Ana María Arbeláez Trujillo in conversation with Bob Brown, organizer of the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party (GC)
Since the 1960s, the leaders of the Black Power Movement have fought tirelessly to challenge institutional racism, to reclaim and reinterpret the history of black people and for the right to establish and change the terms to define them and their relationships with society. Committed to this long legacy and revindication of black history, longtime activist and researcher Bob Brown visited the ISS in February 2020 to participate in an event titled “Black Power and the Politics of Liberation, in comparative perspective”. He talked about the origins of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and the larger Black Panther Movement worldwide. We conversed afterward. Here is what he had to say.
Can the current presidential campaign make a difference for black people?
I have not been involved in any political campaign since the 1990s. I see no candidate right now who I can support. I do not think that conventional politics, right or left, is the way forward for the US. American society has, for centuries, deliberately and systematically excluded black people from political participation. We need more than regime change. What we need is a transformation in the values and the ideology upholding the racist political system.
The possibilities for black people to seize power through electoral politics in the US are virtually nonexistent. Obama was a black figurehead in a white racist and sexist system, which structurally limited what he could do. He could be the best guy in the world, but he implemented racist and sexist policies.
When we focus on the colour or the gender of the candidates, we are looking at individuals when we should be looking at the system. It is not only about having black people or women in power; it is about recognizing and addressing the racist and gendered dynamics within the institutions.
So, do you believe that politics have transformative potential?
Yes, everything is political, but I only believe in politics with revolutionary objectives and values. I helped Harold Washington to take the Mayor’s office in Chicago. He never controlled it. He fought to control the Democratic Party in Chicago. Unfortunately, he died within four years. We had revolutionary plans; we had the Black Panther clinics and many other ideas.
Politics can be changed, even if it is minimal and incremental. If nothing else, we got Obamacare. Obama did not create it, but it was passed during his time. The program has had a positive effect in our community, especially for older people like me who cannot afford health care and for young people who were previously not insured. That is incremental change. The Black Panther Party started programs for feeding children; these programs were and are also being funded by the government.
And what about academia: how do you see the role of academia in social change?
Academia is very problematic right now. The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense is predominantly regarded as an entertainment industry in academia. You don’t know how many people write books, articles, and PhD dissertations about it. When I read them, I laugh because they all reproduce the same lies.
First, I go to the index, and I see how many times the word ‘race’ and ‘class’ are mentioned. Yes, it is included one or two times, but the authors undermine, or are not aware of, their interconnection and role.
Another example is that academics are saying that Fred Hampton was killed because he was feeding children. That is not true. We did not only fight for black people; we also struggled for a different and true interpretation of history. So, if some people in academia are perpetuating the same old lies, then we must fight against those lies.
Do you think that social media have contributed to making social movements more horizontal? For example, is the Black Lives Matter movement more horizontal than the movement in the 1960s?
I have a problem with this concept of the horizontal versus the vertical. There is nothing leaderless in our culture, historically or currently. That is an illusion and ideological concept with which I don’t agree. I have a problem with those academics who are teaching that, because they are telling people something that is not true. How is the Black Lives Matter movement a leaderless organization when the Democratic Party and related forces are funding and controlling it? They were potentially one of the most progressive movements in the country. Where are they now and what are they doing? I have a problem with the sector of the movement that says that they are a leaderless organization. That may be their ideal, but they are not there yet and never will be.
Black Lives Matter is not a monolithic or revolutionary movement. You cannot say that when the Ford or Soros Foundations offer funds to ten to fifteen of these organizations. They own the leadership of most of the movements in our community and around this country. Even if the Black Lives Matter people are not leaders, George Soros is. All we have to do is to follow the money trail. That shows confusion, and that is not a leaderless movement.
What do you think about the current focus of the media on white environmental activists?
The environmental movement is not white. It is a people’s movement with 7+ billion members worldwide. The overwhelming majority of the people worldwide are not white. The most funded and public version of it is white, but that is, again, a product of institutional racism.
This perception of the environmental movement being white has passed through generations, but it is wrong to say that. If you look from the invisible to top-down, it looks white. But you have to go through history. There are black people like Ben Chavis, Damu Smith and Connie Tucker. They coined the term “environmental racism” and were leaders of the “environmental justice movement.” Al Gore, the so-called leader of the green movement, brought “environmental justice movement” into the White House and coopted it. It is therefore disrespectful and racist to say that the environmental movement is white.
About the authors:
Bob Brown is the co-founder and ex-member of the Chicago Chapter of the Black Panther Party (March 1968 to March 1969) and author of several books, including his most recent Malcolm X and Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael). He is currently a member of the A-APRP (GC).
Ana María Arbeláez Trujillo is a lawyer, specialist in Environmental Law and holds an Erasmus Mundus Master in Public Policy. She works as a researcher for PID Amazonia, a civic society platform to address deforestation in the Colombian Amazon. Her research interests are the political economy of extractivist industries, environmental conflicts, and rural development.
Title Image Credit: Martin Blok