A Conversation with Kathleen Cleaver
“Revolutions are dangerous- it requires real people, real mobilisation”
In March, Zainab Abbas, former member of the Black liberation Front UK (BLF), invited Young Historians Project (YHP) to engage in a lengthy and deeply insightful discussion with the former communications secretary of the Black Panther Party (BPP) and ex-wife of the late Eldridge Cleaver, Kathleen Cleaver. YHP’s last project explored the history of the parallel group, the BLF, who, like the BPP, were met with the attacks from the state, notably demonstrated by the arrest of the founder of the BLF, Tony Soares. Our discussion was on the current political climate, and how we can place ourselves in the effort to change our own communities.
With writing this blog in the back of my mind, an unquenchable inner dialogue was sparked as I tried to piece together the state of activism today compared to the past, as well as, the journey we have ahead.
“You think you can change the cultural hegemony without a revolution….Gimme a break, how do you think you can change the cultural hegemony? Asking for change, petitioning for change, having movies saying if you do this, things will change… no….Revolution just means change but usually it takes a war of some sort to change” – Kathleen Cleaver
“Power to the people”
“Power to the People” encapsulated the BPP’s definition of revolution and was energy that ran through the members’ psyche. The Black Panther Party for Self Defence, started by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in 1966, first challenged the police state through arming black citizens to “patrol” the police. For Newton and Seale, intellectualism was not the cure for this, action was. The BPP uniform, black beret, black leather jacket, black trousers, remains a powerful and symbolic aesthetic. Kathleen described the look as “Clean and inexpensive”, there lies its genius; it was widely accessible for the Black working class.
For me, the most powerful symbolism the BPP employed through their aesthetic was the gun. The gun represents an uncompromising philosophy adopted by the BPP, inspired by the Robert Williams’ book Negroes with Guns (1962), which was Black people’s right to defend themselves. The gun penetrated and subverted of the image of the virtuous, non-violent Black activist founded in the strategic moralism that underpinned the Civil Rights Movement. The Black Power movement was a new age of self-defence, secularism and political pragmatism in the face of destruction.
“Is it real or is to mesmerize?”- Sonia Sanchez
We reflected on the most well-known current face of Black activism, Black Lives Matter (BLM). Kathleen proposed we reflect on a quote from Sonia Sanchez, an African American poet, to adequately scrutinise BLM- “But how did it free us?” Black Lives Matter is an organisation and movement formed to challenge and protest police brutality in the USA today. Kathleen mentioned?one of founders Black Lives Matter releasing an autobiography and she said, visibly annoyed, “Well how did that free us?”.
Her question made me think of Deray McKesson’s uniform: his infamous Patagonia blue vest. McKesson is known for being one of BLM leading activist, he is also one of the founders of “Campaign Zero” established in 2015, a police reform campaign consisting of 10 policy proposals, later he decided to run for Mayor of Baltimore. Recently on the Oscar red carpet, McKesson was photographed wearing a black tuxedo, a white shirt and a black bow tie, to distinguish himself, he embellished his outfit with his activist uniform, the Patagonia blue vest. A terrible aesthetic combo...
When I think of Deray McKesson, I think of his activism, his identity as Gay Black man. However, I also think of his blue vest. For me, it is an empty statement, but for McKesson, he told Jezebel that it keeps him grounded on his purpose. Although I cannot judge his personal stylistic preferences , I can explore the intensity of his efforts as an activist and the efforts of BLM as a whole. Are they just treating the symptoms of racism or curing the disease? Does BLM’s platform look like the prerequisites for freedom? Black Lives Matter and the Black Panther Party, whilst they both sought to end police violence, the means of doing so are very different; the BPP had a socialist revolutionary agenda, whereas, BLM utilise non-violent, reformist tactics.
