The social-justice activist talks about the Weather Underground, Black Panthers and the double standard of violent action in the U.S.
Former Weather Underground Organization (WUO) member and U.S. political prisoner Laura Whitehorn appears at Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffehouse Feb. 25 to talk about the new book she’s edited, The War Before: The True Life Story of Becoming a Black Panther, Keeping the Faith in Prison, and Fighting for Those Left Behind. It's a collection of speeches, essays, and interviews by the late Safiya Bukhari, a Black Panther Party member and former political prisoner. Bukhari served more than eight years in federal prison and, once released, she never tired of supporting and advocating for the support and release of political prisoners whose ranks include Marshall Eddie Conway (BPP), David Gilbert (WUO), Leonard Peltier (American Indian Movement—AIM), and Mumia Abu-Jamal (BPP), to name but a few. City Paper caught up with Whitehorn over the phone and through e-mails a few days before her arrival from New York, where she currently resides and works as a magazine editor.
City Paper: You were a member of the Weatherman/Weather Underground Organization. Could you explain how you become involved?
Laura Whitehorn: Joining Weatherman was a process for me. First, after a study group led by Fred Hampton for people who were involved in building the People’s Law Office (a Chicago storefront created to serve the legal needs of the black, Puerto Rican, and poor white communities), Fred took me aside to point out that the politics and feelings I expressed suggested that I was becoming “a revolutionary”—someone who believed that a fundamental reorganization of American society was needed. And about six months later, after witnessing repeated instances of police brutality against the black and Puerto Rican communities in Chicago, I jumped in. I chose Weather because, of all the [Students for a Democratic Society] factions, they seemed the closest to my own concerns—focusing on the war in Vietnam and racism.
CP: How large would you estimate the WUO to have been at its peak? If you had to guess, how many people were a part of WUO?
LW: I don’t know. But to me, the size of the organization is less critical than the fact that it existed in a sea of other groups with similar politics and direction—just as the Black Panther Party was not the only radical, internationalist black liberation organization of those years. Weather existed in an era when many young people around the world were questioning all the constraints we’d seen imposed on thinking and acting for basic human rights. Having grown up during the post-WWII years of focus on human rights and international law, and witnessing nations around the world—colonies—putting those laws into practice in revolutionary ways, we all felt moved to throw in our lots with what was an enormous, creative tide of human history. We were questioning whether in fact the U.S. was a democracy, as opposed to a fake democratic structure set up by a ruling class.
CP: One of the criticisms I’ve heard time and time again of the WUO mindset—and even the groups considered more benign by historians and peace studies academics, like the nonviolent so-called Catholic Left—was that it claimed the moral high ground (over Vietnam for example) and then it backed that up with violence. How do you respond to that?
LW: It is only in this country that the word “violence” stops all discussion cold—at least, when violence seems to be practiced by forces of left opposition. The basic morality of Weather and the Catholic Left, etc., was this: If you live in a country whose government is breaking international law and causing irreparable harm to oppressed people, you have a responsibility to try to stop that. To fail to act in some active manner because of respect for the laws of an illegal regime, we reasoned, is in itself immoral. We also asked, why is violence OK when used excessively by the police or the military, but somehow off limits for the victims of that state violence? We were moved by the war of national independence waged by the people of Vietnam, and saw that tactics derive their character from the goals for which they are being used. We also saw a huge divide between what violence meant to white, middle-class people and what it meant, a daily reality, in the lives of poor and oppressed people in the U.S.
CP: Many people know you as a member of the WUO, but many here in town may not know that you spent some time in Baltimore. You were arrested here. Can you talk about that?
LW: Actually, no one knew me as Weather until well after I was arrested in Baltimore. The only reason they know of me now is that I had to try to speak up, be known, in order to help bring attention to the fact that there are, in U.S. prisons, a large number of people serving long sentences as a result of actions taken in political movements—or, in other cases, people framed and imprisoned because of their political work. Right here in Baltimore, for instance, is Eddie Conway, locked up since 1970 in an extremely questionable (to say the least) case stemming from his membership in the Black Panther Party.
I was arrested—and later indicted—as part of the “Resistance Conspiracy case,” a series of small, armed attacks on U.S. government buildings and military sites, in protest of U.S. covert involvement against the people of El Salvador, Nicaragua, Grenada, and other countries. I served the first 10 months of my 14 years behind bars in Baltimore City Jail. At that time, the jail was so underfunded that women arrested in the heat of August had no winter clothes when they were still in jail in December. Almost every woman in the jail was in for some completely victimless crime. I really had to conclude that the jail itself was barely necessary, and almost every woman prisoner should have been released to some alternative form of corrections.
CP: It sounds like we still have the same problems here. What were most of the women in jail for then?
LW: You know, [drug] possession, sex work. I mean this country loves to lock people up and punish them. If they were addicted to martinis and sitting in board rooms, they wouldn't think anything of it.
CP: You were close to many members of the Black Panther Party. I think even today some people tend to think that the Panthers looked at members of the WUO as misguided and delusional. Fred Hampton once said that the WUO was "Custeristic, Chauvinistic, and opportunistic"—he said it exponentially more eloquently than that of course. How do you respond to that, and did Hampton ever soften his stance?
LW: Fred made that statement specifically about the Days of Rage—an admittedly misguided series of demonstrations in downtown Chicago in 1969, designed to deliver the message, “Bring the War Home,” by running through the streets, breaking windows, and daring the cops to stop us. It was not a good plan. The Days of Rage turned our message away from the political to the tactical, taking attention away from a statement about the Vietnam War and racism to one about militancy. Fred was also making a correct criticism of Weather leadership—the demo endangered the organization’s members and supporters.
