Fred Hampton, leader of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, was 21 years old when the cops murdered him. Other photos show his body lying face down on the floor of the apartment where he and fellow Panther member Mark Clark had been shot to death in their sleep. Still another depicts Fred’s blood-soaked mattress.
At first, the photos appeared accompanied by accounts from Illinois State Attorney Edward Hanrahan saying that the police had been defending themselves from bullets fired by Panthers within the apartment. But it quickly emerged that this “shootout” had been something quite different. As the Panthers and their lawyers unveiled physical evidence showing that ninety of the ninety-one shots had come from the police, it became clear that this had been a deliberate police assassination, targeting the powerful Black Panther Party leader. This was, in fact, a premeditated act of war conducted by police—assisted, we were later to learn, by the FBI.
Other images of Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party describe another side of that war—and help explain why the Panthers, and Fred in particular, were targeted. These photos, taken at rallies, marches, community organizing projects, and meetings, are flooded with a riot of emotions: anger, joy, humor, and most profoundly, the tremendous creative energy unleashed by a struggle for liberation. The Panthers sparked that energy. Their programs and their organizing led Black people around the country to take control of their communities. In those programs, many of the people in these communities saw themselves—not white institutions or politicians—as the source of change, achieved by working collectively.
Another emotion visible in those images—and palpable to anyone who attended a Panther rally in a park or church or on a street corner at that time—was hope. In the context of a struggle for justice and freedom, hope was such a powerful emotion that the FBI and police found it necessary to use the tools of warfare to obliterate it.
When we learned that night that Fred had been killed, those of us in a collective of Weatherman (soon to become the Weather Underground Organization) felt fury and grief, but not surprise. We had been prepared for this. My own preparation had been short and dramatic. It had only been fourteen months since, one hot August afternoon in 1968, I had been sitting at my desk in Hyde Park, Chicago. I was then a disaffected, twenty-four-year-old graduate student preparing for PhD exams in English literature. In my second-floor apartment, I looked up from Milton’s Paradise Lost to gaze out the open window onto a quiet street scene: a sidewalk, some trees, a fire hydrant, and a young Black man walking down the block.
Suddenly a police car pulled up. Two officers jumped out and grabbed the man, throwing him up against a building, frisking him, and demanding that he tell them who he was and what he was doing on that street. Impulsively, I ran outside, where I tried to convince the cops to let him go. They threatened to arrest me as well. The young man struggled a little, then was arrested—not for anything he’d done, but for answering police questions too slowly. He was later released with a warning.
I did not go back to my desk that day. I did not return to my studies at all.
That past April, a few months before I’d moved to the city, the mayor of Chicago had called to the West Side not just the police but also the National Guard. They were given orders to “shoot to kill” anyone caught destroying property in the outburst of grief and rage following the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. After years of standing up to the fire hoses, bullwhips, and billy clubs of southern police forces during the civil rights movement, Black people now watched their northern communities turn into occupied territories. Instead of accepting and meeting Black people’s demands for equal rights, the government had responded by initiating a domestic war in the streets of our country.
The domestic war was easier to comprehend in the context of international events. I had already developed a vague sense of this context from teach-ins and rallies during those years when protests against the threat of nuclear war expanded into something broader and more radical. In stuffy, darkened high school and college classrooms, I had watched grainy newsreel films and documentaries showing how the U.S. government habitually intervened both clandestinely and openly in suppressing democracies around the world. The United States was not only waging a war against the people of Vietnam. The government had also been complicit in the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954 and the murder of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo in 1961. But another global phenomenon had emerged at the same time: third world people were fighting back, refusing to accede to oppression and, in many cases, seemed to be winning their battles—China in 1949, Cuba in 1959, Algeria in 1962. In 1955, progressive Asian and African nations had met in Bandung, Indonesia, uniting to condemn Western colonialism and challenge the European chokehold on world history. Bandung and its outgrowth, the Non-Aligned Movement, changed the balance of world power. Eleven years later, a similar meeting—the Tricontinental Conference in Havana—brought African, Asian, and Latin American nations closer together in an anticolonial movement.
In January 1968, the Vietnamese Liberation Army had surprised most of the world by launching a general offensive and popular uprising, a massive attack on U.S. forces known as the Tet Offensive. Suddenly it seemed possible that the liberation forces could succeed in defeating the U.S. military—as, of course, they would go on to do.
Clearly, this war had two sides. The oppressed nations were refusing to be victims.