For Kathleen, the BLM movement had the pernicious character of a “counter-revolution”. Kathleen stated “I have no use for them frankly, that doesn’t mean they aren’t doing something that’s helpful, but they are not doing anything that I consider helpful to anybody, whoever they are helping, I don’t know of. But I know many of them are making names for themselves”
Communication and mass shift in consciousness
The Black Panther Party newspaper, Black Panther Black Community News Sevice, was distributed both nationally and internationally. Today, mass communication has taken on a totally new shape through the revolution of the internet and social media. The BLM movement is able to communicate to the masses for free and mobilisation of voices only takes a millisecond through the magic of social media and the use of a hashtag. The discourse on social justice on social media has led to a new process of self-interrogation and deconstruction of the world we are living in... But I could not help but think about how can these shifts in consciousness materialise into real change?
YHP member, Jasmine Brienburg, succinctly identified the problem with BLM and modern social movements by stating that “activism is sellable” and shrouded with “Populism”. What is it BLM selling that leaves a bad taste people’s mouths? In the slogans “Stop shooting us” “Hands up, don’t shoot” lies the remnants of “a plantation mentality” says Elaine Brown, the chairwoman of the BPP in 1974. Brown associates it with pleading with the “Master” to spare’s one life, thus reinforcing the position of powerful vs powerless.
We have to admit; “Hands up, don’t shoot” is a far cry from “Power to the people”. The essence of the BPP that inspired the world was the message of directing your own destiny. As noted by, Bobby Seale , Newton saw the potential in “brothers off the block?—brothers who had been out there robbing banks, brothers who had been pimping, brothers who had been peddling dope, brothers who ain’t gonna take no shit”. The Black Panthers were extremely powerful because they refused to be fatalistic about the conditions of black communities and encouraged Black people to resist oppression through education and defiance.
Politics of Fear
Towards the end, we did a mini photoshoot, Kathleen was more than willing to let me flex my amateur photography skills to capture her beauty. I got some lovely shoots of her and I captured the sisterly love between Zainab and Kathleen. Zainab ensured we were well-fed and she showed us some relics she has gathered in her life, including a Christmas card she received from the Obamas. She also showed us her name card from a NYU event held in 2012, reuniting Panthers from the USA, UK, India, and Australia; Zainab representing the UK and Kathleen representing the USA. She introduced the concept of the “Politics of fear” into the discussion, a political ploy used to manipulate the public through heightening the presence of threat to instigate the emotional response of fear, this leads to giving permission for the beneficiaries to “protect” the public by removing the so called “threat” and bolster “security”, which could mean extra surveillance and restriction of freedoms.
“The Black Panther Party, without question, represents the greatest threat to internal security of the country"
One of the stories Kathleen told us was how she met Assata Shakur in Cuba at a party whilst she was there for the Havana Film Festival. The story was exciting, but it later fizzled into coldness. Assata Shakur was a former member of the Black Liberation Army, she was convicted of first degree murder and whilst in prison, she escaped to Cuba where she received political asylum. She currently has a $2M bounty on her head, dead or alive. “It is to erase her” Kathleen stated. It made me think of how history is documented today, and who’s story gets to be told.
Looking at the history, it is easy to feel defeated, but today is a new day. There are new ways to challenge the status quo. The Black Panther Party’s patrolling, is today’s video camera. We have more resources than ever to be educated on how to empower ourselves, to connect with one another and understand the world we occupy rather than stay stuck in victimisation. In the London, there has been 50 murders in just 3 months, poverty and social inequality are known causes of violence, which results in Black British people being particularly vulnerable to the collateral damage of poverty. People are advocating short term suppression measures, such as increased police presence. Dave, the UK rapper, was criticised for arguing for the use of stop and search. In a society, that is still “Racist”, stop and search are counter-productive when it serves of further criminalise black people.
I would argue we need inspiration from methods used by the BPP and BLF to inspire the youth to imagine a life beyond their current situation and to encourage young people to challenge social inequality and oppressive systems, and to channel anger to transform their situation and society as a whole.
More importantly, our discussion with Kathleen Cleaver reinforced the importance of the Young Historians Project in documenting and rediscovering hidden histories in Britain. People espouse the language of wanting change through their frustrations with racism, other oppressive systems in society, but it is not enough to be conscious of oppression, to just be affiliated with being on the “right” political position. There needs to be a will to know your role in changing things, or else you risk being stuck in political apathy or victimisation. Everyone should get comfortable with being uncomfortable if you truly want to be on the “right side” of history.