A youth-focused reaction to Fred Hampton’s 1969 speech.
by Michael Dixon and Mark Epstein
Our youth today are in an extremely fragile state. There is no movement they can look to be a part of that is guiding them to a better place. Whether we are a member of a group based on ethnicity, religion, gender, or gender preference, we are vulnerable to attack. The greatest threat to oppressive power today is that people will get out of their individual identity issues and unite. This is particularly troubling since the power of a people depends on the vision and power of its youth.
“Power anywhere where there’s people. Let me give you an example of teaching people. Basically, the way they learn is observation and participation. You know a lot of us go around and joke ourselves and believe that the masses have Ph.D.s, but that’s not true. Because with some things, you have to learn by seeing it or either participating in it. And you know yourselves that there are people walking around your community today that have all types of degrees that should be at this meeting but are not here. Right? Because you can have as many degrees as a thermometer.”
In this speech, 19-year-old Fred Hampton argued that when people participate directly in realizing their hopes and desires for their community, it instantly translates into asking what changes need to happen. He says that mistakes will be made, but a reflective community led by the youth will be open to change.
The youth today recognize that in the palm of their hands; they hold the universality of experience. They are in desperate search for connection. What is missing is the possibility of putting theory into practice; this is the challenge facing our youth and our society today. What is needed is a catalyst.
Fred Hampton understood this at a young age on the streets of Chicago in the late 1960s. It propelled him to show warring gangs that not only could they end their battles, but that their community could be served by caring action. He started the Breakfast Program in the Black community, later extending it to the Puerto Rican community with the Young Lords, and together into the poor white neighborhoods.
Hampton gives the example of Huey Newton and Bobby Seale leading the Oakland community to put up their own stop signs at a dangerous intersection and bring their guns with them to keep themselves safe. Though Seattle is still late to the game, stop signs have been lifesavers in many different areas. His point is that when people participate jointly in an effort to improve their community, it leads to a change in reality.
However, Fred Hampton declares that reform is the wrong way to go. “A lot of people get the word revolution mixed up and they think revolution’s a bad word. Revolution is nothing but like having a sore on your body and then you put something on that sore to cure that infection. And I’m telling you that we’re living in an infectious society right now. I’m telling you that were living in a sick society. And anybody that endorses integrating into this sick society before it’s cleaned up is a man who’s committing a crime against the people.”
There are numerous examples of reforms that have not made substantive change — school integration and busing, changing redlining by banks or real estate companies, police cameras (which can be turned off at will). Changes that are needed today must be dictated by what the community needs and require the community’s participation. Institutions in this country need to be fundamentally restructured, with democratic participation of people in control.
“You see, people get involved in a lot of things that’s profitable to them, and we’ve got to make it less profitable. We’ve got to make it less beneficial (for them.) I’m saying that any program that’s brought into our community should be analyzed by the people of that community. It should be analyzed to see that it meets the relevant needs of that community.”
According to Hampton and the Black Panther philosophy, identity politics and cultural nationalism will not fundamentally change the power in our society. “Anybody who comes into the community to make profit off the people by exploiting them can be defined as a capitalist. And we don’t care how many programs they have, how long a dashiki they have. Because political power does not flow from the sleeve of a dashiki … politics is war without bloodshed.” Identity politics has its limitations.
The breakfast and food programs, the medical clinics (like Sidney Miller and Carolyn Downs today in Seattle), started by the Panthers, were grassroots efforts that led to concrete policy change. Hampton talks about the power in the hands of the elder women who carried out the daily feeding of children before school.
Murdering 21-year-old Fred Hampton in his bed was an attempt to kill the movement, to kill the idea of solidarity. Assassination disrupted the progress and flow of change inspired by the rising hopes of the decade. The time is ripe now for young Fredericks and Fredricas to step forward and continue to move toward the vision of unification of the human race; our survival depends on it.
The South Seattle Emerald is committed to holding space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing perspectives do not negate mutual respect amongst community members.
The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.
Michael Dixon recently retired from over 25 years as a security specialist for Seattle Public Schools. Dixon is a former Garfield High School student, where he helped found the Black Student Union, and a former member of the Seattle Black Panther Party — which was founded by his two older brothers.
Mark Epstein taught social studies, ELL, and elementary school for 35 years in the Rainier Valley and is currently a substitute teacher for Rainier Beach High School.
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