With a new Panther hunt underway, this is a good time to include this second installment of interviews with members of Estación Libre (EL) by The Matrix Magazine out of Humboldt State University's Women's Resource Center...also check out the first EL interview, an earlier post on Ashanti, as well as Kazembe's recent biography on another Black Liberation Army soldier, Kuwasi Balagoon. And for those that are wondering what's going on in Oaxaca, the struggle continues to unfold...but for now, here are some words to get us focused on fighting back against the most recent wave of repression against black revolutionaries...(and to help us do this, a site has been created, and a pamphlet too!)
Interviewed by Dina Rodriguez & Victoria Gutierrez
Originally appeared in print in The Matrix Magazine (Spring 2006)
Ashanti Alston is a truly inspiring human being, activist, organizer and comrade to folks in struggle. A former Black Panther Party (BPP) member, Ashanti has seen and experienced many intense times since the sixties and seventies when the BPP was active, he has emerged from his past struggles with the wisdom and foresight to make attempts at connecting various efforts from different communities – in particular connecting anarchist communities and works to that of the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico. This February, in conjunction with a larger speaking tour of the West Coast, Ashanti and Estación Libre comrade Karl Singh were hosted by Acción Zapatista, Black Student Union and other local groups as part of Black Liberation Month. He engaged in a film screening and discussion of Lee Lew Lee’s documentary on the BPP “All Power to the People,” attended a community mitote, and participated in numerous informal dialogues with various folks. In the following conversation with The Matrix, Ashanti discusses his life, work and perceptions of what’s next – and in addition he poses some questions for all of us to engage in.
Matrix: Can you tell us a little bit about your work?
Ashanti Alston: Of course, you know Estación Libre (EL) – that’s probably my main organization. Right here in the New York chapter, we just had a delegation back from Chiapas – so a lot of it is setting up little report-backs for them. And then also just gathering up that energy to come back with and do everything from fundraisers to political education stuff. So that’s my main thing here.
Also, I’m a member of Critical Resistance. Our thing here is, we have an upcoming round table – this is the second round table. And it’s all part this idea of establishing, [of] helping groups in particular communities develop a ‘harm-free zone’ – and a harm free zone is the idea of getting people away from dialing 911, dialing the police every time there’s a problem. But it’s like, being able to offer the different communities ways that that can happen. For example, if we need conflict resolution or mediation skills, can we offer that kind of training to communities who want to do this? Are there intervention skills? Like if there’s some direct violence in the street; whether it involves street organizations of the criminal activity or maybe just domestic violence – can we find ways of intervening?
And it’s not for us as Critical Resistance to intervene. We want to identify folks in communities who are willing to do this kind of work – and we will help to provide the trainings and the resources to make it happen. We had one round table discussion about three months ago; this is the second one that’s coming up. So there’s follow-up work around that from the organizations that came to the first one, and then preparing for this second one – but also we’re always identifying folks who can provide training or resources to make this happen.
Other than that I do political prisoner work – but I’m not doing that with a particular organization; though I work closely with people from the Jericho movement. [NOTE: If you follow the link, you will see that Ashanti has accepted the role of 'co-chair' of Jericho and is heavily involved now in organizing against the repression mentioned in my intro. -RJ] I guess the last year I’ve been back into visiting the political prisoners in New York state more. And right now I’m just trying to talk to folks from different organizations who have not worked together – for all kinds of political and personal reasons – to see if I can encourage them to sit down at the table and work out some agreements, principles, that would allow them to work – even as different organizations and not let differences from the past stop them.
I don’t get to do this much – but the Institute for Anarchist Studies (IAS) ... Lately I’ve been on a little speaking thing, I get more speaking engagements, and it hasn’t been possible for me to do more [with IAS]. But when I can, I do participate in that, even if its doing a speaking engagement that would help to raise money for the Institute.
Speaking of anarchism – you self-identify as an anarchist, right? We were wondering what were some of the key elements of anarchism that draw you to that political philosophy?
