Revolutionary Suicide

20 May 2022

I recently finished reading (yet another) incredible book: Revolutionary Suicide by Huey P. Newton. This book is an autobiography written by one of the leaders & founders of the Black Panther Party. The full text is available here.

I didn’t know much about the Black Panther Party before reading this. In fact, the BPP was never mentioned even in passing in my time at high school or college (surprise, surprise). Everything I’ve read about them has mostly been in passing, or articles online.

Originally, the party was named the “Black Panther Party for Self-Defense”. One of the main things they fought against was police brutality and systematic apathy toward black people. The party preached nonviolence and peace, vowing only to attack another as an act of self-defense. You can read their official program, called the 10 Point Program here. This document outlined the party’s political objectives.

Revolutionary Suicide covers Huey’s childhood and development, his experiences in schooling and the creation of the party. The second half of the book covers a series of trials and imprisonment after he was arrested for a crime he didn’t commit.

I went into it knowing that the BPP suffered a lot at the hands of the state (cops, justice system, FBI) but I didn’t understand the extent of how bad it was. It’s hard to be surprised anymore at the general cruelty and apathy of the system we’re born into, but to see such a personal account of someone who suffered so much in the ‘60s from problems we are still facing today

I will give a brief overview of the book, as well as share some quotes that really struck me.

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Huey begins by talking about his childhood growing up in a working-class family, and seeing his father struggle to pay the bills:

“For me, no words on the street were as profane as ‘the bills.’ It killed me a little each time they were mentioned, because I could see the never-ending struggle and agony my father went through trying to cope with them. It is a situation familiar to most people in the Black community. In one of his letters to his father, George Jackson spoke for me: ‘How do you think I felt when I saw you come home each day a little more depressed than the day before? How do you think I felt when I looked in your face and saw the clouds forming, when I saw you look around and see your best efforts go for nothing—nothing.’ I know exactly what he meant.”

He reflects on how this shaped his views as he grew up. “I did not want bills and a car was not my main goal or desire. My purpose was to have as much leisure time as possible.”

Even though Huey went on to graduate high school, he couldn't read. He reflects on how teachers openly and publicly called him and other Black children “stupid” and mocked them in class. He goes on to explain that this is a reflection of the failure of the school systems to give Black students an education.

He looked up to his older brother Melvin, who was in college. Huey felt a deep sense of shame and embarrassment for his lack of skills and eventually decided to teach himself. He went on to become a voracious reader and eloquent writer.

Huey's views about society had not changed much by college. He tells us,

“At Oakland City College many of the Blacks were working as hard as they could to become a part of the system; I could not relate to their goals. These brothers still believed in making it in the world. They talked about it loud and long, expressing the desire for families, houses, cars, and so forth. Even at that time I did not want those things. I wanted freedom, and possessions meant nonfreedom to me.”

He also mentions his experiences joining several different political and cultural organizations in college, all of which he went on to eventually leave. Some of these organizations went on to become Black Nationalist groups who greatly promoted separatism (separation of blacks from whites). Students in these organizations opposed working with white groups in any capacity. Huey disagrees:

“I pointed out that many young whites had suddenly discovered hypocrisy; their fathers and forefathers had written and talked brotherhood and democracy while practicing greed, imperialism, and racism. While speaking of the rights of mankind and equality for all, of “free enterprise,” the “profit system,” “individualism,” and “healthy competition,” they had plundered the wealth of the world and enslaved Blacks in the United States. White youths now saw through this hypocrisy and were trying to bring about changes through traditional electoral politics. But reality is impervious to idealism. These youngsters were discovering what Blacks knew in their bones—that the military-industrial complex was practically invincible and had in fact created a police state, which rendered idealism powerless to change anything. This led to disillusionment with their parents and the American power structure. At that point of disillusionment they began to identify with the oppressed people of the world.

"When the Black Panthers saw this trend developing, we understood that their dissatisfaction could help our cause. In a few years’ time, almost half of the American population would be composed of young people; if we developed strong and meaningful alliances with white youth, they would support our goals and work against the Establishment.”

After their unsatisfactory stints in college organizations, Huey and his friend Bobby Seale, went on to create the Party in 1966. They acknowledged that race was only one side of a many-sided problem and that ultimately, the main problem is capitalism and imperialism - which affects everyone, albeit unequally.

The first official Party document was the “10 Point Program”, a short bulleted list made up of the Panthers’ main political objectives.

They start out by focusing on objective #7, the one which poses the largest immediate threat to the Black community: “We Want An Immediate End To The Police Brutality And Murder Of Black People”.

The Panthers’ plan of action was to patrol the police, since the police could not be trusted to police themselves. This meant going around town while wearing shotguns in plainview and supervising the police (for example, if an officer were found stopping another Black community member). Huey tells of standing a distance away when something like this happened, and reading civilian rights loudly, so the person getting pulled over would know their legal rights.

