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These Brothers Chose Well

Eddie Conway and Paul Coates on February 20, 2020

Eddie Conway and Paul Coates on February 20, 2020. (Photo: Susie Day).

Michael D. Yates is editorial director of Monthly Review Press. He is the author of Can the Working Class Change the World? (Monthly Review Press, 2018), among many other books.
Susie Day, The Brother You Choose: Paul Coates and Eddie Conway Talk About Life, Politics, and The Revolution (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2020), 180 pages, $16.95, paperback.

Writer, editor, and prison activist Susie Day has written a beautiful, heartrending, and inspiring account of the friendship between Paul Coates and Eddie Conway. Both were born in the late 1940s and grew up in Black communities—Paul in Philadelphia and Eddie in Baltimore. Both were members of the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s and early ’70s, and both were harassed by police for their radical activities as Party members. Eddie was wrongfully convicted of killing a Baltimore policeman and spent forty-four years in prison. Through it all, Paul was his steadfast friend and supporter, as well as partner in their political development and commitment to the liberation of Black people in the United States.

The book is developed through a series of interviews, in which Paul and Eddie speak to the author and to each other, beginning with Eddie’s release from prison in 2014, back in time through their childhoods, their gradual political awakenings, Eddie’s long and painful incarceration, and finally to the present day. Each section of the book is introduced by the author, who adds critical context but keeps herself firmly in the background. An afterword, done as an interview by Day with Paul’s son, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, is included, in which he examines both his relationship with his father and his own youthful visits, accompanied by Paul, with Eddie. There is also a useful glossary and an excellent list of references.

There are several themes, both implicit and explicit, in the words of these two remarkable men. First, in the United States, all Black persons live under a cloud of daily oppression.1 Even as children, Eddie and Paul see that they are different. They live in all-Black neighborhoods. They learn quickly that white people have more than their families, and white kids have more than they do. Eddie tells a wrenching story of going to perform a Christmas play at an all-white school with elementary school classmates, because their school auditorium was not large enough to accommodate all the parents and other family members and friends who would come. Eddie remembers, “they bused us over to a white elementary school to put it on. And in my little mind, it was inexpressibly amazing. I thought it was like Harvard or Yale or something. There’s a vast hall, there’s the science lab, there’s Bunsen burners and stuff.” After this, he was “devastated,” and from then on, did not do well in school. An undercurrent of anger infuses his being, although he is not consciously aware of it. Thinking back, he sees that he was not encouraged to have goals and ambitions.2

Paul feels much the same, although he endured more difficult family circumstances, with a father he loves but who is violently abusive, alcoholic, and has fathered children with his mother and two of his mother’s sisters. His mother is poor and has too many children to care for alone, so Paul is sent to live with his father, who repaired electronic equipment. Paul’s relationship with his dad makes for painful reading, but Paul takes from him the importance of learning what is going on in the world, to read newspapers, to watch the news, and to be prepared to have an opinion about the events of the day. He also absorbs from him a sense of family, that a person never abandons or denies a family tie. And while he took his mother for granted, in retrospect, he sees her as doing the best she could under conditions of dire poverty. He says,

My mother’s formal education was stopped when she got pregnant with my older brother David. I remember—this is me as a grown man, looking at other Black women who were educated, and admiring them so much—contrasting those women against my mother with little education.

One of the women I looked up to, one of my mentors, was my mother’s age. I used to look at her and think, “Wow, she could have been my mother,” you know. “She could have been my mother.”

But when my father brought me back to my mother, he dropped off four more people to live in that one-bedroom apartment, in addition to the kids she already had. It never occurred to me until recently that my mother easily could have said, “I can’t deal with this. They’ve got to go someplace else.”

