Everyone on the left is asking what we should be doing right now, but nobody wants to hear that we ought to be studying more. That’s tough, because strategic collective study is always one of the most valuable things we can do with our time — if it’s done right. It is a clear, concrete project that can generate real victories quicker than you might think.
Can we discern how and why capitalism is a bad thing, or are its wrongdoings random and mysterious? If it is a mystery, and we can’t understand it or change it — then we can’t be revolutionaries.
If, on the other hand, capitalism operates in understandable ways, then we could — in theory — disrupt it. In that case we need to know the system’s history, its predictable trajectories, and what has worked — and not worked — in stopping or slowing it down before. Blowing that off in the name of “pragmatism” would be like going to a dentist who thinks their high school shop class taught them everything they need to know about drilling your teeth.
To put it another way, we can either study theory or continue to be the victim of forces we choose not to understand.
WHEN SHOULD WE STUDY?
Check out this video about Naxalite guerillas in India. See what happens at 5:30 — these comrades from one of the poorest places on the planet, with very little formal education, find the time to read Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. We should fight back against any liberal notion that poor people aren’t smart enough to study theory — workers, peasants, prisoners, and the poor have done this study for centuries now.
One of the best guidelines revolutionaries have discovered over all those years: prioritize study following any significant defeat.
Mao developed the theories that led to China’s liberation during and after the Long March, Lenin cracked the code of proletarian revolution while in exile, Marx and Engels spent their lives exploring the failures of the 1848 revolutions and then the Paris Commune. The US left has not had a meaningful victory in decades, and huge swaths of us got hoodwinked by the Democratic Party — again. This is the time to dig in and see what we missed, and to make sure we stop making the same mistakes over and over.
HOW TO STUDY
First, study collectively. Communist study is not an academic exercise, it is a preparation for action. The group you study with is a ready-made nucleus for organizing. Also, studying by yourself makes it more likely that you will persist in error — the more minds you bring together, the less likely you are to end up thinking things that make organizing harder.
Second, make accountability your highest priority. Collective study makes it easier to get through tough material, but it only works if everyone does their part. The words “I didn’t finish the reading but…” should be anathema in your study group. Help people that start falling behind, but If you don’t have the discipline to read a book, how will you ever make it through a revolution?
Third, focus on the theorists whose ideas won. Yes, capitalism is back in power pretty much everywhere, but the Russan nobility and bourgeoisie Lenin and Stalin defeated or the Chinese comprador class destroyed by Mao did not come back — they don’t exist anymore. That’s more than any of their anti-communist critics can claim, and if we aim to defeat capitalism we should learn what’s worked and what hasn’t.
All of them were inspired by Engels, so try this. Message five trusted comrades right now and find a night you all have free three weeks from today. Send them this link and congratulations — you’ve organized a communist political project. If you need to break it up into a few sessions, that’s okay. Balancing capacity and the work that needs to be done is called strategy, and it’s how we’ll win.
Finally, remember that our study should never be aimless. Each session needs a facilitator to guide the discussion towards the most important questions of all: how does this help us understand our own conditions, and what does it suggest about possible ways to change them? Follow the study and the discussion into action, then consolidate what you learn in documents the rest of us can read. Repeat until we’ve smashed the state.
THIS IS HOW WE WIN
Bernie Sanders signed up one million volunteers. Imagine if 10 percent of them gave up on bourgeois politics and made revolution a real priority. 100,000 new communists could form 10,000 to 15,000 study circles, each of them sharpening their understanding of capitalism into real political weapons.
They could go into thousands of communities and use their knowledge to organize the disorganized, to help proletarian people fight for themselves. Imagine if they shared their discoveries with one another, and through collaboration and debate created a growing, thoughtful, strategic communist movement in the heart of imperialism. Imagine if the capitalist state deepens its current crisis at the same time.
The outcomes would be unpredictable, but one becomes a real possibility: revolution. Without study, that is impossible, which is all the reason we need to focus on organized, collective study right now. There’s nothing more pragmatic we could possibly do.
What G. Helen Whitener does next will shape whether Washington State moves in a more progressive direction.
Governor Jay Inslee made his third appointment to the Washington Supreme Court last week, elevating G. Helen Whitener, a judge on the Pierce County Superior Court.
In joining a supreme court that has recently driven major criminal justice reform, and that is generally progressive but often divided, Whitener could determine how boldly it proceeds in years ahead.
Whitener replaces Justice Charles Wiggins, who retired last month. To keep the seat, she has to run in the November general election and then again in 2022, when Wiggins’s term would have ended. Three other justices are up for re-election this fall as well.
Her appointment has drawn attention for boosting the representation of marginalized groups. She is a Black, gay, and disabled immigrant from Trinidad. With her appointment, Washington’s Supreme Court is the most diverse appellate court in the country.
Whitener also adds range in terms of professional experience. She had been a trial court judge since 2015, and before that served as both a prosecutor and a criminal defense lawyer, including as a public defender in Pierce County’s Department of Assigned Counsel. The judiciary, including both state and federal courts, is littered with former prosecutors. Former defense lawyers, and public defenders in particular, are significantly underrepresented.
Mary Kay High, the chief deputy in that Pierce County office, noted that criminal defense is “not the typical path to the bench.” She believes Whitener’s diverse professional background will play a crucial role on a court with justices regarded as liberal but fiercely independent.
As a superior court judge who previously represented people harmed by prosecutions, Whitener recognized how the criminal legal system’s punitive aspects can be unjust and counterproductive, setting people up to fail and remain trapped in the system.
Last year, for instance, she said the fines and fees attached to criminal convictions “have accumulated at a ridiculous rate.” She stressed that judges have broad discretion over most fines and fees and should only impose such obligations when people can afford to pay, taking into account a person’s income and other financial obligations. “We can’t on one side say we’re helping people who are leaving our prison system, and then burden them with all of these fines,” she said.
In that same interview, she also advocated against incarcerating youth offenders for so-called status offenses, which only apply to children — like skipping school, running away from home, and underage drinking — echoing state advocates’ calls to treat kids like kids. She added, “these children are experiencing trauma of some sort, and incarceration is not the answer for dealing with that situation.” Washington, which had an exceptionally punitive system with regard to status offense detentions, adopted a law restricting them in 2019.
Whitener brings this sensibility to a court that has been repeatedly at the forefront of criminal justice reform over the last decade—though often without unanimity, and with room to go further, creating opportunity for a new justice to push the court in an even more progressive direction.
It’s an “interesting time on the Supreme Court,” High said. “There are some close splits and we can’t predict votes. The more voices with diverse backgrounds, the more thorough the deliberations and the better the decisions.”
In 2018, the court unanimously struck down Washington’s death penalty statute as unconstitutionally “cruel.” But it did so because the punishment had been applied in an arbitrary and racially biased way, not because it is inherently unconstitutional, giving lawmakers the chance to revive capital punishment in the future. “We leave open the possibility that the Legislature may enact a ‘carefully drafted statute,’” the court’s controlling opinion said. “But it cannot create a system that offends constitutional rights.”
Other recent decisions, including those involving punishments for youth offenders, racism in jury selection, and how to reduce arrests and incarceration in response COVID-19, show how some of the court’s landmark rulings remain fragile, and where reform advocates have space to push the court further.
In 2018, the court burnished its progressive reputation when it prohibited sentencing people under age 18 to life without the possibility of parole or early release. But that decision was 5-4, with Justice Wiggins, Whitener’s predecessor, in the narrow majority. (One of the dissenters, Justice Mary Fairhurst, was replaced this year by Justice Raquel Montoya-Lewis, whom Inslee appointed in January).
Also in 2018, the court adopted a new rule — the first of its kind in the country — designed to root out “implicit, institutional, and unconscious” racial and ethnic bias in jury selection. Although the U.S. Supreme Court has prohibited intentional race discrimination in selecting juries, that rule is nearly impossible to enforce, with discrimination too often smuggled in through “race neutral” explanations that play on racial stereotypes or disproportionately apply to nonwhite communities. Prosecutors can still follow that prohibition while constructing all-white juries by excluding people who, for example, live in high-crime neighborhoods, or believe that police officers racially profile, or know people who have been arrested.
Under the rule adopted by the Washington Supreme Court, these explanations are presumptively invalid, and potential jurors cannot be struck if an “objective observer” could view race or ethnicity as a factor in the decision to remove them.
But here, too, the court fell short of the bolder vision of some of its members.
In a 2013 case, the justices agreed “that racial discrimination remains rampant in jury selection,” but not on what to do about it. At the time, Justice Steven Gonzalez, who is still on the court, wanted to go further than what the court eventually adopted in 2018. Gonzalez said prosecutors and defense lawyers should never be allowed to exclude jurors without a legal justification to do so, a proposal that mirrors what U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote decades ago, and that would prohibit entirely “peremptory challenges” — which allow lawyers to strike jurors without cause. Their use “contributes to the historical and ongoing underrepresentation of minority groups on juries, Gonzalez wrote.
On March 20, the court divided 5-4 over how far it would go to prevent unnecessary arrests and release people from jail to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The majority ordered judges not to issue bench warrants when someone fails to appear (absent a determination that there is an “immediate” public safety threat). But that left courts free to issue warrants for other reasons, including for people who allegedly violate conditions of release — conduct ranging from failing a drug test to missing curfew to traveling without permission. The dissent urged the court to go further and include those circumstances in its warrant ban.
Wiggins, the retiring justice, sided with the majority and its narrower ruling in this case; the four dissenting justices were the court’s four newest members.
Along with her potential impact on criminal justice issues, Whitener adds to the court’s unprecedented diversity, which has been a clear priority for Inslee, the state’s Democratic governor since 2013. Montoya-Lewis, whom Inslee appointed earlier this year, is a Jewish Native American jurist who previously served on tribal courts. Justice Mary Yu, whom he appointed in 2014, is an Asian-American, Latinx, and lesbian jurist. With Whitener’s addition, the court has seven women and four non-white justices among its 9 members.
Last year, a Brennan Center for Justice report found that most states’ high courts are “overwhelmingly white and male,” including 24 all-white state supreme courts, and 13 states that have “never seated a person of color as a justice.”
Whitener, who also serves as co-chair of the Washington State Minority and Justice Commission, has often explained that a diverse judiciary — one that fully reflects the population it serves — is essential to maintaining trust and confidence in the rule of law.
“I believe as a marginalized individual, being a Black, gay, female, immigrant, disabled judge, that my perspective is a little different,” she said in February. “So I try to make sure that everyone that comes into this courtroom feels welcome, feels safe, and feels like they’ll get a fair hearing.”
By largely ignoring questions of “why” he was killed the new Netflix documentary “Who Killed Malcolm X?” largely ignores the important politics and ideas that made Malcolm X a symbol to this day of international revolutionary struggle.
