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When Huey Newton inspired the Polynesian Panthers of New Zealand who stood up to racism

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Huey Percy Newton was a revolutionary African-American political activist who did his best to correct what was described as the ills of the American society at the time and fought for the end of the oppression of people of color in the country. He and fellow student Bobby Seale formed the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in 1966 to fight police brutality against the black community in Oakland.
The party took on a militant stance coupled with the burgeoning pride associated with the black power movement. The Panther Party became infamous for brandishing guns, challenging the authority of police officers, and embracing violence as a necessary by-product of revolution. The Panthers were not just about being menacing, however, as the group introduced a series of goals such as fighting for better housing, jobs and education for African-Americans. These plans were laid out in the Panther Party’s “Ten-Point Program.

Six young New Zealand-born Pacific Islanders were inspired by the works of Newton and his party and in 1971, they created The Polynesian Panther Party (PPP). The PPP was a revolutionary social justice movement formed to fight racial inequalities carried out against indigenous Māori and Pacific Islanders in Auckland and New Zealand as a whole.

Pacific Islanders is a term used to describe the Indigenous peoples of Oceania (Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia). During the 1950s when New Zealand’s economy was not in good shape and needed workers, thousands of Pacific Islanders arrived. Over time, the color of the population changed in inner-city Auckland. The city was no longer all-White and this bothered people and authorities. Soon, Pacific Islanders faced issues such as racial profiling, redlining, disproportionate incarceration, and segregation in the sports world, according to this report.

Six young Maori and Pacific Islander men, namely, Fred Schmidt, Nooroa Teavae, Paul Dapp, Vaughan Sanft, Eddie Williams and Will ‘Ilolahia took notice of what was happening and founded the PPP on June 16, 1971, inspired by the American Black Panthers. The group was specifically inspired by the book Seize the Time by Bobby Seale of the American Black Panther movement. According to Stuff, the book’s central philosophy guided the PPP’s three-point platform — peaceful resistance, Pacific empowerment (identity work) and educating New Zealand about systemic racism.

“Initially it was the literature of the Black Panther Party in America that we got attracted to – the work they were doing in America, and when we read the books deeper we found out that the problems they were complaining about were the exact problems that we were seeing in New Zealand, so we decided to do something constructive and formed the Polynesian Panther Party,” Will ‘Ilolahia, who was the party chairman, said

With their black uniform and berets adopted from their peers in the United States, they seemed to be a threat to the White middle-class in New Zealand, however, their movement centered on community work, as stated by The PPP set up its headquarters in Ponsonby, a suburb of Auckland, and started to implement its program through community organizing and direct action.

“What was it all about being a Polynesian Panther? Standing up on behalf of our people, being good to your neighbour, don’t take no s… and stop this racism,” ‘Ilolahia was quoted by Stuff.

Indeed, acts of community care by Newton and his Panthers in the U.S. served as an inspiration to the Polynesian Panthers movement to serve the Polynesian community through grassroots community initiatives and of course protest of injustices. Some of its activities included youth programs intended to inspire community initiative and discourage gang integration, prison-visit programs, homework centres and tutoring for Pacific children, and free meal programs and food banks for families.

The PPP also kept aggressive police force accountable and organized legal aid for those unjustly evicted or fired or people who have lost their visas or under threat of deportation. All in all, it led programs that educated Māori and Pacific Islanders on their rights as New Zealand citizens. Within a few years, the PPP which was made up of former gang members, revolutionaries, university students and radicals expanded nationally with 13 chapters including its chapters in prisons and in South Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin.

Dawn raids

From the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, special police squads conducted raids on the homes and workplaces of Pasifika overstayers throughout New Zealand usually at dawn. Over-stayers of Pacific Islander heritage were disproportionately targeted in these raids even though the majority of people overstaying were from the UK, Australia and South Africa, per this report.

In response, the Panthers organized “counter raids” outside the homes of government ministers, chanting around their homes with megaphones.The PPP’s actions helped to stop the dawn raids and the group even went on to successfully campaign for a state apology.

