Film serves as ‘opportunity to remind people of the real heroes of the Black Panthers’, says former party leader
When he was released from prison in 2014, Sekou Odinga felt like he was falling from the sky into a foreign land. After 33 years behind bars, the former Black Panther
party leader was released into a United States he didn’t recognize – with strange technology and grandchildren he had never hugged.
Though he celebrated with family and supporters, Odinga, 73, also remained mindful of the many other civil rights activists who weren’t so lucky: “You always feel like you don’t want to leave nobody behind.”
This weekend, his advocacy group is gathering outside movie theaters across New York City to educate crowds at sold-out screenings of Black Panther about the real-life Black Panthers who fought for black liberation in the 1960s and 1970s – some of whom have also been fighting for their own freedom from incarceration for decades.
For some activists, however, Ryan Coogler’s film and mostly black cast is much more than a refreshing comic book story that breaks down stereotypes
in an industry dominated by white film-makers.
The Afrofuturist film has sparked renewed calls from attorneys, families and civil rights leaders for the release of more than a dozen incarcerated
former members of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP), the radical group founded in 1966
in Oakland, California.
“Many are in the worst prisons and the worst conditions, and a lot of them are getting older and suffer from health problems,” said Odinga, who was convicted
of attempted murder of police officers in the 1980s, a time when the US government was aggressively targeting black power movements with surveillance, violence, arrest and prosecution. “This is an opportunity to remind people of the real heroes of the Black Panthers and the conditions they live in today.”
Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, two of the founders of the Black Panthers
The film, which begins in Oakland, was released months after it was revealed that the FBI’s terrorism unit
had labeled some people “black identity extremists”, claiming that activists fighting police brutality posed a violent threat. The concept resembled the US government’s highly criticized domestic counterintelligence program known as Cointelpro
, which was used to monitor and disrupt the Black Panthers and other leftist groups
“We have to educate people that this has all happened before, and it will happen again if we’re not careful,” said Malkia Cyril, a California activist whose mother was a Black Panther. Kamau Sadiki, a former Black Panther whom Cyril considers an uncle, was convicted decades after the 1971 killing of an officer and is still in prison, where he has maintained his innocence.
“We need people to understand that these are not simply criminals who committed some heinous crime being punished,” said Cyril. “These are black activists who are largely being punished for their activism.”
Although the Black Panthers made news for criminal trials and clashes with police, the party’s foundational work
centered on “survival programs” for black communities neglected by the government – including free breakfasts
for children, health clinics and “liberation” schools
“They all uplifted people,” said Ericka Huggins, a former Black Panther leader from Oakland.
She said she hoped the film spread that message. She recounted when the former Black Panther Eddie Conway was released in 2014 after he challenged his conviction in the shooting death of an officer, for which he spent 44 years in prison: “He arrived on the outside of these walls with nothing but passion and love.”
Others deserve that opportunity, she said.
In the lead-up to the film, many have mentioned Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther who had his death sentence commuted to life in prison
and continues to fight for his release in a controversial police killing case. His lawyers have long argued his innocence, claimed he was denied a fair trial and more recently fought for proper medical treatment
“Mumia is always focused on working toward the liberation of black people and all oppressed people,” said his lawyer Bret Grote. “He is quite optimistic and brimming with energy and life, and they’ve never been able to diminish that for a moment despite what they’ve put him through.”
Kietryn Zychal, a Nebraska writer and activist, said she would watch the Black Panther film closely so that she could later try to recount as much of it as possible to Ed Poindexter, another incarcerated former BPP member. He was sentenced to life
for a bombing that killed an officer, convicted based on the questionable testimony
of a teenager.
“His case needs some attention from people outside of Nebraska,” said Zychal.
Monifa Akinwole-Bandele, an activist whose father was a Black Panther Party member, said incarcerated BPP members, like Herman Bell
, are repeatedly denied parole in the face of pressure from police unions.
She said she hoped the presentation of powerful black characters in the film could inspire audiences in the same way that the BPP inspired her.
“Adults I looked up to had taken such a bold stance against racism in America,” she said. “It had a huge impact on me and what I thought was possible.”
Courtesy of The Guardian
Publication date of original article: 16/02/2018
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