PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network and Reality Asserts Itself. I’m Paul Jay.
We’re continuing our discussion with Eddie Conway about his life and his efforts to organize the Black Panther Party in Baltimore and then organize in jails. And he ain’t stopped yet.
We’re now picking up the story of the Black Panther Party in 1968-69. In his book Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther, Eddie writes, soon we were demonstrating at Memorial Stadium against Nixon’s destructive domestic and foreign policies, because both were having an impact on our communities. The simple fact of sisters and brothers coming together on a regular basis to work for the community and expand their knowledge brought a new level of consciousness to the group. It was during this time that we began to see that there was a movement afoot to dismantle the progress of the BPP, the Black Panther Party.
A little further down Eddie Conway writes, it was the start of what would soon become weekly police harassment of the Baltimore Black Panther Party. Our members were being arrested in ever-increasing numbers for minor things. And this soon escalated from situations like traffic stops and violations, to some of our members facing charges for burglaries and robberies, and eventually homicide. The alleged murder of police officers would soon take the place of the mythological rape of white women as the basis for the legal lynching of black men.
Now joining us in the studio is Eddie Conway.
Thanks very much for joining us.
EDDIE CONWAY, FMR. BLACK PANTHER PARTY MEMBER, BALTIMORE CHAPTER: Okay. Thanks for having me back.
JAY: So, in the book, you write about an American form of fascism that was developing around this time, targeting Black Panthers and other progressive organizations. Why do you use that kind of terminology?
CONWAY: Well, because it was a relationship between the media, all the law enforcement agencies. At the time, we didn’t understand what that program actually was, but we were being harassed on our jobs, we were being harassed through the tax codes, we were being harassed through just local entities trying to take us out of our houses, the places that we were renting. So there was a concerted effort. But that effort also crossed the line, in stories that were being planted in the newspaper about us, the way in which we were being treated when we went through the criminal justice system.
JAY: And as we know–and we talked earlier about COINTELPRO, a really national, coordinated campaign of all the police agencies, and with the Panthers being the primary target, including letter-writing to try to sow dissension. But how did this show up in Baltimore?
CONWAY: Well, actually, it showed up–it’s strange, because it initially showed up–and we weren’t aware of it–is that the Maryland chapter of the Black Panther Party was actually created by a agent provocateur named Warren Hart. And he worked for the National Security Agency.
JAY: How did you determine he was NSA, versus FBI or something?
CONWAY: Well, we determined that after we investigated him. A series of incidents took place in which Panthers got locked up or Panthers were going on field trips. We’d been organizing–at that time we were–organized the D.C. Panthers, we were organizing up in Pennsylvania. So we were sending crews in those areas to organize and educate in the communities. We would send eight cars, say, for instance, somewhere with 16 people in them, and seven cars would come back, 14 people. Two people would be missing. A car would be missing. We’d–never would be able to determine what happened. Somewhere along the line they got snatched off the highway, got locked up for some reason or another. There was no followup, no investigation. People just literally disappeared on us.
JAY: And this guy, Hart, was supposed to be responsible for defense.
CONWAY: Hart was in charge of the whole process. And then there were people in our offices in various capacities over interviewing somebody that were in areas that they shouldn’t have been in, areas that were restricted to the public.
JAY: But this is how you uncover that he was a police agent. But how’d you figure out he was NSA?
CONWAY: Well, we didn’t figure that out right away. Once it was determined that he wasn’t who he said he was and once it was determined that he didn’t live where he was supposed to, they actually sent a team of investigators–.
JAY: They being the leadership in Oakland.
CONWAY: Yes. Our national leadership sent a team of investigators, some lawyers and some actual investigators. And in the process of investigating him, he fled. And it was only later–and as he fled, obviously, we labeled him as a police agent provocateur, police informer. At that time we did not know he was National Security, but then, apparently, he infiltrated Stokely Carmichael’s organization up in Canada, the All-[African ]People’s Revolutionary Party, and fomented trouble up there and tried to get people locked up. And I think even one of the incidents might have involved Angela Davis. And then, later, he went to the Caribbeans. And somewhere in that process, he was identified as a National Security agent.
JAY: Now, one of the things you were organizing at the time was the breakfast program. This was one of the main pillars of Panther activity across the country, and you were doing it in Baltimore. In your book, you write about a memo that Hoover–it was discovered later, Hoover had written. There was always real pressure on supporters to stop assisting the program, meaning the breakfast program. A 1969 memo from J. Edgar Hoover to 24 FBI offices stated, quote, the free breakfast program represents the best and most influential activity going on for the BPP, and as such is potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for.
Why were they, of all things, so concerned about a breakfast, handing out food to kids in the morning?
