In a wide ranging four-day conference thousands showed up to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party, held last weekend at the Oakland Museum of California.
Former Party members representing chapters from all over the United States came from as far away as Mexico, Europe, Australia and Africa were among the attendees, commentators and panelists, according to Melvin Dickson, a member of the BPP Host Committee.
In addition to the exhibit and workshops at the Oakland Museum, there were satellite activities at other nearby galleries as well as Merritt College and Frank Ogawa Plaza.
At a Saturday night gala, actor and activist Danny Glover gave the keynote address, and on Sunday a grove in DeFremery Park was officially dedicated to the memory of the BPP martyr Bobby Hutton, a teenaged party member who was killed by police.
According to Dickson, the workshops, which numbered more than 30, had themes that reflected the party’s 10-point program for social justice and celebrated accomplishments, while also discussing lessons learned.
Major figures from the early years of the party were present, including Erica Huggins, Kathleen Cleaver, Tarika Lewis and former chairwoman Elaine Brown.
While addressing the BPP’s past, the conference focused on current struggles against police brutality/terrorism and freeing political prisoners, while exploring strategies for the future.
Denika Chatman and Gwen Jones, the mothers of Kenneth Harding Jr. and Mario Woods, young men who were killed by San Francisco Police, called on people to continue to organize to make local elected politicians hold police accountable for their actions.
“The only way they can defeat us is if we give up hope,” said Mrs. Jones, who sees complacency in the community in the wake of these deaths.
Because COINTELPRO, domestic counter insurgency tactics, had such a deleterious effect on the activities of the BPP, it became a central theme in the workshops and a cautionary tale for young people, particularly those directly involved in the Black Lives Matter Movement.
In a panel about COINTELPRO’s impact, Christopher Muhammad of the Nation of Islam and the Justice 4 Mario Woods Campaign with former BPP chairwoman Brown pointed out that enemies of progress for the people, whether governments or corporations, have ways of knowing when a movement is on the verge of becoming successful.
“This is not new,” he said, pointing to previous movements like Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association and, of course, NOI’s Malcolm X.
“We considered ourselves the legatees of Malcolm X,” Brown said, and it was clear the FBI did, too. Research would later reveal that the Black ex-cop who became Malcolm X’s bodyguard was also on the scene when 21 members of the New York BPP were arrested and held for nearly two years before eventually being exonerated.
“Infiltration is going to happen,” said Kathleen Cleaver at the Women in International Section of the BPP. “But you can be conscious: meet face-to- face, know their families and build some trust.”
A session featuring Black Panther Party members who were arrested, charged, and eventually freed after 180 years of incarceration between them, revealed the men’s profound commitment to what they believed in and the dedication of their families and attorneys in the years’ long battles for their release.
Records about their arrests, trials and parole hearings would also ultimately reveal the false evidence planted by COINTELPRO.
“My biggest disappointment,” said Albert Woodfox of the Angola 3, “is that the things that I left 44 years ago are still here: that a police officer can still be judge, jury and executioner.”
Ending police terror requires hard work and unity, he said. “Like Malcolm said, we have to forget our differences and realize we have a common enemy.”
In the spirit of the BPP’s “Survival Pending Revolution” social programs, the party gave away 500 bags of groceries Sunday, when District 3 Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney, with the aid of Brown formally announced the renaming of a grove in DeFremery Park in memory of Bobby Hutton.
Members of Hutton’s extended family who still live in West Oakland were present.