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An Interview with Laura Whitehorn on The War Before

March 2, 2010


The War Before: The True Life Story of Becoming a Black Panther, Keeping the Faith in Prison, & Fighting for Those Left Behind
. By Safiya Bukhari. Edited by Laura Whitehorn. Preface by Wonda Jones. Foreword by Angela Y. Davis. Afterword by Mumia Abu-Jamal.

In 1968, Safiya Bukhari witnessed an NYPD officer harassing a Black Panther for selling the organization’s newspaper on a Harlem street corner. The young pre-med student felt compelled to intervene in defense of the Panther’s First Amendment right; she ended up handcuffed and thrown into the back of a police car.

The War Before traces Bukhari’s lifelong commitment as an advocate for the rights of the oppressed. Following her journey from middle-class student to Black Panther to political prisoner, these writings provide an intimate view of a woman wrestling with the issues of her time—the troubled legacy of the Panthers, misogyny in the movement, her decision to convert to Islam, the incarceration of out spoken radicals, and the families left behind. Her account unfolds with immediacy and passion, showing how the struggles of social justice movements have paved the way for the progress of today.

Q: Why was it important for you to tell Safiya’s story now?

A: Safiya’s story has been and will remain important for anyone who wants to understand the history of this country over the past 75 years. The history of the Black liberation struggle defines American history in every period, but from the Second World War to now, following the trajectory of that struggle is crucial. At the moment, as people in the U.S. try to figure out what happened to their hopes for Obama and a Democratic Party-led government, going back to reflect on why Black people have yet to receive justice or equality may be just the education the country needs. Her writings remind us of why the struggle for justice is a struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

Q: Safiya writes about her experience of sexism in the Black Panther Party, and how Panther women adopted some successful strategies to empower themselves. How do you see those power dynamics playing out in current movements today?

A: Like the non-progress on fundamental issues of justice for the Black community as a whole, the status and real situation of women has barely budged forward. In both areas, there are more people in the middle echelons now—academics, professionals and the like. But the basic issues of racism, white and male supremacy and sexism remain as deeply entrenched as ever in the economic, political and social structures of our society. While the Left has incorporated more women and people of oppressed nationalities in its ranks, the concepts of leadership that elevated white men to those positions in the mid-20th century have not fully been analyzed and altered. Safiya’s writings offer a profound position on the power women offer in radical movements: Not just the people who do the work, but the people who provide lucid thinking, courage and heart. I don’t think it’s an accident that so many of the people we see actively engaged in trying to win release of political prisoners, and making sure they are not forgotten, are women.

Q:As a woman political prisoner, what particular challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?

A: The biggest challenge was to keep my heart from irrevocably breaking. Every day, in every jail or prison I was in, I witnessed the destruction of families and communities caused by the incarceration of so many Black and Latina women. Another challenge was the sexual assault prisons force on us—daily pat searches by male guards, an utter lack of privacy or ability to protect our bodies from those men. It exerts a corrosive effect on a woman’s sense of herself.

The way these challenges and others (such as the dehumanizing effect of powerlessness) are overcome every day in women’s prisons is by the collective power of a community of women. The love and support women prisoners offer one another provides the basis for every level of resistance, from individual refusal to succumb, to more collective efforts to win better conditions. Often, those group efforts arise from a combined leadership of some of the least privileged women along with the most politicized. When those acts of resistance took place they were essentially revolutionary.

Another challenge was that the prison system and government deny the existence of political prisoners. To call people who have resisted and tried to create systemic change in this society criminals or terrorists is not only a way to mask their existence, but also a way to assert that U.S. society is just fine, really democratic and free. Political prisoners resist being criminalized by doing political organizing inside, studying and reading, and staying as connected as possible with political movements on the outside. That is why organizing among leftist groups for support for political prisoners is so important.

Q: Both you and Safiya organized for social justice not just before and after, but while you were in prison – what advice would you give to prisoners who want to be effective activists?
A: The first thing I had to do when I was arrested—suddenly thrown into a horrid situation and facing many years behind bars—was to review all my beliefs and actions, to know that whatever I faced, it was worth it. (Safiya writes of this process in her book.) Once I did that (it’s partly a process of getting over the shock of being arrested and imprisoned), I kept seeking a connection to other activists. I did my first year or so in Baltimore City Jail. I got my hands on a telephone book and found addresses for every progressive organization I could think of. I wrote to them, and a few sent people in to visit me. That was key: Knowing that there were people on the street who were aware that I was there.