A week after I’d witnessed the cops beating that young man on my block—as if we were in apartheid South Africa—the Chicago police launched another attack, this time with tear gas and clubs, against thousands of young people who had gathered in Grant Park to protest the Vietnam War during the Democratic National Convention. The next day, I was there among the thousands shouting, “The whole world is watching,” as TV cameras filmed us being gassed and chased by police and soldiers with fixed bayonets. Soon after, I began attending rallies by the Black Panther Party, and I joined Weatherman—a group that would flourish, then disintegrate, in less than ten years. I also became part of a larger movement that will last well beyond my own lifetime.
Safiya Bukhari was and remains a catalytic part of that movement. According to her own accounts, Safiya was radicalized into the Black Panther Party at the business end of a billy club. Born Bernice Jones in the Bronx in 1950, she grew up among nine sisters and brothers in a devoutly Christian, middle-class family (the family moved south soon after Safiya’s birth, then back to the Bronx). The children were relatively sheltered and were raised to believe they would succeed in the world through higher education. Safiya planned on becoming a doctor. In 1968 she was attending Brooklyn’s New York City Community College as a premed student.
Her life to that point had been fairly conventional; she’d even joined a sorority. Along with two close friends, Yvonne Smallwood and Wonda Davis, Safiya pledged at Eta Alpha Mu, the college’s only integrated sorority. Part of their assigned pledge duties was to show up in costumes at the Port Authority bus station, where they were instructed to entertain the crowd. “I was dressed as a ballerina,” remembers Smallwood, “and Bernice came as Charlie Chaplin.”
Even then, Bernice Jones was on her way to becoming Safiya. Yvonne Smallwood wrote, in a letter to Wonda Jones in 2005, “With our sorority there were parties and socials, of course. But Bernice, Wonda, and I were more interested in helping change the future for our youth. We petitioned our sisterhood about sponsoring a child in Africa. But it was Bernice who asked why we needed to invest in an African child when there were needy children in the United States.” The sorority assigned the young women a field trip: they were to visit Harlem. “Bernice, Wonda and I took the A train to 125th Street,” Smallwood remembers. “Upon departing the train station, we encountered a member of the Black Panther Party selling newspapers. I recall that he talked about the free breakfast program offered to the children of the community and asked if we were interested in volunteering or contributing to the cause.”
The women went to the church where the breakfasts were offered, to see for themselves. Safiya liked what she saw and kept coming back. It was at that time that she began to notice how badly the community was treated by the police.
“It wasn’t the Panthers that made me join the Black Panther Party,” Safiya often said; as she told an audience in Chicago in 1991, “It was the police.”
One time, Safiya tried to stop an officer from harassing another Panther selling a Party newspaper. “Stupid me,” she said of herself, remembering the incident. “I said to the cop, ‘He has a constitutional right to disseminate political literature.’ He took my ID, told me to get up against the car, and said I was inciting to riot. He arrested me, my friend, and the Panther [who’d been selling newspapers]. On the way to the Fourteenth Precinct, I learned that there was no such thing as a constitutional right when it comes to Black people.”
History is made by thousands and thousands of individuals whose names you may never know. It’s one thing to read the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.—there’s no way the civil rights movement or U.S. history would have been the same without him. But if you want to understand those times—and how change is made—you need to know of the people who shared Dr. King’s dream—those who heard his speeches and worked to carry out that vision, whose passion led them to build an entire movement.
Safiya Bukhari did the work and became, over the years, a leader among many people. Her name doesn’t come up on the list of prominent women in the Panthers; she wasn’t in front of the media. But from 1969, she was in the Harlem office of the Black Panther Party, working on all its projects—the Free Breakfast for Children program, political education and outreach, and a health clinic to screen for sickle-cell anemia and other medical problems—and, of course, selling the Panther newspaper.
During those years, I worked with the Panthers in Chicago and saw them as the catalyst of liberation, not only for Black people but for all progressive activists. What I didn’t realize until some years later is that, although they were probably the most successful in mass organizing on a countrywide scale, the Black Panthers were one of many Black groups of the 1960s and 1970s who defined their goal as trying to make a revolution. Many Black liberation groups flowered in those years—Safiya herself also joined the Republic of New Afrika, though she never left the Panthers. Using the politics of national liberation and independence, the Panthers probably reached further than other groups into more sectors of the Black community, building serve-the-people programs based on a class analysis.