The year after the program ceased, MOVE was founded in 1972 by Vincent Leaphart, a Korean War veteran who took the name John Africa to demonstrate his reverence for the continent. The group’s politics were anti-capitalist, anti-government, and anti-modern technology, rooted in a 300-page document called The Guidelines. John Africa preached an anarcho-primitivist gospel of natural living, love for every living being, and advocated for a return to a hunter-gatherer society.
Initially called the Christian Movement for Life, MOVE members considered themselves a family and were involved in animal rights activism and embraced a raw food diet, natural home birth, homeschooling, and composting. They lived communally in a West Philadelphia row home and held public demonstrations against war, racism, and police brutality.
Though their ideologies were initially peaceful, from all accounts, MOVE’s members weren’t exactly ideal neighbors. They often drew the ire of the police with their nonviolent but sometimes raucous protests, and neighbors complained about the family’s compost piles and their habit of blasting profanity-laced political diatribes through loudspeakers at all hours. Following years of targeted police brutality, MOVE became increasingly militant, and according to a 1985 report in The New York Times, may have begun to stockpile weapons.
In 1977, members began to brandish guns in their yard, declaring that they would no longer be beaten or intimidated by law enforcement. The press regularly lambasted their belief system as “an exotic cult” and derided them as “dirty hippies.” But to the city government, MOVE now represented a form of terrorism.
Mayor Frank Rizzo issued an order for their eviction from their home at 311 N. 33rd Street. “These people represent nobody but themselves; they’re complete idiots,” Rizzo told the press. He had previously referredto MOVE as “absolute imbeciles,” “psychotics,” and “not even human beings.”
After a 15-month standoff, police attempted to storm the house and a firefight erupted. An officer was fatally shot in the head. Seven other police officers, five firefighters, three MOVE members, and three bystanders were also injured. The beating of a MOVE member, Delbert Africa, was caught on video, becoming an infamous example of police brutality.
Despite a dispute over who fired the shot that killed the officer — during the trial, MOVE’s lawyer suggested it could have been friendly fire by a fellow officer — nine MOVE members were given a sentence of 30 to 100 years in prison for third-degree murder.
As of this writing, five of the surviving MOVE 9 remain incarcerated, having been repeatedly denied parole. Two members died in prison. Debbie Africa, the first to be freed, was released on parole in June 2018 after serving 38 years. Four months later, Mike Africa Sr. was released.
The group remained active while the original members were behind bars, however — and their troubles with law enforcement weren’t over. By 1981, those who remained outside prison walls had relocated, and continued to broadcast their views on law enforcement and the state through loudspeakers. Clashes with their new neighbors and with law enforcement ensued. In May 1985, following over a year of surveillance, police obtained arrest warrants for four of the house’s occupants, including Ramona Africa, who as a result went on to serve seven years in prison.
A gun battle broke out between authorities and those inside. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the fire department blasted the house with 1,000 gallons of water a minute for nearly six hours. Police responded to MOVE’s gunfire by throwing smoke grenades and firing at least 10,000 rounds of ammunition at the house.
Hours later, according to one account, Sambor gave the order that two explosives be dropped above the residential neighborhood from a helicopter onto a fortified structure on the roof of the house.
The explosion ignited several barrels of gasoline that had been stored on the roof, and kickstarted a fire that ultimately consumed the entire block. Sambor reportedly told firefighters on the scene to stand down — to “let the fire burn.” All the while, police continued to pepper the MOVE house with gunfire.
“When we realized that our house was actually on fire, we immediately tried to get our children, our animals, and ourselves out of that blazing inferno,” Ramona Africa recalled in 2017. “But at the point when we were trying to come out, and could be seen…the cops opened fire on us, forcing us back in. We tried several times to get out, but each time we were shot back into the house. This was a clear indication that they didn’t intend for any of us to survive that attack.”
Ramona pulled her young brother, Birdie, out along with her. It wasn’t until she was taken into custody and transferred to a local hospital that she learned that they were the only survivors. The rest of the house’s occupants — six adults and five children — had burned to death.
“MOVE was a pain in the neck for 25 hours a day,” a neighbor whose house had been burned in the fire told *The New York Times* in 1996. “But we didn’t believe the police should have come in here like it was World War III. Those children in that house weren’t criminals.”
In response to calls for answers, Mayor W. Wilson Goode, the city’s first Black mayor, appointed the Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission (also known as the MOVE Commission), which investigated the events and held weeks of televised public hearings. City officials and local residents all took the stand, though the members of the police bomb unit refused to testify, as did Ramona Africa. The result was a highly critical report that found “dropping a bomb on an occupied row house was unconscionable.” Goode later issued an apology, but no criminal charges were filed.
MOVE did eventually see some justice in 1996, when a federal court ordered the city to pay a $1.5 million judgment to Ramona Africa and the relatives of John and Frank Africa, finding that the city had used “excessive force and violated the members’ constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure,” according to The New York Times. Ramona was awarded $500,000 total for pain and suffering, as well as the disfigurement and burns she suffered in the fire.
Today, MOVE is still active, and Ramona Africa is still fighting for the freedom of her incarcerated family members. More than thirty years later, the shadow of the bombing itself still hangs heavy over the city of Philadelphia, which is still sometimes referred to as “The City That Bombed Itself.”
“Segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race deprives children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities, even though the physical facilities and other ‘tangible’ factors may be equal,” the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education 63 years ago this week. One of the most important civil rights rulings of the 20th century, Brown v. Board laid the groundwork for the desegregation of the nation’s public schools. Before the decision Southern schools were almost completely segregated, but by 1973 91 percent of Black childrenin the former Confederate and border states attended school with white children. The South went on to become the region where public schools were the least segregated.
But resistance to desegregation has been strong across the South. Following the Brown v. Board ruling, many White parents in Southern states refused to let their children attend school with their Black peers. So-called “segregation academies” — private schools founded specifically so whites could avoid having to attend public school with Black students — were set up across the South. It’s estimated that at least half a million white students were withdrawn from public schools between 1964 and 1975 to avoid mandatory desegregation. State funds were often diverted away from public schools and used to fund these segregated private institutions. In Virginia, for instance, a series of laws known as the Stanley Plan were passed to establish tuition grants that would allow parents who opposed integration to send their children to segregation academies.
That experience shows how private education has played a role historically in undermining racial integration. Today, something similar is happening with voucher programs that use public money to pay for private school tuition. Nineteen states currently have such programs, and they’re concentrated in the South, where eight states — Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia — have them in place.
According to The Century Foundation, a think tank dedicated to reducing inequality, Trump’s plan would increase segregation in public schools because many of the private schools that would be eligible to receive public money through vouchers serve a disproportionate percentage of white and wealthy students, further concentrating students of color and poor students in public schools. A recent report by the Southern Education Foundation found that 43 percent of the nation’s private school students attend virtually all-white schools compared to just 27 percent of public school students.
While means-tested voucher programs might theoretically provide opportunity for low-income and minority students to integrate private schools, in practice private school voucher programs are unlikely to benefit the most disadvantaged students, according to The Century Foundation. Because vouchers often do not cover the full cost of tuition and transportation, they are inaccessible for the most disadvantaged students. And when other countries tried school vouchers, both racial and socioeconomic segregation increased.
But in her confirmation hearing for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos did not acknowledge this complicated reality. “Empirical evidence finds school choice programs lead to more integrated schools than their public school counterparts,” she said — without citing any sources.
Looking at the effects of school privatization in Southern states shows how it’s tied to increased segregation on the local level. In an amicus brief filed as part of the lawsuit challenging North Carolina’s voucher program established in 2014, the state NAACP showed how private schools are able to induce segregation in public schools in two ways: “creaming” (choosing the best and least costly students) and “cropping” (denying services and enrollment to students with special needs). Because of this, the brief observed, “the vast majority of at-risk students have become concentrated in the only schools that will take them: the traditional public schools.” This is illustrated by the fact that even in majority Black counties — Bertie, Halifax, Hertford, and Northampton — the private schools are almost 100 percent white.
Even focused state efforts to reach out to students of color have had segregating effects. In Louisiana, for example, 80 percent of the voucher users under the Louisiana Scholarship Program were Black, 13 percent were white and 4 percent were Latino. While a third of these voucher transfers had a positive effect on school integration, two-thirds of these transfers actually increased segregation in public schools, private schools, or both. That’s because 55 percent of Black students in the program moved from a public school where their race was overrepresented to a private school where their race was also overrepresented. Meanwhile, 76 percent of white participants left a public school where their race was underrepresented for a private school where they were overrepresented.
At the same time public schools are resegregating as a result of increased privatization, the Trump administration is taking other actions that will hurt school integration. For example, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has cancelled an Obama-era program called “Opening Doors, Expanding Opportunity” that was developed to help local school districts improve socioeconomic diversity.
In addition, budget documents obtained by the Washington Post this week revealed that the Trump administration is proposing to spend $400 million to expand vouchers for private institutions and to expand charter schools, which are public institutions but do not have to adhere to all the regulations that apply to traditional public schools.
The following is an email interview with author and activist, Danny Haiphong, regarding the current state of capitalism, US politics, and his new book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News-From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror, which is co-authored with Roberto Sirvent.Danny is a regular contributor to Black Agenda Report. His book may be purchased directly from Skyhorse Publishing .
“The failure of the Western left in general and the U.S. left in particular to understand the inextricable, structural connection between empire, colonization, capitalism, and white supremacy-and that all elements of that oppressive structure must be confronted, dismantled, and defeated-continues to give lifeblood to a system that is ready to sweep into the dustbins of history. This is why American Exceptionalism and American Innocence is nothing more than an abject subversion. It destabilizes the hegemonic assumptions and imposed conceptual frameworks of bourgeois liberalism and points the reader toward the inevitable conclusion that U.S. society in its present form poses an existential threat to global humanity.”
– Ajamu Baraka
I’ve been a personal fan of your writing on Black Agenda Report for many years, so I was excited to hear of this book when it was in the works. Can you let everyone know how it came to fruition? And how it materialized into a co-authoring project with Roberto Sirvent?
Thank you. I certainly have so much gratitude for The Hampton Institute, which I believe is one of the few truly socialist resources available for both new and veteran activists interested in the science of Marxism. As for the book, the project began when Roberto Sirvent reached out to me in the summer of 2017 with the idea of a book of essays on American exceptionalism. Roberto believed that Black Agenda Report’s voice needed to be included in any analysis of the subject. We engaged in a series of discussions over the course of the next several months. The conversations centered on issues such as the U.S.’ legacy in World War II, the significance of Colin Kaepernick’s demonstration against the national anthem, and the framework of humanitarian imperialism.
We realized that American exceptionalism was a thread that linked these issues to a common struggle, the struggle against imperialism. American exceptionalism protects the system of imperialism by linking the interests of the oppressed with those of the ruling class under the banner of the (white) nation-state. Our purpose in writing the book was to ensure that activists and scholars possessed a tool for challenging American exceptionalism from the left. The left really has no use for American exceptionalism because it is based on myth and white supremacy. American exceptionalism presumes that the U.S. is the principle force for good in the world and that U.S. superiority gives the oligarchy the right to determine the destinies of those deemed inferior, whether in Syria, Venezuela, or for Black Americans right here in the United States. We agreed to make internationalism and anti-war politics a central focus of the book from the introduction to the final chapter. Can you tell us a little about your personal journey through politicizing? Do you identify with any particular ideology?
