Former Black Panther Marshall Eddie Conway on Revolutionary Political Education in the 21st Century, An Interview
by Anthony Bayani Rodriguez
*Published in The Journal of African American Studies, "Special Issue on the Black Panther Party," Volume 21. Issue 1
Marshall “Eddie” Conway is a social justice activist and community organizer who currently resides in West Baltimore, Maryland. He is also a former Deputy Minister of Defense for the Black Panther Party’s Baltimore Chapter (1969-1970), and formerly recognized as one of the longest held United States’ political prisoners in the early 21st century. In 1971, at twenty-five years old, he was wrongly convicted for the murder a police officer. It was subsequently revealed that, like many of his comrades in the Black Panther Party, he was a target of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) due to the revolutionary anti-racist, socialist, and direct-action nature of his political activities during the late 1960s. Conway steadfastly maintained his innocence throughout his subsequent imprisonment, and after over four decades of work by lawyers, activists, and international supporters to secure his freedom, the Maryland Court of Appeals determined that he was in fact not given a fair trail. On March 4 2014, Conway was released on parole after nearly forty-four years of imprisonment.
It is telling that in the nearly three years since his release, Conway has wasted no time in resuming his life as a community organizer in his hometown of Baltimore. Baltimore, after all, is the place in which he first learned about the complexity of social inequality in America. Conway was born in 1946 in a neighborhood on the outskirts of East Baltimore’s city limits, called Cherry Hill. At the time of his childhood, Cherry Hill was an all black public housing development, which would in the decades to follow become one of the largest housing projects on the east coast (Conway 2011). This experience of being a Black child of low-income working-class parents during the 1950s was raw material that consequently was pivotal to Conway’s gradual radicalization as a young man. In his 2011 memoir, Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther (co-written with Dominque Stevenson), Conway recollects that in the wake of the Brown vs. Board of Education, “our school lives were supposed to change for the better, or so everyone thought at the time. But nothing happened, and the next year I had failed for the first time” (Ibid 10). His teenage years exploring Baltimore’s racially segregated neighborhoods were further instructive. Conway remembers seeing the "difference between black and white neighborhoods, between poverty and affluence…the contrast between clean and dirty streets, blocks lined with trees and well-tended lawns compared to block after block of cement sidewalks lined with bars and liquor stores, said more to me than all of the stories of inequality and injustice that I had heard growing up. There were few, if any, YMCAs, Lions Clubs, parks, or swimming pools in our set of run-down city blocks, while the other neighborhoods had far too many. Even this simple recognition demonstrated the difference between black and white, poverty and wealth in Baltimore during that time” (Ibid 14). In spite of his critical questioning of the reasons for the material conditions of his youth, by the early 1960s Conway was not yet politicized, and still a firm believer in the American dream. In 1964, he did not think twice about leaving East Baltimore and going to Germany to serve as a sergeant in the army, but, this excitement did not last long, as he and other Black GIs soon learned that “the US army was no place for a brother” (Ibid 22). Persistent headlines from back home chronicled the militarized repression of the black community activists, led to Conway’s further disillusionment with the army, and his frustration with the deteriorating conditions of post-Civil Rights movement America’s Black populations. Conway left Germany with an honorable discharge, and returned to Baltimore in 1967 with a new perspective on the American way of life (Ibid 29).
The Baltimore chapter of the Black Panther Party formed in 1968 in the context of, among other factors, local and national frustration over the assassinations of key Civil Rights leaders, the rise of armed confrontations between black and white communities that bordered each other, and the intensification of police armed patrols of Black neighborhoods. While working as a firefighter, Conway spent free time meeting small groups of community members in the Baltimore’s Black neighborhoods as they talked about how to deal with the oppression of Black people, and shared information about black liberation organizations that were beginning to spread across the country (Ibid 38). Conway was among those who felt like the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense proposed the best program for solving the problems faced by the Black people of Baltimore, and made it his mission to build and develop the Baltimore branch (Ibid 39). Some of the early work involved in developing the Baltimore chapter involved political education and training. Reflecting on the motivation behind these radical study groups, Conway notes, “[w]e were young and eager to advance our thinking…[o]ur thirst for knowledge was a result of our wish to see a better socio-economic arrangement for our people and communities” (Ibid 43). Just as the Baltimore chapter committed itself to political education during its short life as an organization, it also tied this together with finding ways to actively solve the problems faced by their neighborhoods: which included developing a food co-op to provide low cost groceries to desperate families, a free health clinic, a free breakfast program for impoverished children, and organizing public rallies to address community concerns with the problems of local public schools.