The Black Panther Party’s Ten-Point Program—their platform of goals—was modeled on Vietnamese, Chinese, and other liberatory struggles. Like many progressive groups of that era, the Panthers saw other oppressed peoples rising up all over the world. In those years, all of us found ourselves witnessing a global revolution—one that was, amazingly, not dominated by white leftists. Malcolm X was saying to millions, “We are nonviolent with people who are nonviolent with us.” Why, asked Malcolm, are you applauded for picking up a gun and killing Germans and Koreans and Vietnamese, but you’re not allowed to fight back against the Ku Klux Klan or the police who are trying to kill you?
This was a profound argument. The point was not to attack nonviolence, but to show that it was only one tactic in an arsenal of struggle, and that armed self-defense was another. Self-defense was, in fact, taken up by some parts of the civil rights movement, as well as by many Black nationalists in and beyond the Black Panther Party. Robert Williams, leader of the Monroe, North Carolina, branch of the NAACP, was, for example, among the early advocates of armed self-defense—which he called “armed self-reliance”—to respond to racist violence. An integrationist, Williams was never suspected of hurting or killing anyone. He sheltered a white woman and her husband in his home for a few hours when they were threatened by a mob—for which the FBI accused him of kidnapping the couple. Williams fled to Cuba, a refugee from United States law enforcement.
Back in New York, Safiya Bukhari had become a young mother. She formed a political and a romantic relationship with another member of the Panthers, Robert Webb, and gave birth to Wonda (named for Safiya’s sorority sister, Wonda Davis) in 1969. In those years, revolutionaries usually saw ourselves as too busy making the revolution to engage in standard family life. The revolution, we felt, would make life better for our families and children. So Safiya devoted herself less to personal love and motherhood than to the Black Panther Party.
This meant embracing the Panther principle of self-defense. The Panthers patrolled their neighborhoods, keeping watch over the police and helping, when they could, victims of police brutality. At a time when police killings of unarmed Black and Puerto Rican youth in New York were frequent—and consistently went unpunished—there was much to do. It is hard to describe the impact that the concept of self-defense had on the Black community and progressive supporters. For the first time in many years, defending a community against police terror was widely promoted as a legitimate tactic. This gave teeth to the community’s demand that Black lives be afforded equal value to white.
But the year 1969 was also the beginning of the Panther 21 case—a prosecution by the Manhattan district attorney, cooked up by the New York Police Department, to portray the Panthers as thugs and hoodlums. Charged with attempted arson, attempted murder, and conspiracy to blow up police stations, school buildings, a railroad yard, and the Bronx Botanical Gardens, the defendants were to spend more than two years in jail before all twenty-one were acquitted by a jury after deliberating for just forty-five-minutes. As Safiya helped organize support for the defendants, the case not only disrupted her life and work—and that of the entire organization—it also confirmed her worst fears: the police were out to get the Panthers.
Other Panther arrests followed. Many of them were questionable; several were later proved in court to be frame-ups similar to that of the 21. Although many activists sensed that covert police surveillance was helping to provoke internal dissention in the party, it wasn’t until after 1975—when the U.S. Senate’s Church Committee confirmed the existence of J. Edgar Hoover’s counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO)—that the Panthers discovered the source of the damage: since 1967 they had been targeted and infiltrated by the FBI, whose explicit purpose was to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” the party. Out of necessity, the Panthers began shifting their emphasis from community organizing to legal defense work. Exposing frame-ups—when it was possible to do so, when all the evidence had not been destroyed by the police—took years of work, not to mention years of the lives of those falsely accused.
Way before we knew what it was, COINTELPRO exerted a tremendous influence on the consciousness and politics of all of us who belonged to or worked with the Panthers and other radical groups. We didn’t know that it was a specific government program, but we did know that we were under surveillance and attack. Many of us were subjected to random bullets and rocks that broke our office windows; strange break-ins where only our notes and address books were taken; and odd, provocative phone calls to our homes, offices, and families. Any ambiguity about the source of these attacks ended for many of us on the night of December 4, 1969, with the assassination of Fred Hampton and fellow Panther Mark Clark in Chicago.
Not only did the police lie, claiming that Fred and Mark had been killed during a shootout initiated by the Panthers; it was also revealed that Fred and other Panthers had been drugged by William O’Neil, an FBI informant within the organization. The police had unleashed a firestorm against the Panthers that was both unprovoked and carefully premeditated. Here’s what else we were sure of: Fred Hampton had been targeted for nothing other than his ability to articulate the problems, dreams, and goals of masses of Black people. Another Black leader had been killed. This was counterinsurgency—a tactic of warfare.