For me anarchism showed me some weaknesses in like a Marxist-Leninist or Maoist approach, which is what I came out of, being a member of the Black Panther Party (BPP). And specifically around internalized oppression, [and the] internal structure of the organization; in terms of the organization being structured on a hierarchical basis, and the whole authoritarian thinking and ideology that comes with that ... Also I think what attracted me to anarchism was that it was giving me a better understanding of diversity, and like what the Zapatistas say – the vision of creating a world where many worlds fit. That, I was getting more from an anarchist perspective, because all of them [anarchists] were helping me to reflect on my past and the BPP, to see some serious errors we made.
For example, the sexism – for me to read feminism, and I’m definitely making a connection between feminism and anarchism – it allowed me to see my own organization’s practice around trying to create equality between men and women in the BPP. But also when I began to read about heterosexism and homophobia and all that stuff, it just allowed me to see other forms of oppression that sometimes we practice, and the kinds of practices that weaken us. And I wasn’t getting that from a strict class-materialist, historical-materialist approach that is encouraged from the more Marxist-Leninist revolutionary vision. So it [anarchism] opened more doors for me, and I think that, this thing about staying open; being willing to break all molds, boundaries, cross boundaries, especially when you find yourself in a situation where you’re stuck. Being willing to go somewhere else, break out of it, dissolve it, whatever. And that temporary limbo is okay, as long as you’re still searching for something better to bring about a revolution, that brings more people into the picture, that helps you to overcome some of your own internalized oppressions that weakens your hand. You accept that the capitalist system is going to do everything it can to crush you, that’s what its supposed to do; but when you don’t see what you do that participates in that – I don’t care how good your rhetoric is, or how good your intentions are, you tend to perpetuate the system in so many other ways. And anarchism has given me a way of going beyond that.
Having walked with the Zapatistas in Chiapas, can you tell us the connections you see between the Black Panther Party and the Zapatistas?
One thing that is immediate is seeing what the Zapatistas were doing gave me a way to see some of the good things the BPP were doing in terms of the community work – even the vision – cause you know, our vision was still, like, freedom, and how that works through one’s community practice, like drawing on your community to organize itself. I mean, that stuff was in common with what the Zapatistas was doin’. It was also giving me a way of seeing just what the destructiveness of the BPP’s practice around hierarchy was; trying to impose a vision from above, you know. Hey, you’re coming with a whole ideology of a Marxist-Leninist-Communist-Socialist society, and you’re convinced that this is the way that it has to go.
That’s different from what the Zapatistas are doing, but I think with us – when I was reflecting on the way we were trying to do it – and the ways that other folks in the movement were also placing us in this position of a vanguard; it was really destructive because we excluded so many other people, and even people within the BPP who may have had different ideas or criticisms or critical perspectives themselves against what was going on.
The Zapatistas were creating communities of resistance, and that had always been the vision of the Black Power Movement, and in a sense the Zapatistas were showing me how the Black Power Movement could have unfolded if we had been more ... open, flexible, horizontal, and I guess maybe even participatory; always including people in the community in the decision-making process – instead of the decision-making process getting narrower and narrower. Like what you see when you go to Chiapas into the Zapatista communities, you see how the juntas and even the caracoles work. The whole thing is bringing more and more people into the process. The Zapatista leadership, the military leadership, are so concerned that people actually take control over their lives, and that decisions – especially that it used to be that a lot of major decisions were being made by the EZLN – they were like, no, this is not what this is about. This is about you, this is about you regular people, this is about your life, you gotta come into this process. I wish we had done that back in the day for the BPP.
So for me, Black Power is still a project; you know, it’s all part of when we say, ‘All power to the people.’ It’s like, today, how can we still as a Black community begin to take control over our lives again and at the same time do it in alliances with so many other folks in this country and in the world who are also fighting for their visions of freedom, their visions of revolution, their visions of liberation, or sovereignty ... however they define it, however they envision taking back their lives? How can we all do it now in a sense of being on the same page but respecting the integrity of our struggles?