On the inside, I had to relearn much of my organizing knowledge, taking my lead from the other women (some of whom had been in jail many times before; most of whom understood power relations intimately—a viewpoint of the powerless, the disenfranchised) about how to organize for our demands. One particular example: The food in Baltimore City Jail was beyond horrible. We knew the Christmas dinner was going to be particularly bad. I urged that we throw our trays on the floor, creating a rebellion. The other women won me over to a different plan: We organized every friendly staff person, everyone’s families, the medical staff, etc. to help us hold our own holiday party. We told them why we needed to do it: that we were family, and a horrendous Christmas dinner would hurt us. The result was that we had a kind of independent, lovely party—we even managed to get some folks to smuggle a bit of real booze in (as opposed to the rot-gut hooch we were able to cook up). The prison administration was frightened, because we were refusing to allow them to make us upset and powerless. I learned from that – instead of ending up beaten up, in the hole, and with possible extra charges, we were happy and felt extraordinarily strong. And we did it as a group.

For Safiya, what was key (she writes about this in The War Before) was that she did not share the fear the other women had when it came to exercising basic rights. She had the benefit of a political awareness and education. By citing Constitutional rights, she was able to help people get legal materials. And as a revolutionary, she understood this to be her work—and fulfilling. She also understood the need for repairing family rifts, and she helped to found a group called MILK—Mothers Inside Loving Kids. She saw this as part of the struggle against genocide, because destroying the Black family is one aspect of genocide.

Safiya also teaches us something truly central to organizing anywhere: She loved the fight for justice. If that is your motivation, then you find ways to fight wherever you are. Safiya did that, always.

Q: How can people on the outside support that work without taking power away from the prisoners who are working on those projects?

A: I think those of us on the outside have to recognize three key needs: communication, honesty and respect. The main way I experienced the problem of “taking power away” while I was inside was when people would forget that I didn’t know what they were planning, or what had been done—and when people would tell me that something had been wildly successful, when really it had not. It is tempting to tell prisoners that the work is going better than it may be; that is dangerous, because while we’re inside, we don’t have another reliable source. What I mean by respect is this: On the outside, you don’t necessarily have a good sense of the limitations and dangers prisoners face. The most well intended comment or letter could end up causing someone to be thrown in the hole. I think it is crucial always to find out from a prisoner what his or her actual situation is before planning any work. But I also think it’s important to say frankly what you think should and can be done, and to state any disagreements you have with a prisoner’s view. When I was in prison I was no smarter than I had been on the street. I did know my conditions better than comrades on the outside, but I was not, by dint of being a political prisoner, more to be revered than they. Trying to maintain equality—I guess that would be what I would urge.

I also think it’s worthwhile to try to help people inside get all the resources and information possible. In New York, we try to make sure all the NY state political prisoners have a sub to the NY Times, along with any Left journals and newspapers they want. Books through bars and other groups are important for getting prisoners other kinds of educational materials and info.

Safiya’s legacy is apparent in Jericho and the many political prisoner support groups around the world. Yet, as you point out, despite a widespread fascination with the rebellion of the 60s, there has been relatively little interest in the plight of the revolutionaries from that era and beyond who are still imprisoned.

Q: What can the book teach us about taking that work to the next level in building a mass movement to free political prisoners?

A: The book may surprise people. Safiya’s thoughts on how to build support for political prisoners evolved over the years, and her original conception of Jericho was a bit different from what Jericho became. The War Before, by putting together many of Safiya’s positions and ideas on political prisoners, provides a great starting point for us to evaluate and improve our work. Mostly, I think the book’s message points to an important way to approach the issue. Safiya’s sense of revolution was not something that happened in one period, then disappeared in the next. She traces, in the pages of the book, the gestation of the issue of political prisoners from the days of the BPP to the day she died in 2003. She saw possibilities of how to build support for—and how to fight for release of—political prisoners that have yet to be enacted. Over and over, in various ways, she shows us how the fight to free political prisoners is essential to the fight for justice. Her writings strip away much of the verbiage and illusion surrounding both struggles. She also wrestles with some of the obstacles to this work, suggesting ways to overcome them. The War Before also shows the enormous capacity of Safiya’s heart and spirit—the solidarity basic to fighting for any sort of social justice and freedom.

Order The War Before for just $9.57:

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Also: check out this interview with Laura Whitehorn:

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