Safiya Bukhari, THE WAR BEFORE: The True Life Story of Becoming a Black Panther, Keeping the Faith in Prison, and Fighting for Those Left Behind (New York: Feminist Press, 2010).
Safiya Bukhari could work miracles, like on February 28, 2000, when she and Paulette Dauteuil brought Nuh Washington’s mother and brother up to Comstock prison for a visit, and called me down too, for the six of us to celebrate his 59th birthday. Nuh, a beloved political prisoner who had spent close to 30 years inside as a result of the government’s war against the Black Panther Party (BPP), was dying of cancer. The six of us had a beautiful, joyous day together. As the infirmary orderly wheeled him away from our final “Happy Birthday,” Nuh looked back with glistening eyes and a sweet smile and said, “It has been, a very happy birthday.”
Safiya worked nonstop, on top of a job and many other political responsibilities, to support and strive to free political prisoners and prisoners of war (PP/POWs). Tragically she died of a pulmonary embolism in 2003, way too early at the age of 53. Now, thanks to the initiative of her daughter Wonda Jones, and an Amazonian editing effort by Laura Whitehorn, many of Safiya’s writings and speeches have been collected into The War Before, a sparkling gem of a book where even the preface by Wonda Jones brought tears to my eyes. It turns out that in addition to being a stellar organizer Safiya provided astute and invaluable reflections on that work and on the challenges of building a movement. Her style is direct and accessible – reading these selections is almost like having a conversation — and Laura Whitehorn’s helpful introductions to the essays along with the useful footnotes give today’s readers the context for the different cases and organizations mentioned.
Safiya herself was a political prisoner from January 1975 to August 1983, under harsh conditions in Virginia, where she had to fight to save her own life, threatened by medical neglect. She was a founder there of a program with the delicious title MILK, Mothers Inside Loving Kids, as a way to prevent the separation of children from their incarcerated mothers. She also fought for an adequate law library, decent job training, and religious freedom. Once she got out, she never let up in her efforts for PP/POWs, which she saw as integral to the movement for social justice.
This book goes way beyond her trailblazing work around PP/POWs. She gives about the best sense I’ve seen of what it was like to be a Panther in those breakthrough but dangerous years 1966-73. She does so by being very concrete about day-to-day activities: working in the Free Breakfast for School Children program, running an office, political education, physical fitness, criticism/self-criticism. And she has an impressively balanced and nuanced view of the history, accomplishing that almost impossible dual task for revolutionaries: stand firm on fundamental principles; openly examine and criticize mistakes.
Safiya provides a valuable lesson on security for an organization under attack by the state. The pitfall is posturing — trying to show how tough or technically adept we are. The sound approach is to stay rooted in our principles and our commitment to the oppressed. Instead of rumors and backbiting against comrades and instead of the liberalism of not raising differences directly, we need open and constructive discussion. Instead of labeling someone a snitch based on a hunch (the planting of false snitch jackets on comrades was one of the FBI’s most effective disruptive tactics), we need thorough and fair ways to investigate and adjudicate such charges: “We can no longer afford the luxury of rumor-mongering, making unsubstantiated allegations, or harboring ill feelings without airing them” (47).
COINTELPRO, the FBI’s illegal and murderous assault against the BPP and other radical organizations, figures prominently in her writings. But Safiya does not place all the blame for the demise of the BPP there; she also looks frankly at internal weaknesses. People who got caught up in ego, who put self-advancement ahead of basic principles, became vulnerable to the pressures and the tricks of COINTELPRO: “people in the Party allowed liberalism and egos to become more important than what we were working for…. The people and advancing the struggle are more important than any individual” (120). Looking at the overwhelming pressures on a very young and inexperienced organization, she neither glorifies nor airbrushes out the use of armed self-defense by the BPP (and later the Black Liberation Army), but she’s emphatic on the primacy of politics, a politics rooted in serving the people.
In analyzing male supremacy, Safiya explains that the history of oppression of the Black community created a very different framework for the development and overcoming of sexism than in the dominant society. Still, she is unambiguous: “we must deal with the problems of male chauvinism – along with domestic violence – in our communities” (60). The BPP, like all left groups of the period, had major problems with sexism, but the Party also took a monumental step forward for the times in having the courage to address women’s liberation and, almost uniquely, in affording Black women opportunities to be active organizers and to have high levels of responsibility within the organization.
Since Safiya didn’t get to edit or update essays for this book, some of her positions get frozen in time. She may well have had more to say about sexism and the role of women in the movement a decade after that piece was written. Or, as Laura Whitehorn points out in her introduction, Safiya’s subsequent years of working with allies in PP campaigns most likely led to a more supportive view of lesbians and gays than implied by her late 1980s remark about homosexuality as a “temptation” to be resisted. But the point is not that the reader has to agree with every sentence or even that Safiya would stand by each line, but rather that The War Before offers a wealth of experience and insights about principled organizing.
For me the most powerful and poignant piece is “Lest We Forget,” a pamphlet she put together in the early 1980s. So many bright, idealistic, young Black revolutionaries died in the chaos of the police attacks that it’s hard to remember who they were. Safiya took on the extremely painful but tender effort to list, with brief profiles, 43 individuals who lost their lives in the Black liberation struggle from 1966 to 1981 (28 of them between March 1968 and November 1973). This account is moving in capturing the intensity of the struggle — the sacrifices involved — while at the same time reminding us that each of those killed was a precious human being.
Safiya clearly poses the challenges ahead: “We have taken on, in our movement, the biggest enemy of human beings in the world: the US system of capitalism” (215). At the same time she stresses our sources of strength. For each of us, changing the world “begins with rebuilding the character into a revolutionary character of which the central component is love” (93).
There is much more in this book: her own process of radicalization, her belief that Islam and revolution are compatible and complementary, her astute analysis of how post-traumatic stress disorder affected veterans of the struggle, her cogent advocacy for death-row PP Mumia Abu-Jamal, her closing essay on the vicious and little known injustice to Kamau Sadiki, and more. But I’ll end by saying: to Wonda Jones and Laura Whitehorn, THANK YOU for retrieving and making this treasure trove available, and to Safiya Bukhari, PRESENTE! Your organizing, your love, your lessons live on with us.
Reviewed by David Gilbert, #83A6158
Clinton Correctional Facility
P.O. Box 2001
Dannemora, NY 12929