The following is an excerpt of Safiya Bukhari’s The War Before: The True Life Story of Becoming a Black Panther, Keeping the Faith in Prison & Fighting For Those Left Behind. This section is titled “Enemies and Friends: Resolving Contradictions” and it was written sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s, during a time when those who had been targeted by COINTELPRO were trying to recover their relationships and figure out how they would be able to continue to do political work together. We have written extensively about the environment of mistrust created around the imprisonment of Geronimo ji Jaga. That environment contributed significantly to the solutions that Safiya offers in this work.
Each week of African Liberation Month, we will be offering something from the archives of the African Liberation Struggle as a centering piece of the theme. In keeping with this week’s theme “What Is To Be Done”, we hope that ancestor Safiya’s reflection on our inability to resolve conflict will shine a light on us all.
Over the past several years, the movement—or what is left of it—has been bogged down in a quagmire of infighting, backstabbing, manipulation, and one upmanship. Those of us in the movement don’t see it this way. But to the people outside looking in—those we are attempting to organize—this is what appears to be happening. We see ourselves as being involved in concrete political work. De- pending on what political formation we belong to, we consider ourselves the sole standard bearers of revolutionary principles, the ones with the correct path—and everyone else who is not down with us is incorrect, fools, or napes. If we were able to take a step back to look at the situation objectively, we would get a different view.
The first thing that you recognize from that perspective is that there’s a big world out there and the “movement” is very small. Not only is the movement small, but it’s an extremely incestuous bunch of people. I don’t mean that blood relatives are actually indulging in sexual relations. I mean that the movement is so small that it is hard to find someone who has not been party to a relationship— political or sexual—with someone else in the movement. In effect, we’re all connected to one another in some convoluted way. In a very concrete sense, the movement has become like Peyton Place or any other soap opera you see on television. Contradictions between people and organizations usually develop out of personal problems that escalate into political differences.
Because the movement is rife with disorganization and lacks cohesion, people make decisions about whom to work with based on personal relationships. As a result, one might wonder whether we can be taken seriously when we talk about making a revolution in this country. I cannot exclude myself from this criticism, because I’ve found myself deciding on occasion to take the easy way out rather than stay and wage struggle to combat these tendencies and build a stronger movement.
My own inability to confront the problems and struggle to eradicate counterproductive tendencies within our formations stems from a fear of having my motives misconstrued or of being subject to personal attack. Sometimes it’s extremely hard to deal with situations in a principled manner when people call one another “comrade” but treat each other in a manner that belies the use of that term. Social practice is the criterion for truth. If you talk about people behind their backs, have hidden agendas, or manipulate situations so that certain people are not privy to what’s going on—and I’m not talking about a “need-to-know” situation—it makes it hard for people to criticize such activity without fearing retaliation.
The real problem begins with what Mao Tse-tung called liberalism.
In “Combat Liberalism,” Mao Tse-tung said, “Liberalism is extremely harmful in a revolutionary collective. It is a corrosive that eats away unity, undermines cohesion, causes apathy and creates dissension. It robs the revolutionary ranks of compact organization and strict discipline, prevents policies from being carried through and alienates the Party organizations from the masses which the Party leads. It is an extremely bad tendency.”
I have read and studied “Combat Liberalism” more times than you can shake a stick at. But reading doesn’t necessarily mean understanding—and understanding doesn’t necessarily mean internalizing. Within the past few months, I have been taking stock of myself and trying to understand what is making it hard for me to make real progress, to engage in constructive criticism and open myself up to criticism and self-criticism. It wasn’t until the past few weeks, when I was trying to determine whether it made sense to continue to try and work with certain people, that I had to look into myself and recognize that I was again refusing to engage in constructive criticism. I was walking away and allowing a situation to continue without struggling to resolve contradictions. I asked myself, “How can you talk about taking on the United States government when you are afraid to struggle with a few people?” That is the biggest contradiction of them all.
Now, for the first time, I understand what Mao Tse-tung meant when, in a speech before the Chinese Communist Party’s National Conference on Propaganda Work on March 12, 1957, he said, “He who is not afraid of death by a thousand cuts dares to unhorse the emperor.” Whatever is unprincipled, incorrect, and counterproductive about you and your style of work, you have to be willing to subject to the rapier knife of revolutionary criticism if you are serious about creating a revolution. Everything—action or inaction, the way you relate to people you work with, how you deal with the masses, how you deal with your family, how you deal with personal relationships, how you deal with people with whom you disagree— has to be open to criticism and self-criticism. None of us is perfect, but we all claim to want to create a revolution. In order to create this revolution we must be willing to sublimate our egos for the good of the movement and suffer death of these egos by a thousand cuts. It is only when we are able to do this that we will truly be able to move forward and create a revolution—and win.
If we continue to practice liberalism and do not engage in struggle against incorrect views for the sake of unity or progress or “getting the work done properly,” then we will continue to walk away from organizations and groups, creating new groups of two or thirty. This practice has permeated the movement and helped to create the sectarian problem we’re experiencing today. We cannot organize our communities for revolution if we cannot resolve the contradictions among ourselves. It’s not good enough to say, “We agree to disagree.” That usually means that you’ve decided to go your separate ways and not interfere with each other. If a contradiction is of such magnitude that you cannot work together, even with the knowledge that you’re involved in building a revolution—something that requires a coordinated effort between revolutionaries and the masses, something that is highly life threatening—then you cannot just go your separate ways. There is no separate way in a revolutionary struggle. We’re all either in this together or we’re working at odds with each other. The sooner we recognize this and begin seriously working to resolve the contradictions among us, the sooner we can seriously begin to build a foundation for revolution.
