Below is a transcript of my interview with Donna Murch for the second episode of the Making the Left Coast Podcast. We spoke in early June 2019 via Skype. Although the text below has some errors, it is mostly faithful to the audio.
Chuck Morse: You’re listening to the Making the Left Coast Podcast, episode number two.
Hey there. My name is Chuck Morse, the host of The Making the Left Coast Podcast. The purpose of this podcast is to explore the history and challenges of the Bay Area left, which I do by interviewing authors and activists who can help us make sense of its lessons.
When I began as podcast, I knew that I would devote at least one episode to the Black Panther Party, which was founded in Oakland in 1966 and had a huge impact globally as well as locally. Globally they became a or perhaps THE symbol of black radicalism in the 1960s. With their confrontational approach and revolutionary ideology, they gave voice to the rage at the damage done by white supremacy and affirmed the need to build a world in which African Americans occupy the dignified position to which they are due. They inspired people across the planet while striking fear in the heart of the American establishment. This is why J Edgar Hoover, who led the FBI at the time, described them as the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States and tried to destroy the party with a massive, mostly illegal campaign of government repression.
And they had a tremendous local impact. Prior to their rise, Oakland was sort of a sleepy, racist backwater. A place that Gertrude Stein famously said had “no there there.” It was dominated by a cabal of white Republicans who did their best to defend the prevailing white supremacist system that exploited and brutalized the city’s large Black population. The Panthers challenged this with a multifaceted, intensely creative array of programs and activism. They not only helped to dislodge the old Republican power structure but also changed the way that we experience the city. Instead of being a place that is outside of history, without any “there there,” they globalized it and made it into a site in which we experience and work out issues of global importance.
Not surprisingly, their vast impact has generated an equally vast body of literature about them. You could probably fill several bookcases with the memoirs, historical studies, and other works that explore their legacy. This is despite the fact that their really intense period of activity only lasted about seven or eight years and they probably never had more than 5,000 members at a single time. Although scholars of the Panthers often disagree about how to interpret them, everyone agrees that their story is fascinating and merits exploration.
And there are still important questions to unpack, particularly with respect to the Panthers’ relationship to Oakland. This is where I’m hoping that this episode of the podcast can be of some help. For one, a lot of the work on the Panthers tends to focus on their dramatic militancy while overlooking their sophisticated political ideas. This is understandable, because their story is very dramatic, but we also need to figure out their core politics—what they really believed—so that we can understand why they did what they did and also to situate them in the broad arc of political history. And this is not easy because their political commitments were complicated and perhaps even contradictory in some respects.
And how we interpret them impacts how we understand Oakland. For example, if we say that they were a bunch of hotheaded-but-misguided young radicals who inadvertently pushed the city toward the liberal democratic order that we have today, then this might sanction a view of Oakland’s history as a slow but inexorable march toward the present, toward what we have now. Or, alternately, if we say that the Panthers were visionaries who tried to turn Oakland into a communist utopia, then we end up telling a different and much more complicated story about the city’s past. The Panthers past and Oakland’s past are inextricably connected.
So, I think that these questions merit exploration. Although smart people can draw different inclusions about them, there can be no doubt that Donna Murch, who is my guest on this episode of the podcast, is one of the best people on the planet to help us explore them. She is a professor of history at Rutgers University, a deeply sophisticated and radical scholar, and happens to have written the book on the Panthers in Oakland. Her award-winning work, Living for the City: Migration, Education and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California, tells the amazing story of the Panthers’ experience in the city while placing them in the larger context of post-war, African-American history. It’s a fabulous book.
In the discussion that follows, Donna and I jump right into some of the big questions that come up when you think about the Panthers and their politics. We talk about their relationship to the state and other scales of political authority, their efforts to take over the Oakland city government in 1973, the role of democracy within the party, among other interesting issues. It was a great pleasure for me to discuss these things with her and I hope you enjoy listening to the interview as much as I enjoy conducting it.
And if you do enjoy this please don’t forget to add your email to the email list at makingtheleftcoast.com and to like the podcast’s Facebook page.
Thanks and enjoy!
Chuck Morse: Hi Donna. Thank you so much for being a guest on the podcast. I really appreciate it. It’s great to talk with you and have you on the show.
Donna Murch: Oh, it’s absolutely my pleasure. Thank you, Chuck.
Chuck Morse: I’m hoping that we can spend some time discussing what prompted you to work on the Panthers and what it was like to do the research that led to your book. But, before we do that, I’d like to begin by talking about the Panthers and what they did in Oakland. This is a fascinating, inspiring story, which your book covers, and this is one of the reasons why your book is so great. Does that sound like a good plan to you?
Donna Murch: Sure, it sounds great.
Chuck Morse: All right, great. When people talk about the Panthers, they often focus on the drama of their story—their battles and firefights with the police, their militancy, the deaths and sacrifices, etc. And this makes a lot of sense. The Panthers’ story is tremendously dramatic and it’s hard not to be drawn into it. However, they were also very sophisticated thinkers who advocated some compelling and novel ideas. And I want to spend some time exploring that aspect of their work. I’d like to focus on why they did what they did in order to make sense, or to make better sense, of what they did in Oakland. In my view, these substantive issues can sometimes get lost in the shuffle.
So, for my first question, I wanted to ask you about how we situate the Panthers, the Black Panther Party, in relationship to the main political institutions of our time—mainly, the state—and, by doing this, put their focus on the city of Oakland, which of course is not a state, in context. Now I recognize that this may seem like a strange question and it’s not one that I see people asking in the literature on the Panthers, but it seems like a relevant line of inquiry to me and I’ll explain why that’s the case.
As we know, the Panthers were Marxist-Leninists, with a particular interest in Mao and, as such, they embraced an overtly statist view of social change. As everyone knows, the goal of communists is to seize state power, implement a dictatorship of the proletariat, and, from that position, transformed society. It’s a totally top-down, state-centric vision of politics and we see this state centrism, this statism, in the Panthers’ ideology, in their Marxist Leninism, and also in how they operated. They were a hierarchical, top-down organization—they were structured very much like an army—and they embraced all sorts of paramilitary conventions and symbols and all of these things and signaled power and authority. Basically, they represented themselves as if they were a state in the making—a group waiting to take state power.
However, there were significant counter tendencies and this is where the question gets really complicated for me. Although they famously marched on the Sacramento statehouse in 1967 with guns in an effort to stop legislators from stripping them of the right to bear arms, that was really the end of their focus on state level institutions. And I can’t think of any campaign of those designed to influence federal policy as such. Nearly all of their political activity focused on the neighborhood or the municipality. There were their patrols in West Oakland designed to stop police violence, their free breakfast programs in Oakland and in other cities, and their attempt to take over the Oakland city government during the Base of Operations campaign in the early 1970s. This is just to name three among many other possible examples in which they focused on a different scale of political power than the state. And we can even see some traces of this in their more programmatic declarations: for example, the Panthers famous Ten Point Program mentions the community over and over again. And there’s Huey Newton’s doctrine of intercommunalism, which became official Panther doctrine at some point and this focused on communities not states. So, the point is that clearly non-state is scales of political organization were very important to them and this was really a novel position. Although leftists often talk about “the local” and “community” today, when the Panthers came on the scene there was essentially no case in which leftists were focused on the community or the local. Even the Socialist Party members who ran for municipal office in the beginning of the twentieth century—the so-called “sewer socialists”—did so in order to demonstrate that socialists could govern effectively at the national level. That is, although they focused on municipal government, these socialists had their eyes on the federal government. Of course, things changed in the 60s but the Panthers were part of this change and their position—their emphasis on the local—was something very new.
