Occupy Movement: The Fire This Time

Ex-Black Panther Ericka Huggins says that protesters share the same anger and hope.

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Ericka Huggins

In 1967 Ericka Jenkins met John Huggins during her first year at HBCU Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. America was in turmoil. Inspired by a photo essay documenting police brutality against Huey Newton, she and John climbed into their car and headed for Los Angeles.

Within a year, the two teenagers had married and become active in the Black Panther Party. Three weeks after the birth of their only child, John Huggins was shot to death while organizing black students on the UCLA campus.

Devastated, Ericka continued her party work in New Haven, Conn. There, she was accused of conspiracy with intent to commit murder of a man thought to be an FBI informant. She spent two years in prison awaiting trial and upon release moved to Oakland, Calif., to join the leadership of the BPP. She continued the organization's mission of educating and feeding the black community for more than a decade.

Ericka still lives and teaches in Oakland, and in the midst of the recent reaction of the Oakland Police Department on Oct. 25 to peaceful protesters who are part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, I thought she might put current events in historical perspective. I caught up with her as she was traveling to promote the fascinating Swedish film Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975.

The Root: What similarities and differences do you see between the Black Panther Party and the Occupy Wall Street movement?

Ericka Huggins: Both are spontaneous movements growing out of the needs and awareness of the people. Occupy Wall Street's unplanned locations, like New Haven, Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco, are also spontaneous in agreement. Two young men in New York created Occupy Wall Street. Two young men in Oakland created BPP. "All Power to the People" is a motto like "We are the 99 percent."

The BPP was well-organized and had a 10-point platform; Occupy Wall Street has many goals and a collective decision-making process. I am reminded of what drew me and John to the BPP. A similar mixture of hurt, anger and hope seem to draw people to Occupy Wall Street.

TR: Oakland is notorious for resistance to oppression and for extremely violent police retaliation. What is it about Oakland that makes it such a hot spot for dissent and retribution?

EH: California is a consciousness-raising, awareness-awakening place; it is a state where the concept of intersectionality -- the connections of race, class, gender, age, citizenship status and sexual orientation -- is discussed outside the classroom as well as inside it. Because of this, people migrate here for a more progressive or open-minded way of living.

But of course conservative and biased points of view flourish here, too, and Oakland's proximity to San Francisco makes it the not-so-sleepy town across the Bay. It is a less expensive and more transient city, slow enough to provide reflective discourse and action, diverse enough to be the home of both Jack London and Huey Newton. It is a town with the highest percentage of lesbians in California, and it is also a refuge for immigrants from all over the world.