February is “Black History Month” and, coincidentally or not, the shortest month of the year. Every February, we admire the approved panorama of admittedly phenomenal African-American leaders, martyrs, and icons—yet the stories of the vast majority of black people in this country, living and dead, remain untold. This is especially true of the lives of militant black leftists, the people who came to realize—because they had no other choice—that the founding principle of this country, “liberty and justice for all,” was a lie, premised on centuries of slavery, capitalism, and the supremacy of white “culture” over their lives. And once they saw this lie for what it was, they dedicated their lives to calling it out and opposing it.
One such person was Safiya Bukhari, a pre-med student with a middle-class background, who, in 1969, decided to join the Black Panther Party. She later joined the Black Liberation Army and spent nearly nine years in prison. The remainder of her life, after her release in 1985, was dedicated to other political prisoners, mostly black and mostly forgotten, many incarcerated since the years following the demise of the Party. Safiya wasn’t primarily a writer; she was an organizer who consistently examined and occasionally wrote about her work. In this 1991 essay, excerpted from The War Before—a collection of her writings, which I edited and is published by the Feminist Press (2010) with a foreword by Angela Davis, afterword by Mumia Abu-Jamal, and preface by Safiya’s daughter Wonda Jones—Safiya examines another little-known aspect of black history: the psychological damage inflicted on black militant activists by the U.S. government and its counterintelligence programs.
I was nineteen when I joined the Black Panther Party and was introduced to the realities of life in inner-city Black America.
From the security of the college campus and the cocoon of the great American Dream Machine, I was suddenly stripped of my rose-colored glasses by a foray into Harlem and indecent housing, police brutality, hungry children needing to be fed, elderly people eating out of garbage cans, and hopelessness and despair everywhere. If I hadn’t seen it for myself, I would never have believed that this was America. It looked and sounded like one of those undeveloped Third World countries.
Between 1966 and 1975, eager to be part of the fight for the freedom and liberation of black people in America from their oppressive conditions, thousands of young black men and women from all walks of life and backgrounds joined the ranks of the Black Panther Party. They were met with all the counterforce and might of the United States war machine.
Not unlike the young men who went off to fight in the Vietnam War, believing they were going to save the Vietnamese from the ravages of “communism,” the brothers and sisters who joined the ranks of the Black Panther Party, with all the romanticism of youth, believed that the rightness and justness of their cause guaranteed victory. We were learning the contradiction between what America said and what it did. We were shown examples of the government’s duplicity, and we became victims of its Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), an all out, multiphasic war designed to stifle dissent in America in general, and in the black community in particular.
We came into the struggle believing that we would prevail. Because our struggle was right and just, we said, “We shall win without a doubt!” All we had to do was present an organized and disciplined united front and be determined to gain our freedom by any means necessary, and our victory would be assured.
We theorized about what we were up against. We marched, sang, and rhetoricized about the implications of being “in the belly of the beast.” We dissociated ourselves from anything or anyone that had been close to us and regurgitated the bravado about the struggle being primary—that, in order to win, we must be willing to sacrifice mother, father, sister, or brother. We embraced all of this in much the same manner that the drill sergeant in the Marine Corps psyched up the recruits to fight in Vietnam.
Veterans of the War in Vietnam
In 1967 my brother came home from Vietnam. He looked good. There were no scars or missing limbs. We were ecstatic. His bedroom was next to mine on the second floor of our duplex apartment in the Bronx. In the middle of the night I heard agonized screams coming from his room. Not knowing any better, I went to him and touched him to soothe him. He instantly went on the attack. He grabbed me with one hand, his other like a claw. I don’t know what saved me; whether it was my screaming his name or throwing myself on him, but he came to himself before he harmed me.
That night, he told me about watching his entire platoon get wiped out; about gouging eyes out with his bare hands; about not knowing who the enemy was, and what direction they would come from the next time; and about some of the other nightmares of Vietnam. After that, we never talked about it again.
Before going to Vietnam, my brother had wanted to become a doctor. After returning from Vietnam, he could not stand the sight of blood. He drank straight gin continuously, like ice water, without getting drunk.
My brother made the horror of Vietnam real to me in 1967. I wasn’t to experience anything remotely close to that again until I joined the Black Panther Party and came to realize that you didn’t have to travel around the world to experience the ravages of war. The physical conditions of the Vietnam War were not present here. But, for those of us who had been raised to believe that America was the land of the free and the home of the brave, and who were now involved in a struggle for liberation and human rights for black people, the psychological conditions were just as intense.
We, Too, Are Veterans
We joined the Black Panther Party (and therefore the black liberation struggle) with a lot of hope and faith. We believed that the struggle would end for us only with our death or the freedom of all oppressed people. With the destruction of the Black Panther Party our freedom was still not assured, and we were left with no sense of direction or purpose—no one to tell us what to do next—and the knowledge that the job was not done. We hadn’t just mouthed the words “revolution in our lifetime”; we had believed them. We sincerely believed that the Black Panther Party would lead us to victory.
We had experienced the death and/or imprisonment of countless brothers and sisters who had struggled right beside us, slept in the beds with us, eaten at the same table with us. (As I write this, the picture of Twymon Myers’s bullet-riddled body flashes before my eyes. Shot [by New York City police] so many times that his legs were almost shot off. Then the desecration of his funeral when the FBI jumped from behind tombstones and out of trees at the cemetery, with sawed off shotguns and machine guns pointed toward the mourners. “This is your FBI! Get out of the cars with your hands in the air and line up in a single file with enough distance between each of you so we can see you clearly.”) Pictures pop in and out of our minds with no prompting.
Then there were the murders of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, Bunchy Carter and John Huggins, Sandra Pratt and Little Bobby Hutton, not to mention Fred Bennett,* the countless shootouts, the infiltrations and setups that left you leery of strangers or of anyone getting too close or acting too friendly. This left you constantly on guard and under the pressure of not knowing who your friends were and from which direction the next threat was coming.
Still, I think I’m one of the lucky ones. In 1983, after serving eight years and eight months of a forty-year sentence, I was released on parole. While in prison I maintained my commitment to the struggle for the liberation of black and oppressed people. What kept me going was knowing that the reason they were killing and locking up Panthers was to break them and therefore to break the back of the struggle. I was determined that I would survive and, one way or the other, live to fight another day. We languished in the prisons and watched the growing lack of activity on the streets and promised ourselves that things would be different when we came home.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as “an anxiety disorder caused by the exposure to a psychologically distressing event that is outside the range of usual human experiences.” Such events might include watching a friend die violently or unexpectedly; experiencing serious threats to home or family; or living under constant or prolonged fear or threat.
As I looked over the list of PTSD symptoms, I recognized myself. And it wasn’t just me. More and more, there seemed to be some kind of pattern developing in the behavior of my other comrades who had survived the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army.
Our intense belief in the rightness and justness of our cause, and that things would be different when we returned to the streets; our awareness that we are still alive while our people’s conditions have grown worse despite all our sacrifices—all this produces a traumatic shock to our system. This is the ultimate shock. We survived while others died. Despite all their intents and purposes, their deaths were in vain. The struggle hasn’t been won. I contend that these elements have caused us to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder. We, too, are veterans.
* All of these members of the Black Panther Party were killed by police or in inter-organizational battles provoked by COINTELPRO, the FBI’s counterintelligence program. See, for example, The Assassination of Fred Hampton by Jeffrey Haas (Lawrence Hill Books).