So, this is a long preface to my question. What I’m wondering is: can you help me make sense of the apparent contradiction between the Panthers’ investment in state-centric ideologies and practices on the one hand and, on the other, their investment in non-statist scales like the neighborhood and the municipality. Should we, for example, view them as bad Marxist Leninist who should have focused on the state but instead got mixed up when they focused on a different scale of political institutions? Or should we see them as bad anti statists who are right to focus on the local but who got tangled up in statist traditions? Where they ultimately statists or statist or anti-statist radicals? I would be interested in hearing your thoughts about this. I ask this because I think it’s a crucial part of understanding why they got so involved in Oakland. Their engagement here clearly reflected much more than the fact that Huey Newton and other leading Panthers happened to live here and to have grown up here. Of course, that is true, but it is just one . . . it was a real politics for them. So what do you think, Donna? What would you say?
Donna Murch: No, I just, I have to say I don’t agree with all of your characterizations. The first is that the state has multiple levels, especially in a country like the United States that has the federated state. You know, the municipal level and then state level, meaning, you know, New Jersey, New York, California, is very important in American history. And I think one of the problems with using European statist models is the difficulty in reckoning with the United States’s federated state system.
So, the Panthers engage with the state on all three levels. They absolutely engage with municipal . . . to think that municipal municipality lies outside the state, to me, is just not true. I mean Huey Newton’s foundational statements about what led to the founding of the Panthers is essentially, I have this quote in my book, and it says something like, “our experience of the state was police. All we knew of the state were police and California Youth Authority and juvenile detention.” So, their most immediate experience of state power is not at the federal level. It’s actually at the immediate municipal level. So, when you’re talking about policing and incarceration, much of that structure is municipal and state level, you know, state meaning, again, federal state not “state” in the abstract. So that’s the first thing. I think that you have to be able to talk about multi-scale state analysis in the United States and especially given the scale of the state prison system. That’s where the largest number of people are incarcerated. So I don’t . . . this distinction between setting aside the federal government as the state, which is a very, again, I think it is a model that’s taken some European history. Up through the New Deal, the core state in the United States is the state of courts and parties, which functions at the municipal level and then at the state level. So, I think that that is a larger theoretical and historical issue for understanding the United States and it frames how you approach the Panthers.
Now, that said, I think that the Panthers were eclectic in their ideology. The part that they draw from Marxist Leninism, primarily, is their idea of a vanguard and they use it early on in the party’s history because the idea is that they want to teach by example. So they’re asking people, you know, young people, to do something very dangerous in the first years of the party, which is essentially police the police. So, drawing on this little-known statute that said it’s legal to carry loaded, unconcealed weapons because California is a ranching state, they encourage . . . Bobby Seale and Huey Newton are willing to act as an example or a vanguard and then encourage other young people to do the same, especially young men. So, if you look at Huey Newton’s early writings in 66–67, a lot of what he’s taking from Marxist Leninism is this idea of a vanguard. On the other hand, these are young people educated in community college and there’s a way in which their ideology is just really a kind of bricolage, collected from different things. So, they take from Marxist Leninism the idea of the vanguard party, but the person that they most consistently quote is Mao. So, “power flows from the barrel of a gun.” A lot of the party structure is taken from Mao and I’d say, more immediately, in terms of also their ideology and looking at their paper, Mao is their consistent reference point, not Marx and Lenin. Although they certainly do draw on it, but I think that you have to kind of interpret the party through the language it uses itself versus through a singular model of what Marxist Leninism is because one of the things I was struck by when I started researching the Panthers in the late nineties when I was still a graduate student going through the Huey P. Newton papers, was just all the different kinds of influences. So, I found some writings by William Patterson, who was the Communist Party lawyer who took on the Scottsboro case. They had some papers from William Patterson. They had some early writings of Emmanuel Wallerstein, there are references to Marx and also to Lenin. But in the later period in the 1970s, at one point the Political Education Committee is teaching Mario Puzo’s book on . . what’s the title? Mario Puzo’s . .. Remind me of the title. . . .
Chuck Morse: I don’t know.
Donna Murch: He’s the author of The Godfather.
Chuck Morse: Oh, yeah!
So, these are, you know, difficult truths about the party. So, they’re young people, working class youth educated at a community college. And, you know, their ideology is not always technical and consistent. So, that part I think is really important. They’re very action oriented and they kind of pull from different traditions. I mean, one of the more unfortunate moments in the 1970s is when they are teaching Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song as a way to understand revolutionary ideology. So, even stuff from the early blaxploitation movement. So, I emphasize that just to say that the Panthers were eclectic.
Now, in terms of thinking about their relationship to the state, I think that, one, I wouldn’t say that it ends with the March on Sacramento. So, they march in Sacramento when the California State Legislature, led by Ronald Reagan, attempts to overturn this old statute that made their police patrols legal. So, they march on the capital. Nevertheless, the Mulford Act is passed and then after that the police patrols become illegal. But, if you remember, a core part of the Panther Ten Point Program and of whole ideology is their link to the anti-war movement.
Donna Murch: So, their . . . a core tenet of the Panthers is trying to end anti-colonial wars inside the United States, so there’s always the focus on the military, you know, and of course, the federal government with the president as Commander in Chief that they’re fighting. So, I think that you can embrace the party. You know, it seems like one of your real concerns is to try to think about models for community-level action. And I’d be happy to talk about why the Panthers matter for that, but I actually don’t think the way to do it is to set it as a counterpoint to this direct engagement with the federal state. The Panthers engaged with all three levels of the state and, throughout their history, a core focus is the military. So, you know, as part of the Ten Point Program, the first point is “we demand the right of self-determination for our black community.” So, it’s a traditional black nationalist demand, but they go on from there to talk about black men not having to serve in the military, the release of all prisoners from . . . you know, incarcerated people, the right to full employment. So, of course, with full employment they are engaging the federal government. So, I think that they are an example of a revolutionary group that both confronts the state and uses the language of armed self-defense and armed confrontation but, at the same time, they are making demands on the state. And I think that that’s very important. The Free breakfast programs are not only local. I mean, you can just look at the response of the counterintelligence program and the FBI to those local programs. So, they’re started in different local communities, but ultimately they are dramatizing the failure of the federal government to provide comprehensive welfare. And that is the federal government. So, it happens at the local level but it’s engaging and critiquing the “man in house rule,” the limited nature of social welfare provision, especially under Nixon, and it’s ultimately trying to shame the state. And I think that that part is very important. It’s not just a service program, where they’re feeding people. They’re feeding people with a political ideology and saying, “Look, these young people,” you know, many of them high school age and college age with limited resources, “are able to provide,” as they say in 1973, “a chicken in every bag.” So, to provide these massive food giveaways and that’s targeting not just the local community but the larger idea. And lo and behold, it’s when these food programs are instituted that we see an actual escalation of the counter-intelligence program in the FBI because the fear is that they’re shaming this state and that they’re going to create a self-sustaining organization that can build a new kind of constituency. So, I think that they engage at the community level, but they always talk about the federal government, have the federal government in their sights.
