‘I do a kind of historic tour of Oxford for radicals,’ one audience member introduced himself, ‘from a Marxist perspective.’ He had adorned his coat with campaign badges dating long before I had arrived at Oxford, their colours bleaching and the lettering unclear. ‘It’s fascinating, how the university produces both the established ruling classes, and breeds resistance at the same time…an extraordinary dialectic’, he continued. I agreed, dismally marshalling my knowledge of Marxist theory, and deciding that this was not an appropriate time to bring up my own tour guiding, the majority of which had a decidedly bourgeois flavour. Think Downton Abbey, not Electric Avenue.
We had assembled in East Oxford’s Community Centre to hear Aaron Dixon, a former Black Panther, speak. As founder of the Black Panther free breakfast programme for schoolchildren, he would later tell me, with great pride, that as a result of their campaigning through example, the city of Oakland came to develop its own breakfast programme, servicing the community on top of the thousands fed by the Panthers.
Walking into the centre and noticing who I had been speaking to, Aaron broke into a grin: ‘There’s my tour guide! Man, you really took me in – I just had to sit down and let it all sink in… so much information!’ We were led into the basement, seating arranged in a crescent shape in front of an open bar. The audience was eclectic and people’s motivations for turning up varied heavily: I was there to conduct an interview; another was attentively making notes while her husband snored loudly and slumped in his seat. A minority chatted amicably to one another, regular attendees of those events planned by the African and Caribbean Kultural Heritage Initiative. The majority simply had a strong interest Black Power, its ideology and its history.
The venue was comfortable, with bean-bags scattered everywhere alongside a number of sofas. The Community Centre does not have a reputation for hosting radical speakers. Our pre-talk chit-chat unfolded outside of a dance-calisthenics class, the bright acoustics and varnished floors evoking memories of suburban parish halls, not radicalism. This event, then, could only serve as a snapshot of radical activity. It was unlikely that such a combination of people would ever be in the same room again – it’s not every day a Black Panther comes to Oxford.
Aaron Dixon had, the previous day, spoken at the Oxford Union in proposition that the United States was institutionally racist. He had prepared notes, which he stuck to throughout, and was unfamiliar with the Union’s rules, unsure why a member of the opposing side kept standing up every time he implied that the CIA had fed crack into American ghettoes. He was not there to make friends. Here in East Oxford, however, his speech was captivating, his manner easy. The audience was reverentially quiet: no ad hoc applause, no white-tied guffaws or disapproving clamour. He knew his audience, and he knew the numbers: 10,000 grocery bags, with a whole chicken in each one, distributed to Oakland families under his watch; 350,000 regular subscribers to the Party newspaper; 350 blood tests for sickle cell anaemia administered to African-American inmates. To join the movement, you needed two weapons, and 2,000 rounds of ammunition, tempered by two hours of political study per day.
To have power, he said, was to be able to ‘define the phenomena around you.’ To identify problems, offer solutions, and carry a weapon. He said this more than once, and the audience nodded in agreement. He was a living picture of the romantic activist. He told stories of close shaves with the police, late nights drinking ‘panther piss’, (two parts port wine; one part lemon juice. I have had this under a different name which I have since forgotten) and one incident where a party member shot his TV because he was sick of seeing cowboys kill Indians. At the high point of describing one police confrontation, he paused, and intonated each syllable: ‘We were more ready to die than they were.’ Maybe in a different environment, this would have been greeted by a rowdy cheer or a disapproving growl, depending on your student-political affiliation. But the audience was silent. We knew he meant every word, and some wished they could mean it too.
The talk ended and the room slipped into more serious chatter. Calls for volunteers for various events and fundraisers were issued, donations given and food ladled out. The room became an open floor for the issues of the moment. An older person with a campaign button to save Cowley’s local swimming pool passed out pamphlets and shared information. Audience members exchanged details, and Aaron faded into the background. I came away from that evening with the impression that East Oxford’s activism network was a vibrant forum for anyone with a genuine passion and something to say. Issues previously unknown to people, such as Marine Le Pen’s visit to Oxford, were discussed with spontaneous verve and intent to act. People from all walks of life assembled, though only for an evening, to hear a legend speak, and left resolved to define the phenomena around them, whatever they might be.