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Activist Elaine Brown: ‘You must be willing to die for what you believe in’

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Show caption ‘I’m bored by most people who call themselves activists’: Elaine Brown at home in Oakland. Behind her, portraits of (from left) Bobby Seale, John Huggins and Huey Newton. Photograph: Marissa Leshnov/The Observer Activism Activist Elaine Brown: ‘You must be willing to die for what you believe in’ Elaine Brown reveals how in 1974 she came to be the first and only woman to lead the Black Panther Party – and talks about revolution, resistance and activism today Michael Segalov Sun 27 Mar 2022 13.00 BST Share on Facebook

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Elaine Brown doesn’t waste time on small talk. Her stint as the first and only female leader of the Black Panther Party may be long in the past, but she remains a present-day revolutionary. It’s why, when she logs into Zoom to discuss her memoir, A Taste of Power – first published in the United States in the 1990s, only now reaching the United Kingdom – she doesn’t want to expend precious minutes on niceties or beating around the bush.

“The situation for Black people in America is largely the same as it was when the Black Panther Party was formed,” Brown explains, from her home in Oakland, California. “We have the highest incarceration and homeless rate; the lowest education and homeownership levels.” She paraphrases Dr Martin Luther King, turning to look at the portraits of her fellow Panthers hanging from the walls of her apartment: Black people in America have double of what is bad, and half of what is good.

The reason Elaine Brown doesn’t waste time is simple: there’s still far too much to be done. Having spent a lifetime fighting for the emancipation of Black people, now 79, she has no intention of slowing down.

“I can’t un-know what I know,” she says, of what has kept her motivated, her outlook unflinching. “I can’t stop seeing police killing Black people and our suffering.” She’s also not convinced that others would take her place should she wind down. While younger generations look to the global Black Lives Matter movement as a stride forward in anti-racist action, Brown is, to put it mildly, unimpressed.

“I find it all embarrassing,” Brown says. “I’m bored by most people who call themselves ‘activists’. So you had a little parade, and you’ve started a hashtag in the ether world? You painted a pavement, went home for a vegan meal, and called it a day?” Brown believes these movements are destined to flounder, devoid of analysis, concrete plans or objectives; that today’s young radicals have lost their way.

“It’s frustrating,” she says, “but doesn’t distract me.” Brown keeps her eyes on the prize. “When we joined the Black Panther Party, we surrendered our lives to the revolution. Today, people won’t make that sacrifice. That’s why I try to keep the revolutionary spirit of our struggle alive.”

Three Black women raised Brown in 1940s Philadelphia: her mother, Dorothy, alongside her grandmother and her aunt. “We lived in a segregated part of the city,” Brown explains, “and we had to go to the inferior Black schools; there were apartments and neighbourhoods that we couldn’t move into.” Not a day went by at home, Brown remembers, when there weren’t complaints about their treatment by somebody white. Dorothy would often proudly tell the same story; Brown still hears her mother’s voice when she recounts it now.

“She worked in a factory during the war,” says Brown. One day her supervisor – a young white man – told her to get to work, while a colleague was also resting. “My mother said, ‘I’ll get up when you tell that white girl to do the same.’” Accused of being insubordinate, Dorothy was suspended. “But my mother,” Brown says proudly, “held her ground. She went up to her supervisor and said: ‘Next time you see a coloured woman you’re going to remember Dorothy…’ And bam! She smacked him in the face just like that.”

Still fighting: at the age of 77, Elaine Brown speaks about the police killing of Oscar Grant in Oakland, 2020. Photograph: Media News Group/Getty Images

Back then, every Black American, her family included, was conscious of being treated as a second-class citizen. “I’m not sure there was a formed analysis of the situation, or solutions,” she says, “but they knew they were oppressed, they read Black magazines. The question that hadn’t been answered was: what now?”

These disparities became clearer once Brown began attending an experimental elementary school for ‘exceptional’ children, thanks to her mother’s determination. “These families – all white – had money,” she says, “and I knew we didn’t.” The first time she went to a school friend’s place for a playdate, a young Brown saw their refrigerator and carpets; this girl had her own bedroom. “I looked at what they had,” Brown says, “and what we didn’t, and decided I didn’t want to be Black.”