In terms of intercommunalism, one of the interesting things about the party is how it evolves over time. So, and I think most of the Panther scholars would be in agreement with this, that you have kind of four major stages in party history. So, you have the formation of the party in October 15th, 1966, with the drafting of the Ten Point Program on the edge of Merritt campus and then, from 66 to 68, you see this explicit brace of armed struggle, armed revolution in their rhetoric. The police patrols are really only legal for the first six months but, by a year and a half after the party is founded, most of the male leadership finds itself in prison. So, the second stage, I would say, roughly, of the party is 68 to 71, and this is bracketed by the end of 68, where Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, and Eldridge Cleaver are in jail or in exile. And at the end of 68, the beginning of 69, you see the founding of the first free breakfast programs. So, they’re housed mainly in churches and this period is identified by Huey Newton as “survival pending revolution.” And the idea is that they’re not repudiating revolution but they’re trying to figure out how to reconnect with the African American community and their allies in a time of great repression. So they call these different kinds of programs the “survival programs” and those include many things: most importantly, free breakfast programs but also liberation schools, which later evolve into the Huey P. Newton Intercommunal Institute and then they have other kinds of community service programs, including health programs. Then, in 71 through 74, you have this period where they begin to run local electoral campaigns. And it’s notable that one of the first campaigns that they run . . . so, they run Eldridge Cleaver for President in 1968. So that also shows the national and federal scope of the party. But in 70, the first local campaign that they run is for the West Oakland Planning Council, I think that’s the right term, but it’s essentially . . . they’re trying to get control of Great Society monies because they want to channel them into the organization. So, again they’re thinking again about how federal moneys are being used at the local level. Then, in 73, they run a campaign of Bobby Seale for Mayor and Elaine Brown for City Council and then in 75–76 you have Elaine Brown as head of the party, and, in 76, she becomes one of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention. So the party always had this kind of intermediary position: working at the local level but with an eye towards the federal government. And then, I would say, roughly that period from 75 through 82 is the decline and dissolution of the party. You asked about intercommunalism, and intercommunalism is very interesting. And I think that that probably speaks the most to the anti-statist tradition that you think the Panthers are important for, which is that they go through, their self-conscious about their changing ideology. So, when they talk about the history of the party, they talk about having passed from a revolutionary nationalist phase into an internationalist phase and then ultimately into an intercommunal phase. And the reason they coined that term is that they’re interested in how to fight, essentially, imperialism and colonialism and they find that embracing the state system itself, even thinking in terms of internationalism, is still shoring up the state system. So they become interested in how you can create relations between communities. So, how can people in Oakland build a relationship with a community in Vietnam or Algeria. So, they repudiate the state form and say that they want to see connections from community to community. So, I think their kind of writings and ideology about intercommunalism might be a good place to look for the kind of anti-statist, community based connections you’re interested in.
Chuck Morse: Yeah, absolutely. OK. This is super helpful, Donna. You’ve anticipated some of my questions that were to follow that initial question and I’d like to work through them and hopefully it won’t be too repetitive, because you’ve covered some of this territory. But, you know, my underlying focus is trying to get at why they saw Oakland as such an important terrain for political activity—so, how they conceived of it, why they thought it was so important.
But let me ask some of these additional questions and see where this gets us. One of the things that you mentioned was their “survival pending revolution programs,” and we know that the Panthers were intensely active in local affairs. There were these programs but they were intensely active in local affairs throughout the party’s history in ways that you mentioned and you cover in detail in your book in a really awesome way.
And it’s common to hear people say that the Panthers’ “free breakfast program” inspired the federal government to initiate a free breakfast program itself. And the implication in this comment is that the Panthers were sort of onto something that the federal government was able to later take up and make its own. And so they sort of anticipated what the government could and should do.
However, in your book you make it clear that they had really political aims, just like you made clear in your comments just now that they were attempting to shame the government and it was to build a political challenge. And I was wondering if you could say a little bit about how their programs in Oakland, like the free breakfast program, differed from all of the nonprofit programs that we see today like the food banks and the soup kitchens and things like that. What were the fundamental differences in their aims and in how they operated?
Donna Murch: Thank you for that. I think that the fundamental differences that they combined the food giveaways with a political ideology. So, if you look at Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, especially their writings about the survival programs is that . . . I think it’s Paul Alkebulan who first made this argument, who’s also historian who’s written a book on the Panthers called Survival Pending Revolution.
And he and I were both graduate students at Berkeley and in the 90s and early 2000s. But I think he’s the first one who made this argument that the survival programs have a double meaning. So, survival meaning the survival of the black community, but it also means survival of the party. So, when they implement these programs, as I said, the major leadership is in prison, what goes along with this are enormously expensive legal campaigns in order to defend not only the leadership but, you know, in Los Angeles and New York you have the Panther 21 case, in New York and in Los Angeles you have large numbers of people being thrown in prison, cycling in and out, and all over the country.
So, survival also meant, you know, how the party could survive. So, this is party based organization, first of all, so it’s within a Marxist Leninist tradition. They absolutely practice principles of democratic centralism, but they give primacy to the party itself. So, this is a core difference from the kind of service provision model of a not-for-profit, which is in many ways contracting to a state . . . functions that are often used by the state. So, you might think of social welfare functions in the way that they helped to build the party organization itself. That I think is important.
And it’s not just an ideology of altruism. So, the party is trying to figure out when they’re facing enormous amounts of repression: how do they mobilize support for the party? And they thought about it to some extent in those kinds of utilitarian terms. They also are trying to meet the long-term needs of a community that’s underserved by the state. So, they want to demonstrate the limitations of state welfare and especially its coercive and punitive nature. So, I remember reading interviews by one of the organizers in Chicago, who was talking about in order for women to receive aid for dependent children in this period, the social workers would check to see if there was a man living in the house. And the idea behind this is that a man is the breadwinner. So, in order to be eligible for social welfare, you had to prove that there was no man in the house. So, the Panthers offer these forms of support without this punitive dimension and, as they do it, they’re instructing people in what the alternatives might be. So they are highlighting another possibility, a different kind of future. So it’s a deeply political act but it’s both for the survival of the party and for the black community itself. So, this is self-conscious political ideology.
In terms of it inspiring the federal government, I think that it’s a conflictual model is how I understand it. Not so much they anticipate or inspire the federal government, but they threaten the federal government, right? So this group of young people being able to provide social welfare is a way of demonstrating, at the height of the Cold War, while the United States is fighting this war in Vietnam, and it’s still very much the language of the US “making the world safe for democracy,” the prosperity of the United States, its democratic vision, but then you have the Panthers highlighting that people are starving in Oakland and other cities throughout the country and that they are kind of almost performing and demonstrating the needs in African-American communities and how they can be met by the communities themselves. So, I would use it as a conflictual model.
Chuck Morse: Ok, that’s very helpful. OK, that’s great. All right. Now, I want to jump into their Base of Operations campaign—the 1973 campaign in which Bobby Seale and Elaine Brown ran for elected office in Oakland. Bobby Seale ran for Mayor and Elaine Brown ran for Council Person. This is something that you do a great job covering in your book. It’s really fascinating, your account of it, and it prompted several questions for me.
