On Feb. 24, some 250 people jammed into McLaren Hall to hear Bobby Seale interviewed by my colleague, Professor Candice Harrison, of the History Department. The crowd showed an admirable mixture of USF’ers and people from the wider Bay Area community. Bobby Seale exhibited much charm and humor in his replies to Professor Harrison’s questions, relating stories of his rebellious youth along with a moving account of his awakening to racial pride. Toward the end, when he recited by heart and at double-time the long, angry poem that once got him arrested for obscenity on Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue back in the early 1960s, it brought the house down. I left feeling well entertained.
But that was exactly the problem. The more I thought about it, I realized that I hadn’t learned very much about the issues of importance raised by Bobby Seale’s place in history as one of the founders and leaders of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, the most significant black power organization in the United States from 1967 until the early 1970s. Seale actually said almost nothing about those years. And most strikingly, he shared none of his reflections back on that time from the vantage point of today. Bobby Seale today is a man of age 75 or so. How does his mature vision take stock of what he and others did in their twenties and thirties in the heat of a great national upheaval?
Perhaps the central issue raised by the history of the BPP is the place of violence in movements for social justice. When the Panthers showed up in 1967 at the State Capitol in Sacramento armed with guns, it created a sensation. How does he look on that moment now?
Assessing the Panthers’ violent history is no easy task. Emerging out of a social milieu itself subject to violence of many sorts, including brutality by urban police forces that were nearly exclusively white, the Panthers took up the challenge of defending African Americans from attack. Yet they brought violent responses with them, both within their own membership and to the outside world. And the whole picture was complicated by the presence of government informants planted within the organization. This difficult historical record is exactly what today’s activists and the general public could benefit from thinking about as they look for models from the past to guide future actions.
Near the end of his interview Seale recalled an altercation which ensued when a Berkeley policeman tried to arrest him. The two fell to the ground, and Seale reached for a knife in his pocket and cut the officer on his hand. Seale minimized this action, telling the audience that it was only a very small, scouting knife, the kind that has a corkscrew and nail file attached. The audience laughed with him, though this time a little more nervously than before. The perfect opportunity for Seale to add his mature reflection on this youthful incident and raise the general subject of violence passed, and the incident was left glorified, as if nothing had been learned from fifty years of subsequent experience. In the end, I’m afraid, the evening offered little more than a reliving of the sixties, with all its heroism and illusions still intact.
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