In the 1960s, during her early 20s, Brown headed to Los Angeles, hoping to make it as a singer-songwriter. “By the time I got there,” she says, “I didn’t think of myself as Black at all. People told me all the time, especially white people, that I wasn’t.” Her maternal grandmother had lighter skin. “ I loved that shit, and lapped it up.”

The problem was, Brown had no plan, or money, to make a start in the music business. “I did a lot of rough stuff, turning a few tricks,” Brown says of those early days, “before I met a rich white man, Jay Richard Kennedy, who brought me into his universe.” Kennedy, an author, screenwriter, composer – and close associate of Frank Sinatra – was married, and more than 30 years Brown’s senior, when their affair began.

On Kennedy’s dollar, Brown moved into an apartment in LA’s upmarket Westwood neighbourhood. “I was this kept girl with no ambitions,” Brown says, bluntly, “always waiting for him to come see me… and to divorce his wife.”

The year was 1965: a pivotal period in Black American history. That August saw the signing into law of the Voting Rights Act outlawing discriminatory voting practices common in southern states. In the same month, the Watts riots started, an infamous uprising against racist police brutality, in another corner of Los Angeles. “Jay would always talk about these things to me,” Brown remembers, “but I wasn’t interested. It didn’t affect me at all, at least that’s what I thought.”

Making a difference: with Huey Newton, in 1977. Photograph: Media News Group/Getty Images

One day, Brown found herself standing in her apartment building elevator, when another Black woman stepped in and joined her. Warmly, she asked Brown: “How you doing, sister?” Confused, Brown turned around. “She couldn’t be talking to me,” Brown thought, “I wasn’t a sister. But there were only two of us there.”

This woman had heard Brown practising piano. She ran a community project down in Watts; bored, Brown agreed to come and teach music to the kids.

“When we arrived at this housing project,” Brown says, “I started to get nervous.” It reminded her of the community she’d grown up in; a place Brown had tried to forget. “I was starting to remember where I was from,” Brown says, “and therefore who I was, which I didn’t like at all.”

Stepping inside, Brown was introduced to the girls she’d been tasked with tutoring. The revelation which followed, she is in no doubt, changed the course of her life.

The woman at the Party said, “This is the revolution, sister. Are you sure?”

“These smiling girls looked at me as if I was going to save them,” Brown says, still moved by the memory, more than half a century later. “But I had nothing to offer them.” There and then, everything clicked into place. “I looked at them and thought, piano lessons, what the hell? That’s not what you need, you need a whole other life: food, accommodation, education.” Brown knew this, she says, because she knew them. She was them. “It was the most transformative moment of my life,” Brown says. “I suddenly remembered everything. It killed me then, and it kills me now.” For Brown, there was no turning back.

She called Kennedy, and presented him with an ultimatum: “I told him he had to marry me and we’d move abroad,” she says, “or it was over. There was no way I could see what I’d just seen and stay in LA on our current terms.” Brown knew exactly what she had to do when he declined.

“From then,” she says, “I spent a whole year immersing myself in Black community activity.” She continued teaching; joined Black organisations; read any literature she could find. “And,” Brown smiles, “I also had to get a job, now I no longer had a sugar daddy. That was a drag.”

In late 1967, she found herself at a poetry reading. “There were lots of big-talking Black militants who said lots but did little,” she says, still unimpressed. Conversation turned to the topic of Huey Newton, who the previous year had co-founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. That October, those assembled learned, he’d been arrested for shooting a police officer – a charge he always denied, and that was, three trials later, ultimately dropped.

“There was talk of a Los Angeles chapter forming,” Brown explains, “when 20 young, armed Black men turned up to the meeting and lined the walls wielding guns.” The poetry had escalated fast. A man introduced himself as Bunchy Carter, a founding member of the Party’s new Southern California chapter. Still, she hesitated to commit: it was a scary proposition, what with all the guns.

Six months later, in April 1968, Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. Then Bobby Hutton, also known as Lil’ Bobby – the Black Panther Party’s first recruit – was killed in a shootout with Oakland police. “Cities in America were exploding,” Brown says. “Black people were angry: throwing Molotov cocktails, tearing down buildings, rioting in 100 cities.” Brown decided she had no choice but to take her place in the movement, too.

