A Black Panthers forum and film festival in Seattle this weekend raises questions across generations about what kind of activism is right for these times.
A couple of years ago, Aziza Dixon joined protests over a Missouri grand jury’s decision not to indict a white police officer who killed an unarmed African-American man in Ferguson. Then she called her dad.
“What can we do?” asked the 27-year-old, crying.
Her dad, Aaron Dixon, knew something about tumultuous times. He had faced the news of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination while sitting in a jail cell, having just been arrested during a demonstration supporting a high school’s black student union. “That’s when he decided to put down a picket sign and pick up a rifle,” Aziza Dixon said, recalling the family lore.
Times have changed and her father, one of the founders of the Black Panther Party’s Seattle chapter, no longer sees guns as a solution. But he, his daughter and an array of supporters do think that one of the most radical and controversial factions of the civil-rights movement — which stressed weaponry as a means of self-defense against police seen as racist, while also starting community-building programs — has lessons for a new generation of activists who have claimed the world’s attention.
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One thing they could do, they eventually decided, was to stage an event that allowed former Black Panthers to engage with young activists from Black Lives Matter and other groups. That three-day event — a Black Panther Party forum and film festival — started Friday and continues through Sunday in the Central District.
Saturday morning, people filtered into Washington Hall to the strains of James Brown, Marvin Gaye and other musicians who provided the soundtrack to the civil-rights era. On a table and wall in a foyer, everyone could see pictures from the times — a group of beret-wearing Black Panthers standing in formation with rifles held toward the sky, a gathering with a sign that read “call off your pigs.”
“It looks to me like it’s happening all over again,” said Mike Tagawa, a 72-year-old born in an internment camp during World War II, an experience that influenced his decision to join the Panthers’ local chapter soon after it formed in 1968. Young activists today, he said, “are starting to get more in your face.”
Time of awakening
Aaron Dixon sees differences. “We don’t have a revolutionary movement going on now,” he said, recalling that the 1960s and ’70s spawned not only the civil-rights and anti-war movements, but revolts throughout Latin America and colonial Africa. Still, he acknowledged that many young people today are experiencing a political awakening.
As they do, they are revisiting the legacies of historical figures and organizations, said Jesse Hagopian, a Garfield High School history teacher and adviser to the school’s Black Student Union. “How do we build coalitions?” he said people are asking. And “how do we get more people on the side of social justice?”
Some young activists are also wrestling with what it meant to be radical in the civil-rights era, and what it means today.
“I look up to them,” said Aman Welderfiel, 16, speaking about the Black Panthers. A Garfield junior and secretary of the school’s Black Student Union, he came to the event Saturday to give a speech about them — people he sees as being willing to fight for their freedom “by any means necessary … whether it’s through peaceful protest or using violence.”
He said he wasn’t really sure whether violence was called for today, although he noted that “for many years, we’ve been protesting in a peaceful way and we’ve gotten little results.”
In contrast, Nyema Clark, 28, and one of the organizers of the weekend event, wondered whether aggressive protests, even nonviolent ones, could be counterproductive. “A lot of it is disruption and yelling and screaming,” said Clark, who has participated in noisy protests against a new youth jail in Seattle. That, she said, “could cause people to stay away from you.”
“We’ve got to do something more,” she said. She suggested asking today’s activists: “What breakfast programs have you started up?”
She was alluding to free breakfast programs begun by the Black Panthers, who also launched health clinics for the poor.
Garry Owens, a 71-year-old former Black Panther, named the breakfast programs as the thing he was most proud of having done while in the party. “We didn’t just feed black kids. We fed hungry kids,” he said.
He contrasted that with the gun-carrying, which he acknowledged some Black Panthers now see as a mistake and he himself views with a jaundiced eye. After deadly shootouts, he said, they learned “we couldn’t fight our way out of the situation we were in.”
Ultimately, he said, the Black Panthers became more focused on “what we wanted as opposed to what we didn’t want.” And while he supports today’s activists, Owens said he hasn’t been able to figure out what, besides opposing police brutality, their agenda is.
Aaron Dixon, now living in Albuquerque but back in town this weekend for the forum and film festival, also dismissed the use of violence now. “We know that can only lead to more repression, more people going to jail,” he said.
What he would like young people to understand about the storied movement he helped lead is that it built a “rainbow coalition” that included Latinos (the Young Lords and Brown Berets) and well as whites (the Young Patriots).
People of all races are struggling, he said, and they need to work together.
To that end, former members of the Young Lords and Young Patriots were on hand at this weekend’s event.
Chuck Armsbury, a former Young Patriot leader in Eugene now living in a small town near Spokane, said he’s working with others to try to revive the group. Given the ferment he sees all around him, he said, the time is right.