In this context, and with more and more energy going toward supporting the Panthers and other radicals in court cases, many saw the need for underground organizations to carry on community defense work. At the same time, the step many U.S. radicals took in those years to go underground was a leap of hope: the world was in flames, and movements around the world were winning national independence by means of armed as well as political struggle. Many of us felt we were joining a global revolution, taking a chance on a strategy that held the prospect of bringing down the empire. That is why, in her writings and speeches, Safiya will sometimes refer to her years underground as a defense against repression, and sometimes as an attempt to build a national liberation struggle to contend for power.
In 1971, COINTELPRO succeeded in driving a wedge into the Black Panther Party, provoking a split that created separate East and West Coast organizations as well as enmities that resulted in killings. Safiya became communications director of the East Coast organization and edited its newspaper, Right On! She also issued statements received from the clandestine Black Liberation Army (BLA), which was aligned with the East Coast Panthers. The split was deeply troubling, revealing how severely conflicts and divisions can corrode attempts to develop new values and better human relationships. In many of her later writings, Safiya explored the question of how the FBI had been able to create the split—what were the weaknesses, the failures, that allowed such fratricide to be instigated. She also entertained ideas for how to build a more cohesive organization, one that could withstand such assaults from within.
By now, Safiya had devoted her life to the movement, setting aside the ordinary adventures of youth and responsibilities of family. The decision took a toll on her daughter, one both she and her mother later worked hard to repair.
Throughout these years, Safiya played a critical role in developing support for the increasing number of Black prisoners who had been arrested and charged with serious offenses, many tagged by police and media as actions of the BLA. In December 1973, she was arrested and charged with plotting to break prisoners out of New York City jails. A few days after her arrest, out on bail, Safiya told a radio audience that her charges were bogus, an attempt by cops to stop her work on political cases. The charges against her were, in fact, soon dismissed.
Then she was hit with a subpoena to testify before a New York City grand jury that was preparing charges against other Black radicals. She couldn’t bring herself to testify against her political associates. Safiya left her family and friends to continue her work underground.
She stayed under for almost two years, until 1975, when she was arrested at the scene of a grocery store shooting in Norfolk, Virginia. Convicted of robbery and felony murder and sentenced to forty years, Safiya began serving her time in the prison for women at Goochland, Virginia.
Long before her arrest, Safiya had developed massive fibroid tumors. In prison, her condition worsening, she received frighteningly little medical care. In late 1976, Safiya escaped.
Captured within a year, she was tried for escape and used her defense to garner attention to the appalling neglect of her medical condition. The result was that she finally got the operation she needed. But she was also placed in detention and spent nearly all of the following four years in solitary confinement.
True to form, Safiya organized, even when she was in the hole. She provided support to other women prisoners; once released into general population, she created a group called Mothers Inside Loving Kids to help long-term prisoners regain custody of their children. She edited a book of BLA poetry, “The Soul of the Black Liberation Army.” In fact, many of her early writings were produced in prison. Above all, calling on an enormous reserve of psychological strength, she fought to maintain her political identity.
In August 1983, after eight years and eight months in prison, she was, to her surprise, granted parole and released. She rejoined her daughter and her mother (who had been raising Wonda) in New York City and began the process of rebuilding a relationship with her daughter. She got a job as a social worker in the Bronx office of the Legal Aid Society, an organization providing legal services to indigent people. After years of stress and trauma, she found that she had more political work to do than ever.
Radical movements had grown and, by the time of Safiya’s release, there were more than fifty leftist political prisoners in the United States. They represented movements in the Black, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Native American, and white progressive communities. Within the following three years, some forty others would join them.16 Between 1984 and 1998, numerous national and international conferences, publications, organizations, and events focused attention on these cases. Safiya was intimately involved in the efforts, becoming more central to them as time went on.
Safiya continually visited prisoners, wrote to them, and always accepted their collect phone calls. She communicated their needs and ideas to the outside world, and she wrote and spoke on their behalf, while the government, refusing to call them “political” prisoners, kept trying to bury them.
When you’re inside, it means everything to know that there’s someone who will care when you get thrown in the hole or when you don’t have money in your commissary account—someone who will call people to help. Safiya was one of the people prisoners counted on. Sometimes, when fewer people were doing the work, Safiya—like Yuri Kochiyama for years before her—was the one.17 In years when radical movements are in disarray or when activism is absent, work in support of political prisoners can be a way to keep some political issues alive. For prisoners, though, it is more than a tactic—it is a lifeline. That is why every current and former U.S.-held leftist political prisoner knows and reveres the names of Yuri and Safiya in particular. Their work made it possible for political prisoners to have a voice, which meant we were still politically active human beings.
I say “we” because I was one of those prisoners.
Whitehorn is a member of Weather Underground Organization, an American radical left organization.
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