Walidah Imarisha is an instructor at Portland State University's Black Studies Department as well as a renowned poet and community organizer. For the past few years she has toured Oregon lecturing about the state's racial history with the Oregon Humanities Conversation Project.
The Skanner News: Can you talk briefly about the Black Power Movement nationally and describe what it was about and how influential it was on society?
Walidah Imarisha: I think calling this the Black Liberation Movement is useful because it allows us to show the connections between the organizations and work in the 1960s and 1970s and link it to a history of resistance in the Black community. It also shows the connections between what's called the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movements, focusing on their end goals (of liberation and justice) rather than the tactics they used.
The Black Liberation Movement was intricately tied to, influenced by and also influence the Third World Liberation Movement nationally and internationally. The other movements in the United States in communities of color – Indigenous, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Asian Pacific Islander communities – were very tied to Black Liberation struggles, especially the Black Panther Party (as were working class white groups like Young Patriot Party and radical student organizations likes Students for a Democratic Society). Internationally, the anti-colonial struggles happening across Africa, Latin America, Asia (especially the war in Vietnam), the Caribbean, the Middle East had a huge impact here in the U.S.
There were thousands of organizations across the country and internationally that were part of the Black Liberation Movement, though most folks focus on the Black Panther Party, because it was the largest national organization, because it was the one that received the most media attention, and because of the strong and sustained community organizing work they did. The Black Panthers wanted community control within Black and other oppressed communities, and worked with anyone, including progressive white people, to achieve those goals. Their biggest program across the country was the free breakfast programs for children, which at its height fed 10,000 children a day across the country – more than the United States government according to the Attorney General in California.
TSN: I'm sure many, many people would be surprised to learn that Portland had an active Black Panther organization — and I think people would be surprised to learn what they did here to create a children's food program and the Fred Hampton Health Clinic. Walidah why don't more people know these kinds of details about the Panthers today?
WI: I think the entire history of the Panthers in general has either been erased or completely maligned. They were one of the largest and most influential organizations in the Black community, but because of their radical politics and their direct challenge to the authority of the state, they have been erased. When they are present, they are caricatures of themselves – all we see is black berets and automatic weapons and we are told they were angry dangerous Black men who wanted to kill white people. Every time I teach my History of the Black Panther Party class, students share this is the only image they have of the Party. But the reality of the Party is that they were against racism in all forms, and they formed coalitions with white folks, that their main programs were their Serve the People programs, which included the health clinics and breakfast programs, and that their weapons were only used legally in self defense against police departments that across the country were engaging in rampant brutality against marginalized communities.
I believe Portland highlights all of those issues very clearly. The Portland Black Panther Chapter worked closely with white allies. Their Fred Hampton Health Clinic was one of the longest-running Panther clinics across the nation, and their breakfast program was one of the first in the country (it consistently fed up to 125 children five days a week for five years). I have gotten to meet people who used the breakfast program or the dental clinic as youth, and speak of the Party and its work very positively. I had the opportunity to meet an older white man who interned at the clinic while he went to medical school at OHSU, and he said he always felt welcome, and that the clinic served anyone who came in without question, all for free. He said if there was still a Panther clinic, he would come out of retirement as a doctor to volunteer at it.
Part of the erasure of the Panthers here in Portland is an attempt to erase the issues they addressed. Portland as a self-proclaimed liberal city, often does not like to acknowledge it deals with the same issues, inequalities and disparities of other cities across this country. So the fact that there were children going to school hungry here, people in need not receiving medical care, police brutalizing and killing unarmed people in this town because of their race, is an uncomfortable conversation – but even more uncomfortable for Portland is to connect it with what is happening today, and to see that in many ways, material conditions have not changed in this town, despite messaging to the contrary.
TSN: We just wrapped up the trial of Mohamad Mohamud, a Somali-American convicted on terrorism-related charges that critics link to entrapment by the FBI. Can you sketch out some similarities between the FBI surveillance of the Black Power Movement and the way Mohamud was surveilled by federal officials in the modern day?
WI: I think it's incredibly important to study the history of FBI surveillance and disruption of radical movements in the past, to understand the tactics being utilized today against marginalized communities and justice organizing. The FBI started a program in the 1960s called the CounterIntelligence Program (COINTELPRO), a secret government program that used illegal tactics to destroy organizations, individuals and movements. The tactics ranged from disruption, sending false letters, using agent provocatuers and informants, all the way up to working with local police departments to plan the assassination of radical leaders, like was down with Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton when hew as assassinated while he slept in his bed by a combined attack by Chicago police and the FBI. All of this information and more is documented in the internal memos the FBI sent and kept. Through these documents, we are able to see clearly the anatomy of repression.
In many ways, the current anti-terrorism tactics are simply COINTELPRO – the different is now they are completely within the boundaries of law, now that the laws have and are continuing to be changed.
I'd encourage everyone to read The COINTELPRO Papers by Ward Churchilll and Jim Vander Wall, or Agents of Repression by Churchill, where you can see copies of the actual documents that outline all of this.
TSN: Do you think this long tradition of police and federal surveillance has an impact on specifically the Black community?
WI: The stated goal of COINTELPRO was to stop the coming of a Black messiah – it was an entire program aimed at targeting and attacking the Black community, other communities of color and radical organizations. And it targeted people not for what they had done, not for any illegal activity on their part, but for their identities. The attempt of Black people and other people of color to gain true justice was seen as such a threat that all means, legal and illegal, where utilized to stop that.
We see this connect very clearly with the ways communities of color especially the Black community is targeted by things like the ever growing prison system or as Michelle Alexander calls it, "the new Jim Crow." The fact that Black people are six times as likely as whites, in Oregon and nationally, to be incarcerated is a direct result of the overpolicing and surveillance of communities of color. The fact that 80 percent of those who are in prison as a direct result of the War on Drugs are people of color shows that these tactics have been utilized and are being utilized against entire communities.
It is due only to the resilience, strength and connectivity (historically and currently) of Portland's Black community that a community exists and continues to move forward despite setbacks.