We were wondering what were the differences you see between the ways organizers and activists conduct themselves today, and the ways they conducted themselves back in the sixties and seventies? What are some of the main differences or similarities that you saw?
I think one that’s always obvious to me is, even though we were coming from specific ideologies and specific organizational practices back in the sixties that I would be critical of now, I think key was what made us effective was that we were actively engaged in our communities – the daily communication, the daily interactings, the daily struggles that encouraged other people to help organize, to help fight landlords, to help build these liberation schools and free breakfast programs – they’ve transformed a lot of people’s lives, especially ours as we were engaged in it.
Today, for me the big difference is I think we got more people involved – I really do think that there’s many more people involved with movements, there’s even many more movements – but when you look for that kind of dynamic interaction with folks in the communities, I don’t see it. I see more demos, I see more forums, I see more presentations, rallies, and stuff, but folks don’t challenge their own alienation. And they end up just preaching to the converted, but not taking that other step of like, talking to all those people who are not so easily convinced. Those are the ones we need to interact with when it comes down to it.
You know, do you even interact with your neighbors? And I tell people, I don’t even interact with my neighbors in my building like that, even though I’ve made that my goal. It’s like, I got to know folks in this building, you know? I really feel folks are scared to do it – but whatever kind of preparations we need to do to do that, then let’s do it. Because there’s a lot of trained organizers out there, even from the old days who would be willing to walk folks through what it is to meet people, to encounter people.
I love that word encounter, because that’s really such a big basic part of this, just meet people where they’re at, they get to meet you where you’re at. But we go the same way as when Marcos and the other intellectuals first went into Chiapas. We’re probably coming with our own little arrogance of knowledge, and we’re gonna get humbled when we really discover that the people who we want to interact with have their own knowledge, they have their own understanding, and now you’re asking for a respectable creative interchange in a sense – a real dialogue around oppressions that are common to both of us and oppressions that are different, you know. I think that’s the big difference that I see now; people have to take the risk of interacting, of breaking their own fears, of just engaging, encountering others.
Can you talk about the importance of allied behavior within organizing spaces, in regards to racism, sexism, homophobia, and other isms?
Some of the things that I’ve even been learning – and it’s all been a learning process for me – is for example, around the sexism. It’s a major responsibility of men, if they want to be allies, to organize amongst themselves and figure out ways of breaking down their own sexism, you know, of building up new senses of what it means to be men, what it means to be human beings, beyond what roles we have taken on and have just acted out of as common sense. And a lot of the women who I’m associated with appreciate more the effort rather than putting out the rhetorical, political correctness. They don’t want to hear it, they want to see it, and they are more comfortable when they know that we are also involved in men’s groups that are actively working on it. That way I think we tend to see what it means to be real allies, like pro-feminist allies, you know, and I think it’s the same thing we talk about in relationships between people of color and white folks.
You know, there’s things that we want to see white folks do on their own initiative. To begin to challenge and break down all this stuff around whiteness and not be afraid of it... well I guess I shouldn’t even say not be afraid, but to not allow that fear to stop you from doing it and just going to those things that are more comfortable, which tends to be back towards the standard political outreach organizing that has always been just very male dominated, and a practice that still excludes and shuts down women.
In Chiapas, those of us in EL; we would come into contact with some of the white folks, whether they’re coming from Europe or the U.S., and we would watch their interactions with folks of color – Mayan folks in Mexico primarily and Zapatistas – and we would see this either arrogant or condescending behavior, just outright racist statements that they seemed to be clueless of.