It is now well documented that revolutionary Black liberation organizations like the Black Panther Party were infiltrated en masse under the auspices of the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) throughout the late 1960s and 1970s. The Baltimore chapter was no exception. State records and various testimonies over the past decades show that just as quickly as local organizations like the Baltimore chapter were built, so too were they infiltrated by locally recruited agents directed to discredit and ultimately destroy them. One tactic involved pinning the alleged murders of police offers to local black activists in order to justify their assassination and jailing. Conway was one of the victims of this particularly tactic. After being denied the right to select a lawyer of his choosing, and with the testimony of “witnesses” later shown to be paid informants of the police department, he was convicted for murder in 1971 and sentenced to life without parole. With the help of a legal support team composed of activists, lawyers, friends, family, and advocates from around the world, the next four decades of his life involved pushing numerous appeals for a reinvestigation of the evidence used against him. While in prison, Conway continued his organizing work by creating programs to mentor incarcerated young men and also collaborating with community activists throughout the country, who were each in their respective ways following in the legacy of grassroots activism left by the Black Panther Party.
Since his release on March 4 2014, Conway has continued his long-standing work with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), and has gone on to found a number of community organizations in Baltimore, including the Coalition of Friends (CoF) which focuses on the needs of the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood in West Baltimore. The CoF is a coalition of volunteers whose primary goal is to create sustainable local cultures of self-sufficiency and mutual aid, and to provide mentorship to youth who are most vulnerable to entering the school to prison pipeline. CoF is an offshoot of the Friend of a Friend mentoring program that Conway co-founded during his imprisonment in order to facilitate life skills training and peer-to-peer mentorship among his fellow prisoners. With Conway’s leadership the CoF has taken many of the ideals of this prison program, and implement them in communities such as Gilmore Homes, a housing project that was also the former home of Freddie Gray, whose death during an arrest by Baltimore police was an impetus for a series of major protests and uprisings throughout the city in 2015. Conway has hosted forums on the street in which community members can discuss the needs of the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood that surrounds Gilmor Homes, he has organized cookouts, block parties, and clothes giveaways to facilitate collaboration among local youth, in October of 2014 he started a bookdrive for for Connexions School for the Arts and by years end filled the schools empty library shelves, and in 2015 coordinated the financing and reconstruction of basketball courts in Sandtown-Winchester in the wake of the death of community member Freddie Gray. During the latter half of 2016, Conway’s activity in Baltimore has involved close work with the locally dubbed “Tubman House,” one of the cities once vacant row homes in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood that a coalition of organizations occupied in the Spring of 2016 to provide as a safe center for the people of Sandtown-Winchester. Although Tubman House is considered an illegal endeavor by city officials, who include the home in a mass demolition project intended to “revitalize” West Baltimore, over the course of its brief existence the project has come to represent a groundbreaking model for mobilizing the people of Sandtown-Winchester to engage in community outreach, food drives, youth mentorship, and political education.
In this interview Conway speaks on his current activities as a community organizer in Baltimore, a public speaker, a journalist, and executive producer for the Real News Network. He also offers critical perspectives on various topics such as: the limitations of contemporary mainstream “progressive” social justice activism, the 2016 presidential election and the history of white nationalism, and the revolutionary potential of contemporary urban food sovereignty movements. Featured in this transcription are Conway’s thoughts on the essential components for engaging in revolutionary political education within colleges and universities in the early 21st century United States.
*This is a condensed and edited transcription of two separate interviews with Eddie Conway from his home in Baltimore, Maryland. The first interview was conducted by telephone on December 15th 2016. The second telephone interview took place on January 6rd 2017. Key segments from these two interviews are presented here, as one piece.
