Bobby Seale Still Fighting For Power For The People

Bobby Seale by Shepard Fairey 

-by Denise Sullivan

Black Panther Party founder Bobby Seale gave a rare public talk in San Francisco at the Freedom Archives last week. Hosted by hip hop emcee, Selassie, one of the Frisco 5 hunger strikers who protested against police misconduct and murder here, the onstage conversation was a mix of Seale's personal history and an attempt to pass on some tools to the current generation of activists working to organize around police violence and economic disparity in the Bay Area.

"People want to theorize too much but you have to put the ideas into practice," said Seale who at 79 is very much into action. He cited voting rights among the top priority for young organizers who want to know how to get involved between now and November and in the ongoing struggle for justice and equality. He offered climate change as the single issue that should be used to unify progressive coalitions under the umbrella of revolutionary change.

For 50 years, Seale's status as the organizational leader of the Black Panthers has been partly obscured by his friend, Huey Newton's role as its face, cause célèbre, and finely honed media image that Seale had a hand in co-creating. Of the famous picture of Newton turned into a poster he says, "The spear was mine, the gun was Elvin 'Big Man' Howard's and the chair belonged to attorney Beverly Axelrod."

Citing J. Edgar Hoover's outrageous claim that "The Black Panthers free breakfast for children program is the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States," Seale illustrated that social programs are indeed perceived as a real danger to the status quo, and encouraged serious, young organizers to get busy creating community outreach and good works programs.

Though as moderator Selassie attempted to steer the conversation, Seale mostly shushed him. "I'm trying to give you a dynamic understanding of how the Black Panther Party developed," he said, then proceeded to tell more stories of the early days of the party, how guns and gun laws were used (and how they should and shouldn't be used today), and ultimately, how Newton lost his way and the FBI's counterintelligence directive took down the party from the inside out. He approves of the academic tract, Black Against Empire, which he believes gets the story right but disapproves of the biographical and autobiographical offerings by other former Panthers. He apologized for his own Seize The Time which he explains was not written but compiled from transcripts of jailhouse recordings. When asked about the role of the arts in political and social movements, he cited the Leroi Jones book, Blues People, concerning the beginnings of blues and jazz as a formative influence on expanding his own consciousness, as well as the work of Panther artist Emory Douglas which informed his organization's struggle and delivered it to a worldwide audience on posters and in the Black Panther newspaper.

Black Panther by Emory Douglas

No mention was made of the Chicago trial where Seale was famously bound and gagged, though court room sketches from the event decorated the stage. As you may remember or have heard, it was 48 years ago that Seale and the Chicago Seven were was accused of conspiracy and of inciting a riot during the 1968 Democratic Convention. Seale served a four-year sentence but upon his release returned to Oakland where he ran for mayor and made a strong showing, ultimately losing in a run-off while paving the way for a still annually growing number of African-Americans, people of color, women, gays and others winning contests forpublic office.

He remains a huge supporter of participatory democracy, voting rights and registration drives, and while he admires Sanders's ideas and programs especially free college and health care---he said he voted for Clinton (?)-- though he's more concerned with filling Congress with progressives and with legislation.

After two and half hours of listening, it's hard to say if the young organizers and hopefuls in attendance learned more from the living legend in person than they would listening to audio or reading his story in books, though personally, as one who'd been waiting for at least four decades to hear Seale in person, I'm grateful to Selassie and the Freedom Archives for organizing the event and to Seale who has never wavered from the dynamic slogan he crafted all those years ago: "All power to all the people."

Denise Sullivan is the author of Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music From Blues to Hip Hop. She writes from San Francisco on gentrification and the arts.

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