Sure. I grew up in a working-class community in Cambridge, Massachusetts. My father was a white union worker for the federal government and my mother was a Vietnamese woman who has consistently struggled with mental health issues and has thus struggled with employment. After the elimination of Glass Steagall, banks and creditors sold my mother the dream of owning land and great wealth. Her pursuit of these endeavors nearly left our family bankrupt and her massive credit card debt (upwards of a quarter million dollars by the 2000 economic crisis) forced my father to work sixty to seventy hours per week for several years to make up the difference. Even then he was forced to refinance the house that we lived in twice in order to pay a small portion of the tuition that my sister and I incurred from undergraduate school.
It was in college that I was exposed to the one percent. Unlike many of my Black, brown, and white peers, I was able to attend an elite college and graduate. During this time, I frolicked in the same institution as our class enemy in the one percent. It drove me into depression. I thought about dropping out more than once. Then an Afro-Dominican friend of mine was racially profiled by the police and community in the town outside of my school and my depression turned to anger. I had lost several Black peers to premature death and was already privy to racism from my experiences with being called a “gook” and a “model minority” throughout my childhood. My organizing efforts around his case led to broader efforts to fight against racism on campus. These efforts were severely limited due to the class orientation of many of the students I was organizing with. It became clear that careerism trumped their principles.
I was lucky enough to have a professor who facilitated my transfer to New York City for the fall semester of 2011. While there, I interned for a labor union and participated in Occupy Wall Street. Both the labor movement and Occupy Wall Street, for different reasons, seemed unable to confront the fundamental contradictions of U.S. society. Labor leadership appeared indifferent to militant action out of opportunism and fear of capitalist reprisal. Occupy Wall Street appeared too disorganized to solidify an ideological and strategic direction and thus was vulnerable to state repression. As I participated in these struggles, I began reading corporate mainstream news on the U.S.-NATO invasion of Libya. I questioned why the so-called Black president who I voted for in 2008 would lead an invasion of an African country on what seemed like an Iraq-like pretext. No one in Occupy or the labor movement mentioned Libya.
The invasion of Libya and my frustrations with the struggle on the ground led me to read Black Agenda Report and Huey P. Newton’s To Die for the People simultaneously. Each source of information introduced me to the concepts of socialism, anti-imperialism, and internationalism. It was clear from reading Newton and studying Black Agenda Report that I needed a stronger understanding of Marxism and socialist theory. Political education became my new objective. In the years since 2011, I have focused mainly on political education through participation in various mass-based and socialist organizations. I have been writing weekly for Black Agenda Report for the last five years. My ideology is socialist. Not to be confused with democratic socialism or social democracy, I ascribe to Marxism-Leninism as described by Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro and Fred Hampton. In the Introduction, you explain one of the goals in writing this book: (xix) “we want to equip our readers with the tools to locate, critique, and dismantle the twin ideologies of American exceptionalism and American innocence.” Can you expand on this statement a little?
This book is not just meant to tell activists what to think, but how to think. By revealing the central contradictions of American exceptionalism, we believe that this book contributes to the broader struggle for social justice and transformation at the point of ideology. In 7th Congress of the Youth Communist League, Fidel Castro said that
“We must use solid arguments to talk to members and non-members, to speak to those who may be confused or even to discuss and debate with those holding positions contrary to those of the Revolution or who are influenced by imperialist ideology in this great battle of ideas we have been waging for years now, precisely in order to carry out the heroic deed of resisting against the most politically, militarily, economically, technologically and culturally powerful empire that has ever existed. Young cadres must be well prepared for this task.”
We feel similarly to Comandante Fidel. American exceptionalism and innocence have shaped the political orientation of every single working class and oppressed person in the United States. While this doesn’t mean everyone aligns with the tenets of innocence and exceptionalism, it does mean that their influence surely has an impact on the development of resistance movements against capitalism, white supremacy, and empire. The left in the United States rarely raises the question of war and when the struggle against white supremacy is raised, we find that it is not linked to the questions of power and oppression but rather of representation. This allows U.S. imperialism to render itself innocent of wrongdoing through the division of our struggles into easily containable parts. We believe that if we can identify and demystify American exceptionalism (the belief that the U.S. is a force for good), and American innocence (the belief that the U.S. is “above” the crimes it commits), then we can advance the battle of ideas that is currently being waged in the here and now. For example, instead of arguing that socialism is a project of reform, the rejection of American exceptionalism and innocence helps us realize that socialism requires nothing short of a complete transformation of society. We hope that our book will help others come to this realization through a study of history, ideology, and the reality behind imperialist rhetoric. A paragraph that struck me as especially important reads, (xxiii) “Many avoid being labeled “un-American” by remaining silent about war, poverty, racism and the many ills that U.S. imperialism inflicts upon the world. Some activists have even suggested that approaching people from “where they are” by appealing to American exceptionalism will help recruit more Americans to the cause of social justice and transformation. If Americans believe “democracy” and “freedom” are worthwhile goals, we are told, then these sentiments should be utilized in service of the development of a more just social order. We believe that this is a monumental error in political thought and action. It not only assumes that the American population, especially the oppressed, primarily identify as “American” and will identify as such for the foreseeable future, but it also assumes that the American nation-state is in fact capable of ever bringing about true freedom, justice, or peace.”
Can you talk about why this approach is a “monumental error” and why the underlying assumptions to it are wrongheaded?
The U.S. was never a democracy in the first place. This is difficult to swallow for many, including Bernie Sanders, who still believes that the West is the beacon and standard bearer of “democracy.” In this era of neoliberalism, we find that pandering to the so-called values of the U.S. is very common, even among those who claim to be progressive or on the left. Take the example of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. In speech after speech on climate change, Ocasio Cortez continues to insist that the best way to mobilize a fight against tide of environmental catastrophe is to rise to occasion like the U.S. did in World War II. This reinforces the myth that the U.S. saved the world in World War II and that the U.S. is going to save the world again.
Our struggles for liberation and revolution will fail if they intend to make U.S. imperialism a more perfect system. We can’t improve upon what doesn’t exist. We can’t rise to the occasion like in World War II. Real socialists should not whitewash a legacy rife with criminality including the use of two nuclear bombs on Japan, the firebombing a defenseless Dresden at the expense of over thirty thousand civilians, and the corporate financing of Hitler and fascism prior to the U.S. entrance in the war. We discuss the U.S.’ participation in WWII in Chapter 4.
We should also remember that American exceptionalism is a white exceptionalism. If we are attempting to reform or perfect the architectures of the U.S. imperial state, then we are perfecting a racist regime whose primary interest is in the mass incarceration, elimination, and erasure of native people and Black people in the United States. Our conceptions of liberty, freedom, and democracy will have to be based on a different model all together, if they are to be useful at all. Chapter 1 sets the tone for the entire book, dissecting the underlying psychology that stems from dominant culture (culture from above). In it, you hit on the events of 9/11/01 and its aftermath, illustrating how the capitalist ruling class took advantage of this to perpetuate a backs-against-the-wall mythology that continues to prop up the empire. You write, (p 3) “The idea of the United States as a perpetual “victim” of enemy aggression that is compelled to “play defense” on the international stage is a quintessential example of American exceptionalism and American innocence working together.”
Can you talk about what you mean here, especially in terms of how exceptionalism and innocence interplay in this scenario?
The Bush administration declared after 9/11 that terrorists hated the United States for its “freedoms.” By invoking American exceptionalism and the myth that people all over the world fawn over the achievements of the U.S., the U.S. imperial state was able to simultaneously present itself as a victim of foreign aggression. This aggression was stateless and thus anyone could be blamed for its occurrence. The lies kept coming and coming. First came the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 based on the false allegation that the Taliban were behind the attacks. Then there was the Weapons of Mass Destruction debacle that led to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Throughout it all, the U.S. justified the destruction of far weaker nations by playing the innocent victim.
Innocence and exceptionalism often go hand in hand. Innocence requires an aggressor, a rapist, a subject devoid of humanity. The cruelty of the beast allows the U.S. ruling class to do whatever it wants in the name of profit. Enslaved Africans and displaced natives were depicted as savage creatures who were blessed by the civilized settler colonialist. In the War on Terror, the terrorist became synonymous with Muslim or Arab. Ironically, plenty of actual terrorists, or who are more appropriately named mercenaries, are created by U.S. foreign policy and its staunch ally, Saudi Arabia. But the War on Terror has always been less a crusade against these forces than it was a war to justify endless war abroad and state repression at home. In Chapter 3 you address the interconnectedness of American imperialism, Black oppression (from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration), and the genocide of Native Americans at the hand of European colonizers. Can you tell readers why this is such an important connection to understand?
In this era of Trump, there appears to be an ever-growing awareness of the race-based foundations of the United States. Missing from this awareness is how the U.S. never grew out of its white supremacist roots. We hear a lot that Trump “isn’t what the U.S. is all about.” We are often told, especially by white liberals, that the U.S. is proud of diversity and inclusion. Yet the plight of indigenous people and Black people in the United States tell a different story. Not many people know that indigenous people face higher rates of police homicide than Black Americans. Or that Black wealth in the U.S. is set to be zero by year 2053 if current trends persist. Inclusion and diversity ignore these realities. Even more disturbing is how anti-Russian racism fuels much of the white liberal resistance to Trump.
Without the enslavement of Africans and colonization of indigenous peoples, the U.S. would not have been able to develop the capitalist infrastructure necessary to become a global imperial terror in the world. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, who we cite extensively in Chapter 2, explains that the U.S. military’s very formation lies in the hiring of mercenaries by the War Department to rob and loot indigenous communities. There is a deep misconception that the struggle for Black liberation or against settler colonialism is a domestic dispute. Nothing could be further from the truth. If we don’t internationalize the struggle against racism at home, then we can’t follow in the footsteps of Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party, both of whom sought redress and recognition from the United Nations. American exceptionalism helps us forget these struggles and keeps us interested only in making the U.S. a more “diverse” society at the expense of any real struggle for power. As someone who has gone from once being restrained by the thought parameters of dominant culture to now being deeply involved in revolutionary thought, I’ve noticed that one of the most difficult tasks when dealing with folks who are stuck in that former stage is reorienting their thought from individualistic to systemic. Angela Davis talked about this type of individualistic worldview being solidified in the neoliberal era, to the point where it even negatively affects activism and organizing. One of the reasons I’ve always loved your writing, as well as most content on Black Agenda Report, is because it is firmly embedded in a structural/systemic understanding. Not surprisingly, this book carries that analysis forward. For example, in talking about the systemic effects of white supremacy in the United States, you write, (p 54) “If American society itself is a monument to white supremacy, then the economic, cultural, and legal manifestations of white supremacy must take precedence over individual attitudes.” Can you explain to our readers why it is so crucial that systemic effects must take precedence over individual attitudes?