Sometimes we have to actually just pull them up and say, ‘Hey, that what you just did, or that what you just said was fucked up, racist, dah dah dah...’ I mean one of the bad things is that they give the impression to the Zaps that, Well, this may be what all Americans, North Americans, or even Americans from the United States feel, you know? And they don’t get it unless they’re challenged, and if they’re not challenged they may tend to just still do the same behavior. But ultimately we shouldn’t have to be the ones who keep doing that. If they even really want to help the Zapatistas, they need to reflect on their own racism. And it’s not a bad thing. How can you not be racist if you’re born and raised in a racist empire? It becomes very simple. How can a man not be sexist if you’re born in a sexist empire? The thing that you do is not get caught up in feeling bad or pity for yourself. You recognize that you gotta be a product – so now I wanna be able to help myself, as well be in a position to aid others – by dealing with some of that stuff that’s within me, the stuff that I have internalized just by being a product of this empire. And it just seems to me to make for better relations; and it’s relations beyond just straight-up political relations. Now you may allow someone to kind of know you also as just a human being, you know – and not just oh, white ally, oh, male ally – now we maybe can get to really know some of our stories and some of our personal makeup.
Speaking of trying to get to know each other beyond the political level; we were wondering if you had any opinions regarding drug and alcohol use within organizing circles.
I mean the BPP allowed the use of alcohol and marijuana, but it just couldn’t be done durin’ what was called ‘Party hours,’ or work hours. If you was workin’ you wasn’t supposed to do it before or durin’ work. After work, if folks drank or if folks smoked, it was allowed, you know?
Anything can be abused, you know. Alcohol, marijuana, even sometimes beliefs can be abused and be abusive. But one of the things I think in the BPP that was good about it was that it made for a more social organization, and it allowed us to be even more social with folks in our communities. You know, one was also always supposed to keep moderation in mind. Also, it helped to get a picture of a world where you wasn’t so uptight, proper, that you couldn’t get loose and just enjoy life. So therefore, it was not only just drinking or smoking marijuana; but we partied, we did all of that stuff. I think it helped when people saw us as real holistic people.
Today, I still think that that’s a good thing. Today, what concerns me is that people in the movement will sometimes use that kind of understanding to still hide the issues goin’ on inside of them that may have them drinking or smoking or partying even more than what might be healthy. My concern is, do you know when you’ve reached that point? And if you do, do you know how to ask for help? I have some of my older comrades who are just totally against drinking and smoking, cause we went through the sixties and the seventies and the crack epidemic and we saw all this destructiveness from it. But my other thing is, you know, we don’t want to be in the position of being the authoritarians and say you can’t do that in the movement. It could also lead to, you can’t do that once we create a new world or our own liberated territories.
I understand why the Zapatistas do it, but I think that there’s other ways, other practices that we can develop, or even the other understandings to accompany these practices to get people to really think about how much they do, and why they smoke or drink, cause I know folks who I’m concerned about, who I believe smoke or drink too much, and I know from getting to know them that there’s some other issues there. And now movement stuff, because we have this thing about freedom, and not being loose and hung up and bourgeois; [we think] that this is okay. And yeah, it’s okay, but now, you seem to not be able to do certain things at certain times because of this, or you don’t deal with some of the other ghosts in your own closet because of this, and maybe you need to do that. And can I be that person who, if I’m concerned, to bring it up to you? And if you need help, tell me what you need because then maybe possibly I can find someone to help you. There’s people in the movement now who’s got skills, from therapeutic skills to healing skills, and I think that all of that needs to be available, not only for our community, the community at large, but even for the communities of activists, because like I said before, we are products of this society.
We done got beat up in all kinds of ways by this society, and just because we’ve taken on a new belief and a new activist practice it don’t mean that we’re still not suffering, we’re not screaming silently, you know. And with the hope that this movement would help us to get to a better place, but then when it doesn’t, we got to still figure out how to get to that better place while we’re trying to stop this empire from oppressing all of us. But then the words of a Frantz Fanon, and the words of an Audre Lorde, and even the life of a Malcolm X becomes very important. Again it’s like, oh I gotta read that again, you know, cause I think I missed some understanding(s) here. What is internalized oppression? What are the radical existentialists saying about this, you know – what we suffer from being in this society, feeling like we’re lost? We don’t quite know how to judge things anymore. I mean, even activists go through this, and it may be family stuff, it may be just, ‘I lost a grip on how to see life in a more relevant way, and I’m medicating, I’m self-medicating.’ We gotta see that, no, we’re a part of this too, and we’re human too, and we gotta figure out all the time how to heal so that we can do the work we want, but also so that we can just enjoy the life that we got.