March forward: a Black Panthers protest at the trial of Newton in Oakland. Photograph: Bettmann/Getty Images

“I found the Party’s tiny LA office,” she continues, “and stated I wanted to join them. It’s not a joke, the woman who greeted me said, ‘This is the revolution, sister. Are you sure?’” Brown signed up. Across the country, many others were doing the same. “It was a symbol of a new class of Black people – urban and young – not content with holding hands and singing, ‘We will overcome’.”

In the years that followed, Brown gave all she had to the Party. She moved in with a group of comrades where they slept on the floor, wrote articles, and stored guns. There were police raids and shootouts; community initiatives, and too many funerals. “By 1969 it was all-out warfare,” Brown says. “Every month Los Angeles members were getting arrested and killed.” Just days after Fred Hampton – the Panthers’ deputy chairman, whose story is told in the Oscar-winning biopic Judas and the Black Messiah – was assassinated by police in Chicago, the Los Angeles office was raided, too.

Through it all, Brown’s unshakable revolutionary spirit prevailed. She became editor of the Party’s paper, joining its central committee. She recorded albums; ran twice, unsuccessfully, for office at Oakland City Council, and travelled the world. She also found time to have a baby. In 1974, when then-leader Huey Newton left the United States for Cuba to escape criminal charges, Brown was informed it was her time to step up. Three years later, upon Newton’s return, the pair had a string of disagreements. “We argued,” says Brown, “but I was destined to lose, so I left the Party just like that.”

Today, Brown remains endlessly busy. There’s her non-profit Oakland & the World Enterprises and its $72m development project: six years in the making, it’ll see a 79-unit all-affordable apartment complex constructed in Oakland. Commercial spaces will be filled with businesses she also works with: launched and sustained to employ the formerly incarcerated and socio-economically deprived. For the past 25 years, she’s been advocating for the release of a young Black man, Michael Lewis, from a Georgia prison. Lewis was 13 when he was sentenced to life in prison for a crime he maintains he didn’t commit.

“And,” Brown adds, “I have a film in the works based on my book. We have commitment from Alicia Keys who wants to play me, but we’re just working on a new director to join.”

Being a revolutionary, Brown reckons, requires a certain ruthlessness: that’s what saw her quickly exit her Party after 10 years of dedicated service; it’s why she holds no punches when expressing opinions now. America’s Black politicians, she believes, have sold out in their own self-interest; chanting: “Hands up, don’t shoot”? No thanks.

Badge of honour: a Black Power pin. Photograph: The Frent Collection/Corbis/Getty Images

“People filmed the murder of George Floyd and think that’s something,” says Brown, angered. “The video was eight or nine minutes long, a crowd had their phones out. Why did nobody throw something at the cops during that time to get them off?” This approach was bread and butter for the Panthers. Today, Brown argues, resistance like it could again save lives. But, I ask, surely those who take such steps might also find themselves in the firing line.

“Of course,” she replies, it’s clearly not rhetoric. “All my folks are dead. I’ve seen bloodshed. If you’re not willing to die for what you believe in,” Brown asks, “what are you about?”

It’s not that she’s necessarily against marches, clicktivism, or buying a T-shirt. She just believes it’s delusional to then call yourself an activist; to think it’s enough. “I remember watching cars with placards out their roofs drive past me during a Black Lives Matter rally,” says Brown, exasperated. “They drove right past an encampment full of homeless Black people, and never looked back.”

Short of taking up arms, what would be her advice?

“If you’re not prepared to give your life,” she says, “negotiate how far you’ll actually go. Think clearly about the problem and solution.” The Panthers ran breakfast clubs; free clinics; legal aid programmes. They provided what was needed; offering a glimpse of what could exist as and when revolution came.

“Look at what actually serves the interests of Black people,” Brown says, throwing down the gauntlet, “rather than just trying to make yourself feel better. We are poor, and don’t have the things we need to live: food, clothing, housing, education, healthcare.” It was the case, she says, for those young girls she taught piano, and the reason that memory remains so affecting is because the same is true now.

“Try working on all that,” Brown says, eyes on the clock, our allotted time together over. “It will keep you occupied for the rest of your lifetime, and it’s a surefire way of showing you truly believe Black lives really do matter.”

A Taste of Power by Elaine Brown, published by Penguin Modern Classics, is out now (£10.99). Buy it for £9.56 at guardianbookshop.com