(The Root) — Elaine Brown, the only woman to head the Black Panther Party, became chairman when Huey P. Newton fled to Cuba to avoid jail in 1974. The party shocked the nation with its advocacy of self-defense and images of defiant young black men and women in black leather jackets carrying rifles. What is less known — and perhaps what made FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover deem the party "the greatest threat" to national security — was its uniting of poor white, Latino, Asian-American and Native American organizations in an anti-racist and anti-capitalist coalition, and its affiliations with international "revolutionary" organizations.
Brown, like many former Panthers, has continued her political activism. Her books include A Taste of Power and The Condemnation of Little B. She is currently co-authoring, with Karima Al-Amin, For Reasons of Race and Belief: The Trials of Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin (H. Rap Brown), a biography of the iconic '60s revolutionary who is currently serving a life sentence for murder in a supermax prison, where he is held in solitary confinement, according to his wife.
The Root spoke with Brown about the gun control debate and her advocacy for the people she deems as American political prisoners — including Michael "Little B" Lewis, a man sentenced to life in prison at age 14 for a murder Brown says he did not commit.
The Root: The debate over gun control is gripping the nation, fueled by the Newtown, Conn., tragedy and the bully pulpit of President Obama. How do you see gun control and the impact on the black community?
Elaine Brown: The position of the Black Panther Party was that black people live in communities occupied by police forces that are armed and dangerous and represent the frontline of forces keeping us oppressed. We did not promote guns but, rather, the right to defend ourselves against a state that was oppressing us — with guns.
There were innumerable incidents in which police agents kicked in our doors or shot our brothers and sisters in what we called red-light trials, where the policeman was the judge, the jury and the executioner. We called for an immediate end to this brutality, and advocated for our right to self-defense. Today, the brutal police murders of Sean Bell in New York and Oscar Grant in Oakland are just two examples of how little has changed.
The gun control discussion could result in policies that further criminalize and target black people … Bill Clinton's "three strikes and you're out" crime legislation emerged from a similar discussion over "black violence," and that law has resulted in an explosion of incarceration disproportionately of black people, some sentenced to life for crimes as minor as stealing pizza. We have to remember that the NRA represents the moneyed power of gun manufacturers who will stand in the way of any meaningful gun control laws, but will support policies, like guns in schools, that will further oppress black people.
TR: How do you answer those who say that we need tough gun control laws to stem the tide of illegal guns contributing to widespread black-on-black violence and murder in cities like Chicago?
EB: The proliferation and distribution of guns have nothing to do with black people. The answer to the so-called violence in black Chicago, or Los Angeles or other urban areas, is the elimination of poverty. We have 70 percent black male unemployment in many communities, along with crumbling public schools and deteriorating housing. The shootings that riddle some of our communities do not represent a problem of guns. This is a problem arising from entrenched poverty and oppression.
TR: You've worked extensively to free political prisoners. Some would argue there are no political prisoners in the U.S., yet you point to Little B as the face of political prisoners today.
EB: The majority of black and brown people — and even poor whites — held in America's prisons and jails are political prisoners in that they have been convicted and sentenced under a political agenda that condemns the poor for their behaviors in trying to survive.
"Little B," Michael Lewis, was convicted as an adult when he was 14, and sentenced to life imprisonment for a murder he did not commit. The witnesses were all neighborhood drug dealers or addicts whom the state paid "reward" money or lighter sentences for drug charges they were facing. There was no physical evidence. He had an alibi, and there was a videotape, obscured by the prosecution for 10 years, of the victim's two children identifying another man as the killer.
Michael has been in prison 16 years for this wrongful conviction … The United States is the only nation in the world to try children as adults. Even the child killers of Rwanda were not tried as adults but rehabilitated as children.
TR: You have lived through the age of Martin Luther King Jr. and now of President Obama, who are sometimes compared to each other. Yet you see them as diametrically opposed to each other. How?
EB: Today America is involved in war in Afghanistan, armed drones killing civilians and so-called terrorists for reasons no one can clearly identify, while the Obama administration continues Bill Clinton's welfare-reform bill, which at once criminalized millions of poor women and their children and removed all so-called safety nets from them. We see other social programs being defunded without any real opposition from the Obama administration. The administration won't fight to reduce mass incarceration or overturn the insidious "three strikes and you're out" crime law …
Dr. King would be advocating forcefully against all of these policies. He denounced poverty in America, as he denounced capitalism. King understood that black people did not put themselves in this position of being oppressed, and that the system that had so enslaved and impoverished our people had to be overturned.
Leila McDowell is a freelance journalist. She also serves as managing director for Communications with Advancement Project. Follow her on Twitter.