Interview with Dhoruba bin Wahad: “We were the only Black cadre organization“
Originally published here
Revolutionary Dhoruba bin Wahad is a former member of the Black Panther Party (BPP) and the Black Liberation Army (BLA). He was a leading member of the New York chapter of the BPP, a Field Secretary of the BPP responsible for organizing chapters throughout the East Coast, and a member of the Panther 21. Arrested in June 1971, he was framed as part of the illegal FBI Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) and subjected to unfair treatment and torture during his nineteen years in prison. In the following interview, Lower Class Magazine spoke with him about the Black Lives Matter Movement, the specificities of the BPP, and organizing in imperialist centers.
You said in an interview that spontaneous uprisings as we see them pop up across the globe, such as the recent Black Lives Matter protests in the US, lack organization and, therefore will not be able to challenge racism, capitalism and white supremacy in any meaningful way. Can you explain why you think that is the case and what would be the required organizational answer?
Spontaneous rebellions have only a limited effect. The most important part of spontaneity in terms of political reactions is that it brings people together around a particular issue at a particular time. But it lacks longevity. It can be easily co-opted and misdirected, especially over a long period of time. Only organization transforms a spontaneous rebellion into a protracted struggle around an issue. So organization is about focusing on the issues, organizing people around principled unity because of the issues that brought them into the street. And transforming mobilization -masses of people coming together for a particular reason- into an organized movement. I think its only movements that could bring about any significant change. Spontaneous rebellions and uprisings can be put down by the state, they can be co-opted. And we see this happening today. So organization is really important to solidify mass mobilization, to create a leadership from the struggle, from amongst the people. And it’s also an exercise in democracy. Spontaneous rebellions that are transformed into organized movements, tend to raise up representatives from the lower parts of that movement, the rank, and file. And they become the expression of that major force that is able to articulate the needs of people and stand up for it. Of course, the drawback to that is that repression then can focus on leaders. It can focus on organizations. It can encapsulate organizations. But that downside doesn’t outweigh the fact that movements have to be organized. You have never had a successful revolutionary movement that has overthrown a system, that wasn’t organized.
During the latest wave of anti-racist uprising slogans such as “defund the police” and “abolish the police” were yet again popularized. As BPP you advocated for community control of police. What does that look like in practice?
Defunding has come up recently during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Suppressing crime is used as a pretext to justify the militarization of law enforcement. People believe the resources that are being put into militarized policing can better be spent in addressing the social impacts of inequality, of crime. Crime is looked at to reimagine law-enforcement: to view it as a consequence of poverty, marginalization and discrimination. It’s usually in the poor and marginalized communities that crime is considered rampant.
Defunding the police and community control of public safety are not contradictory but I think that they have to deal with the state, with the organization of the state. Now every country has a different political structure and different cultural affinities: In the United States there is no national police force that is controlled by the central government. All policing is basically local. It’s at a state, municipal and township level, which means that the police force, which America has developed since the 1960s, is a militarized police force. SWAT teams, special weapons and tactics teams. The police in most urban areas, and even here in Germany, look just like soldiers in a foreign land. They are wearing the same type of uniforms, the same kind of tactics. This militarization of the police is designed to the masses of people in check. It’s to protect property, to control protest. So we need to demilitarize the police, make them more accountable to the community and the people that they police. Not just accountable to corporate structures and people that own property.
Decentralization of the police simply means to change the command and control structure of the police and view the police as part of a general public safety. Public safety means also public healthcare. It also means public sanitation, transportation… It also means that it should be at control of local communities. And local communities in America can change this.
The Black Panther Party was a Black only organization that saw itself as the vanguard of the revolution within the United States. The white left had been proven to be largely ignorant to the problems and demands of Black people before the Black Power movement had gained significance. Black self-organization was therefore required in order to be able to work with white left and to lead the revolutionary struggle within the United States itself, not just one that supported anti-imperialist struggles abroad.
In the course of its development the BPP changed its position towards white people, for instance, exchanging “white people” with “capitalists” in the 10 Point Program. The party became to advocate the power of cross-racial organizing and implemented coalition making with white, Latino, Asian and other revolutionary groups in its strategy. This manifested for instance in the United front against fascism or Fred Hamptons rainbow coalition. You said that it was this strategy that made the FBI classify the BPP as one of the biggest threats to internal security.
Drawing from the experience of the BPP back then and applying it to the contemporary political context in Europe do you think that migrants, people of color, black people need their own organizations, formed along racial and ethnical lines and build coalitions with each other and the white left, or do we need cross-racial organizations to begin with?
Well, let me say that basically what you were saying is accurate. But the major distinction that Black Panther Party had at that particular historical moment, in my view, is that it was a cadre organization. It was one of the only Black cadre organizations that wasn’t a messianic movement, like the Nation of Islam that was built around a theology. It wasn’t a Black nationalist organization and just talked about issues that related to Black people.