To simply say that we’re going to work together is not enough, either. We’re all human beings. We all have our own idiosyncrasies. What is necessary is that we stop the liberalism, place all our cards on the table, and hash out our differences. We can no longer afford the luxury of rumor-mongering, making unsubstantiated allegations, or harboring ill feelings without airing them.
The original split within the Black Panther Party in 1971 went down because we practiced liberalism, harbored ill will, believed rumors without investigation, and allowed this to go on until it grew so large that we believed the only way out was fratricide. If we had nipped it in the bud, COINTELPRO would not have been able to do its job. A lot of comrades would not have been killed, many more would not have ended up in prison for all these years, and countless others would not be members of the class of the walking dead.
Only when we lay all our cards on the table, reveal all our heretofore hidden agendas, and determine that we are working on the same agenda will we be capable of waging struggle over disagreements to build a strong, solid organization that will lead us to freedom and liberation.
In understanding this, I have come to recognize that everybody does not take this view. For those who do, I would like to offer this view of how to resolve contradictions among the people so we can begin to move forward in the struggle. The first step is to discuss our goals and see whether they are the same, or at least whether they fit with one another.
We often assume that because we all say, “We’re involved in a struggle,” we mean we’re involved in the same struggle, with the same objectives and goals. Here’s what I mean by that phrase: I believe that nothing short of a revolution will eradicate the racism, capitalism, and imperialism that oppress me and my people as well as other exploited and oppressed people everywhere. I believe that the capitalist system of this country has to be destroyed and replaced with an economic system built on the premise “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” That is, every man, woman, and child contributes to the whole what he or she is capable of contributing, and, whether that contribution is highly skilled labor or unskilled labor, each receives from the whole the basic necessities of life—what is necessary for maintaining a humane and dignified existence.
Once we have established a commonality of goals, the method we use in resolving contradictions should be determined by a number of factors, chiefly, (1) whether the contradiction is with our enemy or between friends and, (2) what is the desired outcome of the contradiction.
Once it has been established that the contradiction is between friends (for the purpose of this paper, “friends” is not being used to mean cut buddy, homey, or pal. Here it is merely a way of saying that the person is not an agent, pig, provocateur, or someone working against the interest of the people), then the next step is to determine what the desired outcome is.
If the contradiction is between friends, then the desired outcome must be to resolve the contradiction in order to move forward. If the allegation is that the person is an agent or enemy of the people, the desired outcome is to resolve the contradiction in order to verify the charge or exonerate the individual. The method used to resolve the contradiction starts from the premise “No investigation, no right to speak.”
The first order of business is to investigate the allegation. Not to spread rumors or vilify the person, but to conduct a thorough, objective investigation of the circumstances that led to the charge. Too often in our movement, as in our everyday lives, we hear rumors about individuals and, without thought for consequences or making any effort to determine the validity of the rumor, we simply pass them on to someone else. On the streets, outside political formations, we’re very clear that when we do this we’re indulging in gossip. Within the movement, we talk about COINTELPRO all the time but don’t realize that what we’re doing is continuing the pattern of behavior that allowed COINTELPRO to succeed.
The object of investigation is to get to the truth. This requires that we enter into the investigation from the point of neutrality. This can best be done by empowering a minimum of three people to conduct the investigation and arrive at an objective conclusion. We must be objective and give no greater validity to one side than to the other. The axiom is that there are three sides to a situation: side one, side two, and the truth. In getting to the truth we must hear all sides of the question first. Once all sides are heard, if the truth is not easily discerned, then it becomes necessary to continue the investigation by questioning witnesses to the situation. During the course of the investigation, depending upon the nature of the charge, we con- duct business as usual.
The movement has long talked about people being “tried before the people in a people’s court.” But the theory has far outweighed the practice. The Provisional Government of the Republic of New Afrika (PG-RNA) has gone so far as to elect judges to its People’s Court. But trying issues of dispute before a People’s Court is not a working practice. In order for it to be a working practice, we have to begin implementing it. If we are to educate our people on the correct method of resolving contradictions by example, then we can ill afford to continue making allegations, spreading and embellishing them without moving to resolve them.
A Model for a People’s Court
I recently engaged in such a dispute. The model that was used to resolve the dispute was a people’s tribunal. The person bringing the charges put them on paper. The person the charges were brought against prepared a written response. These were disseminated to all parties involved. A date, time, and place were set for a hearing. Both sides were able to have witnesses present. Three independent hearing officers (having no involvement in the dispute and trusted by both sides) were chosen, and an odd number of (not less than five) jurists were chosen, also with no involvement in the charges.
The hearing officers set the tone and laid out guidelines for the proceeding. The charges were read into the record and tape-recorded. Then the person bringing the charges presented her point of view, followed by the reading of the written response to the charges. Next, the person bringing the charges called and questioned her witnesses. The person charged then questioned the witnesses, followed by questions from the hearing officers and jury panel. The witnesses were not allowed to ask any questions; their part in the proceeding was simply to be witnesses. The proceedings were handled the same way for the person being charged when she presented her witnesses.
All the parties involved had agreed to abide by the decision of the court, and they did. This is only a model. It was not perfect, and it is possible that the resolution was accepted and the episode laid to rest for reasons other than the fact that the proceedings were handled in a principled manner.
Maybe We Really Haven’t Identified the True Contradictions?
I suggest that the real contradiction may be that we really are not about the same thing, the same goals, and some of us are not willing to admit it. Not yet, anyway …