The Polynesian Panthers may not be very much alive today in New Zealand but their legacy as liberators can still be felt.


Remembering a Panther


The last time I saw former Black Panther, incarcerated activist and poet, Wopashitwe Mondo Eyen we Langa, he asked me a question I didn’t fully understand. “Here’s a riddle for you,” he began, gap-toothed and grinning from his hospice bed. “If the speed of light is 186,000 miles per second and there are 5,180 feet in a mile and if the speed of sound is 1,100 feet per second, how long would it take you to see that you’ve heard something?”

It was the early afternoon of Super Bowl Sunday 2016, a few hours before Beyonce and her back-up dancers would take the field in Black Panther-inspired berets. I remember shrugging at Mondo’s question, bemused and a little frustrated. He’d posed the question to me before in postscript. “Wasn’t that fun?” he wrote in tight, minuscule cursive at the end of the first letter he sent me, his reply to my letter of introduction. I wasn’t the only one he’d put the question to. Mondo loved riddles and he recycled his repertoire shamelessly.

But what began as a nonsensical combination of stats morphed into a poignant and surprisingly simple sentiment, one that now seems impossible to have missed. How long would it take you to see that you’ve heard something? James Baldwin once wrote: “The poet or the revolutionary is there to articulate the necessity, but until the people themselves apprehend it, nothing can happen.” During the short time I knew Mondo we talked a lot about art and responsibility. He wrote his first poem in high school, at a point in his life when he was becoming interested in social justice, but was still a few years away from becoming a Panther, from being radicalized.

I met Mondo during the final year and a half of his life, visiting him in the Nebraska State Penitentiary. At the time of his death on March 11th, 2016, just over four years ago today, he had served 45 years in prison. I wrote about his case while a graduate student at the University of Iowa. Formerly known as David Rice, Mondo changed his name in the early 80s, an attempt to reclaim his African identity.

In 1971, he and his co-defendant Edward Poindexter were sentenced to life in prison for the murder of an Omaha policeman. The officer, Larry Minard, died when a suitcase bomb exploded in a North Omaha home on August 17, 1970. Minard was responding to a phony report that a woman was being assaulted inside a vacant home. At the time, Ed and Mondo were leaders in the Omaha chapter of the Black Panther Party. The two were arrested after a 15-year-old former member implicated Ed and Mondo as the brains behind the bomb plot, though he initially confessed to planting the bomb and placing the phony 911 call alone.

Eight years after the trial, an FBI memo surfaced showing cooperation between police and FBI in suppressing the audio of the phony 911 call as evidence that might have demonstrated Mondo and Ed’s innocence. Court documents also reveal that Omaha police had been monitoring Mondo and Ed for two years prior to the murder.

Though Amnesty International called for Mondo and Ed to have a new trial or be released, their case received little national attention. Omaha, too, has mostly forgotten them, forgotten that the Panther story extends beyond Oakland and Chicago. And yet the issue that prompted the formation of the Omaha Chapter of the Black Panther Party – police brutality – is very much alive and in the national consciousness.

At the same time, the Panthers called for much more than an end to police brutality. They advocated for quality education, quality medical care, decent housing, exemption from military service, and a general anti-capitalist restructuring of society.

To borrow from Steve Wasserman, if we focus on the stories of the “supernovas” of the party, if we repeat the Oakland-centered narrative, we risk overshadowing the lesser-known stories of Panthers like Mondo and Ed. We forget that the BPP grew from an Oakland-based organization to a national party with chapters in almost every major city in the U.S. Like many others, the Omaha chapter addressed poverty and inequality at the local level, going beyond activism for self-defense. Mondo and Ed started a free breakfast program for schoolchildren and ran the Vivian Strong Liberation School, named after one of four unarmed Omaha teenagers killed by police in 1969.

How long would it take you to see that you heard something?