Individualism is a bedrock ideology of American capitalism and imperialism. It is a powerful force that has a wide array of effects on the consciousness of the masses. Our book centers individualism not only in the neoliberal stage of capitalism but also in the formation of the United States as an empire that privileges the god-like image of the white citizen. The U.S. ruling class has been comprised of these whte citizens from the very beginning. White citizens of the ruling elite have attempted to instill the same values, principles, and behaviors in the entire white American population with great success. Citizenship here is key. Citizenship gives white America something to mobilize around. That was the basis of the entire Jim Crow period. The end of slavery was depicted as the end of white citizenship and organizations such as the KKK emerged to ensure that freedom for Black Americans would be nominal rather than universal in character.
Individualism not only mobilizes the political right but also infects the so-called left as well. We saw this inn the recent struggles against Confederate monuments in the United States. We also saw this in the confrontations of figures such as Richard Spencer. The focus tends to be on individual symbols and leaders rather than on the material conditions that allow people like Spencer or monuments of the Confederacy to exist at all. Such a focus allows real monuments to white supremacy such as the prison-state and finance capital to remain undisturbed and unchallenged. Individualism thus inevitably leads us toward projects to improve the image of the U.S. rather than the conditions of the masses. While some may see this as a defense of the political right, it is really a call for us to move our energies toward the structures of power that give the political right a foundation to stand on. If we cut that foundation, we cut out their existence as well. An ongoing topic of importance is how white folks fit into modern revolutionary politics. This is especially important in the United States because of our long history of racial divide, both within the working class itself and as used as an effective tool by the capitalist class. It continues to be a crucial question. One product of liberalism and “white guilt” has been this manifestation of white saviorism.
You touch on this phenomenon in the book, writing on page 161, “The White Savior Industrial Complex is a modernized expression of American individualism and thus a direct product of the United States’ racist and capitalist roots. In an article in the Atlantic, Teju Cole describes the White Savior Industrial Complex as “a valve for releasing the unbearable pressures that build in a system built on pillage.” White saviorism recruits Americans-and white Americans in particular-to resolve the guilt inevitably produced by the unbearable conditions that U.S. imperialism has wrought on the world with individual acts of charity funded and sponsored by the very agents responsible for the destruction. Acts of “charity” not only focus on individualized action over collective response but also tend to reinforce the United States’ obsessive fear of racialized “others.” The White Savior Industrial Complex uses charity to absolve the U.S. of responsibility for the conditions produced by this obsession. White guilt is the escape valve. “We can participate in the economic destruction of Haiti over long years,” Cole writes, ‘but when the earthquake strikes it feels good to send $10 each to the rescue fund.'”
White saviorism is usually reserved for liberal circles; however, like most products of whiteness, it can certainly infect radical and revolutionary circles as well. That being said, what are your thoughts on more recent notions like “allies” and “accomplices?” How do such roles square up within a proletarian movement in the vein of Fred Hampton’s Rainbow Coalition? How do you see the divides working out between so-called “class reductionists” (who are often white, and thus more likely to underestimate other forms of oppression) and hyper-marginalized members of the working class (Black, Brown, Women, etc) who experience these compounded forms of oppression every day?
Those are great questions. The United States is an imperialist nightmare with no shortage of internal contradictions that pose serious problems in developing a class-conscious revolutionary movement. White leftists in the United States are divided into two general categories (although they are far from exhaustive). These categories are the New Left, which emerged from anti-war and other political movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and a new generation of younger leftists who were inspired by Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and now the Sanders phenomenon. What is interesting is that while the New Left is often thought of as class reductionist, the politics of white saviorism often instills feelings of guilt about their white privileges and render them attracted to liberal discourses on race and identity largely emanating from the bourgeois academy and university system. I find that class analysis is what is reduced when class analysis is ignored, while class reductionists in the white left are reacting to this development in a negative way. Both often lead to irreconcilable issues and weak movements.
The younger white leftists are more amenable to radical interpretations of society. What is lacking is political organization, a real vehicle that can drive younger activists toward revolutionary politics and strategies. Occupy Wall Street was unable to become an organized, discipline force capable of developing long-term alliances and fending off state repression. Right now, everything is confined within the Democratic Party and Bernie Sanders. On the surface, it appears that Sanders supporters tend to take a class reductionist point of view. Many of the demands of Sanders supporters revolve around economic necessity. Corporate Democrats have taken such a surface level analysis very seriously and have attempted to make what is a pretty diverse group of people who are aligned to Sanders look like a bunch of angry white men.
It is important to realize, however, is that the only effective way that class reductionism or white saviorism have ever been countered is through the self-determined political organization of Black Americans and the racially oppressed. Your example of the Rainbow Coalition is a good one. Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party were able to forge alliances with white radical organizations such as the Young Patriots because there was a significant Black left-leaning presence in the struggle of that time. Even if the Black Panther Party was numerically small, Black Americans in large numbers opposed wars, favored economic transformation, and (especially young Black Americans of the period) were attracted to political demands that sought to rectify the failures of integration and Civil Rights. Furthermore, there was a large global socialist movement led by a bloc of nations such as China and the USSR which helped challenge U.S. imperial domination worldwide. In the absence of these conditions, we have seen white saviorism and class reductionism battle for the hearts and minds of the white left.
In summary, Black workers and working people of oppressed nationalities must be the ones to lead the conversation and organization around their self-determination. This is the best antidote to the contradictions white left, which has always needed direction. But the answer for white leftists is not to sit on their hands or give up demands for economic and political change. It also isn’t to become “white allies” with the oppressed in the way that it has been defined by the academy. White American leftists need to be challenging the ideologies of exceptionalism and saviorism, as well as the far-right political trend occurring throughout the Western world. They must ask: when has being an “ally” transformed the material conditions of anyone? No movement has ever been based on elitist grand-standing, which is what I believe the politics of diversity and inclusion promotes in the final analysis. White leftists must bring an anti-imperialist, anti-war orientation into their communities and find ways to promote solidarity with their comrades in Black communities and other oppressed communities. That is the only way forward. In Chapter 21, you tackle the question, “who exactly does the military serve?” As a military veteran who has written about such questions, this spoke to me. In answering, you write (page 239), “Consciousness of who and what is behind the dominant narratives of American exceptionalism and American innocence is a prerequisite for the development of an alternative narrative that can be popularized widely.” Can you elaborate on what you mean here?
We must know the enemy. American exceptionalism and innocence make us believe that the enemy is ourselves. Or, that the enemy is the “other”-a racialized threat created to justify the original sin of slavery through the dehumanization of the African or Black person. Alternative political narratives emerge only when the veil has been lifted off those who cause the suffering. The Black Lives Matter movement initially pointed to the police and prison-state as the enemy that was not only killing Black Americans but also reinforcing narratives of criminality so important to the conditions of premature death that plague Black communities across the country. We believe that lifting the veil from the peddlers of American exceptionalism and innocence gives us an even broader understanding of who and what is behind the oppression and exploitation of Black America and the working class more broadly. Corporate media outlets, education systems, corporate executives, military officials, and politicians; these are the stakeholders of the ideologies of American exceptionalism and innocence. Being able to identify them and begin an investigation into their interconnectedness helps us realize how power in the form of the profit-motive is at the heart of U.S. imperialism. Perhaps even more critical is that we can then see that this system is not an amorphous or abstract project. It is a product of class rule in a specific historical epoch and thus a temporary condition which can be destroyed and replaced by a new system with the help of a peoples’ revolution. This is no easy feat, and I don’t pretend have the answers as to how this will happen but getting more struggling people in the U.S. to realize this is an important step.
That is what our book is all about. And we feel that ending on the note of the U.S. military is appropriate since there is perhaps no institution more destructive and obviously controlled by the capitalist class. The U.S. military is also one of the most venerated institution in U.S. society for this exact reason. Few people, except the ruling class themselves, would support wars if they believed the only reason for them was to expand the profits of a small number of capitalist oligarchs. Thus, the military has been depicted as an engine of democracy, freedom, and an opportunity to get an education and a job in a society that provides neither as a human right. Prior to that, the U.S. military was heralded as an engine of white prosperity and employment. Its targets on the other hand have been turned into sub-human creatures worthy of annihilation. Who can forget when, in 2011, the U.S. military-state and its media accomplices claimed that the Gaddafi government was using Viagra in the U.S.-NATO invasion of Libya to rape women and children? Or when the U.S. military trained its soldiers to view Koreans as wild savages and “gooks” during the Korean War? Unfortunately, many Americans have, and that’s because American exceptionalism has infected the political discourse from top to bottom. As a society, we seem to be on a precipice of sorts. Or at least find ourselves in a significant moment in history, with nslaveryeoliberalism intensifying inequality, environmental disaster looming, extreme wealth taking ownership of our public agenda, never-ending militarism, creeping fascism, etc. Where do you see things heading in the next five years? And how should we as radicals respond from within the belly of the beast?
In the next five years, I see three developments of significance that will have a profound impact on the trajectory of the U.S. left.
First, the ruling class will continue its assault on the social democratic tendencies of the Democratic Party base. This will exacerbate the political crisis of legitimacy occurring in the United States generally, strengthen the figures such as Trump, and lead hopefully to new opportunities to develop a viable independent left political party.
Second, the U.S. is due for a capitalist economic crisis. This crisis is likely to be even more devastating than the 2007-08 crisis. The proletarianization of U.S. society will reach a breaking point. Where workers and oppressed people in the U.S. go from here is anyone’s guess, but we can expect that they won’t take the suffering quietly.
Third, Russia and China are eclipsing the United States on the world stage. U.S. imperialism wants nothing more than to weaken its rivals to the East. This means that in the next five years, the threat of war with Syria, Iran, Russia, and China will escalate. The threat will increase amid political and economic crisis.
We must respond through political organization and education. There is a progressive tide occurring in the United States. But the tide is not organized outside of the Democratic Party and there is no Black liberation movement to lead it. Thus, we must be vigilant in creating the conditions for the organization of the working class and popularizing the politics of solidarity and anti-imperialism.
The conditions for organizing on a socialist and communist basis are becoming more favorable. Large portions of the United States want universal healthcare and are more amenable to the term socialism. Of course, many still think socialism is the New Deal and a reform project. But the sentiment against unfettered capitalism and imperialism is there and it will be up to us to harness it and push the contradictions forward to their logical conclusion: social revolution.
Fifty years ago today, Black Panthers took a man they had tortured in this basement room, drove him to a swamp, and shot him dead — thrusting New Haven into a national confrontation over race and justice that resonates today.
The basement is in unit B13 of the Ethan Gardens co-op apartment complex on Orchard Street in New Haven’s Dwight neighborhood. At the time, the townhouse apartment served as unofficial headquarters of then-new city chapter of the black revolutionary organization.