On the one hand, you know, it was a putatively . . . it was an electoral campaign on one level, but it was also a huge mobilization. All the Oakland Panthers worked on registering voters, circulating propaganda, holding campaign meetings and rallies, and Panther offices around the country were reduced to a skeleton crews so activists from these other chapters could be brought into Oakland to help out. It was really a huge party wide deal and also a pivotal event in the history of Oakland. It was something that, you know . . . forgive me, I think that you may mention this in your book, but certainly other people mentioned that it’s often regarded as the final death knell of the old white Republican clique that had run Oakland for much of the twentieth century. Many people, in other words, believe that it set the stage for the election of Lionel Wilson, Oakland’s first Black mayor four years later. And, in my opinion, it was a crucial event for . . . a crucial campaign for the Panthers too. It was the last major campaign of any sort and it was also a moment in which—and this is where I think your challenges to my formulation are going to be very helpful—in my view, it was a moment in which they could bring their ideas about the local to bear on this particular locality, which was Oakland. So, as I envision it, and this is where your corrections may be very helpful, as I envision it, there is all this intense theory and discussion about what the local and the community could mean, and it came together in a practical effort to take over the municipal government—the Oakland city government—and turn the city into a “base of operations.”
So, that’s how I frame this event and I recognize that you challenge that reading in important ways, but I’d like to ask you, if you don’t mind . . . to proceed with some specific questions about that and maybe you can indicate your challenges to this formulation in the context of those questions. How does that sound, Donna?
Donna Murch: That sounds good.
Chuck Morse: OK, good. All right. So, the first thing I wanted to ask about is the relationship of the base of operations to the Port of Oakland. Let me just set this up by saying that the program that the party advanced, that Elaine Brown and Bobby Seale advanced when they were running for office, was not particularly radical. It was, I think, left leaning and they advanced measures that would have improved economic and racial parity in Oakland, but they weren’t calling for the transformation of Oakland into some kind of a communist utopia. The program looked a lot like programs that we would see other Black independent politicians advancing at the time, which is to say [that] it was rooted in movements and it was very progressive, but it’s not revolutionary, at least as articulated on paper. However, and this is where it gets particularly interesting for me, when you bring the port into the picture things seem to change a little bit and indicate to me that the Base of Operations may have been hinting at something . . . may have been a campaign to make something much more radical happen. In your book, and also in the memoir, Will You Die For Me? by Forbes . . . I don’t know how you say his name, Forbes, I guess . . . you mentioned that the Panthers were drawn to the port in part because that would have provided a vast amount of money to the party and would have helped them overcome their crushing financial problems, it would it help them finance these programs that we’re talking about.
But it also seems like to me that there was something important going on politically. The Oakland port was something like the fifth most important port in the world at the time and the Oakland mayor and Oakland city government appoint the port commissioners. So, if the Panthers had been able to take over the city of Oakland, they would have been able to essentially take over the port and that would have put them in a tremendous position globally. It would have put them in a position to form alliances with other communist powers like Vietnam, China, or whomever. And it also would have been a tremendous weapon, a tremendous resource, in their conflicts with their enemies. For example, if the American government pissed them off, they could shut down the port and they could, you know, they could shut it down. This would have been huge. And presumably these things would have helped them turn Oakland into the sort of communist utopia that was hinted at Newton’s intercommunalism writings. So, I’m wondering if you see that, what you think of the formulation. Was there this utopian, uber-radical orientation concealed in this more benign program to build sort of an autonomous utopia in Oakland? Or were they actually benign? What how would you address all of that?
Donna Murch: Well, I guess the first thing that I would say is that in terms of thinking about a usable past, which is, in some ways, what we’re talking about. I mean, you’re interested in looking at the Panthers as a way to think about a longer trajectory about Oakland, then and now. And I think that there’s not a singular way that we can understand the past. You know, as a social historian who reconstructed the history of the party, I see it really through the lens . . . as a historian, which is different, I think, than thinking about the lessons that this history might teach for us today.
So, I want to start just by saying that I think that there are multiple interpretations and multiple ways to understand this. I can tell you what mine is, but I think that, you know, historical events, organizations, and political ideologies can be interpreted in many ways by subsequent generations. So, I don’t think that my interpretation is the definitive one. I think that, you know, you can draw on Panther history from, you know, kind of multiple campaigns or points of view. And that is, to me, a separate question, because that’s a question about, you know, how do we utilize a moment in time for a contemporary mobilization.
Now, from my point of view as a historian, the Party evolves and changes over time, and by the time you have the Oakland Base of Operations, it is thoroughly committed to electoral politics. So, you have Bobby Seale on the cover of Jet. And people are talking about a new face of power. Very importantly, for my story, when Huey Newton is released from prison in the early 70s, the birthplace of the party is Merritt College in West Oakland, the original campus, which is near where Children’s Hospital is today. And when Huey Newton gets out of prison rather than supporting the students who were who were trying to prevent this moving of the campus, because they saw it as stripping the community of this very important resource—so, Merritt College is seen as the birthplace of the Panthers and all kinds of black radicalism—Huey Newton actually supports the movement of the campus from West Oakland into the hills. And that really matters because it shows, also, the shifting, changing ideology of the party. I think by the time we get to 72 or 73 . . . intercommunalism starts out as this very radical idea. It’s rooted in anti-imperialism and its attempt to step outside the statist system and to think about a kind of transnational, revolutionary politics. However, by the time you get to 1973, intercommunalism is inseparable from their electoral campaign. So, the survival programs are largely leveraged in 72 and 73 as a “Get Out The Vote” campaign.
So, if you remember, under Hoover, there was the saying, “a chicken in every pot,” and it was a way to talk about how political parties can use the kind of patronage and giveaways in order to mobilize their base. The Panthers, in all their historical brilliance, do a play on words and say “a chicken in every bag,” and they start having these massive food giveaways, which I have pictures and my book of, but they’re not just giving this away in order to help the community or even help the community survive. They’re doing this in order to help voter registration—so they are providing resources in order to help voter registration in turn to feed their electoral campaign. So I think that by 73, there is a shift in party ideology. And, remember, many of the people that are from different chapters of the party—in New York, in Winston-Salem, in New Orleans, and Los Angeles—are upset that all the resources have been channeled towards Oakland.