CONWAY: Well, I think one of the things that was important about the way in which the Black Panther Party organized at that time was that it did put out a newspaper, it did have a lot of theory about socialist activities and socialist practices. But I think the thing that resonated in black communities was the actual practical application of those theories in terms of harnessing the resources in the community, bringing people together to take care of theirself, to feed the children. And once we discovered that children were hungry, kind of it was on a two-tier level. On one level, it was like, okay, this is how we can deal with that problem. On another level, it was an international embarrassment for America that you would open the doors to a breakfast program and 300 children would flood in every morning because they was hungry. And for the richest country in the world to have that kind of hunger and poverty throughout the land was an international embarrassment in and of itself. And so, one, it represented socialism actually in theory, in practice, and it showed people how to apply it. And on the other hand, it was an embarrassment for international capitalism.
JAY: And there’s, I think, another quote from Hoover where they talk about how concerned they are about the growing popularity of the Panthers. And I guess the breakfast program helped build such a large piece of that popularity.
CONWAY: Well, in fact, all through my time in the prison system, I was constantly approached by people that had ate at the breakfast program, that was, like, grateful for the fact that the breakfast program had existed.
JAY: So what did the FBI do to try to undermine the breakfast program?
CONWAY: Well, they did a number of things. They tried to reach the donors. I mean, we constantly were soliciting eggs, food, paper plates, etc., bread, so on. So they constantly tried to reach the merchants and associate. But they also tried to–and they did a couple of things. They put out what I call a poison pen comic book that was supposedly put out by the Black Panther Party and supposedly distributed to young children at the breakfast programs.
JAY: Yeah, so this is a comic book that–.
CONWAY: Yeah, that will say, kill the police, or kill this,–
JAY: Yeah, off the pig and–.
CONWAY: –or off the pig, that kind of stuff.
JAY: And it did come out later that the FBI created the comic book.
CONWAY: Yeah, yeah, yeah, it did. But then they used that and they used similar stories, like, that they planted in newspapers, to show that there was propaganda being pumped into the breakfast program through the Black Panther Party toward the young people and so on, and they tried to turn people in the community against sending their children to the breakfast program. But children were hungry, and people in the community, they recognized that they needed to have that kind of a program so that they their children could at least learn in school.
JAY: Well, as I said a little earlier, you wrote in your book that there was a form of American fascism developing, you know, not SS troops, but an American form of it. And in 1969, the Panthers organized a conference to talk or debate the nature of American fascism. And it’s held in Oakland?
CONWAY: It was held in Oakland in July.
JAY: So what was the debate? You write it was a debate. So what was the debate?
CONWAY: Well, the debate was–I mean, you know, and this is the discussion that always takes–have taken place throughout history in America, whether or not there is fascism, because there was no Nazi uniforms, or there was no SS or no apparent Gestapo. And, of course, those organizations that were revolutionary, that were suffering repression, were suffering from police attacks, etc., seemed to be crazy to a lot of people that were even on the left. They were like, oh, you know, it’s not really that bad, you know, or you’re all bringing it on yourself, or you’re all really paranoid, they’re not really watching you, they’re not listening. But pretty much what we were saying was that it was almost because fascism’s one of those kind of political apparatuses that takes the form of the particular country in its history. In Spain, it was that whole Falange (or whatever it was) movement. Probably, in Argentina it was probably Perón.
JAY: Mussolini in Italy.
CONWAY: Yeah, Mussolini in Italy. So each country had its own apparent [crosstalk]
JAY: So let me read another quote from the book which kind of points in this direction. Eddie writes, we could not have known it then, but the country would soon learn that the FBI and other state and local agencies were in fact functioning as a national secret police. But, unfortunately, by the time that information became public, many of us would have already fallen victim to these covert operations. And as we know, that was COINTELPRO.
CONWAY: Yes. And I always maintained that if there’s some sort of automatic Democratic fascism–and I don’t know whether that’s–it’s a right terminology, but basically what I’m saying is that the whole promise-keepers ideas, the whole right-wing white supremacy kind of movement, it’s–Hells Angels, whatever, it’s almost like a self-imposed fascist attitude. It’s us against the world. It’s us–if you’re not with us, then you are opposed to us. You know, you have to wear the flag, you have to stand up, the whole nine yards. And if you’re not doing that, then we’re going to isolate you, ostracize you. You know. And it’s almost like the McCarthy era dressed up.
JAY: Yeah, this idea of white supremacism is very much–you know, the roots of it–and we did a series recently with Gerald Horne–you know, is to get the white working class on the side of the white elites and say, we’re all together, ’cause we’re all white, and the problem are, you know, at the time, you know, African slaves, and now it’s black workers. The ability or the attempt to create the Panthers as this kind of continuation of the black threat, you talk about that.