Then, the night of May 20, 1969, they borrowed a Buick Riviera from a police informant who had infiltrated their chapter. Undercover city cops — who worked in conjunction with the FBI “COINTELPRO” program’s campaign to destroy the Panthersin part by fueling violent intra-party rivalries — watched as the Riviera pulled out of Orchard Street toward I-91. The car ended up parked by the banks of Middlefield’s Coginchaug River, where Panthers Warren Kimbro (the official tenant of Ethan Gardens Unit B13) and Lonnie McLucas fired the fatal bullets into Rackley’s skull and chest. They left him dead and returned to Orchard Street. It was soon understood by all concerned that, while the Panthers were crawling with spies, there was no evidence or reason to believe Alex Rackley had been one of them.
Kimbro and the man who ordered and supervised the killing, George Sams, were captured and pleaded guilty. A jury convicted McLucas for his part in the crime. But the federal government, out to destroy the party’s leadership, put national Chairman Bobby Seale and local organizer Ericka Huggins on trial for conspiracy. The prosecutor sought the death penalty.
Years of protests ensued, including a nationwide 1970 May Day gathering on the Green that saw Yale cancel classes …
… business owners board up storefronts …
… families flee town, and the National Guard patrol the streets. (Read all about that wild event here.) Critics, including Yale’s president, questioned whether a black revolutionary could receive a fair trial in America.
It was the political trial of the century in New Haven. In the end, a white judge who had been outed for making racist statements about African-Americans declared a mistrial and set Seale and Huggins free. Siding with the Panthers, he concluded that his pal, the white prosecutor, had overstepped in his zeal for a conviction.
Though the Panthers didn’t last much longer in New Haven, their legend lives on here. So do the causes they championed, the problems they identified. Though they don’t call for violent revolution, today’s Panther successors are still marching (and closing down) streetsto protest police violence …
Some of the New Haveners at the time of the Rackley case remain at the front lines. Panther George Edwards — whom Panther leaders also tortured in the Ethan Gardens basement, and who escaped getting killed himself, only to be arrested by the cops in connection with Rackley’s murder — continues burnishing the Panther flame. He attends rallies and speaks out at other public events. He and the community two weeks ago buried his beloved son, a city firefighter.
Kimbro sort of apologized. He also revealed that he had tricked his fellow Panthers into believing he couldn’t track Edwards down that fateful night — to avoid placing Edwards in the Buick along with Rackley on the road to execution.
David Rosen, one of Bobby Seale’s lawyers in the New Haven trial, continues a half-century later to wage crusading lawsuits, including a current class action on behalf of the families forced to flee the dangerous Church Street South housing complex.
Meanwhile, families continue to live in the 28 apartments at Ethan Gardens. Kids — now including immigrant children — play in the courtyard. Ethan Gardens is no longer a co-op, as it was in the idealistic days when Warren Kimbro lived there. A private real estate company, Pike International, now runs it.
Today, Kathy Gardner lives in Unit B13. She moved in back in December 1997. She raised her two children there.
Over the years she heard that her apartment had some connection to the Panthers and a murder. That’s all she knew, until learning the full story this past week.
She had never heard of Warren Kimbro. She didn’t know that Warren Kimbro was the first president of the Ethan Gardens co-op. It turns out Kathy Gardner was the last president of the co-op, from 2001 to its sale in 2004. She was sad to see the co-op die, as did other nearby co-ops started around the same time under the same federal 221(d)(3) program such as the old Dwight Co-ops (now Dwight Gardens) and Trade Union Plaza blocks away from Ethan Gardens.
Gardner, who works as a special-ed paraprofessional, is now one of only three former co-op residents left at Ethan Gardens. The tale of the murder doesn’t bother her, she said: “As long as they aren’t dead in my basement, I don’t care. It was before my time. I can’t change 50 years ago. Life goes on.” The Ethan Gardens tenants are planning a communal Fourth of July picnic, she said. And she’s in the process of cleaning out the basement. She has a new grandchild named Mehki; that’s going to be his new bedroom.
ON THE NIGHT of Tuesday, May 20, 1969, four men sped north from New Haven in a borrowed Buick Riviera. All belonged to the revolutionary Black Panther Party.
Warren Kimbro sat nervously in the front passenger seat directing the driver. Warren was normally quick with his tongue, loose, funny. Yet he was scared silent by the power sitting behind him in the Buick that night.
That power was named George Sams. Maybe it was the pistol Sams always waved around. Maybe it was the threats Sams barked, the herky-jerky intensity of his stocky body. Maybe it was because Sams was part of a team flown in from the Panthers’ California headquarters to whip East Coast chapters into shape.
Earlier, at Panther headquarters in downtown New Haven, Sams had said, “I’m going for a ride. Come with me.”
Sparked by caffeine, by a speed pill, an electric current jangled Warren’s nerves as the car traveled north. Warren didn’t know exactly where he would lead the driver, beyond searching, at Sams’s orders, for a secluded spot. But he knew they were headed to some kind of hell.
Something’s going to happen, Warren thought to himself. He tried not to think about specifics. It didn’t require much imagination.
FOR THE THREE days leading up to May 20, imported Panthers Landon Williams and George Sams had commandeered Warren Kimbro’s three-story townhouse apartment in the mixed-income Ethan Gardens complex on Orchard Street in New Haven’s Dwight neighborhood. The apartment doubled as New Haven Panther headquarters. Sams oversaw a kangaroo trial, interrogation, torture, and confinement there of a suspected FBI informant named Alex Rackley. Now Rackley was to be transported from the house.
It was around midnight when the orders were issued: Alex Rackley needed to be taken away, driven to the bus station.
Someone suggested taking Warren’s Mustang.
No, someone else said. The police will recognize it.
Would that be a problem for a trip to the bus station? The question went unanswered.
Instead, a call went to Kelly Moye, a hanger-on around thirty years old, who made deliveries for a package store. Moye showed up at Panther meetings and always seemed eager to lend the party money or offer a meal. Would Brother Kelly lend the Panthers his car now for an important mission?
Sure thing, Moye said.
Moye hung up the phone and dialed another number — Nick Pastore’s number. Nick Pastore ran the intelligence division of the New Haven police department. He paid Moye to spy on the Panthers. Moye enjoyed the Panther meetings. He especially enjoyed watching Ericka Huggins, the tall, slender, frizzy-haired firebrand who spoke so eloquently, who was followed around in public like the pied piper by adoring Yale students.
Moye reported the request to borrow his car. Nick Pastore advised Moye to go ahead and lend it. Nick had a hunch that something big was happening on Orchard Street; he told Moye that a Panther from New York was being held there and was about to be transported. “Go over and see what is happening,” Nick said.
Within minutes, Moye showed up outside Ethan Gardens in his two-door green Buick Riviera. George Sams stood by the curb waiting for him. When Moye emerged from the Buick, Sams stuck a gun to his head.
“I want to use your car,” Sams said.
“Hey, look,” Moye said, “you can take the car.”
Moye handed over the keys. Another Panther drove him home. No one asked why Kelly Moye was so prompt, so accommodating, because people helped the Black Panthers all the time. They pitched in for the cause the instant they were summoned. That was how a revolution worked.
BACK IN THE Panther apartment, Warren went upstairs to change into black dungarees, a Navy mock turtleneck, plus a black knit cap. Then he entered the bedroom usually occupied by his seven-year-old daughter, who was now sharing a room with her brother. Alex Rackley lay strapped to the child’s bed. Rackley had been there three days since his interrogation. He lay in his own urine and feces. Warren joined other Panthers in untying Rackley. Some Panther women cleaned Rackley up, dressed him, and then returned to the kitchen downstairs.
A wire-hanger noose hung visibly around Rackley’s neck. The men looked around for something to throw over it; they found a Nehru jacket belonging to one of the party members. That would do.
Raised to his feet, Rackley teetered. He wanted to sit down. Instead, the men clambered down the stairs and pushed Rackley through the kitchen, to the back door — out of sight, they hoped, of the police.
From her perch by the kitchen counter, Ericka Huggins, the highest- ranking female Panther in town, watched Sams and Warren walk Rackley out the door. Sams brandished the .45 automatic as he held Rackley’s arms, which were tied together with ropes. Rackley didn’t resist.
On the way out, someone handed Warren a pill and a cup of coffee. “This’ll keep you awake,” he said. Warren needed a jolt. He had barely slept for days amid all the nonstop activity in the house and on the street, not to mention the climate of paranoia.
Kelly Moye’s car was parked on Orchard Street. Sams steered Rackley to the back seat, then sat beside him. Warren sat in front, where he would direct the ride. He assumed that some of the other cars on the block had undercover agents in them; the police and FBI spent enough time on the block to have their mail forwarded.
“Right on,” one of the Panthers called to the departing carload of party brothers. “All power to the people.”
Off they went. Sams started rolling a joint.
Alex Rackley spoke up. Don’t do that, George, he said. The cops might be watching.
The comment caught Sams by surprise. “You’re right, Alex,” he said.
Sams stopped rolling the joint.
Sitting up front, Warren directed the driver, Lonnie McLucas, toward the highway. Warren had traveled far in the short, intense space of a year. In May 1968 he held a job as a youth worker in a social program run by the city. He could talk troubled kids out of fights and into school or jobs while working the back channels of power — in City Hall, schools, the court system — to help them. Intellectually curious and personable, he tried to touch the lives of most everyone he encountered, from all walks of life. He also had a short fuse. When outrage hit, he could turn violent. From the day he entered kindergarten, to his encounters with churchgoers and black-marketeers on the block where he grew up, Warren had one foot on a path to success and one foot in a pile of trouble. He straddled a world of accommodation and one increasingly in conflict.
Now, in May 1969, Warren belonged to an outlaw political movement that preached, and sometimes practiced, violent revolution. The Black Panther Party had come to New Haven just five months earlier; Warren was their prized local conscript.
Founded in Oakland in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the Panthers carried guns and told white America that they were ready to shoot when necessary. The party combined socialist ideology with street credibility. Oakland’s police force, recruited in part from the Deep South, openly brutalized black citizens, whether law-abiding or not. In response, the Panthers formed armed neighborhood “self-defense” patrols. The party drew middle-class, intellectual idealists inspired by Algerian writer Frantz Fanon. His Wretched of the Earth inspired Third World liberation movements; advocates of Black Power increasingly came to see this work as relevant to the United States. The Panthers held classes on Fanon’s book and talked about sharing its ideas with the “baddest” characters on urban American street corners. Like Malcolm X right before his death, they hoped to tie an American rebellion to the spirit and program of liberation movements in the Third World. In a world where India, Kenya, Congo, Cuba, and other downtrodden societies could throw colonial masters out of power, why not aim for revolutionary change?
The Panthers’ ten-point party platform claimed “the power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.” It sought full employment, “an end to the robbery by the capitalist of our Black and oppressed communities,” better housing, “education for our people . . . that teaches us our true history and our role in the present-day society,” universal mili- tary exemptions for black Americans, and “an immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people.” The platform also called for a blanket amnesty for all black prison inmates, as well as juries composed of true “peers” for black defendants.