Many times, if the citizen was arrested, the Panthers would follow the police back to the station after an arrest, and bail the person out.

The Panthers were not breaking any laws at this time by carrying their guns in the open, however new laws were put into place afterward.

"We had seen Martin Luther King come to Watts in an effort to calm the people, and we had seen his philosophy of nonviolence rejected. Black people had been taught nonviolence; it was deep in us. What good, however, was nonviolence when the police were determined to rule by force? We had seen the Oakland police and the California Highway Patrol begin to carry their shotguns in full view as another way of striking fear into the community. We had seen all this, and we recognized that the rising consciousness of Black people was almost at the point of explosion. One must relate to the history of one’s community and to its future. Everything we had seen convinced us that our time had come."

Huey describes helping families try and get justice for family members wrongly murdered by police and explains that these institutions are not set to serve this kind of justice at all.

“Institutions work this way. A son is murdered by the police, and nothing is done. The institutions send the victim’s family on a merry-go-round, going from one agency to another, until they wear out and give up. This is a very effective way to beat down poor and oppressed people, who do not have the time to prosecute their cases. Time is money to poor people. To go to Sacramento means loss of a day’s pay—often a loss of job. If this is a democracy, obviously it is a bourgeois democracy limited to the middle and upper classes. Only they can afford to participate in it.”

One night at a party, Huey stabs someone who is about to attack him. After this, he is convicted of assault with a deadly weapon and serves six months in prison before he was released.

He tells about his time in prison, one month of which was spent in the “soul breaker”, an especially cruel variation of solitary confinement where prisoners were made to stand naked.

"There was no bunk, no washbasin, no toilet, nothing but bare floors, bare walls, a solid steel door, and a round hole four inches in diameter and six inches deep in the middle of the floor. The prisoner was supposed to urinate and defecate in this hole."

The day he is released from prison, he goes out to celebrate and is pulled over and harassed by two policemen.

The next thing he remembers is being shot in the stomach.

He comes to learn afterwards that he is accused of not only shooting and killing a police officer, but also kidnapping a civilian at gunpoint and forcing them to drive him to the hospital.

But Huey didn’t even have a gun on him that night.

Shortly after, in the hospital, Huey describes being viciously abused by policemen who call him a “cop killer”.

When he recovers more fully, he is sent away to prison where he remains from 1967 until 1970. The criminal trial begins in 1968 and he is sentenced to 2 to 15 years in prison.

Huey remains in prison until 1970. During this time, Huey is subjected to more abuse, typical at prisons, as well as the horrors of long-term solitary confinement. At one point, after six months in solitary, even the prison guards were amazed he hadn’t cracked yet.

“Very few people in America have any deep perception of conditions and treatment in prisons for an obvious reason: the authorities, who have total control of the situation, see to it that the public is not told the truth. Prisoners cannot communicate freely and privately with the outside. Therefore, what most people know about prisons is what the authorities want them to hear.”

In the meantime, Huey goes on trial again and again, facing what seems like impossible odds - evidence that the court conveniently “lost” (that would have been in his favor), false testimonies, and more.

Finally, after three re-trials, the court eventually dismisses the charges. Huey walked free in 1970, but much had changed - and this is where the story ends.

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Huey represented more than just the leader of the BPP. He represented the possibility of organizing enough Black people to potentially rise to a level of equality as whites. Because of this, he was identified as a threat - not only by his local police but by the US government.

COINTELPRO is a series of illegal projects conducted by the FBI, aimed specifically at “discrediting and disrupting American political organizations”. These events took place between 1956 and 1971, but are no longer secret. This project sought to bring down The Black Panthers and did everything in their power to do so, including cultivating suspicion and mistrust between party members through false correspondences and similar acts of sabotage.

This information was never admitted by the FBI until it was discovered. If it were never discovered we might (almost certainly) have never learned about it. COINTELPRO was discovered by the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI after burgling an FBI office in Pennsylvania. This commission was merely an activist group and this is their only known action. Most news outlets initially refused to publish the information, but The Washington Post ran a front-page story on it and soon other outlets followed.

Other COINTELPRO targets include The Black Panther Party, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and many others.

“[I]t is better to oppose the forces that would drive me to self-murder than to endure them. Although I risk the likelihood of death, there is at least the possibility, if not the probability, of changing intolerable conditions... Revolutionary suicide does not mean that I and my comrades have a death wish; it means just the opposite. We have such a strong desire to live with hope and human dignity that existence without them is impossible. When reactionary forces crush us, we move against these forces, even at the risk of death."

“I had to suffer through a certain situation; by doing so, my resistance told them that I rejected all they stood for. Even though my struggle might have harmed my health, even killed me, I looked upon it as a way of raising the consciousness of the other inmates, as a contribution to the ongoing revolution. Only resistance can destroy the pressures that cause reactionary suicide.”