We understood, and if you read some of the writings of George Jackson and some of the earlier propositions of the Black Panther Party, that there was, in the Black community, a large lumpen proletariat class. And we arrived at the understanding of lumpen proletarianism because we understood the analysis of dialectical materialism under capitalist construct. White supremacy is a social and political construct and gets its economic energy, of course, from capitalism. And it’s designed to keep the working class at odds with people of color. And that’s how it evolved that way.
It’s very difficult for Europeans to understand that the Black working class in the US came out of chattle slavery. And once chattle slavery was abandoned, the Black working class, in many ways, wasn’t a typical working class. It was almost a permanently unemployed class. And Black people were excluded from unions initially, from white unions, from professional unions. Black people had to struggle just to get jobs. The great migration, the urbanization process in America created the ghettos and urban areas that we have today and these urban areas and these ghettos were subjected to inferior education, very low economic subsidies, few jobs etc. So you had this very large surplus class you didn’t have during Jim Crow and during slavery. You had this large surplus class in industrialized urban areas. And this was, what Marx defined as the lumpen proletariat. And the Black lumpens were the ones that were in the streets throwing bricks. And they were the first ones to rebel. They were the ones that initiated spontaneous rebellions; they were the ones that would rather punch a capitalist boss in the face than punch a time clock. Now they were distinct from the Black bourgeoisie and the Black middle class and the Black professional class. So, class struggle was very important in the Black Panther Party’s ideology and perceptions of how revolution should proceed in America.
And finally, the empowerment of working people, the empowerment of Black folks, the abolition of white supremacy as a social construct, as a political construct could not occur without the alliance with the white majority population at that time, without white working class people. The white workers had to have a consciousness of themselves as revolutionaries, as a revolutionary class, which the white American working class didn’t. The white American working class has never been revolutionary as a class. But it had revolutionary movements, such as unionization at the turn of the century with industrialization. So all of these forces played a role in why the Black Panther Party saw that our natural allies were those who were working class people, who opposed capitalist ownership of the means of production and capitalist exploitation of surplus labor. We had that analysis. So that’s what made the Black Panther Party distinct from other Black organizations at that time. And it was because of this, that whenever we tried to mobilize Black-white alliances, the Black nationalist right, usually opposed us. It was them that the government used against us.
We also had a lot of contradictions with the communist party in the US together with the left were also victims of white supremacy. So racism always showed its ugly face within the left, within unions towards Black workers. So it was important for Black workers to organize themselves and that brings me to the last point.
I think migrant communities have to organize themselves. And they have to organize themselves around their own particular experience in the metropoles. But at the same time, they need to understand that radical change, revolutionary change, that the abolishment of ethno-centrism, that the abolishment of white supremacy and racism require that they ally themselves principally with other organizations within the white movement in order to address the class oppressors of both people. Racism and white supremacy only benefits the ruling class, it never benefits the working class. Unfortunately, most white workers don’t see it that way.
I hear a lot of people saying that revolutionary struggle within the imperialist centers is impossible. On the one hand, due to the degree of organization of the state, its surveillance and repression tactics targeting revolutionary like yourself and on the other hand and due to the fact that the proletariat within the global north form still are part of relatively privileged class from a global perspective who benefit from the exploitation of workers in the global south and therefore will not engage in revolutionary struggle. They argue that all organizing within the imperial centers should be funneled only into solidarity work for revolutionary struggles in the Global South. What is your position on this?
I think there is a lot of veracity there. The modern national security state has a monopoly on violence and power. But all power that relies on force, on physical coercion eventually crumbles. It has to have a moral and has to have an ethical raison d’être, it has to have a reason ethically so that people submit to it. I think we saw that from the industrial revolution that indeed workers can change paradigms of power in terms of class in the metropoles. I mean it was Marx who said that the only revolutionary class was the working class because it was upon the working class that all else depended. But having said that, giving how things have evolved, and I think people should really go read George Jackson on this, yes, the white working class in the metropoles is predominantly reactionary. They have supported imperialism, the exploitation of the global south and their lifestyle and their privileges in many ways depend on the nation-state maintaining these types of paradigms of exploitation. So yes, I think there is a revolutionary potential if people of color and the white working class in the metropoles align themselves.
I think that the most important thing given this generation, a position in the crisis of global capitalism and finance capitalism is that we reach across borders and that we understand that we are global citizens now. Empire and technology has made us citizens of the world. And I think we should organize on that level. And if we organize on that level, then the national security state power is severely limited. We have a global economy and we should have a global working-class and multi-racial mass movement across boundaries.
Before, the ruling elites, the finance capitalists and the elites in each individual nation, were nationalists. They looked to themselves first, they looked to their own well-being of their nations. That has changed. Now we have a global elite, we have the collaboration between capitalists of over the world. You see this in conferences such as in Davos every year, where all the corporate leaders and politicians meet and discuss “What are we gonna do now?”. They are organized and we are not. You see they understand this paradigm that now we have a global economy. So yeah, we need a global movement.