Anthony Rodriguez (AR): How has the transition to life “on the outside” been since your release in March of 2014?
Eddie Conway (EC): Even with all of the things that changed from when I was first locked up to when I was released, I really haven’t had a cultural shock. As a matter of fact, I feel like I got out and went right back to what I was doing when I left. Maybe that sounds strange, but I feel like I’ve adjusted immediately. As soon as I got out there and saw how badly the conditions in Baltimore have gotten for a lot of people, I felt like I had to jump in and get involved. I felt like I needed to do something. But, you’ve also got to keep in mind that I’ve been organizing the entire time I was in prison, working with Friend of a Friend and people locked up, and with community organizations on the outside like the AFSC [American Friends Service Committee]. I initially thought I would just rest for a while, and ease back into things, but it’s been almost three years now, and honestly I’ve been so busy. It’s really wonderful to see all these things that weren’t here when I went to prison. When I went to prison, the Inner Harbor [in Baltimore] looked completely different! And to travel and meet people, and do things I haven’t been able to do. I’ve enjoyed all of it. But really I don’t think too much on a “transition” period for me. There was a lot of work to do in the community, and so I pretty much just jumped right in. It’s like a new phase of my life, and I am really focused on all of these things that are in front of me.
AR: Considering all of the work you’ve done as a community organizer, both inside and outside of prison, where do you think your motivation to dive right in and get involved with local struggles in Baltimore comes from?
EC: Well, looking back on it all I know part of it is that I started with a critical, and you could even say, [laugher] cynical, understanding of what is going on in our society even before I went to prison. But a consequence of that is I’ve understood for a while that our problems our structural, that people just like you and me but are part of a ruling elite have put these things into place for the rest of us, and it all can be changed. So I guess its really that I know these structures were put into place by people, and we can also fix these things! You see before I was a Panther, I was a sergeant in the Army. I remember being in Europe and seeing how bad things were back home. I knew there were all these problems and I really wanted to get back and fix them. So, instead of going to Vietnam I decided to come home to America. And it’s at that point that I started realizing why there is all of this suffering, and how these systemic problems are deeply structural. It’s still all a matter of America’s economic foundation. It’s about capitalism! I mean even today’s problems in our cities and the lack of jobs with adequate incomes for people who are at the bottom, just terrible housing, heavy militarized policing of poor people and getting locked up in droves, and the school systems are deteriorating. But having said all that, its important to understand that while these things have gotten worse and worse, there have been new social movements that have been popping up all over. And they just haven’t gotten the kind of media coverage, as if they’re not happening. One big movement that got so big they couldn’t ignore it was the Occupy movement. And, I’ve watched this all go down over time while I was in prison.
AR: What kinds of work are you doing right now in West Baltimore?
EC: Before I was released, the mentoring program I worked with in prison, Friend of a Friend (FOF), had some former prisoners doing work on the outside, mentoring young people in Sandtown-Winchester. Some folks in the prison were really pushing people on the outside to get out and help to keep other kids from getting locked up. So I linked up with them almost immediately and we formed the Coalition of Friends (CoF). It’s been a lot to manage at once, but it’s important for people to decide to get out there on the ground and organize, if things are really going to change.
AR: I know in this new phase of your life you’re also wearing the hat of news producer and journalist. Tell me more about that.
EC: I’ve been doing a lot of work with the Real News Network, which is headquartered in Baltimore. Right now we are planning a program around the Sanctuary movement going on throughout the country. Undocumented immigrants are at even higher risk now because it looks like all of these local and state institutions are going to be coerced into disclosing the legal status of a lot of their residents. You’re talking about young people, students, workers, and the potential breaking up of families. So we’re actually doing a story looking at cities and states and trying to make a determination of what kinds of consequences once session gets in there. Are they going to penalize these places? Will there be a reduction of federal funds? We are interested in seeing what kind of reaction will the federal government have in the coming months. As of this morning [1/6/17], we are also currently doing a piece on Native American political prisoner Leonard Peltier. Federal prosecutors have asked Obama to give him clemency.
