As a new generation rises up against racist police and vigilante violence, organizers are thinking through how to build a mass movement that fully engages the most marginalized. Useful lessons can be found in the history of the Black Panther Party, if one reaches beyond the imagery of leather jackets and shotguns.
Susie Day’s new book, The Brother You Choose, offers a wealth of insights into how the Black Panthers were able to transform individual disaffection into collective revolutionary organizing practices that survived the demise of the Black Panther Party itself. The book centers on the lifelong comradeship of two members of the Baltimore Panthers, Eddie Conway and Paul Coates. In 1971, Conway was wrongfully convicted of murdering a police officer and sentenced to life plus 30 years behind bars. Coates did not know Conway well but vowed to support him, changing the course of both their lives. In The Brother You Choose, both men speak in their own voices as they discuss their lives, their political work and their friendship. In an afterword, Coates’s son, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, reflects on what it meant to grow up in a Panther home and to regularly visit Conway in prison.
In Conway and Coates’s story lies a lesson for the left on the long work of individual transformation. Both men are the products of their involvement with a revolutionary organization that transformed their senses of who they were, of the kind of society they lived in and of what they needed to do about it. The movement made them, and they, in turn, raised the consciousness of countless others through their organizing and publishing work. Today, the revolution seems more like an unfolding process than a single event. The crucial task of politicizing the dispossessed remains central to that process.
As a child, Conway became aware of the economic inequalities that marked Baltimore’s racial divides. He was angry but didn’t know it. He got involved in petty crime; on some level, he believed stealing from white kids wasn’t stealing but taking back what had been stolen. Coates grew up with his father. At one point, the family of six was evicted and lived in a pickup truck for a few weeks.
Coates wanted to be a John Wayne character, jumping out of planes wearing a Special Forces beret. Conway also looked to the military for a stable job once he had become a father. Stationed in Europe and developing a sideline in marijuana distribution, he was cut off from the burgeoning Black militancy back home. “America,” he thought then, “was the best thing that ever happened to the world.” (All quotes in this article are taken from Day’s book.)
Then one day in 1967, on the front page of the military newspaper was an Army personnel carrier on the streets of Newark, New Jersey, pointing its machine gun at a group of Black women on a street corner. As Conway says, “I woke up.” He never put on his uniform again. Reading the Panthers’ newspaper back in Baltimore led him to join the movement. Coates, too, developed a growing awareness in the military, mainly through reading Black literature. He joined the Panthers in 1969.
“Cold-up criminals” joined the Party, Coates remembers, but “could any revolutionary group be other than that?” What’s noteworthy is that the Panthers sometimes “changed the criminals so they stopped feasting on their own people.”
The rage at the injustice of poverty that had earlier expressed itself in individual acts of theft could, in the Panthers, take the form of collective, cooperative action. Conway helped start a food co-op that provided low-cost groceries to the community. A People’s Health Clinic was established and, in the basement of a community center, hungry children were given free breakfasts. What distinguished these projects from regular community work was the revolutionary ideology that the Panthers inculcated. Members were expected to be aware of not only the Black struggle in the U.S. but also struggles in Angola, South Africa, Vietnam and Puerto Rico. “I really believed there was going to be a revolution next week. The Black Panthers gave me that belief,” says Coates. No one could have that experience and not be individually transformed.
While rejecting the military itself, Coates and Conway brought some of their military-derived skills into the Party. Conway trained the local Panthers in first aid and weapons, instilling a sense of discipline. “If you want to serve breakfast in the morning to a hundred children, you can’t be partying all night long,” he says. For Coates, the sense of mutual commitment he drew, in part, from the military was redirected into radical politics: “So if you and I are in this thing together and you tell me you got my back covered, I’m not worried about my back. And you don’t worry; I got your back. It’s just basic honesty.”
Unknown to both men at the time was the extent to which multiple government agencies were running covert operations to destroy the Panthers. Susie Day notes the FBI “played an outsized role in the formation of the Baltimore Panther Party, and was to misshape most of Eddie Conway’s adult life.” What the federal government seemed to want, she writes, was a “virtual Panther-to-prison pipeline.” False charges of murdering police officers were the usual means of achieving this and would, Conway later wrote, “take the place of the mythological rape of white women as the basis for the legal lynching of Black men.”