CONWAY: Well, see, and that’s really something where there was a major conflict with reality and what was being presented. There was always this effort to present the Black Panthers as a black nationalist hate group or an armed black militant group that was antiwhite. And the practice on the ground was that there were White Panthers, there were relationship between the antiwar movement and the Panthers. It was a relationship between the Panthers and SDS. And there was the Patriot Party that was an all-white grassroots revolutionary organization. All of them were connected to and worked with the Panther Party, along with the Brown Berets, which were Mexican-American revolutionary group, along with the Young Lords, which was Puerto Ricans, along with the American Indian movement, AIM. Because of that relationship on the ground and in practice, it was hard to target the Panthers as black nationalists, a black nationalist hate group. But still the FBI and the law enforcement agencies managed to use the media, and written media, mostly, to present that and to portray that. I mean, and that image is still in existence in people’s heads today when you ask them about what was the Black Panthers.
JAY: There was a group that came up–I can’t remember if it was a split-off of the Panthers or a separate group. US I think it was called.
CONWAY: No. I cringe when you do that. There was a group called US, Ron Karenga’s organization.
JAY: It stood for United Slaves.
CONWAY: Stood for United Slaves. It was never part of the Black Panther Party. But I believe it did have its roots in a–matter of fact, it did probably have its roots in the San Francisco Black Panther Party group that sprung up across from Oakland, that eventually got chased out of San Francisco.
JAY: Yeah. And then it started quite a debate and fight. And they were very–.
CONWAY: Yeah. They were cultural nationalists, and they were–.
JAY: Don’t work with whites and such.
CONWAY: They didn’t work with whites. They were advocating cultural nationalists–clothes, back to Africa, the warrior principles, basically to recapture the black culture from the 15th century before the advent of slavery and to go back there and to start and build from there. And they were very hostile to the Black Panther Party.
JAY: It became a shootout at some point, and a couple of Panthers were killed.
CONWAY: Yeah. Panthers were assassinated by that group in Los Angeles and in other places, San Diego and so on.
JAY: And how much did COINTELPRO and the cops have to do with this?
CONWAY: Well, the LAPD–I’m not exactly sure if we could directly connect it to COINTELPRO, but the Los Angeles Police Department orchestrated most of that stuff. And I think a guy named Louis Tackwood ended up doing something called The Glass House Tapes, and he kind of exposed that.
JAY: We did a series of interviews with David Cay Johnston, an investigative journalist who did a big expose of the LAPD during this period. But they apparently had more than 300 people involved in infiltrating Black Panthers and other progressive groups.
CONWAY: Yeah. And they orchestrated and manipulated US to attack the Black Panthers. And in some cases now, as I think about it, this actually documents in COINTELPRO papers–in fact, I have some of them in my book–
JAY: The first book, The Greatest Threat.
CONWAY: –yeah, in The Greatest Threat –that actually shows they did encourage conflicts between US and the Panthers. And some of the memo said, we actually told them where there would be Panther meetings at and so on. And in the case of New Jersey–Newark, New Jersey, I believe it was–they were actually trying to encourage US members to attack Black Panther Party members. And that’s part of the COINTELPRO papers.
JAY: We know a lot about COINTELPRO because there was a break-in at an FBI office and they got hold of a bunch of the files. This is in ’71. And a lot of this came out. And then the Church Committee also came out, investigated this. So it’s not like this is, like, some kind of conspiracy theory. This was all pretty well documented, COINTELPRO.
But I thought you made a very interesting comment in your book about this coordinated national police activity, which was FBI, NSA, local police forces. And you write–speaking about the discovery in 1971, you write that that discovery was followed by a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that produced more evidence demonstrating the program’s scope. Officially, COINTELPRO operated from 1956 to 1971. Unofficially, the program continued under other names and was most recently codified as the USA Patriot Act. So this ain’t over.
CONWAY: Yeah. I think the Church Committee said, okay, these acts were illegal, and they listed dozens and dozens of things that the FBI had done during that period that were actually illegal. The Patriot Act found all of those things and put them in the Patriot Act and made them law, so that they could be done legally.
And no, it’s not over now. It’s just officially it’s okay. And the fact that it’s okay now is not really strange, because the same thing happened at the end of the McCarthy era. They found out what McCarthy did wrong and what could be corrected, and then they made it legal. And prior to that, during the attacks against the union organizing in the ’30s and so on, they codified those things and made them legal. You know. So, I mean, it’s the habit of the American government to kind of say, okay, we made a mistake, it’s just a one-time thing, we violated people’s rights, it won’t happen again, we’ll put everything in check, and then they’ll go back and a couple of years later new laws will come out, and those laws will justify whatever that behavior was. And then, from then on in, that’s no longer a mistake, and the next time it happens it’s something different, torture, say, for instance, you know, or enhanced interrogation. And at some point, that becomes–well, okay, that’s legal.
JAY: No. When there’s no accountability and nobody pays the price.
CONWAY: Or the black ops sites or the black sites in which people go to prison and they don’t have any rights or any ability to have representation or any of that kind of stuff, it’s justified under an act of war that doesn’t exist.
JAY: Right. Okay. We’re to be continued. Thanks for joining us.
JAY: And thank you for joining us. Join us for the next segment of our series of Reality Asserts Itself with Eddie Conway on The Real News Network.