Bobby Seale adapts to the '90s without losing his commitment to action "I wouldn't even talk about shooting or killing anyone in any goddamn press coverage. There's no statute of limitations for what the racists would call 'murder', and I would call 'self-defense'," says Bobby Seale with feigned nonchalance. In today's world of diluted spirit and political paralysis, many activists wish to emulate the perceived conviction and militance of Seale, the revolutionary co-founder of the Black Panther Party. But the means that were necessary yesterday, may not be appropriate today, and Seale will be the first to tell you so. "Groups are riding on the past because they're misunderstanding it. It's up to us older guys to make it clear to them." Today at Cafe Society, a West Germantown deli, Seale contemplates the times while nearby, clusters of portly customers tear at their cheeseburgers, oblivious to the history that sits five feet away. It was 1966 and everything seemed up for grabs. Authority was the demon of the decade. Whites were tired of the monotony of middle-class America. It was old, it was boring. Blacks, they were just weary from the racism. "Off the Pigs!" The war-cry rang loud and clear. If you were a cop (or a pig in this case) you better watch your back. The Black Panthers were in town and the shit was going down. Lined up across from America's police were black men in austere leather jackets and black berets. They operated with a refined discipline and omnipresence that sent fear into the minds of mainstream, white America. Oh, and by the way, they were carrying shotguns. The seeds for such confrontation were spawned in 1962 at Merritt College, a two-year institution located on the fringe of the West Oakland ghetto. There, Seale met Huey Newton, a charismatic, gregarious law student. The two often sat in coffeehouses discussing black nationalism, black literature, and revolution. They circulated within a group of black college students Seale termed "a young, black intelligentsia." Frequently, conversation centered on Malcolm X's call for armed resistance as a means for African-Americans to gain freedom and rest control from white society. "You have to understand the degree of psychological terror that existed," explains Seale, "For an average black person to think that he or she could stand up in front of some racist and tell them where to get off at -- Malcolm X captured our feelings on that." The vision was empowering and it fueled Seale and Newton's collective desires for action against an oppressive white institution. Ironically Seale notes, "If Malcolm X was never killed, the Black Panther Party would probably have never existed." With X's death as a call to arms, Seale and Newton formed the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in 1966. The organization pledged to patrol the streets of Oakland's ghetto with the California Penal Code under one arm and a gun resting in the other. They aimed to protect black streets from what they saw as an "oppressive, fascist, racist police." The Panthers often followed squad cars, protecting blacks' constitutional rights. The Panthers created much of their controversy on constitutional grounds. Strictly interpreting the second amendment, they argued for their right to bear arms and defend themselves. At the time, it was illegal to carry concealed weapons in California. However, an open display of weapons was permissible, and that was fine with the Panthers. Black men with guns -- it was an frightening concept -- and White America quivered. On May 2, 1967, Seale and Newton led the Panthers as they marched on the California State Legislature to protest proposed gun control legislation. Brushing past stunned security guards, the Panthers marched right onto the floor of the legislature. They became instant media darlings. Governor Ronald Reagan decried them as ruffians and thugs. Shaking his finger, he called for an end to the Panthers, but it was to no avail. Despite several forced misdemeanor charges, the legend of the party continued to grow. Recalls Seale with a certain sense of pride, "We vowed to defend ourselves, and that captured the imagination of a lot of people." If there was one group that truly adored the Panthers it was the white radicals. Like inferior school children idolizing the one kid who stood up to the bully, white leftists from groups such as Students for a Democratic Society (collectively known as the New Left) flocked to the Panther's side. Tom Hayden, posterboy of the New Left and Jane Fonda beau, even went so far as to label them "America's Viet Cong." You get the picture. Aside from their obvious militancy, the Panthers' inclusionary policies made them unique among other radical black organizations. Newton and Seale recognized the potential of the white New Leftists who were ambling down the road of radical irrelevance after being expelled from one of the more prominent civil rights organizations at the time, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The Panthers held out the chance for a coalition. Seale professes, "We did not reside with the notion of a black power group. I was about all power, to all the people." Ultimately, this motto and the party's policies translated into white money and Panther power. And Panther power meant conflict with the Oakland police who continued to deny blacks many of their basic constitutional rights. Their ideology deemed it so. More