By Carolyn Bick
Pouring from the entrance of the cozy Estelita’s Library in Beacon Hill, people listened to Jerrell Davis, also known artistically as Rell Be Free, perform inside. Out back in the library’s courtyard, others created silkscreen prints with the help of Takiyah Ward, the visual artist behind T-DUB Customs, and Franklin High School students raised money for an art class.
The assorted activities all centered around the Black Panther Party and the group’s newspaper, called The Black Panther, published between 1967 and 1980. Co-sponsored by the Seattle Public Library and held at Estelita’s on Saturday, the afternoon event was meant to introduce the community to the work of the Black Panther Party, and spark conversations about how to bring back some of the group’s work and ideals, library curator and event co-organizer Edwin Lindo said.
California Panthers Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the party’s paper in 1967, publishing the first edition on April 25, following the fatal shooting earlier that month of Denzil Dowell by a police officer in a suspected liquor store burglary incident. From there, the paper grew to encompass everything from somber events like the shooting to informative, community-driven actions, like the group’s free breakfast program.
Shawn Davis remembers how the Black Panthers helped her when she was a young girl, bringing the then-nine-year-old up to Monroe, Washington, to see her incarcerated brother. She also benefited from the party’s free breakfast program.
“I never saw them as bad people. However, I was a reader, so I knew a lot of the stuff that was going on with the Black Panthers, and I knew a lot of the violent part of the Black Panthers. But I also knew of the social justice side, and they were doing some very good things,” Davis said.
Gregory Davis talked about his own experiences with the party in his childhood city of Compton, during the 1960s and 1970s. He said he remembers that when the U.S. government started targeting party members at the same time Firestone and Goodyear moved out, leaving about 40,000 people out of work, his neighborhood started going downhill.
“At least half of that workforce were people of color. So, when they moved out, and [the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Counter Intelligence Program] started kicking up, and they did away with the Panthers, that’s when the gang activities started to increase,” Davis said. “Imagine, though, if the Panthers were still in place. They would have been able to put that in check.”
With the exception of the first edition, the group’s Ten-Point Program appeared in every paper, starting in May 1967. Created in 1966, the program is a set of guidelines and ideals the group held, and is comprised of two sections, “What We Want” and “What We Believe.”
Lindo invited attendees to read from the latter section, ending with a group call-and-response-style reading of the longest and last point.
He also explained the section’s assertion that all Black people should be released from jails and prisons, no matter their crime. Because the Black Panther Party and their supporters consider Black people political prisoners, due to the United States’ government racially-motivated targeting of Black communities –– whose activists today the FBI labels as “Black Identity Extremists” –– they believe incarcerated Black people haven’t gotten a fair trial, especially since juries were and still are majority white.
“Whether it was a crime for stealing gum at a store, or it was crimes that were more violent, our community was very clear that accountability had to be had. We want accountability, but we don’t want accountability at the hands of a racist, oppressive system that was never intended to actually provide justice,” Lindo said.
Though not discussed at the event, because it wasn’t the right time, Jerrell Davis also brought up the need to discuss the patriarchy, abuse, and “strategic elements that, maybe, were missteps” within the original Black Panther Party.
“We do need to have a debrief, so we make sure we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past,” Davis said.