The Black Panther Party also drew heavily upon working-class blacks without intellectual, or moral, pretensions. Some, like leaders Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, managed to combine intellectual prowess with an unmistakable edge of violence. Seen from the heights of America’s white establishment, the Panthers were small, ragtag, and hardly a match for one major agency of law enforcement, namely, the FBI. But, as FBI director J. Edgar Hoover understood perfectly, one cannot be a great hero without a dangerous enemy. The FBI did everything it could to dramatize the dangerous revolutionary powers of Pantherdom. The Panthers cooperated with braggadocio of their own. In New Haven, the police — who, in conjunction with local FBI agents, were commanded to wipe out the Black Panther Party by any means necessary — watched every move of Warren and his comrades.
INDEED, UNDERCOVER POLICE watched the Panther car pull away from Warren’s apartment complex with Alex Rackley. They followed — at first. Warren led the Buick’s driver onto the highway northbound on Interstate 91, aimed toward nothing more specific than darkness and seclusion.
At some point, the officers disappeared. They would eventually claim they lost the car.
According to a later affidavit by Nick Pastore, he received a call from a “reliable” informant he had “known for at least five years.” The informant (Kelly Moye) reported that Kelly Moye’s car “would be used, or was about to be used, to transport a person who was about to be murdered, to an unknown destination.”
Even the police chief, Jim Ahern, had advance notice of an event worth watching. Ahern was in the nearby Hill neighborhood eating dinner at Leon’s, one of New Haven’s finest Italian restaurants. In his book Police in Trouble, Ahern would offer his version of the police’s reaction, with a bevy of supporting actors and extra vehicles, a version strikingly at odds with the mountain of details that would emerge later from the case. According to Ahern: My portable police radio told the story.
The phone rang. Something was happening at Panther headquarters; there was a great deal of activity. But we decided there was still not probable cause for arrests. We agreed, however, that more unmarked cars should be brought into position. The call went out, and they were on the way.
But before they could arrive, the gathering at Panther headquarters suddenly broke. Knowing that they were being watched, the Panthers split up into four cars and left in different directions. The radio was crowded with noise as our men sorted the cars out. Three were fol- lowed. In the confusion, the fourth slipped away.
That car had to be stopped. We put out an all-points bulletin on it for suspicion of kidnapping.
Yet the car “somehow” managed to elude the police twenty miles up the highway, according to Ahern.
Ahern may not have been fully forthcoming about how much police officials actually knew in advance about the activity at Panther headquarters. There has never been any other evidence to suggest the Panthers had four cars leaving the scene. Ahern downplayed the existence of probable cause for arrests — or, at the very least, a visit — before the crew in Kelly Moye’s car took off.
“As a result of this information,” Ahern wrote, the local police did eventually stop the Buick. But they wouldn’t “find” it until hours later, around 4 a.m. By that time the car would be back in New Haven, back in Kelly Moye’s possession.
IN THE BACK SEAT of Moye’s car, George Sams informed Alex Rackley that he was being kicked out of the party. Sams also assured Rackley that, despite orders to kill him, he would be allowed to flee to freedom.
Warren directed the driver to exit the highway onto State Route 66, then onto a two-lane road winding through the sleepy hamlet of Middlefield. Warren saw a sign for Powder Ridge, a ski resort quiet in the off-season. The car twisted down through woodlands into the floodplain of the Coginchaug River. The headlights revealed a long stretch of darkness; the driver stopped the car by a low bridge off Middlefield’s deserted Route 157.
Sams ordered everyone out. The four men walked into the woods. The moon shone, but they could barely see beneath all the trees. They crunched their way through skunk cabbage and dead branches, weaving past the trunks of swamp maples to the bank of the Coginchaug.
Alex Rackley passively hobbled alongside them. Rackley was thirteen days shy of his twentieth birthday. Clothesline bound his wrists. The makeshift noose around his neck jutted out beneath the Nehru jacket. Second-degree burns stung his chest and thighs. The burns came from pots of boiled water poured over Rackley’s body during the torture session back on Orchard Street; they had festered over the subsequent three days Rackley spent tied up.
Sams ordered the group to the edge of the open water. He told Rackley freedom was at hand: “You’re gonna take a boat. You can take the boat to New York or Florida.”
Sams reassured Rackley again, then warned him: While you wait for the boat to come get you, stay in the woods. Sams suggested that the woods might be crawling with Minutemen, members of a violent white supremacist group active in the area.
Thank you, Rackley said. No one asked: What kind of boat could sail the Coginchaug River? Perhaps a canoe. Certainly not a vessel capable of reaching New York, much less Florida.
Sams turned to Warren. He placed a .45 automatic in Warren’s palm. “Here, Brother Warren,” Sams said. “Ice him. Orders from National.”
Warren gripped the .45. He waded toward Alex Rackley through the ankle-deep muck. He aimed at the back of Rackley’s head and pulled the trigger.
Rackley collapsed into the water. Sams took back the gun and handed it to McLucas. On Sams’s order, McLucas kicked around in the marsh until he found Rackley’s body. He shot an insurance bullet into his chest.
As they turned to leave, Rackley’s executioners abandoned his body for dead. According to later expert testimony, Rackley’s heart may have continued beating—he may not have breathed his final gasp for four more hours.
Deep down, Warren knew Rackley was no FBI agent, no spy. Why didn’t he stand up to Sams? Fear. He had the sense that the Black Panther Party stood behind these orders. They could kill him instead of Rackley, he reasoned. His son and daughter were asleep back in the townhouse apartment. Something could happen to them, too.
THE THREE SURVIVING Panthers trudged back to the car. McLucas turned the wheel toward New Haven. They got lost on the twisting rural roads. Before they hit the highway, Sams threw bullets out the window. He preferred to return without any unused bullets; he wanted to impress the Panthers that this was a big job requiring lots of ammo.
Sams was hyped up when the three returned to headquarters. One coat-hanger-collared member of their party was conspicuously missing. Several other Panthers, night owls, remained awake, drinking coffee in the kitchen. Although there was no mention of what exactly had happened, it seemed clear that the returning warriors had been up to some mission of consequence.
Warren scrubbed his hands right away. He was wiped out. He wanted to sleep.
While most of New Haven slumbered, the Panther apartment buzzed with people not yet ready to go to bed. Joints were rolled and passed around. Warren, ever mindful of his wardrobe, washed off his muddy shoes. He cleaned the .45 and returned it to the coffee table drawer in the living room, where the party had been keeping it.
George Sams ran about the apartment high on the aftermath of battle. “Brother Warren,” he exclaimed, “is a true revolutionary!”
ALONG WITH ALEX RACKLEY’S CORPSE, the facts were left behind to decompose in the Coginchaug River, devalued, abused, ultimately forgotten in America’s domestic war over race, poverty, and the right to dissent.
“A lot of educated people are going to have to be convinced the facts are irrelevant!” protest leader Tom Hayden would yell into a microphone when he joined other radicals on the New Haven Green in protesting the arrests of Black Panthers in Alex Rackley’s murder. Indeed, it may have seemed that the facts were irrelevant to everyone touched by the murder. Everyone, it seemed, was lying when it came to the Rackley case and the protests it provoked: the president, the FBI, the New Haven police, the man who pulled the trigger, the Black Panthers, the white radicals who swooped to their cause. No one had use for the facts
Still, the facts mattered. They would prove central to the story of how Alex Rackley ended up dead in a swamp and to the subsequent trial that put the criminal justice system’s travails on national display. The facts would prove central to the story of how America lost its innocence at the end of the sixties—how, in the course of a decade, a nation on the path to greater civil rights and opportunities for its most disenfranchised citizens jerked violently backward and chose to lock up huge portions of ghettos rather than seek solutions. An idealistic youth-powered movement that helped stop a war and rewrite civil rights laws succumbed to fratricide and exhaustion. The facts were relevant to how liberalism became a dirty word in the country and how questioning people in power became un-American.
MAY 21, 1969, was a good day for a ride, the air clear, spring in blossom. John Mroczka started up his Triumph motorcycle and drove around the winding open roads of Connecticut’s Middlesex County. Mroczka, a tool-and-die maker, had eight hours or so before the midnight shift at the local Pratt & Whitney jet-engine plant. Three weeks earlier he had returned home from a two-year tour in Vietnam. Mroczka was a local boy, still single at twenty-two. He had no political views to speak of. His own passions involved his Triumph and his fishing rod.
Mroczka swept on his Triumph along the quiet roads of Middlefield. He passed Route 157 near his favorite fishing spot. It was off a deserted stretch of country road, beneath a tiny bridge overlooking the Coginchaug River. The state stocked that spot with trout each year. Mroczka decided to check if the trout had arrived.
He parked his Triumph and crossed the street. Before he got to the bridge, he spotted what looked like a mannequin half submerged in the river.
He walked over to inspect it. The mouth was open; flies buzzed around the body.
This was no mannequin. This was a corpse.
He noticed rope around the corpse’s wrists. HThe scarecrow-like figure had on a jacket, blue striped trousers, a green shirt, no shoes.
Mroczka ran back to his Triumph. He rode to a deli up the road. It was between 4:30 and 5 P.M. His face white with shock, he told the woman behind the counter about the body. The state police were called. State Trooper William Leonard was the first to show up at the deli. Mroczka got back on the Triumph to lead him to the fishing spot.
Waiting around for the coroner to arrive and declare the body dead — this would take hours — Mroczka had to repeat his story, word for word, six different times, to different troopers.
In between he heard them speculating about the victim. The victim had blue pants on. Some thought he was an escapee from the prison in Haddam.
Then the coroner arrived. “He has a bullet hole in his ear,” one of the troopers reported to the group. “There’s another one in his chest.”
After the coroner made his official declaration of death, the cops found a handwritten note inside a pocket of the jacket draped around the body. The note was addressed to “Chairman Bobby.”
“Someone called from Oregon,” the note read. “There have been bombings at the University of Oregon. Called to your mother’s house. They said it would be best if you did not come to Oregon at all. There have been threats to murder you. The brother in Oregon, who is head of the Party there, says there have been bombings, but they have calmed down. No danger . . .”
The note was signed, “Ericka.”
National Panther chairman Bobby Seale had been in the news earlier in the week when he delivered a fiery speech on Yale University’s campus in New Haven. He had left town early Tuesday morning, just before the Oregon call came in to Warren Kimbro’s apartment. Ericka Huggins dispatched some Panthers to the airport with the note, but they arrived too late to deliver it to Seale.
Around 8 P.M., Steve Ahern, chief of detectives of New Haven’s police department, received a call at his home about a “male Negro body” found in Middlesex Country, shot in the head. He returned right to work at police headquarters, a block east of the city’s seventeenth-century Green. Ahern, the head of the detectives, brother of the chief, as well as the mastermind of the department’s illegal wiretapping operation, knew he’d be working through the night.