importantly, they needed these confrontations to maintain their legitimacy. Seale paints a vivid image of guns with his hands and commands: "You have to picture Huey standing there saying: 'Stick 'em up motherfuckers, we're going to take what's rightfully ours.'" Invincibility. Newton seemed to personify this image increasingly with each confrontation. Yet, on the eve of October 28, 1967, his mortality became manifest during a gun battle with two policemen. Details were never clear, but in the end one officer was dead, another wounded, and Newton lay with a bullet hole in his stomach. He was quickly wheeled off to the hospital only to be charged with murder by Alameda County. Enter Bobby Seale. With Newton in jail for nearly three years, Seale, along with Eldridge Cleaver, moved to the forefront of the Black Panther Party. Bobby was quick to the draw, but above all else he was an organizer. Newton's imprisonment became a cause celebre as thousands rallied behind the Panthers with calls of "Free Huey!" Thumbing through a pile of old photographs, a proud, almost childish smile coats Seale's face. "Look at that rally. I put 5,000 people at that rally," he boasts. Seale's agenda also targeted community activism. He helped establish various neighborhood "survival programs" such as the Breakfast for Children program, the George Jackson Free Medical Clinic, and the Oakland Community Learning Center. As part of the larger Panther plan, Seale sought to empower and enfranchise the black electorate. Explains Seale, "Political, electoral, black community unity scared the racists." In 1973, he ran for mayor of Oakland, and, despite losing, sent shock waves through the city's white power structure. It was this kind of efficacy that truly threatened the white establishment. And for Seale, the Panthers' activism, and not their armed self-defense, was the true essence of the party. "People don't really know the Black Panther Party...They still function off of the old J.Edgar Hoover stereotype," he laments. Ultimately, the Panthers were consumed by the violence that propelled them. Shoot-outs with cops persisted, culminating in a four-hour long fight in Los Angeles in 1969 that left several Panthers dead. Increased FBI penetration also helped lead to a Panther demise as party members became factionalized. "A lot of the undercurrent crap, half of it came out of provocateur agents. COINTELPRO was sending in letters and bullshit like that, " says Seale with evident bitterness. By the early '70s the media, which had helped cultivate the Panther's image, turned their backs. Furthermore, Huey Newton, like the party itself, had careened out of control. "In the last days of 1974, I realized Huey had turned into nothing more than a cheap criminal," Seale says with disappointment. And so in in 1974, Bobby Seale left the Black Panther Party. He takes a long drag from his Kool-Milds, and seems to ponder his life after the Panthers. Seale shows little regret in having quit the party. Seale compares his leaving the group to a conversation with an old man from his childhood town. Upon noting young Bobby's disappointment when underpaid by his father, the old man said, "Sometimes Bobby, you have to know when to move on." Flash forward. It's 1994 and things have changed. Seale is 57 years old. His hair has grayed and his face rounded out. Though still defiantly hard, he has aged from the days when he and Huey Newton stood with eyes blazing, jaws taut with anticipation. But don't write him off as some grumpy old man, jabbering away as his dentures sit in some milky glass of salt water. Bobby Seale is still for real, and one thing is certain, he still knows how to talk the talk. The man is a soundbite from the '60s and once you get him started he'll hardly come up for air. While many of the '60s radicals have essentially sold-out (see Jane Fonda) or fizzled out (see Abbie Hoffman), Seale has adapted to a new era and a new age while still carrying the political torch of a decade and generation gone by. Some have accused Seale of losing his ideological edge while residing in increasingly moderate politics. More likely, it is reflective of the positive evolution of an aging activist. At his age, Bobby Seale has tempered his rage. Much like a veteran athlete, he has learned to pace himself in order to stay in the game. The politics of violent confrontation are simply no longer realistic. "He is a lot more moderate in terms of some of his points of view simply because those tactics didn't work and they could get you killed. So the tactics have to change, but it's not necessarily so that his beliefs about the basic inequities in American society have changed," explains African-American studies professor Robert Engs. These days he has plans for an environmental restoration program based on recycling old cars and revamping dilapidated row houses. He is involved as a liaison at Temple University and is helping put together a Black Panther documentary. He even wrote a cookbook: Barbeque'n with Bobby. And the list goes on. Never one to neglect a little self-promotion, Bobby Seale is more than happy to tell you what he is doing today. He still speaks the language, a dialect of revolution unique to the decade. Warnings of racism and oppression still dominate his vocabulary, yet he understands that times have changed and will continue to change. "We're not living in the '60s. Today, with the technology we have, you can see things