So, from the point of view of Oakland it’s wonderful that they benefit from all these brilliant organizers who come from across the country, but when those organizers leave their local chapters all over the country, they strip them of the resources and you still have many political prisoner campaigns that are going on and this is a very important source of bitterness that helps to drive the split in the party and even the affiliation with the Black Liberation Army. So I think it’s important not to be too Oakland centric. From my point of view, they focus on Oakland because Oakland is where the party is born and there is an absence of party democracy. One of the biggest challenges in party history is that they refuse to open up the leadership, and the Central Committee, to other parts of the country. So, Fred Hampton, for example, who is the most talented organizer in Chicago, never was on the Central Committee and, ultimately, the New York party ends up being expelled and there’s a lot of tension with New York because New York is funding the party through newspaper sales, but there is no party democracy, so New York has almost no say in how that money is allocated. So, I don’t want to overly romanticize the relationship to Oakland because part of the reason that Oakland is so important to them is that it is literally the leadership’s base of operations and that central committee is almost all people from the Bay Area. So, in terms of party history, I just don’t think it’s . . . Oakland is a special place and I would never say that it’s not. That’s why I wrote the book that I did, which is not only about the Panthers. It’s really more about why Oakland generated these new, radical forms of politics, which include also the predecessors to the Panther party. So, I do think Oakland is a special place, but I think it’s important not to romanticize it. It has to do with the internal dynamics of the party itself. And by 72 or 73, they are thoroughly incorporated into electoral politics for better or for worse. I mean, for worse, I think . . . the rank and file of the Panthers did not want to go into electoral politics. They really didn’t. And, in my book, one of my arguments is that the decline of the party, part of the reason that it happens, is that they deeply alienate their rank and file. So, the rank and file is interested in these core issues of, you know, police violence and supporting political prisoners and, when they turn to electoral politics, you pull these talented organizers from all over the country but they have to abandon the campaigns that they were involved in. And part of this is the product of lack of party democracy. So, I guess I have a less rosy view of Oakland Base of Operations, even though I think what they did was absolutely amazing. I mean, they register between 20 and 50 thousand people to vote; they break the hold, the stranglehold of the Republican kind of . . . machine is maybe not the right word . . . but the Republican infrastructure in the Bay Area; they pave the way for the election of Lionel Wilson, which I think is kind of bittersweet, when we look at Wilson’s legacy, but they do some amazing things and it is very exciting to read about the Oakland Base of Operations. I share your excitement about their interest in the port and they do have an economic analysis. One of the things that they wanted to do was to tax port transactions because they saw this as a way to feed revenue. And I think that it has a kind of resonance with people’s talk later about financial taxes in New York, like taxing Wall Street, as a way to figure out how do you link a municipality or, if you did it at the federal level, a country, to the kinds of economic revenues that are flowing in and out, separately from the taxing of corporations. So, there’s definitely a kind of . . . I don’t know if I would use the word utopian, but it has a grandeur to its vision and it’s very exciting and they have this . . . I think it’s a 22-point program . . . they come out with a new multiple point program during the election. And, like you, I found the discussion of the port the most exciting. So I would say that that needs to be contextualized in the party itself. I see it as taking place in a much more conservative moment in the party. But that doesn’t mean that their ideas about how to tax the port, how to intervene in the kind of global economy can’t be a really important archive for political struggles that follow.
Chuck Morse: That makes a lot of sense. Those are very helpful comments. So, my suggestion that they also had some political aims when they were looking at control of the port . . . that’s not something that you share or see evidence of. Is that correct, Donna? The idea that they could have used it … that they could have shut down the port as a way to do battle with the American federal government or they could have used the port in some way or another to build alliances with China or Cuba or Vietnam, as a political tool? Is that something that you have seen evidence of in your research?
Donna Murch: Well, they are certainly still politically anti-war and they are still opposing the war in Vietnam. They’re publishing in this period about the bombings in Cambodia and all of the massive violence in Southeast Asia. So, they’re still anti colonial in that sense.
In the documents that I’ve looked at, a lot of the Oakland base of operations is that, once again, it’s about the survival of the party. They’re trying to figure out how to fund their survival programs and, to be honest, this is the period, under Nixon, where the protests of the 1960s have declined. The party has been damaged by all of the state repression and infiltration and they’re trying to remain relevant in the 1970s, and part of that turn to electoral politics is them repurposing themselves at the time as the electoral wing of the Black Power movement. So Bobby Seale and . . . I think it’s just it may just be Bobby Seale actually . . .who goes to the national political convention in Gary in 1972. And this is kind of the high tide of Black electoral politics and the Panthers are a part of that. So I don’t see evidence that they’re talking about a kind of revolutionary expropriation politics in this period. They really are very close to electoral politics and I think the best evidence of this is that Elaine Brown takes over the party in 73, by 1976, she is literally a delegate for the Democratic Party and she goes and attends the Democratic National Convention where Carter is elected. So, at least in terms of the leadership they are deeply invested in electoral politics. I would also say, because I don’t want to overstep this claim, that there’s a lot of evidence they didn’t really expect to win and that they were using Oakland base of operations and the electoral campaign as another way to do political education, about the port, about these colonial relationships. I mean, I argue in my book that the Panthers’ most important legacy is political education and they did this not just through traditional education like newspapers or schools. They did it through the police patrols and they talk about the police patrols as a way to educate people about state violence and also about their legal, juridical rights and also the electoral campaign. So, they are very interesting parts where they talk about the electoral campaign as also the way to stage the set of principles that they’re interested in, which is the anti-war movement and also redistribution. So, I do think at that core of Oakland base of operations is a program of redistribution and the electoral campaign is a way for them to dramatize it.
Chuck Morse: Hey there, this is Chuck again. If you enjoy this podcast, it would be a big help if you would add your email to the email list at makingtheleftccoast.com and also “like” the podcast page on Facebook. This will make it easier for me to keep you informed about future episodes and build the discussion about what the Bay Area left is and should be. I would really appreciate it.
Chuck Morse:Let me let me switch gears here a little bit. I want to ask you to speculate a little bit. I know you’re not supposed to do that as a historian but maybe I can lead you in a direction that would be at least interesting. What I want to ask is: what would have happened if the Panthers had won? Now you’ve hinted, I think, at some possibilities here. But let’s say, so Bobby Seale, he forced a runoff with the establishment mayoral candidate, whose name I do not recall, whereas Elaine Brown lost her campaign outright. So Bobby Seale really almost became mayor of Oakland and I’m wondering if he would have had or if they would have had the capacities to resist, or if you think that they would have had the capacity to resist, the deradicalization trend that seems to afflict so many leftist politicians. What do you think might have happened? Can you speculate on that?
Donna Murch: I think the incumbent’s name was John Redding, the Republican incumbent.
Chuck Morse: Yes.
Donna Murch: Yeah. You know, it’s really hard for me to speculate. It’s so much, you know, history is so much about not having counterfactuals.
Chuck Morse: Yes. Yes.
Donna Murch: I think, based on the evidence that I have, I think that the party wanted to reinvigorate itself. To me, I think that that was their biggest focus: how to expand the existing structures of the party.
So, they wanted to expand the schooling program and they wanted to expand their survival pending revolution. So, if I had to guess, you know, given their discussions at the time and also the work that they were engaged in prior to the electoral campaigns, I think that those were their two primary areas of focus was the survival programs, health clinics, free breakfast programs, liberation schools, and Huey P. Newton Intercommunal Institute. So I think that the redistributive agenda would have been the strongest for them. They are also staunchly anti-war. And I think that they would have been interested in resolutions and ways of dramatizing and opposing continued US bombings and violent campaigns in Southeast Asia and other parts of the world. So, they remain staunchly anti anti-communist and anti-war.
Chuck Morse OK, alright. Very good. Let’s shift gears a little bit. You mentioned before the issue democracy in the party, the lack of democracy in the party, and in the conclusion of your book or the last chapter, you describe the lack of democracy within the Panthers as the fatal or fundamental flaw of the party. And I found this statement really compelling. You know, it’s so common or at least was so common for historians of the Panthers to either celebrate the Panthers as revolutionary heroes or to denounce them as thugs.
Whereas you carved out a middle, much more sympathetic position and I think it takes a lot of courage to maintain a more nuanced, complex position particularly in the context of a group as polarizing as the Panthers were in their times. So, I really appreciate that you took that position and made that argument and I was wondering if there’s any record of attempts to democratize the Panthers . . . any record of attempts within the Panthers to democratize them or if there are cases of overt recognition of the need to do so. You hinted at this, but what can you say about this? And did people wrestle with that within the party?