AR: Its quite clear you’ve dedicated your life to organizing for the poor, the alienated, the oppressed, and the structurally marginalized, but in my view your political work also reflects a life dedicated to political education. In other words, there are ways in which the work you’ve done as a Black Panther, and then in prison, and now back in West Baltimore is all really an example of a life dedicated to teaching supposedly powerless communities to realize their collective capacity to create power, resources, and cultures of mutual aid and relative self-reliance for themselves.
EC: I don’t really walk around and identify as a teacher, but I can say that I thinks its really important to get people together to find ways to build alternatives to the things that the system provides or doesn’t provide them. It’s probably the most important thing for us as a whole human species. So yea, part of all of this is definitely about political education. And really, its about getting local areas who are looking for solutions to find the ones that work, and then serve as an example to other local areas.
AR: Since your release you’ve travelled all over the country to do interviews, media appearances, give public lectures, and promote your book. You’ve also directed a lot of your focus to speaking with young people, including students at various stages. What has your experience of this generation of youth in classrooms been like? What is your sense of their political consciousness?
EC: In most of the classrooms that I go to and speak, there is a real thirst of knowledge for history, to find out exactly what happened, as opposed to the narratives in books and the media. They want a first-hand narrative. Generally, it seems like young people want to know exactly what went down in that moment. Down under that, there is even a smaller group among these youth that want to know what they can do about changing the conditions that they are in. And, what I can tell is they want to know how to organize safely without becoming victims of things like COINTELPRO or some other kind of program like that. So there is a thirst for knowledge, and there’s also an interest moving forward for a smaller group. But, there is also a kind of fear about consequences or getting punished for challenging the system.
AR: And what about the young people you work with outside of the classroom, out in the neighborhoods that you are organizing? What are your impressions of their identities as activists or as agents of change in their communities?
EC: In the streets, primarily, it’s about bread and butter issues with the youth, and with the people they are organizing with on the ground. It’s about gaining control of their resources. What is really motivating out here is that a lot of young people today are not apathetic to their situation. But, what I do still notice is that in some of these rough areas that don’t have a lot of resources, children don’t get to be children. This goes for children living in poor areas of all kinds, white and black. It’s like post-traumatic stress syndrome. They grow up thinking about violence, family members on drugs, they’ve got people locked up constantly and it’s just really destructive.
AR: Since the 1970s “social justice” is no longer seen as exclusively the domain of grassroots radicals and revolutionaries. It’s really become part of the “progressive” language of much of mainstream American popular culture. What’s your take on the political substance of these more mainstream and liberal social justice sensibilities of today, in comparison to your experience in the 1960s with the Black Panther Party or even the kinds of work that local grassroots organizations are doing in areas like West Baltimore?
EC: Well, quite frankly, a lot of the social justice talk going on right now at both the local and national level is actually not driven by any kind of revolutionary model at all. There is a lot of really exciting and innovative stuff going on at the local level which is about creating new structures and relationships, but it’s generally not talked about. The debates over social justice that get the most media attention reminds me more of a neocolonial development kind of perspective. It seems to be based on this strategy of taking over control of resources and making changes using the exact same structures that already exist. It seems to me that the basic idea behind these strategies is that “capitalism will work if we work it.”
AR: Can you say more about what you mean when you say “neocolonial”?
EC: It seems like the focus is on replacing the people that are running things. The bottom line is that the new mainstream of liberal social activism that is growing in part out of these social media networks thinks that a lot of this stuff can be fixed this way. That the police departments can be fixed for instance, by putting into place “positive” community-orientated officers, and through a process of attrition over time they will create a “positive” police force. But this is not what the police are meant to do in a society like ours, and it is not what our institutions will ultimately allow! They don’t seem to understand the actual political role of the police in terms of protecting property and in terms of protecting capital. That’s a problem with the direction of progressive politics right now.
AR: And, perhaps too its indicative of the consequences of the wholesale repression of those historic U.S. based revolutionary anticolonial, anti-capitalist and internationalist grassroots formations from the 1960s and 1970s, right?