A call followed from a state cop at Middlesex Hospital with the news about the “Chairman Bobby” note. Ahern ordered his men to call in street informants. Soon he was in a room in the first-floor detective bureau with Nick Pastore and Sergeant Vincent DeRosa, talking with a woman whose information had helped them make successful busts in the past. The woman was close to the Panthers, including Warren Kimbro. She told the cops about the torture of a “Brother Alex” at the apartment. She described a trial tape-recorded in the presence of Warren and Ericka and some tough guy named “Sam.”
Around 9 o’clock, the FBI arrived with fingerprints of the victim. They matched the prints of an Alex Rackley who had a record of two minor arrests in Florida. Ahern called cops in Florida and confirmed the prints.
Police in Bridgeport, a twenty-five-minute drive west, rounded up a woman named Frances Carter and brought her to New Haven. She identified herself as secretary of the New Haven chapter. She admitted she had seen the torture victim held at Warren Kimbro’s apartment.
Steve Ahern shoved a color Polaroid of Alex Rackley’s devastated corpse under Carter’s nose. “Isn’t that the man?!” he yelled from close range. “Isn’t that the man?”
Yes, it was. She talked until midnight. She would remember being badgered by ten to twenty cops at a time hovering over her. “Everybody’s dead!” they told her. Instantly she flashed on her sister Peggy and Peggy’s kids. “Where’s Peggy? What did you do with Peggy? I’ve got to have a phone. I got to call Peggy!”
The interrogation proceeded with threats of her ending up in an electric chair. Sweating, her head pounding, Carter passed out. Right before losing consciousness, she remembers the one policewoman in the room whispering to her, “Peggy’s fine.”
MEANWHILE, NICK PASTORE was collecting details from his own informants — the location of the guns and the identities of the Panthers the cops might find at Warren’s apartment when, as it now appeared likely, they would bust through the door.
As the police planned a raid on Warren’s Ethan Gardens apartment, the party went on with its business. Warren arranged for the purchase of three snub-nosed .38s from a black-market dealer working inside the Colt factory in Hartford. He gave Lonnie McLucas $105, the keys to his Mustang, and the directions, and then sent him off to collect the guns.
Midnight approached, the raid set. Steve Ahern gathered his detectives to discuss the details. He assigned some to arrest the people downstairs and others to go upstairs. Female officers would handle the women. Nick would head to the basement; he knew that Alex Rackley’s torture had taken place there; he would look for rope and other evidence to tie the apartment to the Rackley torture and therefore the murder.
“There are children in there,” Ahern told the officers. So be careful. No shots if they could help it.
IT WAS AN early night for the Panthers. By 12:30 a.m., most of the household was asleep. The women scattered around the living room; a handful held babies. Warren lay on the floor beside a rifle. His young son, Germano, and daughter, Veronica, shared a bed in Germano’s room.
A crash shattered the dark stillness. Down fell the front door. Sergeant DeRosa would later claim that he did knock first. If he did, no one heard him. Apparently DeRosa hadn’t known the front door was unlocked.
Swarming in, officers moved in every direction, stepping over the women on pallets. They overturned flour bins and ransacked the premises.
“You’re all under arrest!” Steve Ahern announced.
Warren awoke to a snub-nosed .38 in his face wielded by DeRosa. The gun shook in DeRosa’s hand; he had the hammer of the gun cocked. “Don’t move!” he barked.
Beside him, Detective Billy White lunged for Warren’s rifle. Billy White and Warren had known each other for years. They once worked together in a New Haven antipoverty program, and Warren had also coached White’s younger brother in little league football. They’d always gotten along. Like many others in New Haven, White couldn’t understand the radical turn Warren’s life had taken, but he still liked him.
“Warren,” White told him, “you’re under arrest.” White was too young to panic or to worry about retaliation. He wasn’t angry, especially not at Warren. This was business. Warren did what Warren had to do. White did what he had to do.
“Black Power!” Warren called out. He followed revolutionary protocol: Never give the pigs the satisfaction of knowing that you’re scared.
One officer went straight upstairs to Warren’s bedroom. He quickly returned downstairs announcing that he’d found the murder weapon. Warren was surprised because he had been sure George Sams had taken the gun with him. He had no idea it was still in the house. Yet the police seemed to know exactly where to look.
Warren’s wife, Sylvia, had emerged from the shower, about to get ready for work the next morning at her job at a drug treatment center, when a black cop stormed up the stairs and pointed his gun at her. Sylvia recognized him; she was his son’s godmother. The officer instantly recognized the only partially dressed Sylvia. He turned away, embarrassed. … A female officer came up the stairs and placed Panther-hating Sylvia under arrest. Unlike Warren, Sylvia was not scared. She was humiliated. The cop watched her get dressed. Then she escorted Sylvia out the door to the police station.
Germano and Veronica awoke to lights flashing in their eyes. Germano instinctively rolled onto his sister. They stared at gun barrels. There was talk of searching them. Then Germano and Veronica heard someone say, “These are just kids.”
The kids were shepherded downstairs. Germano and Veronica saw their dad handcuffed behind his back, his face toward the floor, a lit cigarette in his mouth. The smoke swirled into his eyes.
“Can you loosen the handcuffs? They’re too tight,” the kids heard Warren ask his tormentors.
“The handcuffs are too tight!” Veronica piped up. “The smoke is in his eyes.”
Germano wondered: Where is the shoot-out? He had heard tales of Panther-cop shoot-outs in other cities. Friends in Ethan Gardens showed him where their family cut holes in the wall of their apartment to climb up to a skylight; there the parents kept a lookout and a cache of guns in case the cops came. Now the real confrontation was happening, and it was one sided.
Germano and Veronica were ushered outside into a squad car. They were taken four blocks north to Sylvia’s mother’s house on Dickerman Street.
Back at Ethan Gardens, everyone was rounded up. Investigators stayed another four hours digging for every shred of evidence. They’d return over the next few days. The inside of the three-floor apartment, part of a ballyhooed government-financed experiment in mixed-income housing, was reduced practically to rubble, with walls torn apart, furniture upended, household items thrown around the floor.
ON COURT STREET Warren was in the fire department headquarters, where the police intelligence division had a third-floor lockup for interrogating prisoners
Warren was shuttled into one of the cages in the lockup. He was ordered to strip. His new uniform consisted of a baggy shirt, damp oversized khaki pants, too-small sneakers. They took fingerprints and fingernail scrapings.
A friendly voice broke through the corridor.
“Hey, give Warren a cigarette! I know Warren from St. John’s. He’s a nice guy.”
It was Nick Pastore. Nick approached the door of Warren’s cage.
“Warren,” Nick told him, “we know you did the shooting.”
“I know nothing,” Warren retorted. He thought to himself: Could they really know that already?
Burial Of A Footnote
ALEX RACKLEY WAS BORN in Jacksonville on June 2, 1949. He was the first of eight children fathered by a variety of men. His mother, Parlee, was a strong woman — large and outspoken. She set boundaries and disciplined her children — when she was around. A cook, she sometimes worked at an exclusive Jacksonville club. The job just as often took her north, where she cooked for rich people for months at a time or longer. Those northern jobs paid more, plus Parlee enjoyed the travel. She left her parents, Isaac and Rosalie, in charge of the children and sent money home as often as she could.
Alex grew up on a crowded block surrounded by poultry plants, slaughterhouses, and a dog pound. The neighborhood, known as Mixontown, may have smelled like dead chickens, but the people had jobs. Grandfather Isaac raised chickens; the Rackleys ate a lot of chicken. Twenty or more Rackleys at a time shared the three-bedroom house on Watts Street — brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents bumping into each other all day, sleeping in bunk beds.
With such a crowded house, the Rackley kids tended to spend time outdoors. Alex and other kids on the block would play stickball, football, marbles. Alex liked sports, liked dancing and music, though he wasn’t a standout in any of these pursuits. While not particularly interested in school, he did love clothes. Hoping to become a tailor, he enrolled in Stanton Vocational after junior high, but he dropped out before very long. He sometimes had luck at dice, which once helped pay for a double-breasted suit. What would later become known as the “Superfly” look was coming in, and Alex took to it. He parted his Afro on the side. He had his two front teeth capped; he’d chipped them in elementary school when Freddie, the brother closest to him in age, accidentally tripped him on the way home.
Alex took up karate at seventeen and became a black belt. Karate came in handy. One day, with no key, Alex found he could knock down a locked door at his house. And though he wasn’t known for starting fights, he got into his share of neighborhood scraps; he wanted to look out for himself and his younger siblings. He looked out for Parlee, too. Despite her long absences, he and his mother were close. One time Parlee’s boyfriend appeared ready to strike her. Alex jumped him first and prevented him from attacking. Alex was muscular, around six-one, 175 pounds.
Still, he didn’t leave much of a mark beyond his own block. When the FBI tried to track down information on him, they found little. The FBI noted that he had brown hair and eyes, a scar over his left eyebrow, and two misdemeanor arrests on his record, both in the first part of 1968, one for “vagrancy and loitering” on Jacksonville Beach and another for “disorderly conduct — gambling.” Alex bounced around jobs. He pumped gas for a while, working the night shift. One night his younger brother Wayne heard him come home and ask Parlee for a gun; people kept rob- bing him at the station, and he was fed up with it.
In 1968, Alex turned nineteen. Parlee was up in New York cooking. He headed north to join his mom, since nothing much was developing for him in Jacksonville. And that was about all the family ever heard from him again. He sent one snapshot home of himself in his new Superfly duds. No hint of politics, no talk of revolution.
Drinking and using drugs, jobless, homeless, Alex walked around New York City barefoot after staying briefly with Parlee. He stumbled onto the Panthers through friends he knew from Jacksonville. He started crashing at communal Panther pads. He hung around Panther headquarters in New York, always eager to help. He sold Panther newspapers. He attended political education classes; inevitably, he’d fail the exams. “Listen, brother,” ranking Panthers told him. “You need more political education.” Rackley’s claim to a black belt was perhaps his only distinction. As the chapter’s “karate instructor,” he taught martial arts to other Panthers at the Panther office in Harlem. He struck New York Panthers like Shirley Wolterding as “unsophisticated, like a baby, a child . . . very, very naïve . . . almost like an eager puppy.” Gene Roberts, an undercover cop posing as a chapter member, learned little about Rackley during Rackley’s time in New York; Rackley said nothing about his past except to claim, falsely, that he’d been a member of the notorious Blackstone Rangers street gang in Chicago. Roberts figured Rackley for a hanger-on, a non-entity in the Panther universe. Rackley’s marginality left him as something of a mystery. EVERYBODY DISTRUSTED EVERYONE else in Panther chapters. Anyone might be a spy, and few seemed totally trustworthy. The FBI and the New York police red squad relied on two kinds of helpers. The first kind were their own spies, posing as real Panthers. The second kind were loyal Panthers whom the FBI had “bad-jacketed” by inserting false rumors of disloyalty.
Like everyone else, Rackley could with equal credibility have been either or neither of these in the eyes of his comrades. And like practically everyone else, he was wondered about when he wasn’t around, though not, apparently, more than anyone else.
