It’s February, 2000. I’m in Comstock prison and heartbroken. My dear friend, the beloved political prisoner of war Nuh Washington, is in the infirmary with terminal liver cancer. Nuh, an extraordinarily soulful and compassionate comrade, has been in prison for close to 30 years as a result of the government’s war against the Black Panther Party (BPP) and the Black liberation struggle. Even though he’s close by, I can’t see him because general population prisoners are not allowed to visit the infirmary. The guys who work up there look out for him the best they can, but some of the COs are taking advantage of Nuh’s weakened condition to harass him.
Then, almost miraculously, I get to spend a day with him. Two leaders of the Jericho Movement for U.S. Political Prisoners have organized a visit on February 28, Nuh’s 59th birthday, bringing up his elderly mother and his brother. While the family members call Nuh down, Safiya and Paulette call me and–with good timing and good fortune–we all get to sit together. The six of us have this unbelievably relaxed, loving, joyous birthday party, a truly splendid day. At the end, as I take him in his wheel chair to the infirmary orderly, I say one last time, “Happy Birthday.” Nuh looks back at me, with glistening eyes and, a sweet smile, and says, “It has been, a very happy birthday.”
The person who accomplished this magic was Safiya Bukhari, along with her New York Jericho co-coordinator Paulette Dauteuil. It was no mean feat. Safiya, who had a full time job, was not only an initiator and leader of Jericho but also a founder and chair of the Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Campaign in New York City, and she was a vice president of the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Afrika (a revolutionary Black nationalist formation) as well. Safiya was unparalleled in how hard she worked and in how much she did to support and strive to free political prisoners and prisoners of war (PP/POWs). Tragically Safiya died all too early of a pulmonary embolism at the age of 53 in 2003.
Now thanks to the initiative of her daughter, Wonda Jones, and an Amazonian editing effort by Laura Whitehorn, many of Safiya’s writings and speeches have been collected into The War Before–a sparkling gem of a book where even the preface by Wonda Jones brought tears to my eyes. It turns out that in addition to being a stellar organizer, Safiya provided astute and invaluable reflections on that work and on the challenges to building a movement. Her style is direct and accessible–reading these selections is almost like having a conversation–and Laura Whitehorn provides very helpful brief introductions to each piece. Those, along with the useful footnotes, provide today’s readers with the context and meanings of the different cases and organizations mentioned.
Safiya herself spent 8 1/2 years as a political prisoner, from January 1975 to August 1983, in Virginia’s harsh prisons. She had to fight to save her own life threatened by medical neglect. She was one of the founders there of a program with the delicious title MILK, Mothers Inside Loving Kids, as a way to prevent the separation of children from their incarcerated mothers. She also fought for an adequate law library, decent job training, and religious freedom.
But Safiya’s dedication to PP/POWs preceded her own stint in prison and flowed from her political understanding. As early as 1972 she tried to form a National Committee to Defend Political Prisoners, but she was soon forced underground and then busted. She remained clear on the reasons for the rest of her life. Such efforts aren’t a distraction from other work but rather the continuity of the struggles for social justice: “The issue of political prisoners is [...] an integral part of [the] movement [...] It must be woven into the very fiber” (102).
This book goes way beyond her trailblazing work around PP/POWs. She provides about the best sense I’ve seen of what it was like to be a Panther in those breakthrough but dangerous years of 1966-1973. She does so by being very concrete about day-to-day activities–working in the Free Breakfast for School Children Program, running an office, political education, physical fitness, criticism/self-criticism. And she has an amazingly balanced and nuanced view of the history. She accomplished that almost impossible dual task for revolutionaries: stand firm on fundamental principles; openly examine and criticize mistakes.
Safiya provides a valuable lesson on security for organizations under attack by the state. The pitfall is posturing–trying to show how tough or technically adept we are. The sound approach is to stay rooted in our principles and our commitment to the oppressed. Instead of rumors and backbiting against comrades and instead of the liberalism of not raising differences directly, we need open and constructive discussion. Instead of labeling someone a snitch based on a hunch (placing false snitch jackets on comrades was one of the FBI’s most successful disruptive tactics against the BPP) we need thorough and fair ways to investigate and adjudicate such charges: “We can no longer afford the luxury of rumormongering, making unsubstantiated, allegations, or harboring ill feelings without airing them” (47).