EC: Absolutely, absolutely. And, it’s also a problem of liberal identity politics, in some activist communities it’s a problem of regurgitating really crude nationalist politics, and at the end of the day, it’s a problem of pro-capitalist politics. That’s a problem that I think will undergo some change if things continue to head in the direction we are headed. I feel like that same thing existed in the Black community in ’63, ’64, ‘65 until such time that it was clear that the problem was bigger than who was in charge of the system, and it was clear instead that the problem was who the system was built to serve in the first place.
AR: Perhaps obtusely related to this matter of liberal identity politics and capitalism, is the role that race, class, and gender played in this past presidential election. What was particularly striking to me about this election was the utter disbelief that so many mainstream pundits and public intellectuals expressed over the effectiveness of the Trump campaign’s mobilization of discourses of white nationalism, xenophobia, misogyny, and Black/Brown criminality. What do you think about this response, specifically in terms of the implication that white supremacy is a remnant of the American past?
EC: I think it’s really important for people to understand that the so-called “alt-right,” the white conservative movement, the white supremacist movement, the white nationalist movement, all of these movements have been operating over the past four decades at least. And not just under Reagan and Bush, and so on. They have actually multiplied tremendously with the amount of formations they’ve created. In fact, they have radio stations throughout the nation. From the Promise Keepers, to the Oath Keepers, to various local and national militia movements. They have been down on the ground in the community, in rural communities in particular, organizing and mobilizing, and liberals and leftist too have been ignoring it because the main focus has been a narrow idea of “the extremists” like the Ku Klux Klan, or the Neo Nazi movements, or the Minute Men at the U.S./Mexico border. In rural areas, and in America in general, this kind of overt white nationalist organizing has been happening the whole time. And beyond all of this, people have to broaden their thinking to recognize how the system doesn’t even need to use “in your face” type white supremacy to reproduce racialized poverty. This so-called revival of overt white nationalism is a terrible myth! Its been building and building the whole time. This is not a resurgence! It’s something that’s been building not only here in America, its been building in Europe and other places for the past decades. You see little outbreaks of it on the news here and there. It’s just nobody has paying enough attention to it. The real important thing to pay attention to is actually down on the farm with the bread and butter white people, whose lives have been tremendously changed with the automation and cybernation of industries. Their paychecks have been diminished, their incomes have been diminished, and their quality of life has been diminished. And this is because more and more of their wealth is going to the 1%. And, the whole time this has been going there has been scapegoating. The Black community, the Latino community, the immigrant community, the gay community, have been taking the blame for the deterioration of the quality of life of the average white American worker. And nobody is paying too much attention to that, and I think it’s important to understand that this is a result of a very critical crisis in capitalism. We saw this in ’08, and I think we are getting ready to see it again in ’17 and ’18 and it’s going to be bad news because along with this white nationalist mobilization has been going on to.
AR: This new regime of American government is crystallizing as we speak, and its nature has been characterized by many as reminiscent of the early rise fascist regimes of the 20th century. How do you think scholars and educators who are committed to studying and teaching revolutionary grassroots antiracist and anticapitalist histories and ideas should approach this seemingly new era of American conservativism?
EC: If you take a step back into history, one of the things that fascist movements do is engage in a mass psychology type attack on the population. In order to do that one of the first things they do is they target intellectuals, academics, labor leaders, activists, et cetera. And they try to get these people out of universities, out of areas where they can influence populations. Even now, there are attacks against leftist intellectuals and teachers, and this has happened way before Trump. Honestly, all leftist and progressive academics who are pushing research on the environment, race, economics or whatever, need to build a formal and organized network. The first priority should be to create alliances and networks that are supportive of each other. That network needs to be created and solidified, whether it’s a union of progressive academics or an association. Something needs to happen. I think something like that is the first line of defense for fighting off fascist mass propaganda later on. If that doesn’t happen, then you all are going to be isolated and picked off one at a time. All of your respective work and professional activities will be viewed in a vacuum, this will create the conditions to get rid of you all. I’m taking a page from history. They had to do that in Germany to a vast number of academics and intellectuals before they could bring in the knuckle-heads. I mean, the Brown Shirts were already on the ground. But, before they could bring in the Black Shirts and the Gestapo, they had to first get rid of the thinkers. And the thinkers did not protect themselves properly, and they were gotten rid of. I think the most important thing that leftist and progressive intellectuals must do is organize a support network to make sure that you can protect yourselves from a McCarthy-like attack that could come down on you all. If they get rid of you all, then they change the curriculum. And when they change the curriculum, they change the material conditions. And when they change the material conditions, they change history. Look at climate change deniers. In the best case, they are creating doubt over whether or not it’s a human-made problem, and whether its our responsibility to take action. So they create their own narrative, and it has real power for certain elite groups. But, if there is no one to challenge them, or those challenges become seen as isolated, than you have a big problem.