Can you speak on the power of poetry and spoken word in resistance movements?
Well, I like it. (laughs) I like it, what I can understand of it, okay. Like a lot of hip hop stuff, right, I’m like, man, I need someone to interpret that like Spanish, you know? But what I probably do more is read different writers’ analysis of today’s poetry, spoken word, music, and all that other stuff. You know, like I had kind of a narrow attitude towards punk rock – until I watched Afro-Punk and met Moe Cipher and began to see and appreciate the resistance aspect of punk rock. But you know, I look at a lot of the cultural artistic expressions today as like, this is the new phase of what we did back then.
Our poetry took on different forms than poetry of the fifties and the sixties, and I know there’s a connection between probably the fifties beat-era of poetry and then when you started getting into R&B and the Last Poets and the Watts Prophets, and all the other stuff that even led into radical hip hop and stuff. But it’s like, I look at how people’s creativity comes out in so many different ways and that for me is like what Hip Hop is doing. Hip Hop is probably right now one of the greatest communicators of revolutionary consciousness. You know, that aspect of Hip Hop that has to battle behind the awesome influence of the corporate control of that music, right. You still got Dead Prez, The Coup, and all these other folks who are tryin’ to put out something more positive, but I go places like – I was in Harlem, probably two or three weeks ago, just before I came to California – and on 125th Street, this brother, just by hand, is selling CDs of his hip hop group, and it’s radical stuff, you know? And then you go a couple blocks down and there’s a table set up – this is on the corner where all the Garveyites of the Black Nationalist Movement set up – and on the table is this other brother I meet, with his CD, of his own Black Nationalist radical hip hop. And it makes you think how in the sixties you had all the radical newspapers, so many radical newspapers.
Today, it’s not so much the newspapers, it’s like CDs that begin to play that kind of role. Directly related to how technology is advancing and developing and people’s access to it, you know, there’s so many people who connect with a consciousness movement through hip hop. Whether it’s by hand like that, whether it’s in these clubs where you find a lot of spoken word goin’ on, or at these political events, I think that we may can find more ways of bringing it back to communities – so maybe it’s not on busy commercial corners or stuff like that – but it’s out there. And the word does spread, so people do know about political prisoners, people do know about the Panthers and the Young Lords and the Brown Berets. They’ll hear the word ‘Aztlan’ and it’s not from some of those Chicano nationalists from the sixties and seventies whose voices were prominent back then. It may be more of the Chicano hip hop artists who are puttin’ it out there. So for me, it’s like looking for the different ways that these mechanisms are challenging the consciousness-raising tools of the empire, and not everybody is getting caught up into like CNN and all the other media out there – people do listen.
So, you’ve recently finished a series of speaking events throughout the West Coast. We wanted to know what were some of the most memorable moments during that tour...
Number one: God, Humboldt...
You don’t have to say that....
No, I mean, but it’s true. I tell people about it now – I mean you got 500 people to come out to see the video ‘All Power to the People’ and I do a question & answer. I’m like, I looked at that audience, I have never, never been in front of so many people. But to be able to organize this many people to come out to something specifically on this topic ... and when one says Panthers, one is not just saying the fact of the Panthers, but just more of the idea of resistance that will not limit itself in what it takes to be free – and that’s what Panthers represented. But for that many people to come out was just like, whoa.
And then the mitote, right? ‘Mitote,’ did I say it right? Cause I’m learning, I’m learning. So here, on a smaller scale, is such a great simple way to combine social and political. People coming together to eat; from different organizations and communities, representing different issues, to eat, to talk, to party. And this was kind of like the things back in the sixties too that was very effective. You know, it wasn’t just strictly political, it wasn’t just talking heads, somebody preachin’ to people. The learning experience and the affirmations was in all of the interactions themselves. Just the fact of the interactions was affirming what we’re about. The fact that people could get on the dance floor and listen to music and party, is affirming where we’re at with life – you don’t need some fancy ideology to be able to come out your mouth for that, it’s right there in your activity. So for real, I don’t just say it because y’all from there ... those things ... I was so impressed. So impressed. And the mitote, being something different, is something that I’m like, ‘Oh we gotta try that over here, we gotta do that, more consciously I think we gotta do it over here.’