COINTELPRO, the FBI’s illegal and murderous assault against the BPP and other radical organizations, figures prominently in her writings. But Safiya does not place all the blame for the demise of the BPP there. She looks frankly at internal weaknesses. People who got caught up in ego, who put self-advancement ahead of basic principles, became vulnerable to the pressures and tricks of COINTELPRO:
“[...P]eople in the Party allowed liberalism and egos to become more important than what we were working for [...] The people and advancing the struggle are more important than any individual” (120). At its height, the bitter split in the BPP led to tragic, fratricidal violence:
“After the split, it was a time of paranoia. The resulting violence was totally opposite to what the Party was about. COINTELPRO brought about a war inside the Party. Through COINTELPRO, people worked under the guise of being Panthers and instigated incidents. Threats were made over the phone and we feared for our lives. They created a war atmosphere” (29).
Safiya stays rooted in the historical context of what created these cracks under superhuman pressure on a very young and inexperienced organization. At the same time that principles required the Party to defend a Black community faced with brutality and killings by the police, the Panthers themselves were under police fire and attack in offices and homes around the country. Safiya neither glorifies the BPP and subsequently the Black Liberation Army’s use of armed self-defense nor airbrushes it out of the history. Where she’s emphatic is on the primacy of politics, a politics rooted in serving the people.
One of the most controversial topics is sexism within the BPP. Safiya neither glosses over the problem nor allows it to be used–as several white left groups, themselves very sexist, tried to do–to discredit the Panthers. She describes some of the problems and is unambiguous: “[...] we must deal with the problems of male chauvinism–along with domestic violence–in our communities” (60). She’s also clear about the history of oppression of Black people and how that has created a different framework than the dominant society for the development and overcoming of sexism. Like society as a whole and pretty much all left groups at the time, sexism was a big problem in the BPP. But the Party also took a monumental step forward for the times in having the courage to address women’s liberation and in being almost unique in affording Black women opportunities to be active organizers and have high levels of responsibility within the organization.
Since Safiya didn’t get to edit or update essays for this book, some of her positions get frozen in time. She may well have had more to say about sexism and the role of women in the movement a decade after that piece was written. Or, as Laura Whitehorn points out in her introduction, Safiya’s subsequent years of work with allies in PP campaigns undoubtedly led to a more supportive view of lesbians and gays than implied in the negative connotations of her late 1980s remark about homosexuality as a “temptation” to be resisted. But the point is not that the reader has to agree with every sentence in the book or even that Safiya would stand by each and every line, but rather that The War Before offers a wealth of experience and insightful reflections about principled organizing. For me, the most powerful, poignant piece in this book is “Lest We Forget,” a pamphlet she put together in the early 1980s. So many bright, idealistic, young Black revolutionaries died in the chaos of the police attacks that it’s hard to remember who they were. Safiya took on the extremely painful but tender, loving effort to list, with brief profiles, 43 people who lost their lives in the Black liberation struggle from 1966 to 1981, 28 of whom were killed between 3/68 and 11/73. This accounting is stirring in capturing the intensity of the struggle–the sacrifices involved–and in simultaneously reminding us that each person was a real, precious human being.
Safiya is very clear about the challenges ahead: “We have taken on, in our movement, the biggest enemy of human beings in the world: the U.S. system of capitalism” (215). At the same time she underscores our source of strength. For each of us changing the world “[...] begins with rebuilding the character into a revolutionary character of which the central component is love” (93).
There is much more in The War Before–her own process of radicalization, her belief that Islam and revolution are compatible and complementary, her astute analysis of how post-traumatic stress disorder affected veterans of the struggle, her cogent advocacy for death row PP Mumia Abu-Jamal, her closing essay on the incredible and little known injustice to Kamau Sadiki, and more. But I’ll end the review here with:
- Wonda Jones and Laura Whitehorn, THANK YOU for retrieving and making this treasure trove available.
- Safiya Bukhari, PRESENTE, your organizing, your love, your lessons live on with us.