As I left the prison that afternoon, I realized that Mondo’s words could be read as a commentary on his own political trajectory, both a validation of and a condemnation of his own movement from apprehension to articulation. I say condemnation because, in Mondo’s eyes, he too long lived the straight and narrow. Mondo laughed, for instance, about his first foray into activism. As an eighteen-year-old — and still very much the good Catholic boy– he was part of a delegation of Omaha teenagers who met with Nebraska Governor Frank Morrison seeking his support for a bill prohibiting the sale of obscene literature to minors.

In 1966 (his senior year) Mondo was one of six black students at Creighton Prep and on the verge of realizing, after attending homecoming with his white girlfriend and earning the ire of teachers and peers, that he wasn’t just one of the boys. A class clown, he never lost his sense of humor, or resisted repeating a good pun, but that year the middle-class boy who played football and promoted sock hops and speech meets as a member of the Poster Club began to funnel his energies into more heady pursuits: into organizing, into writing. He ran a poetry group as a young man in his early twenties. On Saturdays he and five others would meet at a coffee-shop. There they would discuss Beat poetry and write in books with blank pages. Sometimes Mondo and a friend would get to ab-libbing poetry back and forth, neither wanting to be the first to pause, stumped. “If we’d start to lose momentum, to get it back, he would shout ‘while wallowing in the depths of poverty’ and then I’d jump in and that would get it started again,” Mondo told me, laughing as he recalled his friend’s go-to line. One of Mondo’s best early poems is an elegy for Vivian Strong.

The ideology of the Black Panther Party articulated something for Mondo that he had always felt, but hadn’t yet learned the language to express. How long does it take you to see that you’ve heard something? Seeing was linking lived experience to discourse. Hearing precedes sight. Mondo was politically engaged until the end, sharp even in sickness.

The late 1960s and early 70s saw a surge in politically-driven poetry that challenged complacency within unjust systems. The BPP’s national newsletter regularly published poetry. It was common for Panthers to perform poems at meetings or functions, spitting out bold, revolutionary sentiments, their gymnastic wordplay prefiguring hip hop and modern rap. “Poems are bullshit,” Amiri Baraka wrote, “unless they are teeth.”

Two weeks before his death, Mondo mailed out a copy of what would be his final poem, called “When It Gets To This Point.” It begins:

Michael Brown?
I had never heard of him
had never heard of anything he’d done
before the news of his death came
whoever he might have become
whatever he might have achieved
had he lived longer
not been riddled lifeless by
bullets from Darren Wilson’s gun
and crumpled on the pavement of a ferguson street
for more than four hours in
the heat of that august day
and before
I’d never known of Trayvon Martin
had known nothing of who he was
until I learned of his demise
and cause of death
a bullet to the chest
George Zimmerman, the shooter
a badge-less, pretend police
with a pistol
and fear of the darkness
Trayvon’s darkness
and after a while
the pictures, the names,
the circumstances
run together
like so much colored laundry in the wash
that bleeds on whites
was it Eric Garner or Tamir Rice
who was twelve but seen as twenty
Hulk Hogan or The Hulk
with demonic eyes it was said
who shrank the cop in ferguson
into a five-year-old who
had to shoot
and John Crawford the third
in a walmart store aisle
an air rifle in his hands he’d picked up
from the shelf
and held in the open
in an open-carry state
was it John or someone else
killed supposedly by mistake
in a dark stairwell
I know Akai Gurley fell
I hadn’t heard of him before
nor of Amadou Diallo or Sean Bell
prior to their killings
which of these two took slugs in the greater number
I don’t recall
my memory is too encumbered
with the names
of so many before and since

Much of Mondo’s poetry critiqued police power within the U.S. But, like the Panthers, his scope was broad. Like the Panthers, he called for the internationalization of black struggle and aligned himself with third world liberation movements. Many of his poems have a Pan-African and anti-imperialist bent.

In “I Don’t Step in the Water,” the final poem in his 2012 collection, The Black Panther is an African Cat, Mondo writes:

There is a place
between the building I’m caged in
and the one where the slop is served
where when it rains
two puddles form
puddles that form a map
of Africa
I do not splash through
but walk around
out of respect.