Donna Murch: Gosh. It’s an excellent question. I wish I had a better answer for you. You know, I published my book in 2010 and there have been some subsequent studies that have been written. So, my book is a relatively early book that talks about the party in Oakland and I think kind of a new synthesis that incorporates the studies of local chapters across the country. . . . so, you know, like Chicago, Wisconsin . . . unfortunately we don’t have a study of New York yet. We have some dissertations, but no definitive study. So there’s still a lot to be written about the party, including history of the party in Los Angeles. So, I think that that question is best answered as historians take on the history outside Oakland, because the fight would have come from these other areas. There’s no question that there is a lot of anger in different chapters of the party. The most obvious is Los Angeles and New York. So, you know, the New York party is absolutely infuriated that they’re not receiving the legal support that they need for the Panther 21 case and they ultimately end up siding with a Black Liberation Army. So, there’s absolutely a lot of discontent in those big cities. One of the tensions, I think, that’s almost a structural tension to the party, is that the three largest cities in the United States—New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago—also are some of the very worst sites of repression. So, these are the places that have enormous legal costs, you know, not only for leaders but also rank and file party members being killed and thrown in prison. So there’s a lot of tension and with the Oakland leadership and the big cities in the United States, which makes sense, right? Because they’re holding on to this thing that they gave birth to and they’re hesitant to let go of it for these bigger and more influential cities. So, definitely in terms of New York and Los Angeles, there’s a lot of anger. One of the things that helped me craft this analysis was doing interviews with rank and file party members, especially the women in the party. And there were several people that I interviewed who ended up supporting the Eldridge Cleaver faction within the party after the split. And what was interesting about this is that they hated Eldridge Cleaver. They thought he was horrible and violent, but the reason that they supported—and also misogynist, very importantly—the reason that they supported not Cleaver himself but the faction against the leadership in Oakland is that they were very angry about Oakland essentially using the money for its own sustenance and not supporting all the political prisoners in Los Angeles. So, one of these women was involved in doing outreach to Los Angeles and so many people are cycling in and out of prison, and she was witnessing this and was really frustrated, again, at the lack of party democracy not just in terms of representation but allocations of money. So, you have the big cities that are providing a lot of the revenue to support the party but they have no political power in order to control where that money is spent and it’s not just abstract. These are life-and-death questions because people are languishing in prison. So, of course, we know we still have many political prisoners still in jail; you know, still many political prisoners still incarcerated—not in jail, but incarcerated—and many of them coming from New York. So, these are very pressing issues. So, yeah, I think there’s a lot of evidence of anger towards the Oakland leadership and that is a big part that drives the split in the party versus only FBI machinations.
So, what the FBI does in the counterintelligence program is they carefully observe the party and they look for pre-existing fault lines. And I think this is, in general, how intelligence works. This is why they use surveillance. They try to figure out what the points of leverage are that they can break open and use to damage the organization. So, I think that rather than it simply being this kind of personal tale of Huey Newton versus Eldridge Cleaver, one of the core cleavages in the party is Oakland versus the rest of the country. So, in other words, the lack of party democracy and, you know, there’s a section of my book that I found really painful to write and it’s about how the kinds of cleavages that existed in the party—the first was Oakland in relationship to the rest of the country; the second was the relationship between the leadership and the rank and file; and the third was between men and women themselves. So, these are some of the most tender and vulnerable parts of the organization, and that’s why I emphasize party democracy, not because of an abstract commitment to democratic principle but to try to explain when you have an organization that has relatively few resources started by young people, it grows and, as it grows, it spreads from city to city, and it assumes, each chapter assumes the character of those local communities. So, especially when it spreads to the big cities, the question of how do you keep this a national organization, and one of the core mistakes that they made was not opening up the leadership. And I think for that, the leadership, the Oakland leadership, is culpable. That’s one of the reasons I’m unwilling to romanticize Oakland as a place because I separate Oakland, as a place, from the Panther leadership itself. I do think Oakland is an amazing city that has a particularly powerful—and I don’t know if you can separate Oakland from Berkeley, but I’d say the East Bay and San Francisco—it has its own particular political alchemy and it’s very important that the Panthers are formed here. So I share with you the excitement about that, about the importance of the San Francisco Bay Area, and Oakland in particular, as a generative political site. But I don’t want to romanticize the Oakland leadership because I think that their singular focus on their own needs and on Oakland itself actually damaged the party as a national entity and hurt some of the young people that had joined the party at great personal cost.
Chuck Morse: That’s fascinating. That makes a lot of sense. Those are very insightful comments, in my opinion.
Donna, let me . . . this is a good time to shift to some of the questions about their legacy, because we’re talking about Oakland and this is a question that is particularly poignant in Oakland, where I’m sitting right now.
It’s common to see people across the political spectrum in Oakland claim the Panther legacy. It’s common to see liberal Democratic politicians, city council people, refer to the Panthers and claim the legacy in one way or another. It’s very common to see nonprofit types, you know, who work for nonprofits that are funded by the Ford Foundation claim the Panther legacy. And I’ve even seen major Black-run property developers claim . . .
Donna Murch: Oh no! Really? Like who?
Chuck Morse: I don’t want to name any names. But the idea is that they are, you know, they were carrying on the Panther’s legacy by making billions I guess, and by resisting efforts to stop them from making billions.
So, suffice it to say, they have been people across the political spectrum who claim this legacy. And, one of the most common stories we hear about the Panthers is that they were young brash revolutionaries who did a great thing by breaking open the political system in Oakland, by laying the foundation for Lionel Wilson’s election, among other things, but that they were too brash and that their radicalism reflected the naivete of their youth.
And, you know, so they are, you know, they broke everything open in a really positive way but the radicalism was a reflection of their immaturity. And this narrative bugs me because it suggests that radicalism is a sign of an immaturity, you know, and I would like to think it’s the opposite, that radicalism is a sign of wisdom. But I was wondering what you think about this narrative, about this way of characterizing the Panthers as being excessively young and brash and their radicalism is a product of their own naivete. What would you say to that?
Donna Murch: Well, first, I would say it matters that they were young. So, you can talk about a youth movement without being dismissive, because many political movements are youth movements. Young people don’t have the same kind of encumbrances that older people do. And they, partially even theorized this. I mean, my book is very critical of Eldridge Cleaver and he’s in the party a relatively brief amount of time, so I don’t consider him foundational to the leadership, but he is still one of the Panthers and his ideology of the Black Panther Party, and some of his other writings, he has a discussion about why students are so important and one of his arguments is that students are in this in-between age, where they don’t have to support themselves and they’re also not yet working, so they’re not directly connected to the means of production. So, Cleaver actually saw students as a kind of extension of the lumpen proletariat. So, the party targeted groups that they saw as revolutionary groups and part of that, most importantly, was the lumpen proletariat, which they appropriate from Marx’s Communist Manifesto to talk about essentially people that work off the books. So, people that work in the informal economy, people that make their money in the sporting life and through their wits and they include students because they say students have not yet entered the official work world.
So, I mentioned that to say that they are a youth movement that is interested in trying to organize people who exist out of a kind of adult continuum. And, to me, it does matter that they’re young. It affects the nature of the kinds of politics. And also their willingness to take enormous amounts of risk. I do think the fact that it’s a youth movement that that just matters. So, you can analyze the Panthers as a youth movement without being dismissive. And I don’t think we should ever be dismissive of youth. You know, youth often drive revolutionary change. So I would agree with the characterization of the Panthers as a youth movement. I would disagree that because it’s a youth movement that it is lacking.