On March 11, in a conversation secretly recorded by a police infiltrator, one member expressed doubts about Rackley’s party loyalty. As was so often true of the heavily infiltrated party, it is impossible to know which speakers were genuine Panthers and which were agents provocateurs charged with creating suspicion.
That paranoia was ratcheted even higher after an April 1 police bust. Twenty-one New York Panthers were arrested on charges of having planned to blow up department stores and landmarks like the Botanical Garden and the Statue of Liberty. It would never become clear, even at trial, if such a plan ever really existed, or if it had, whether it came from the imaginations of undercover law enforcement seeking to incite law-breaking by the Panthers.
The top priority in the Black Panther Party increasingly became weeding out informers. The party’s national office sent leaders of its military wing to the East Coast to investigate and instill discipline. The heavies, including enforcers Landon Williams and George Sams, took control. Sams called himself “Crazy George” and “Nigger George.” He had been in fights and trouble with the law since his childhood bouncing around foster homes and mental hospitals in the South, then New York City and Michigan. The Panthers once kicked him out of the party for stabbing another Panther; party leaders reinstated him only when nationalist leader Stokely Carmichael, whom Sams served as a bodyguard, intervened on his behalf. Sams was known in Panther circles around the country as the wild man who swung into town and made threats, beat people, harassed women, and left internecine fights in his wake. He kept two or three pistols inside his brown trench coat; he clattered when he walked. He bounced with nervous energy, always moving, twitching, glaring at people as though daring them to challenge him.
Sams particularly seemed to enjoy meting out discipline in the Harlem office that April. One time Alex Rackley walked into the office with his hair braided. Sams exploded: Rackley was guilty of “disrespecting the people.” Hair braiding, apparently, constituted “cultural nationalism.”
Besides, Sams declared, Rackley looked like a pickaninny. Sams beat Rackley on the spot. Then he ordered him to run around the block.
Rackley hung on; he had nowhere else to go. On Saturday, May 17, he begged Sams — on his knees, his hands clasped in prayer — and the other leaders to allow him to accompany them on a trip to New Haven.
“Please, sister,” he begged one of the local chapter officers, Rose Mary Byrd. “Please let me go.”
Rackley won a seat in one of the two cars to New Haven. Once there, he hung out with the crowd, while leaders met privately to plan discipline as well as the appearance in town, two days later, of Bobby Seale. FROM THE MOMENT they arrived at local Panther headquarters at Ethan Gardens in New Haven, the visiting leaders, Landon Williams and George Sams, whispered to Warren Kimbro and Ericka Huggins about Alex Rackley. They told Warren and Ericka to watch Alex Rackley: he might be a spy.
Rackley’s identity may have been confused with that of Alex McKiever, one of the Panthers indicted in the New York bombing-conspiracy case. That Alex, former president of the Afro-American History Club at New York’s Benjamin Franklin High School, fled the country before the police could arrest him. The Panthers suspected him of being a police agent. And, for some reason, one leader decided that Alex McKiever and Alex Rackley must be the same person.
In reality, the Alexes occupied different echelons in Pantherdom; McKiever served on New York’s elite security team before the bust and was responsible for the safety of high-ranking Panthers visiting town. He was close to Eldridge Cleaver.
Alex Rackley into the Orchard Street apartment, eager, as usual, to help. He and Warren rolled up posters for the upcoming Bobby Seale event. Mean- while, George Sams and Landon Williams took charge. Sams called Warren and Ericka to the side and issued an order: one of the women should seduce Rackley, then determine if he was an informer. The assignment went to fifteen-year-old Maude Francis. Sams handed Francis a speed pill to stay awake. Rackley willingly succumbed to the girl’s entreaties.
In the aftermath, Francis popped the question. No, Rackley told her, he was no spy. WHETHER OR NOT Maude Francis believed Alex Rackley’s answer about not being a spy, suspicion in the house remained strong. Sams would claim years later that even he didn’t believe Alex Rackley was a spy. But his job was to find out for sure.
One Sunday morning, Ericka came downstairs to find Rackley dozing on the couch in the living room. Ericka was a commanding presence in the Panther apartment, a natural leader. She walked tall and spoke with confidence. Beneath her sometimes hippie-sounding, idealistic patter burned a ferocity that flashed bright and hard whenever she perceived a threat. Dozing Alex looked like a threat—to revolutionary comportment, perhaps. Wake up! Ericka demanded. She threw a book at him. The thud of Selected Military Writings by Mao Tse-tung startled Rackley awake.
Ordered to read, Rackley raised the book — upside down. He scanned the letters.
Rackley told Ericka that he couldn’t read, and then proceeded to say how he wished he could read, how he wished the Panthers in New York had given him more help. Enraged, Ericka lectured Rackley that he should have asked the sisters.
Warren was coming downstairs with George Sams. They’d heard the last exchange.
“If you can’t read,” Sams asked Rackley, “what are you doing with the military works of Mao?”
“Stand up!” Sams barked. He accused Rackley of lying.
Sams directed someone to get the “Panther stick.” The “stick” was a fraternity hazing paddle Warren had picked up. People called it the “Panther stick,” and until now it had been merely a decorative threat.
Rackley tried to resist. He lunged at Sams, kicked Warren, kicked Ericka. Blood spurted from Rackley’s head from the paddling.
Sams informed Rackley that he was hereby expelled from the Black Panther Party for “lying to the sister.” He was not to show his face at any other chapter offices, either. Where did he want to go now?
Call the bus station, Sams ordered Warren. Find out what it costs to get there.
Warren called. Sams put out money for Rackley. Rackley left the apartment — and remained right outside, sitting. He returned, said he needed his coat. He couldn’t find the coat. Everyone started looking for the coat. No one could find the coat.
Hmmm, maybe Rackley had no coat. Anyone remember Brother Alex coming in with a coat?
“Brother,” George Sams said, “I don’t really think you want to leave. And I think you are the pig.” SAMS ORDERED RACKLEY, Warren, and Lonnie McLucas into the basement. Warren had never finished the basement since moving into Ethan Gardens. The walls were mostly concrete; one had partial sheetrock. Incandescent lights on the ceiling illuminated a concrete floor bare except for boxes and a combination desk-chair low to the ground. Warren had originally planned for his kids to use the desk for their homework.
The group fashioned a noose around Rackley’s neck and threw it over a joist; McLucas held the rope and told Rackley to read. Again he insisted that he could not read.
“Brother,” declared Sams, “this calls for more discipline.” Warren and the others took turns whacking at Rackley with the Panther stick.
Then they stood Rackley’s limp body, paddled a good fifteen times on the buttocks alone, back up. The order resumed: Read! Desperate, Rackley muttered words. It sounded as if it might have been reading, or it might have been a mixture of recognized written syllables with remembered recitations of cant.
To Sams, it was proof of perfidy. Clearly, Rackley could read. “We are going to tie him up and get some information from the brother.”
Rackley landed in the desk-chair. Warren and the others bound Rackley to the chair by his arms and legs and around the waist.
“Get some hot water,” Sams directed. Upstairs, women started boiling water. Meanwhile, Sams ordered Warren to gag Rackley with a towel. When the water boiled, Panthers brought it downstairs. Sams poured the boiling water over Rackley’s back, over his shoulders. First one pot, then a second. Then a third. Then a fourth.
OK, Rackley cried through the towel gagging his mouth, his head bobbing, OK! He was ready to talk.
Upstairs, Warren’s children, Germano and Veronica, saw people carrying the pots of water downstairs. The kids could hear the cracks of beatings. They heard Alex Rackley’s pitiful screams. Veronica’s stomach twisted. Germano tried to peek down the stairs, figure out who was doing what to whom. “We need to get these kids out of here,” he heard someone say. Sylvia took them away.
In the basement, Sams once again poured the boiling water over Rackley’s back and shoulders.
A TAPE RECORDER was brought into the room. A party member who worked at the phone company had donated it to the party. The proceedings would be preserved as evidence for party officials. Ericka was called downstairs.
In spite of any misgivings, Ericka and Warren soon glided into the roles as interrogators.
“Ericka Huggins,” she announced, “member of the New Haven Chapter Black Panther Party, political education instructor. On May 17th at approximately 10 o’clock, Brother Alex from New York was sleeping in the office, that is, a house that we use as an office, and I kicked him and said, ‘Motherfucker, wake up, because we don’t sleep in the office and we relate to reading or getting out!’
“And so Brother Alex picked up a book, Selected Military Writings of Mao Tse-tung, and began to read. I was talking to Brother George and Warren, and George looked over at Alex and said, ‘Brother, I thought you couldn’t read. You told me you couldn’t read before? What you reading?’ And so the brother said, ‘I can’t read.’. . .”
“So then the brother got some discipline, you know, in the areas of the nose and mouth, and the brother began to show cowardly tendencies, began to whimper and moan.”
Ericka related for the record how the Panthers had started posing questions “with a little coercive force,” how “the answers came after a few buckets of water.” So they had their proof: “He is an informer. Oh, he knows all the informers.”
“Name names, nigger!” Warren barked, after Ericka completed her introduction. Warren continued for a bit, then deferred to George Sams.
Sams demanded that he name “pigs” infiltrating the New York party. Rackley started singing for his life, a disjointed melody of all the names and settings he could summon from his memory.
At the merciful end of Rackley’s travail, Sams, Warren, Lonnie McLucas, Ericka, and the rest of the girls and young women followed Rackley upstairs to the second floor. He had a cold shower. The women cleaned Rackley’s wounds, covered them with bandages. He was bleeding, battered, scarred from his head all down his body. Second-degree burns covered his chest and thighs. For days, members rotated on duty guarding Rackley as he lay wallowing in his waste in Veronica’s bedroom.
“The New Haven Police Department had received information that members of the New Haven Black Panther party had kidnapped a New York Panther and were holding him in the Orchard Street apartment of Warren Kimbro that was functioning as party headquarters,” Ahern would claim in his 1972 book, Police in Trouble. “We did not have enough information to make arrests, but we had the apartment under surveillance.” … ALEX RACKLEY’S MURDER made the New York Times. It didn’t make either daily newspaper in his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. A couple of days later the papers did run a one-paragraph death notice. It mentioned merely that he “passed in Middletown, Connecticut” (close enough—one town over from Middlefield) and (falsely) that he “had been living in Middletown for the past two years.”
Parlee Rackley, who had returned to Jacksonville from New York, learned the news from the police. The Black Panthers? Since when was her son involved with the Black Panthers?
Freddie was the closest to Alex in age. It hurt him to watch his mother grieve, to see her cry, so much that he stayed away from the funeral. He and his siblings would remember the family having to wait two weeks to bury Alex; they were told that the authorities sent the wrong body the first time.
Wayne, born three years after Alex, and Velva, ten years Alex’s junior, accompanied Parlee to the funeral. The event drew a sparse crowd. Wayne would remember no one crying except Parlee and her children. He cried because his mother cried.