But the more important aspect of our relationship to the Black Panther Party is, I think, represented in Safiya Bukhari’s book, The War Before. The book takes readers through the experience of the party from the early days on, showing how it was one expression of a broad movement of opposition to capitalism and colonialism in those days. The solidarity among the Panthers, Weather, the Puerto Rican Young Lords’ Organization, and many other groups of the era was based on a shared vision of the need to change the world, bring justice into existence, and, as Safiya wrote, “wait no longer for the realization of people of African descent as human beings in the eyes of mankind.” A pretty basic demand, I think, and deserving of action.
CP: How did you come to know Safiya Bukhari?
LW: I describe our meeting in my introduction to the book: Safiya visited me and other political prisoners while she was building the organization—still in existence—called the Jericho Movement. The War Before as a whole shows why I and so many other people knew and admired Safiya: She never stopped fighting for the rights of prisoners. She never stopped fighting for oppressed people. As Angela Davis writes in her foreword to the book, Safiya was “one of the very best examples of dedication to radical change and revolutionary social justice.” So, if you were involved in any of that work—especially work involving prison justice—during Safiya’s lifetime, you probably either knew her or knew of her.
CP: Could you talk a little bit about how you became involved in editing The War Before?
LW: After Safiya died in 2003 at the age of 53, her daughter Wonda Jones asked me to help gather, type up, and edit Safiya’s papers. I agreed. Wonda had lost both her mother and, only a few days earlier, her grandmother. She had grown up as one of those children on the Left who has to share her mother with the world. Here was a chance for her to reclaim her mother wholly. Wonda writes in her preface to the book, “finally the two parts of my mother—the mother and the activist—are coming together.” For me, it was a wonderful gift to be able to be part of that process. It was also a chance to help get down on paper a primary source for history of the black liberation movement during the latter part of the 20th century and, I hope, to educate people about the existence of political prisoners.
CP: I imagine there were some challenges in collecting and editing her work. What was most challenging about it?
LW: The first challenge was finding the material. Safiya was not planning a book. She was not spending her time writing, polishing, editing—she was an organizer. Almost every one of the pieces in the book arose from some moment when she felt there was something she had to say, something particular that could help other people move forward with their political lives and work. One of my favorite chapters, “Debate: Should We Grant Amnesty to America’s Political Prisoners?” is an example. Over the four or so years during which I spent weekends working on the book, I talked with my closest friends about it—my partner, Susie Day, my dear friend Barbara Zeller and her late husband, my “Resistance Conspiracy” codefendant, Alan Berkman. Excitedly, I would report having found an old, long-out-of-print mimeographed pamphlet Safiya wrote, or how someone had found, in some box of old papers and tapes, a dusty video of a speech she’d given. Barbara called me one night, saying that she thought she had something for me: In early 1998, before the major rally Safiya had organized to call for recognition and release of political prisoners, she, Alan, and lawyer Ron Kuby had engaged in a community-access TV show debating three government attorneys on the question in the title. I think the copy Barbara had was probably the only extant copy of the tape. When you read that chapter, you’ll see why this is so significant.
But there is much more out there. The book represents a small slice of the magnitude of Safiya’s organizing work. Part of the challenge for Wonda, for me, and for our dedicated publisher, the Feminist Press at CUNY, was to decide which pieces to include, and which to save for some later use.
CP: Bukhari worked with political prisoners which ended up making her a target of the police and FBI. How would you say this affected her life?
LW: Safiya talks about this in a chapter called, “We Too Are Veterans: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders and the Black Panther Party.” For one thing, she describes how the party, composed largely of young idealists—most just out of their teens—was blindsided, soon after its work began, by the onslaught of police attacks. Imagine joining a group to fight for community control of resources, then suddenly realizing that you are being hunted. Safiya also spent more than eight years in prison in Goochland, Virginia, as a result of her political work. There she nearly died due to the poor medical care.
CP: You mentioned Eddie Conway earlier and when we last spoke you said that you may be visiting him on this trip. Is there any chance of him being released—any developments in his case? Because I think maybe some people here aren't as aware of him a Black Panther from Baltimore.
LW: I know that there are people in Baltimore, including Paul Coates, the head of the Black Classic Press, who know more currently and people at the American Friends Service Committee. [His case] is technical, but it's perfect that you say people don't know about him because that's the situation with political prisoners.
Picture it, if you're locked up at the age of 19 and you're part of a political group—and remember, we all thought revolution was coming so we didn't exactly have career and retirement plans. You get locked up at that point and a lot of your family has died or have moved and you have so few resources. So how do you get the word out? And yet, you are convicted of something you absolutely didn't do and the evidence was kind of shaky to begin with, you never had the resources to disprove it, or as in many of these cases the evidence was destroyed by the government. The only way that Geronimo Pratt in California, who's the most famous case, was convicted of a murder—the FBI had hard evidence that he could not have committed [it] because he was in Oakland at the time and the murder was on a tennis court in Southern California. They purposely hid that information because they were covering up their counter-intelligence program. The only way it came out was by an FBI agent who was freaked out about what he had been a part of so he decided to talk about it. There are people who are locked up, they can't prove they're innocent—even though the proof that they're guilty is not very good, but it was good enough for a jury or judge so many years ago—and they don't have the resources to make their case. We might not know about Eddie Conway if it wasn't for Safiya. I know about him because when I was in Baltimore City Jail there were newspaper accounts about me, he saw them and wrote to me. He said, "Look, we know there's no law library in there. If you need law information, write to us and we'll get some of the brothers to get it for you." I mean the solidarity was amazing.
CP: CP: Is there any aspect of your social-justice activism I didn't ask you about that I should have?
LW: You didn’t ask me how people can get a copy of this important book: Ask for The War Before by Safiya Bukhari at your local bookstore, or go to FeministPress.org and scroll down until you see the red, black, and green book cover.
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