Chuck Morse: Yeah. Okay, that sounds good. Okay, let me ask one more question about the Panthers proper and this question. . . it’s a more complicated question for me to formulate but I want to ask it and see where it goes.
It’s another question about their legacy and how we think of the Panthers. Your book obviously focuses on the Black Panthers in Oakland and you situate them in the broader arc of African American history, particularly in the context of the Great Migration from the South after World War II. And you paint a story in which dispossessed, marginalized Black people traveled from the south to Oakland, found themselves at odds with the local social order, and, in the course of their battles with it, transformed the city into a theater of a larger revolutionary struggle and potentially a bridge to a utopian future.
But, as I read your book, the moment in Oakland is just one phase of a much larger story that has been unfolding for centuries, that reaches not only to the south but also throughout the globe. In part, it’s a battle for the right of people of African descent to assert and define themselves and claim their rightful position in the world. And it is also a battle against the violence and degradations of white supremacy. The breadth of this trajectory, this movement, is something that Cedric Robinson evoked for me in his magisterial work Black Marxism: The Making of a Radical Tradition.
And I’m wondering: if we place the Panthers in the context of this broad trajectory, and acknowledge that many of the circumstances that made the Panthers possible in Oakland no longer exist today in the same way that they once did, should we then say that the Panthers are also of the past? To put it differently, although we know that the battle against white supremacy and for African-American self-assertion remain as vital as ever, would it be fair to say that we will need new methods, doctrines, and forms of organization in the future and that future battles will take place on totally new terrains, not necessarily in cities like Oakland? Or ultimately are the Panthers really sort of an emblem of what we want in the future? Do we want to really replicate much of what they did and basically rebuild them? I recognize that the answer must be, “a little bit of both.” But I’m wondering if you could comment on these possible futures even though I know that historians are not supposed to do this. What would you say about that? How would you respond to that, Donna?
Donna Murch: Well, I think, contemporary political and future political struggles ground themselves in the lessons and the poetry of the past, which I guess is an inversion of what Marx said, which is that it helps that essentially movements have to draw from the poetry of the future. But I think that, we never entirely invent something new. We develop new things partially out of the made cloth of the past. So, I think that the Panthers matter for contemporary and future movements, as do many things. So that relationship between past, present, and future, and especially past and future, is always tethered. So, in that sense, you know, all good revolutionaries study the past. How else do you decide how to ground oneself and to come up and create something new? That it’s never invented out of whole cloth. It has to incorporate strategies and ideas of the past. So, I think . . . I’m a historian so I’m deeply invested in the kind of constructions of history—how you do that, how you use oral history, how do you use archives and newspapers, and also memory, you know, part of what generated my book on Oakland was that I was living in Oakland, starting in 94, and I was surrounded by a city—I’m from a small city in western Pennsylvania—and I was surrounded by a city where I just felt this enormous presence of history all the time. And that’s true . . . everywhere has history that is present. But there was a part of Oakland for me that was deeply resonant and it was before much of the history had been written. So, I’d say that I absorbed that history and one of the quotes that I always like to use, because it speaks to me about why I’m invested in history, it comes from the young Marx.
And, if it’s OK, I’d like to quote it, just to talk about how I understand the history of Oakland. And it’s written at like age 18 or 19, where he says “Kant and Fichte” . . . I’ll say it first in German than in English. It’s easier for me. [She speaks German] What that says is that “Kant and Fichte fly in the air. There they seek a distant land. I on the other hand am only interested in what I see on the street.” And when I was a graduate student writing about Oakland I thought about Oakland in those terms. I was trying to translate what I was observing in the 1990s and early 2000s, to incorporate that, and to try to think about things that had happened 60 or 70 years before and how they were tethered to the city that I saw.
So, being a historian is very complicated because we don’t want to drive our studies by simply the present, but, at the same time, if you’re interested in politics, you’re interested always in change over time and, in turn, what the ultimate legacy and influence of the histories you’re telling are and that is important to me, because I’m interested in political outcomes. So, I think that, in thinking about Oakland as a city, I think it is of it as an amazing generative space. It is one of the most radical cities in the United States. And I chart from roughly the 1940s through the 1970s, why? And my argument is that you have this interesting combination of things.
First, you have the mass migration of African Americans after World War II. The Black population is 2 percent 1940 and then by 1970, it’s over 50 percent . . . 60 or 70 percent. So you have a very radical increase of the Black population, much of it coming from the rural south. So that presence of migrants helps to radicalize the city. You also have a completely anti-democratic structure, where this population has no incorporation into electoral politics. It’s being run by white Republicans that have controlled the city throughout the twentieth century. You have the Oakland Tribune, run by the Knowland family that has a senator, William Knowland, who’s in power. And so you have this complete space of disfranchisement and, ironically, that disfranchisement helps to feed the kind of radicalism that’s expressed in the Panthers. You also have the West Coast . . . the San Francisco Bay Area is the primary point of disembarkation for the Vietnam War. So, in the 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, this is a central place and in Ramparts magazine, there’s some brilliant articles that are written about this . . . the vulnerability of the so-called military industrial complex, if you want to call it that. The vulnerability. Because on the one hand, you have UC Berkeley, which is so central to post-war U.S. state power. So, the Manhattan Project—a lot of the brain trust with the Manhattan Project is at Berkeley. You have this, you know, top-level . . . many people in the 1960s think Berkeley is the greatest public university in the world. The sciences are very important in the defense industry. This is just as Stanford is beginning to rise. So, you have this kind of, you know, university that is so central to the Cold War, you know, what Clark Kerr calls the multiversity. But, at the same time, you have these contradictions. You have the expansion of students attending places like Berkeley. You have the doubling of the student population in the aftermath of World War II. You have, you know, people who had never attended a university first getting access to college education, including people like Mario Savio. So, among the white student population, you also have this broad expansion and democratization of the university. In terms of the black population, you have something similar happening. You have people migrating from Louisiana, which is really important. A lot of the Panthers radicalism and their long term almost political and cultural ancestral history is traced to Louisiana. Louisiana, of course, in the 1920s has the largest Garvey movement in the United States, after 1922. So, Louisiana is a tribune for all different kinds of Black radical politics. And, lo and behold, even people like Fred Hampton, who’s from Chicago, his people are from Louisiana. So, you have this kind of radicalism that people are bringing with them from the south, and they’re settling in an area that’s just 15 minutes south of UC Berkeley and they’re attending community college at a time that this higher education system is being expanded.
So, the post-war Bay Area is just this incredible cauldron of possibilities. You have the universities that are free in the 1960s. You have new kinds of student populations that are being radicalized and they are in close proximity to the war effort in Vietnam and in Southeast Asia. So, this area—we were talking about the federal government earlier—this is a real point of vulnerability. So, you have UC Berkeley that becomes central campaign for the fight against not only the war in Vietnam but this larger Cold War, anti-communist vision. And that is, to me, some of the beauty of the Bay Area. It is the surprise of this story—that a place that’s so central to the war effort is undermined by the democratization of the university and the presence of Black migrants from the south. That’s the beautiful part of the story: that the children of defense migrants, who migrate because of segregation in the south—they can’t get jobs in the Gulf Coast industries, they migrate to the Bay Area—and that their children, in turn, are going to lead the fight against the Cold War. It’s a beautiful and surprising story. So, Oakland has all of these things going on.
