So, could you describe for me the ideal qualities of a Black Panther recruit? Presumably, as a Black Panther captain you had to decide who was suitable for the movement and who wasn’t. So, in terms of personality traits, physical fitness [He laughs], philosophy…
You know we didn’t really look at that. Maybe we should have but we didn’t really look at that. We just looked at somebody… well, we had a five week training programme that we supposedly were supposed to put them through but we really didn’t. They had to be committed, they had to be willing to go out and sell papers, they had to be willing to participate in all party activities, and rallies. They had to be willing to use a weapon if they needed to, they had to have a weapon, they had to acquire a weapon and get ammunition. We had weapons classes to teach them how to use a weapon, how to break down and clean their weapons, and participate in military drills.
And what do you think attracted women, specifically women, to the movement? Do you think there was something in it for them in particular?
Well they were just like the men. You know, they wanted justice to be done. They wanted to see justice in their communities. They had seen the same thing as the men had seen. That is, racism and injustice that had been perpetrated by the police departments. So you know, they wanted the same thing that we wanted.
Take a musician like Gil Scott-Heron, he can get away with saying quite inflammatory things about white feminism but still have women on side. What I’m asking is why some women felt attracted to the movement in spite of a very masculine rhetoric.
Well, you know, the same thing that attracted the men to the ‘masculine rhetoric’ [He looks a little unconvinced by my choice of words]. It was defiant, and for standing against the system, standing up against police. That was attractive to men and women. Uh, and you know, women were able to do a lot of the things that the men were able to do in the party, so uh, you know, women in the black panther party were not like regular women. They were very strong. Just like the woman who first joined, she came by that office and said ‘how come you ain’t got no women in here?’ She had the audacity to say that. And that’s the type of woman that we wanted, that’s the type of women you had to be. You had to have audacity. These were tough minded women.
Tell me about Kathleen Cleaver.
She was very smart, very dynamic, a great speaker. She was the epitome of what a black panther party woman was about in the early days. She was that first image of a woman that you saw in the black panther party. She had the leather coat on, the sunglasses and a shotgun! [Laughs]
And the uniform was more or less the same for both genders?
Right down to the tie?
Yes… no, they didn’t wear… Black dress, that’s what they wore.
What did people take away from the breakfast programmes? Did they enjoy it? Did they see it as something that they’d move away from eventually?
Well yeah people enjoyed it! I mean, it was hard work ‘cause you had to get up early and feed kids, but it was rewarding work because we fed so many kids and you know, what I forgot to mention is that we forced the government into forming a national breakfast programme which is still around today.
And that’s why it’s a revolutionary act?
You once marched with Martin Luther King but joined the black panther party after his death which could represent disillusionment with non-violence. But later on you engaged with the electoral system. I wonder what motivated you to run for office yourself?
Well when Bobby Seale ran for mayor that’s because that’s what the party ordered him to do. [Matter-of-fact] That was the next move. As I was saying, we were always changing. We saw this as an important tactic. As a matter of fact this tactic led us to take over the city of Oakland, we were going to take our campaign around the country and take over other cities!
So a combination of self-defense and political activism?