Mondo’s ashes are now in Tanzania, where former Panther Pete O’Neal lives in exile with his wife, Charlotte, also a former Kansas City Panther. One of their students volunteered to carry Mondo’s ashes to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

At Mondo’s service, former inmates and friends shared their favorite memories, how he hated shoes and once during a meetings of Harambe, an African cultural organization for inmates, went without: barefoot, elfin, talking a mile a minute. For once the guards let him get away with it. When Mondo turned himself in he was wearing a dark t-shirt, beige pants, and sandals, the only footwear he could tolerate, a choice that seemed inappropriate given the gravity of his situation. The newspaper picture capturing the moment suddenly seemed retroactively funny.

There was anger, too. I learned that once he refused to wear socks to the cafeteria. This, in combination with an earlier offense (giving his meat to another inmate) led to a parole hearing being postponed for five years. Everyone who spoke talked about how productive he was, how he mentored younger inmates, taught classes in African history, how he still managed to contribute to society despite being incarcerated, how his poems would live. But I don’t know that I can get on board with such optimism. I would have preferred him to live. I would have preferred him to walk free, to have made it to Tanzania, alive.

Still, I like to picture Mondo at eighteen years old, the way he described himself and the way he looked in pictures: small for his age and hunched over on the carpet in his room, where he can stay for up to four or five hours alone. He’s scrawling furiously on a yellow pad. Like a singer overcome with the raw emotion behind his own song, he lets his eyes fill with tears. Then laughs, started at a turn of phrase. At his own turn of phrase. At his own ability to create.

Maybe part of the reason he’ll stick with his poetry is vanity, an unarticulated desire to differentiate himself from his peers through his ability to manipulate language. But a writer doesn’t realize he’s good at writing on the first try. There has to be something before that. It’s a compulsion. Something that has to be written. In Mondo’s case, call it a moral imperative.

Poetry as teeth.

Mondo was my subject, but in some ways he was also my friend. Or, more accurately, we were becoming friends at the time of his death, a death he denied, resenting the doctor’s diagnosis and anyone who spoke to him of his failing health. There were things we didn’t talk about. He regretted his white girlfriends. There were things I didn’t want to talk about, but he did. He could be homophobic. He could be long-winded. There were things we both wanted to talk about. He waxed philosophical about Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. He once wrote a song about how much he looked forward to his showers, a goofy ballad the guards in the infirmary knew well. He was too shy to sing it to me.

I wanted to write him out of there.

If innocent, Mondo, was, at the time of his death, among the longest-serving political prisoners in the U.S. Ed Poindexter is one of 16 former Black Panthers still behind bars. He is serving his 49th year in prison.


The History of Black Women Championing Demands for Reparations

But these measures do not seem to suffice: several activists and ordinary citizens are calling for financial reparations. Students of Georgetown University recently voted to pay a fee to finance a reparations fund to benefit the descendants of the 1838 sale of enslaved people owned by the Society of Jesus. The Democratic presidential candidates are routinely asked if they would support studies to provide financial reparations for slavery to African Americans. What is often missed is that these calls started long ago. Writers and readers also forget that Black women championed demands of reparations for slavery.

Belinda Sutton is among the first Black women to demand reparations for slavery in North America. Her owner, Isaac Royall Junior, fled North America in 1775, during the American Revolutionary War. He left behind his assets but his will included provisions to pay Belinda a pension for three years.

After Royall Junior’s death, we assume Sutton received the pension determined in his will. When three years passed, the payments stopped. Belinda petitioned the Massachusetts legislature and requested her pension continue. Emphasizing she lived in poverty and had contributed to the wealth of the Royalls, Sutton successfully obtained an annual pension. Belinda’s story is memorialized at the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford, Massachusetts.

Like today, the political context shaped these early demands for reparations and the responses petitioners received. Unlike other former slaves, Sutton’s odds to get restitutions were greater because her former owner was a British Loyalist. Moreover, he had already determined in his will to pay her a pension.

