Huey Newton speaks at Boston college

Huey Newton, George Jackson & What They Mean to Us

This week is quite a historical week as it relates to the African liberation struggle within the confines of the colony known as the U.S. In August of 1971, George Jackson, who was incarcerated in California, was murdered inside prison walls there. As a response to his murder and oppressive prison conditions, incarcerated persons from all walks of life banded together at Attica Prison in New York and staged a rebellion that saw about 40 people slaughtered by prison officials and police. In August of 1989, Huey P. Newton, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, and the ideological brain-thrust for that Oakland, California, based Party, was shot and killed in an alleged drug deal in Oakland.

The protectors of oppression and the maintainers of the capitalist narrative of history will tell you that George Jackson was a violent criminal who went to prison at age 17. They will claim that he smuggled a handgun inside prison and that he attempted to escape and that is why he was killed that day in 1971. They will tell you that the dozens of persons who were murdered inside Attica were all cold blooded killers who were justifiably killed in the interest of saving lives and maintaining order when the uprising happened immediately after Jackson’s murder in 1971. These same people, who are, without question the very definition of criminality, will also tell you that Huey Newton was a violent thug who got what he deserved on that Oakland street in 1989.

Well, of course, we disagree with the imperialists on all accounts. The day we agree with them is the day we should probably cease to exist. We know that Kwame Ture was correct when he said “capitalism doesn’t lie some of the time, it lies all of the time. Even if it tells the truth, it’s only the result of a double lie.” The truth is that George Jackson did go to prison for committing petty crimes, but his prison experience was a transforming one which took him from the streets of South Los Angeles to a decade of imprisonment that opened his eyes and completely politicized him. While in prison he joined Newton’s Black Panther Party (BPP) , becoming a field marshal. He drank in the concept of revolution. He even wrote books where he attempted – as in “Blood in my Eye” – to outline a strategy for achieving revolutionary guerrilla warfare throughout the U.S. Jackson pushed himself to become extremely disciplined in his reading. He devoured books and his personal discipline became the envy of all those around him as he routinely performed outstanding functions like 1000 push ups per day. He became extremely popular with those he was incarcerated with and his influence extended beyond just Africans. He was an influential person to all who were housed in the prisons he occupied. Prison authorities attempted to derail his influence by moving him from institution to institution. 

The situation surrounding the San Quentin Six (where a guard fell to his death in one of the prison institutions), and the aftermath of the Marin County Courthouse shootout that cost George his younger brother Johnathan in 1970, solidified for prison officials that they needed to stop Jackson. He was clearly moving towards consolidating revolutionary organizing inside of the prison system. And we are talking not just about the institution he was incarcerated in, but other facilities as well. He is credited with being a founder of African organizations that today would be known as the Black Guerrilla Family within California prisons. He was a threat that had to be destroyed. The circumstances surrounding his frame up and murder are well documented. What we will say here is that the state claims to this day that he hid a handgun that was smuggled into him in his afro hairstyle. And this was given as the justification to shoot him. All I can say about that is growing up in San Francisco, I distinctly remember hearing of this story when I was a little child. It was actually the gun in the afro element that caught my young attention. I remember being very confused by it. I didn’t know anything about guns then, but I did have a very thick afro. As thick as it was though, it couldn’t hold anything except a comb. I recall thinking, at age 9, that this version of whatever happened with whatever they were talking about was obviously something European people were confused about if they believed that story. George Jackson was murdered because of his leadership in organizing and inspiring other incarcerated persons to stand up and organize. The state was so desperate to kill him that they concocted a story, still being told, that he was attempting to escape San Quentin prison by climbing over a 20 foot wall. George was quite the man, but unless he possessed superhuman abilities we don’t know about, this “official” version of the events around his death have no value besides contributing to a script for an action movie.

The events around the Attica uprising are also very well documented. All I’ll say here is that the prison administration, under the direction of New York Governor Rockefeller (yes that ruling class Rockefeller family) made the hasty decision to mow down those insurrectionists inside that prison because of the fact those people were organizing together across racial lines. This is something that very rarely happens inside any prison and it scared the hell out of the power structure. They knew that if this model spread they would be in trouble, especially once it caught wind outside of prison. So, this is why they decided to start killing people even after they agreed to negotiate with them for their legitimate concerns around mistreatment. Ironically, although a number of guards were taken hostage, many of whom abused incarcerated persons on a regular basis, no guard experienced any mistreatment during the uprising and those who were killed or injured were arguably all victimized by the administration attackers and not the incarcerated persons holding them hostage. 

Finally, Huey P. Newton has also been widely written about. And, although Newton displayed some of the most remarkable courage and determination in the early days of the Panthers, he clearly diminished into some very bad behavior in the last years of his life, but this period was marked by heavy drug use. A drug habit that was brought on by the trauma he experienced from being locked up because of his role as leadership for the BPP. We know now that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had as many personal operations aimed directly at Newton as they did anyone else besides Martin Luther King, Kwame Ture, and Elijah Muhammad. He eventually succumbed to this and his latter deeds reflected that, but the irony of it all is Huey was a loud voice against drug use in the early days of the Panthers and as the BPP’s main founder, he had a strong influence on George Jackson. George Jackson is also the man who founded the organization that the FBI is telling us today murdered Huey Newton on that dark street in 1989. 

We believe that Huey Newton was killed because although he fell off the way he did in the 80s, one thing he never did was denounce the struggle. Eldridge Cleaver became a born again Christian, and then a Mormon. Bobby Seale wrote BBQ cookbooks. Yet, Huey continued to live in Oakland without it ever being clear enough to the power structure that he was done with revolutionary struggle. Clearly, he wasn’t. When he went to San Quentin in 1988, about a year before his murder, on drug charges, once his sentence concluded, he refused to leave because Geronimo Ji Jaga (Pratt) was there. Geronimo was imprisoned on an FBI frame up. He ended up spending 27 years locked up on trumped up charges and Huey wanted to protest Geronimo being held so he refused to leave. He also started doing public speaking engagements in the late 80s. He was often disheveled when he appeared and his thoughts were disjointed at times, but they were still militant and independent, and to the power structure, that meant they were dangerous. Kwame Ture used to tell us that after leaving the huge “Free Huey Newton” birthday party rally took place at the Kaiser Center in February of 1968 in which Kwame was one of the main speakers, the police were heard by all on the steps taunting that “we’ll kill that n – – – – r if it takes us 20 years!” Well, it took them 21, but they did it. When have you heard of the police permitting an African who organized a national organization against them, who was charged with killing one of them, to just walk around free and enjoy the rest of their life?  Especially when that African never denounced or discredited his work?

Just some thoughts to consider this warm August day. You may see these folks as criminals, but to us, they are heroes and they are inspirations. They are examples of how we can fight and that we can and will win. We know they were not perfect. We are building upon their example. We are taking what we can learn from them and we are advancing in areas like anti-patriarchy, revolutionary class struggle, and social revolution. Still, we appreciate the foundation they provided for us. We look to August to remind us of all those who still remain in prison for fighting for us. Mumia Abu Jamal, Leonard Peltier, Mutulu Shakur and many, many, others. They inspire us to keep fighting and that’s why we remember August. And, if you disagree, but you are still reading this, then that proves that this is also why you remember August right along with us. 

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Ahjamu Umi is revolutionary organizer with the All African People's Revolutionary Party, adviser, and liberation literature author.