happening as they happen. In the '60s, you had to wait sometimes days to see anything. You got to reach for the future, not live in the past," Seale observes with calm acceptance. Seale has adapted many of his views to keep pace with our generation. Yet, his core principles remain largely the same. Take handguns for example. Thirty years ago a gun-toting militant, today Bobby Seale opposes handgun proliferation. Though appearing hypocritical, Seale calmly reconciles these seemingly contradictory views. It all comes down to black empowerment and rights. "Today you see the proliferation of weapons that has nothing to do whatsoever with constitutional, democratic, civic rights. Blacks killing blacks, that has nothing to with the constitution. Somebody has to stand up and say 'wait a minute, there's an excessive proliferation of guns in our community.' In one dialectical sense, nothing ever stays exactly the same." Adapt, and readapt. Seale refuses to allow his convictions to become obsolete. Unwilling to fall behind the continual march of technology, Bobby Seale has come to incorporate the growing world of technology into his activism. "We didn't have the technology of video cameras. Rather than guns, we need a thousand grass-roots organizations in America to own a video camera and document?the problem of excessive police brutality?and zoom in on those cheap criminals proliferating out there at anarchistic proportions." Bobby Seale is now obtrusively leaning over the table, his mind churning as the ideas flow. And the rhetorical conviction plays on. Bobby Seale seems driven by this balance of old and new styles. On the one hand, he maintains a youthful enthusiasm for solving the problems of tomorrow, on the other, he almost uncontrollably exudes the rhetoric and mentality of '60s community activism. Any problem can be solved as long as you think about it enough. It is '60s liberal optimism with a refined, aerodynamic twist. Or it is '90s practicality with a retro spin? No matter how you say it still sounds garbled and cliched. But Seale is quick to clarify, asserting he is a "revolutionary humanist," dedicated to "returning justice to all people." And he has not limited himself solely to his black roots. They are only a part of the larger whole. "A lot of young people do not see how African-American liberation is interconnected and interrelated with all human liberation on the face of this earth," says a concerned Seale, "Afro-centrism helps make you a whole human being, but it's only a part." Though many within the African-American community yearn for the return of a charismatic, black leader, Seale wants nothing to do with "messiah-type leadership?whether its Farrakhan or Jesse Jackson." Perhaps, Seale's disillusionment with Huey Newton's crazed egomania has fueled his skepticism. Single leadership runs counter to his philosophy of the community and he has no time for it. He's seen it all before, and just isn't impressed. "I've heard that damn speech that Brother Khalid [Farrakhan's recently dismissed spokesman] gave back in 1966, so its' nothing new to me. It's not even worthy of commenting on. I've seen that before. I remember when Malcolm made those same speeches before he left the Nation of Islam, 'All white people are devils' That's neither here nor there. The whole hullabaloo behind that to me is bullshit," Seale says in blatant condescension. "Farrakhan, I don't have time for that shit. I operate on a different plane. A different level of understanding." Clearly the man is still at his acerbic best, and he's no softer on recent white leadership than on black. As always, the perpetrators of the system are no friends of Bobby Seale."Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and other politicians are a bunch of low life, racist, scurvy-ass politicians. I don't bite my tongue saying that. That's what they are and that's what they were," he defiantly states. There appears no end to Seale's anger, his drive, his vision. He is impossible to pin down, and he knows it. He's been through the media dance countless times. Some may chide that the man is over the hill and is irrelevant to our generation. Bobby Seale is no longer at the forefront of black politics, and many question the legitimacy of a man who appears to have withdrawn so far. But Seale is aware of this. He recognizes that a clear understanding of the past is valuable, yet he knows the future lies with a new generation. It is from this perspective that Seale operates today. As Engs explains, "Certain choices were made in the past that were wrong and we have to be aware of that. Some of those choices have made the country an even meaner, nastier place than it was in the '60s. That is a part of Seale's message. And it's a very important one for your generation to hear so you don't throw your hands up and say we can't change anything. There is an alternative with different perspectives to look at." In this age of fallen heroes, few aging activists have endured the test of time. Perhaps many radicals simply can't handle that their glory has past, the spotlight has faded away. Bobby Seale doesn't seem to mind as long as there is someone to listen. "I vowed that one way or another, I will always be part and parcel to the continuing struggle whether its on the low tide or on the high tide." The struggle continues, and so does Seale.Comments powered by Disqus
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