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.
This, in addition to the large populations of African-American, Mexican-American, indigenous tribal peoples, European-American [people] and thousands of blended American families who come here for a safer and more diverse racial, ethnic and gendered experience.
Here in Oakland, this salad of culture and histories comes together, and as a result, creative and revolutionary ways of being blossom and are then often quashed by repressive forces, which makes resistance grow even stronger. This is not just an Oakland phenomenon, but it is highlighted here, where the people have a historical memory of social change, and law enforcement has a historical memory of brutal resistance to that change.
TR: You have stood on the front lines and been jailed and silenced in various ways for doing so. What is your take on this kind of organized resistance? Will this movement hold? What does it need to grow? What can retard or obstruct its movement, and what do you think can be done to prevent this?
EH: Those of us who can help to sustain Occupy Wall Street can do so by going to the Occupy location in their city. This morning in the airport shuttle, I passed by the Occupy New Haven tent city on the Yale New Haven Green, set up in the snow! It was on that same green people from all over the U.S. rallied to free me and Bobby Seale in 1969. I encouraged those who live there to think about warm food, tea, blankets. I offered what I could: simple, human support.
Too often in history, the risk takers are appreciated only decades later. John was killed for his beliefs — J. Edgar Hoover made sure of that — and the government made sure that Bobby Seale and the Chicago 7 were arrested. In a court of law, Bobby was gagged and bound to silence his legal right to represent himself. FBI's COINTELPRO threatened to kill me many times.
Now, decades later, people thank us, invite us to speak, ask us how we managed to stand up and step out. It was the right thing to do, at the right time, with and for the right people.
Those who have taken risks can speak and answer questions and share the wisdom of success and failure, of focus and purpose, of asking for what we want in clear terms. I encourage people of color, men and women from all incomes, the jobless and those with jobs, students and teachers, straight and LGBT, able-bodied and those living with disabilities, young and old, to become part of the conversation. To ask, how can I be of use? Distance from the Occupy movement creates a paradoxical distance from ourselves. We truly are the 99 percent.
EH: I do not want to judge, only to serve humanity. We can ask ourselves what is the framework we can offer, and offer that. A critique from the warmth of our homes and classrooms is not always best. Occupy Wall Street is not a reality show; it is a mirror of reality. The message of greed is very clear. If middle-class people are homeless and jobless, there is the frame.
TR: What advice would you give a young black person today, faced with the choice of joining Occupy Wall Street or going to school, work, etc.? What is your greatest hope for this movement and your greatest fear?
EH: Mass media named the movements of the '60s and '70s "idealistic" and "militant." The FBI declared that protesters weakened the fabric of American life and that a group of 20- to 29-year-olds in the BPP were the "greatest threat to national security." The violent retaliation that killed 28 members of the party still reverberates in the minds of the generation that followed us.
Fear and apathy set in. Against life-threatening odds we kept going, and now the world is glad for it. It is important to understand that people fighting for justice all over the world are watching the United States.
I ask my students at the city colleges where I teach to consider the support they can give. First, to determine if they are a part of the 1 percent or the 99 percent. I don't ask them to join anything. I ask them to be critical thinkers and support humanity in moving away from greed. I encourage young black men and women to do what they can to serve. I ask them to move out of denial about systems that harm and focus their attention on a more just future for all.
Each day I hold all of the Occupy locations in my morning meditation. I affirm no harm to them or from them. I know also that under the visors and riot gear, there are beating hearts who are sorry for their reactions on Oct. 25. I know that there are Wall Street bankers whose hearts hold a new awareness.
We are 100 percent humans. That is the truth that can bring us together. Love is an expression of power. We can use it to transform our world.
Rebecca Walker is a contributing editor to The Root.