AR: For those of us who are actively teaching courses in the history and strategies of social justice movements by the economically impoverished, politically alienated, the criminalized, and the racially dehumanized, what are some ways we can give our students a political education that is really relevant to the issues faced by these communities?
EC: I think it’s important to look at what’s happening on the ground in places throughout the planet. You have to look at the organizing efforts of the cooperatives in Spain, you have to look at Brazil where there is MST, you have to look at the massive organizing that is going on at the ground that’s building the alternative structures that will allow them to survive on the one hand, and resist on the other hand. We can learn and look at what’s happening right now in Greece in the middle of their austerity programs. What is going on in Athens down on the ground on the left? What are they doing? How are they coping? How are they organizing? And how are they delivering services among each other and harnessing their resources in a time that’s really bad?
AR: So what you’re suggesting is that its contingent on leftist scholars and educators to resurrect the idea of “thinking global and acting local”?
EC: No, what I’m suggesting is that it’s important to understand that what’s happening here in the local is a global situation! Donald Trump here, is Duterte in the Philippines, he is the British Union in England, he is Temer in Brazil. This is not an isolated situation here in West Baltimore. The conditions here are symptoms of a worldwide network that’s growing and rearing its head. And, it’s actually gained momentum since the 1960s. For instance, all of the South American gains are being reversed. Similar to the retrenchment that we saw in Africa, after all of the revolutions in the ‘70s with the wars of independence. In the ‘80s all of that was rolled back. And now Africa is neocolonized again. The same thing is happening in South America. After Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Lula da Silva in Brazil, all of that is being rolled back at the government and economic level. But now on the ground, in the aftermath, people are organizing. And that is what we need to learn about. The organizing that is happening on the ground by people at the bottom of the class hierarchy in local areas throughout the planet. These are all local symptoms of the same global capitalism.
AR: But how do these local struggles gain the kind of momentum necessary to create global impact?
EC: In North America, we on the left need to be thinking about taking over the local apparatuses first. But, the next big step to our survival is controlling these cities. We are concentrated in these cities, all around the world. Cities control the economics of America. Cities house most of the intellectuals, the progressives, the activists, the workers, and the people that would be identified with the left. Whether it is the gay community, the environmental community, cities are important centers for advancing these kinds of socially transformative activities. This is not about dismissing the importance of local struggles in the rural areas, but just really seeing the potential political significance of how concentrated some of these cities have become. We have to start thinking in terms of gaining control of these cities because if we can gain control of these cities than we can protect these vulnerable neighborhoods and build something new. Greater New York is 20 million people. Great Los Angeles is the same. 20 million people is a nation! I mean even the Bay Area – San Francisco, Oakland, and the surrounding areas – that’s a nation. Chicago is another one. From the Boston corridor all the way down to Virginia we have mega cities. As the local struggles gain momentum, we have to think about cities and how to change their politics.
AR: What are some examples of local struggles that you are hopeful about?