And then, some of the other events I spoke at, actually all of them, the energy level and the desire of people to know was just so energizing for me. Even after every talk I gave, after every q & a, I felt like I worked a straight eight hour day with no break. But it was good, because it’s what I want to do. I want to be able to share my story, my experiences, and answer questions that people might have who want to know, if I can help with that.
So AK Press was really good. The turnout there was really good. When we went to LA, we spoke to this small youth group, and that may have been about thirty young folks, but it was good because these young folks are in a program, and some of them have already interacted with the criminal justice system and stuff, but they were hungry to know about the BPP. About the idea of taking on the system in a way where they’re taking back their lives, and doing it in a defiant manner, that they had the hope of winning, and to know from somebody who’s been through that, and whose been to prison, and who’s watched comrades die, and still be enthused. I got to do one, sort of like a panel, at DeAnza College and Yuri Kochiyama was on the same panel, and Gerald Smith, who is also a former member of the BPP, and [Raul] ‘Curly’ Estremera, who was also a soldier in the Black Liberation Army. Just to be on a panel with them became very memorable for me, because I’ve never been on a panel before with other of my comrades, and for us to all sit and just share all this stuff with the folks who came out was; it made me feel really good.
Are there any moments that you’d like to forget?
On the trip? Ha! Oh my god, not so far, not so far... maybe one white boy at East Side Arts Café whose racism really came out ... but then again, you look at it and say, ‘I’m glad it came out, cause people put him in check!’ But other than that ... no, I had ... man, I had a good time ... just maybe the fact that I had to leave. You want to be everywhere where there’s so much energy. I definitely loved being in Cali during them two weeks. From LA to Humboldt was just really good – and people were just really good with me.
You touched on this earlier: the Jericho Movement. Can you talk about it a bit more?
The Jericho Movement ... I think it started either ‘98 or just before ‘98. At least in ‘98 they had their biggest rally, march in Philly. The Jericho Movement is a political prisoner’s movement and it focuses on most of the political prisoners who’ve been in there since the sixties and the seventies, and there’s also some from the eighties. Many of them come from the BPP, Black Liberation Army, the A.I.M. movement (the American Indian Movement), the Weather Underground, and than more recently, some of the anarchists and Earth First and animal liberation folks – and I do work with them in New York. But I’m not a member.
Critical Resistance is my organization. I was the North East Regional Coordinator – I’m just a regular member now. Critical Resistance; because it’s about getting rid of prisons. And then as I learned later – a lot of people, they don’t necessarily say “prison abolition,” they say “penal abolition,” because penal abolition – it even goes beyond what people might think that abolition deals with. So penal deals with not only the physical structures of the prisons but the whole criminal justice system, the whole criminal justice ideology, you know, everything that goes into that, to perpetuate that kind of system – so it becomes necessary to look at society as a whole. Now Critical Resistance; what has always stood out about it is that it looks at society as a whole and not just prisons. But sometimes when people hear ‘prison abolition’ you got a lot of folks who identify with that, who just look at the prisons critically, and for us, it’s about looking at all those systems connected too – that makes prisons, the prison system – necessary, that you just can’t get rid of one, you gotta get rid of all of them. So we’re back to that small ‘r’ revolution; without looking at how to bring the empire down as a whole and get rid of it so that we can produce other institutions and practices in the process – that makes for a more just and freer world.
Well, that’s about it on our end. It’s been great talking to you; you are very inspiring. Thank you. We just wanted to ask if you had any closing ‘statements’?
‘Closing statements...?’ (laughs) No, I have a closing question. Okay, I can give a closing question, right?
I guess you can ... we’re pretty flexible.
Thank you so much; I’m gonna remember this. Alright, my question to all of you who read this and all this other stuff... is, ‘Will you carry the torch?’