Freedwomen and their descendants continued fighting for reparations in later years. They knew more than anyone else the value of material resources because they lacked them. They were those providing hard work to maintain their households and to raise children and grandchildren.

Sojourner Truth also demanded reparations for slavery through land redistribution. Following the end of slavery, during Reconstruction, Truth argued that slaves helped to build the nation’s wealth and therefore should be compensated. In 1870, she circulated a petition requesting Congress to provide land to the “freed colored people in and about Washington” to allow them “to support themselves.” Yet, Truth’s efforts were not successful. US former slaves got no land or financial support after the end of slavery.

The context of the brutal end of Reconstruction that cut short the promises of equal access to education and voting rights for Black Americans favored the rise of calls for reparations. And once again Black women took the lead.

Ex-slave Callie House fought for reparations. A widow and a mother of five children, who worked as a washerwoman, she saw many former slaves old, sick, and unable to work to maintain themselves. House became one of the leaders of the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association that gathered dozens of thousands of former slaves to press the US Congress to pass legislation to award pensions to freedpeople.

Soon the federal government started accusing the association of using mail to lead a fraud scheme. Callie House responded that the association’s goal was to obtain redress for a historical wrong. She reminded federal authorities that former slaves were left with no resources and had the right to organize themselves to demand restitutions. She bravely denounced that government hostility against the pensions movement was motivated by racism.

In 1916, the Post Office Department charged Callie House for using the US mail to defraud. She spent one year in prison.

Black women had good reasons to fight for reparations. Until the 1920s, black women were deprived of voting rights. More than Black men, they were socially and economically excluded. With less access to education, even in an old age they were those running the households. To most former enslaved women, expectations of social mobility were impracticable. In contrast, pensions and land were tangible resources that could supply them with autonomy and possible social mobility.

Audley Eloise Moore from Louisiana also became an important reparations’ activist. Influenced by Marcus Garvey she became a prominent, Black nationalist, Pan-Africanist, and civil rights activist.

In 1962, Moore saw the approach of the one hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 as an occasion to discuss the legacies of slavery. To this end, she created the Reparations Committee for the Descendants of American Slaves (RCDAS) that filed a claim demanding reparations for slavery in a court of the state of California. She also authored a booklet underscoring that slaves provided dozens of years of unpaid work to slave owners. She emphasized the horrors of lynching, segregation, disfranchisement, raping, and police brutality. Yet, the litigation was not successful.

Moore defended payment of financial reparations to all African Americans and their descendants and that each individual and group should decide what to do with the funds. She contended that the unpaid work provided by enslaved Africans and their descendants led to the wealth accumulation that made the United States the richest “the richest country in the world.”

In later years, Moore continued participating in organizations defending reparations for slavery. In 1968, she joined the Republic of New Africa and later supported the efforts of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA). She made her last public appearance at her late nineties during the Million Man March held in Washington DC in October 1995, when she still called for reparations.

In 2002, Edward Fagan filled a class-action lawsuit in the name of Deadria Farmer-Paellmann and other persons in similar situations. An African American activist and lawyer, Farmer-Paellmann founded the Reparations Study Group. Fagan’s lawsuit requested a formal apology and financial reparations from three US companies that profited from slavery. Among these corporations was Aetna Insurance Company that held an insurance policy in the name of Abel Hines, Farmer-Paellman’s enslaved great-grandfather. Although the case was dismissed in 2004, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit later allowed the plaintiffs to engage in consumer protection claims exposing the companies named in the lawsuit for misleading their customers about their role in slavery.

Years marking commemorative dates associated with slavery favor the rise of demands of reparations. This year marks the fourth hundredth anniversary of the landing of the first enslaved Africans in Virginia. In addition, it’s also the kick off of the 2020 presidential campaign.

For Black groups and organizations that now fully engage in social media it’s time to renew calls for reparations that have been around for several decades. For potential presidential candidates, the debate on reparations is an opportunity to gain the Black vote.

But for Black women, no matter the commemorative and elections calendars, the fight for reparations is not a new opportunity, it is rather a long-lasting battle for social justice.