In April 1970, Conway was arrested in Baltimore and charged with organizing and participating in the shootings of two police officers, one of whom was killed. Coates and Conway still had enough of a lingering belief in the system that they expected the weakness of the case to be proven in court. “They had a jail-cell informant, who was their strongest evidence,” said Coates. “Who’s going to believe that shit? I thought our case was good.” Conway likewise thought “all this shit ain’t gonna stand up. How they gonna lock somebody up with no evidence, no witnesses, and keep him in jail? They can’t do that.”
It turned out that they could do exactly that: Conway was convicted and sentenced to life plus 30 years. It was a pattern repeated across the nation. “There were Black Panther Parties in thirty-seven states,” Conway recalls. “In eighteen months, the government basically wiped out the Panther Party in twenty-five of those states.” While the California leadership of the Panthers was thrown into crisis, Coates, who had narrowly escaped prosecution himself, took on the role of campaigning for Conway’s release, solidifying a decades-long friendship based on long-term mutual political and personal commitment. “It was always a matter of me and Eddie and then the world,” says Coates. “You can see that if you understand the Panther Party has never left me.”
Inside the prison system, Conway redeployed the organizing practices he had absorbed in the Panthers. A remarkable succession of mobilizations was launched: to clean up the prison, to establish a library, and to install telephones and more televisions. A survival program was developed for people placed in solitary confinement so they would have soap and toothpaste. A labor union for Maryland prisoners was organized to raise wages for prison labor. It was about to get recognized by the local district of the service employees’ union when prison guards carried out a midnight raid and placed the organizers on lockdown. Even a prisoner’s newsletter was created.
Working with Conway on the outside, Coates created a book publishing operation as a way to get political books to his friend in prison to distribute. That led to the idea of a bookstore and a printing press. Paul Coates’s Black Classic Press is still going strong, specializing in republishing early Black self-trained historians and publishing the novelist Walter Mosley.
In 2014, after 44 years in the prison system, Conway was finally released. A hearing convened in response to a decision in another case, Unger v. State of Maryland, ruled that his jury had been given improper instructions. He was one of 193 people serving life sentences in Maryland to walk free. In “this business-as-usual country, which daily disappears countless anonymous lives,” writes Day, “sometimes faithfulness and defiance can bring people back.”
Conway cautions against romanticizing the Black Panthers. “To look at the Panthers and think it was a beautiful thing is OK. But know that underneath, there was pain and suffering and sorrow and poverty and hunger and all the rest.” He adds: “When we organized in the late ’60s and ’70s, we organized because conditions were really bad. That’s why the Panthers came into being. Fifty years later, conditions are ten times worse.”
What Eddie Conway and Paul Coates’s story points to is that radical politics requires more than finding like-minded people to organize; it requires finding another person in yourself. In working to transform society, the individual must also be transformed. Because would-be radicals are products of the very society they seek to overturn, only by first erasing the imprints of that society on themselves can they hope to be part of building anything truly new. That involves juxtaposing a pessimistic realism about one’s present self with a sense of hope about future possibilities.
Political movements that aim to raise consciousness have to connect with people at a visceral psychic level while also uplifting them intellectually. To be politicized is more than being aware of social injustice; it is about changing who one is and what one does. Bringing about this kind of personal growth is slow, emotional work. For that reason, it is tempting to avoid it altogether. The more the left is peopled by college graduates, the easier it is to believe that social media and higher education can do the work of radicalizing individuals instead of organized movements. This confuses organized consciousness-raising with access to information or formal education and encourages a gentrification of the left.
The radical movements that have emerged recently, culminating in the mobilizations this year against police violence, are asking how the most dispossessed and the most exploited can be politicized. If we are to make the U.S. left into a force capable of organizing beyond its current comfort zones, a useful history to study is that of the Black Panther Party. The Panthers set themselves the task of raising the consciousness of the Black dispossessed and built out of this reputedly unpromising social base a well-organized and richly politicized movement — even if its achievements were temporary and riddled with contradictions.
This article was first published in Truthout.