Chuck Morse: Oh, that is great. What a lovely way to put it. Of course, you cover some of this in your book, but you framed it in a different way for me just now and that’s a lovely way to put it. Let me ask you a question about what it was like writing the book. This will be the last question about this book. What was it like writing this book? How did it transform you to meet these old Panthers? Some of whom had, you know, really been through hell—they had experienced a lot of suffering and experienced some bitter conflicts and, in some cases, bitter conflicts with one another and also many had done incredible things. What was it like for you to do this work and to meet these people? How did it transform you?
Donna Murch: Well, you know, both then and now, I felt—I’m a very secular person, but I use religious language to talk about it—I felt very blessed. You know, I was young when I started this project. I was in my 20s and I . . . . this is not a history that I had had any exposure to apart from reading Assata Shakur’s autobiography, when it came out in the 80s.
So, this was not a history that I knew. My parents were political people, but I’m not a red diaper baby, although my father was in CORE. I grew up in a very conservative part of the country.
And, so, moving to Oakland and becoming graduate student at UC Berkeley, for me, was just a personal and political odyssey. And I did lots of oral histories and I felt like I, you know, I was educated by the people that I interviewed. And I will always be thankful for that. It changed the trajectory of my life. And it was just a very profound education that I still draw on many, many years later.
One of the things about writing the book is that I really believe in listening as a praxis. I believe that personally and I also believe that politically. It’s just my personality and I have a line in my book that’s dedicated to my mother and I say that, “my mother taught me to value the said and the unsaid.” And, for me, that’s very profound, also, because I lost my mother when I was relatively young but it speaks to something that she taught me, which is listening to what people say and also what they don’t say. So, thinking about the negative space, you know, people talk about that in terms of graphics. And in Living for the City, I thought about that. I tried to listen to what people said and not to interrupt and also to try to think about how they told their story and the things they included and the things they left out, which is a question for fiction writers, but, for me, it’s also very important in history. So, it prevents us from feeling that we’re the masters of the narrative. And there are many kinds of silences, as well as stories, that people shared with me as I built relationships with them over time. And my book is not just . . . sometimes people use the language of “including people’s stories,” “including people’s voices,” and I don’t like that language and I don’t use it, because I took peoples’ interviews and I listened to them and I thought about, often, the analysis that they were providing; that when people tell you about their lives, usually there’s also an analysis, and a lot of my book is taken from an analysis of people that I interviewed and then I saw myself, in various ways, as fitting this together and thinking about how to construct it as a historical narrative. But it comes from a place of listening.
Chuck Morse: That’s amazing. That’s a lovely story, a lovely account. Let me ask you about what you’re doing now, Donna. I know that you’re writing a book on the war on drugs in Los Angeles. And I was wondering if you could tell listeners a little bit about this book and what it covers and where you are in the process of writing this book and how it’s going?
Donna Murch: Thank you for asking. Writing a second book is hell. That’s what I’m doing right now, trying to get it done. So, I have a couple of things in between. So, for the last 10 years or so, I’ve been writing a lot about the carceral state. And I was interested in, once I finished my story about Oakland, because my book was trying to answer the question, “Why Oakland?” and my work since has been more about what kinds of barriers and structures are erected in the period after the party’s founding that have affected subsequent generations.
So, thinking about the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, which has in turn led me to write a lot about the Drug War and mass incarceration. But that started actually with my interest in the party and also party people that I interviewed, most importantly Emory Douglas, but others as well, talking about how they saw the 1970s and not only the War on Drugs but the actual drug economies themselves as having damaged the legacy of the party. So, that’s how I end up writing a book on crack that’s tentatively titled Crack in Los Angeles: Policing the Crisis and the War on Drugs. I do have another book coming out from Haymarket this year called Assata Taught Me, which is a collection of essays written largely between 2014 and 2017. And a lot of those essays were written in the joy of seeing all of the protests: Ferguson, Charlotte, Baltimore, and other places. And seeing the, you know, rise of the Movement for Black Lives and finally seeing a kind of mass mobilization that speaks to the questions of mass incarceration and state violence. So, that, for me, was really a period of political delight. And, as a result I wrote a lot, just to kind of, for myself, figure out what I thought was happening and, wherever possible, to document it. My family is from St. Louis, my mother’s family. And, so, when Ferguson jumped off, I was living in Los Angeles doing research on my book. I immediately went and spent a lot of time in St.. Louis because I wanted to document what was happening and just feel some of the political joy, to see a place like St. Louis mobilize. As a sidebar, I’ll just say, you know, my parents are an interracial couple and they left St. Louis in 1965 because it was still illegal to marry. So, my father was involved in St. Louis CORE and I initially wanted to write a dissertation on Black St. Louis and I researched it for a year and I found it too depressing. And that’s how I ended up writing about Oakland. So, what drew me to Oakland was actually living in Oakland and feeling that this was a much more hopeful story of change and transformation than St. Louis. So, imagine my surprise when Ferguson jumped off.
Chuck Morse: Right, right!
Donna Murch: Yeah, so, that kind of . . . So, I have this collection of essays coming out and I wrote a piece that I’m very proud of called “Ferguson’s inheritance.” And I feel like that captures, also, for doing social research about what was going on in 2014, I think it captures some of that moment. So, now I’m working on my book, Crack in Los Angeles, which will be my third book and it’s a harder book to write, in some ways, than my first book, partially because it’s a second historical monograph, apart from collections of essays, but it’s also a story that, for me, is a much more depressing and hard story to write. I loved writing about a social movement, and spending my life kind of unearthing this wonderful and wondrous history, but not romanticizing it, but it was really a pleasure to unearth it. Whereas writing about crack and the War on Drugs in Los Angeles is very painful.
So, I hopefully will be done in the coming years. I think in the coming two years. And, yeah, that’s what I’m spending my time doing. I’ve also been writing short journalistic pieces, because I’ve had the opportunity to, but that’s pretty much how I’m spending my time and just living in Philadelphia, a city which I love almost as much as Oakland.
Chuck Morse: Awesome. So, the very last question I have is: how can people keep up with you and your amazing work. How can they find you and how can they keep up with what you’re doing?
Oh, thank you for asking that. I wish I had a better answer because I don’t have a website but you can probably Google me and you’ll find most of the things I’ve written. At some point, I’ll get it together and build a website. Oh, you don’t know what they can do, actually, is check my faculty page. That’s probably the best way. I haven’t recently updated it, but, fortunately for me, almost no one is named Murch. There’s Walter Murch, the famous director of photography, but very few people are named Murch. So, if you type in “Donna Murch” and then just look, you’ll see usually the most recent things I’ve written.
Chuck Morse: Awesome. Ok, awesome. Well, thank you so much for the interview, Donna. It’s been amazing. It’s been so great and I’m just so grateful for it. So, it’s really been a pleasure. I really appreciate it.
Donna Murch: Well, thank you so much, Chuck. And I’m very, very excited about your podcast. I was one of your first subscribers and I’m so happy you’re doing this and I can’t wait to listen to your other interviews as they accumulate.
Chuck Morse: I’m so glad.