EC: Well, this whole urban farming thing is really starting to spread. In fact, the Coalition of Friends just got finished opening a second plot of land today, right here in Gilmor Homes. We created our first urban farm last year in 2016. This year we’ve already opened a second one, and as soon as next week we could have a third. And what’s most important about all of this is not just the food and the farming, it’s the culture and the sense of power it creates for the community. And, it's also about the kids seeing people doing creative and new things in their urban environment. The urban environmental movement is growing and is strong. Urban farming movements are in Cleveland, in Detroit, in Los Angeles. It’s catching on because we are recognizing that all of these impoverished communities in these cities are food deserts. And people are turning vacant lots into farms for the people. Food is always a good starting place for a revolution because you’re always going to need three things: food, clothes, and shelter. You’ll never get away from that. A focal point where you can really get people’s attention is definitely the issue of food, that’s an issue that’s going to continue to loom larger. These local movements are really important for protecting these communities’ futures, but they are also important in terms of finding out what might work for other communities. I think if we create a local movements on the ground that actually works to change an impoverished neighborhood into a thriving community, we can set an example that will work for an entire city, and then from there people can do the same thing in other levels, and from there you can influence the regional and national level. And, on related to the food movement on the ground, healthcare is obviously getting ready to become a major issue again because Obamacare is going to get rolled back. They will probably take it apart one piece at a time, but when they are finished will be gutted. And, that’s going to change the healthcare for a lot of people that are impoverished. So taking control of food is just the tip of the iceberg.
AR: What message do you have for students in colleges and universities who are interested in doing revolutionary work in this early 21st century moment?
EC: Well, one important piece to giving these students a revolutionary political education is getting them to recognize how class politics and class identity runs deep in every community. And how this is partly what maintains the system, and this class politics includes their communities as young college-going people – white, black, and brown or, whatever - who are either part of the bourgeoisie, the petit-bourgeosie, or at the very least, are being culturally trained by these institutions to identify with them. You have to let them know that they have a responsibility to the planet. When I’ve gone to speak at colleges I tell them half-jokingly that if you spend all of your time building and creating a good safe environment just for “Bobby,” but you don’t go down in the hood and spend time with “Pookie,” then at some point Pookie is going to come to Bobby’s and help himself. And, then all your shit is going to be gone too. So let’s do something about Pookie. You need to do something about Pookie now or all your shit is going to be gone [laughter]. But really, as institutions that are made by and for the industries of modern capitalism, these schools aren’t designed to give students much incentive to get their degree and then go and organize for revolutionary social transformation for impoverished people. Even for a lot of college students who grow up in some of these communities that are struggling the most today, the main objective is to get into a profession and move away from home. It’s not the same as when we were growing up, where you lived in a community with all kinds of professionals, workers, doctors, taxi cab drivers, shop owners, and even gangsters. There is a vicious cycle now in these communities where people are constantly getting locked up, or choosing to leave as soon as they get the opportunity. It’s a really terrible and destructive thing for the psyches of the young people that continue to live in these neighborhoods. It’s like people are forced to adopt this survival mentality under these kinds of conditions, and whether they get out or not, too few make the decision to stay and figure out how to put at stop to this and build something new. So what I’m saying is that an important leap for them to take, if they haven’t already, is to recognize their place in this whole system. And then to really think about how they can use the resources they have available to them and bring some of the same to the communities and neighborhoods that can’t get this stuff. I’m talking about materials and ideas.
AR: And, what message do you have to educators in colleges and universities that are invested in teaching social justice-oriented material about their responsibility in this early 21st century moment?
EC: I would say that for those of you who are interested in specifically teaching the history of the Black Panther Party, lookup former Black Panther Party members and invite them to come speak to your class, in-person! [Laughter] Don’t just celebrate the iconic images and superficial narratives. I would say, talk about the Black Panthers and the other revolutionaries of the 1960s and 1970s as ordinary people. Tell your students that a lot of these folks were students just like themselves, and used their campuses as places to organize and teach each other. And there were a lot of us that did this all in our own neighborhoods and cities, and we tried to figure out how to solve problems that the system ignored, because it had actually created them on purpose. And I’d also tell you all, to tell your students to take seriously the question of “why” and “how” all of this crisis and impoverishment has been created for the people who are at the bottom. And then, from there, tell them to go out and figure out how to build something new, from the ground.
AR: It’s been fifty-years since the founding of the Black Panther Party, and now is an opportune time for us to be thinking about the relevance of what you all were doing then in relation to today’s problems. Thank you for taking time out of your day to speak with me, Eddie.
EC: You got it, man. Stay strong.
Conway, Marshall “Eddie” and Dominque Stevenson (2011). Marshall Law: the Life and Times of a Baltimore Black Panther. Baltimore: AK Press.