The magnitude of her mothering is so large, compared to the smallness of my thinking, and not giving her credit, it blows me away. It’s an opportunity for me to be grateful, and to be touched with gratitude for my mother and her sacrifice.3

The two young men were relatively oblivious to the sharp changes taking place in the United States of their teenage years: the civil rights movement, the rise of Black nationalism, the impending, sharp, escalation of the war in Vietnam. Both eventually drop out of high school and join the army, which seemed to them a natural thing to do. It is in the military that their political consciousness is awakened. While the army offers needed discipline, an opportunity to learn new skills and become leaders, it is shot through with blatant racism and its main goal is to prepare soldiers to kill others. During leaves in Europe, Eddie meets people who are politically aware, who introduce him to books, although he had already begun reading about Columbus and the Spanish conquerors. He is not particularly moved by the assassination of Malcolm X. But two events serve as catalysts for his exit from the army and his future radicalization. His brother-in-law, who enlisted with him, is killed in Vietnam (he thinks this is his fault because he would not have enlisted alone), and he sees a newspaper photo that disturbs him greatly.

One: being a medic, I knew the damage that those 50-caliber bullets could do, and two: I knew the weapon. I knew that if you pressed that button, it would go off twenty-five to fifty times before you could stop it. I looked at that weapon, and I looked at the women [in the photograph]. This little white soldier is setting up in that tank and he’s pointing at these Black women.

I look over to my uniform, all starched and pressed. The boots are shining, and I’m ready to put this stuff on and go out. I say, “No. Something is wrong here. The army is not supposed to be in the middle of a Black community with machine guns pointed at Black women. One of them could be my mom.”

I was in shock. I went outside—which is a no-no—in my bathrobe. Even though I’m now a sergeant, I know I ain’t got no business out there like that. I say to the Black soldiers, “Did you all see this?” They say, “Yeah, I seen it.” They were like, “Oh yeah, another riot in the cities.”

I went and told my commanding officers, “I’m in the wrong army. I’m not going to Vietnam, I’m taking a leave.”4

Paul does go to Vietnam, but his job is to train guard dogs for the military police, so his tour of duty is a reasonably safe one. He had already, as a teenager, become interested in books and history, mainly from going into Philadelphia’s libraries and museums when skipping school. It was easy to be unobtrusive among the school groups that were almost always there. Then, after an ugly racist scene in an army camp recreation room, he comes upon Black Boy by Richard Wright. It has a profound impact: “Because I hadn’t known about Richard Wright and writers like Countee Cullen or Langston Hughes. I felt terribly ignorant. What Black Boy did was to make me aware of a genre. I decided that I would specialize, that I would read until I mastered that genre. So I began a serious pursuit of Black books. That was my conscious evolution. My identity came from books and that fight that day.”5

The book’s second principal theme is the importance of the Black Panther Party, both for our protagonists and for all Black Americans. Founded in 1966 in Oakland, California, by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, it exploded into public consciousness in 1968, a year of global revolutionary ferment.

As late as February 1968, the Black Panther Party was still a small local organization. By December, the Party had opened offices in twenty cities, from Los Angeles to New York. In the face of numerous armed conflicts with police and virulent direct repression by the state, young Black people embraced the revolutionary vision of the Party, and by 1970, the Party had opened offices in sixty-eight cities from Winston Salem to Omaha and Seattle. The Black Panther Party had become the center of a revolutionary movement in the United States.6

The FBI, the CIA, and other federal spying agencies considered the Panthers a threat to the country, especially since more than 40 percent of young Black people had “great respect” for them.

The Black Panther Party arose partly in response to the failure of the civil rights movement to win more than just voting rights and antidiscrimination laws, neither of which significantly changed the daily reality of Black life, with its disproportionate grinding poverty, lack of decent housing and employment, and constant police harassment and violence. The Panthers also perceptively saw that the liberation of Black communities in the United States was intimately connected to anti-imperialist struggles in what today we would call the Global South. Black struggles could thus be tied directly to those of the Vietnamese, Chinese, Algerians, Cubans, and many other peoples who had suffered under the yoke of imperial domination. This made the Party a natural magnet for the U.S. antiwar movement and radical, mainly white, organizations such as the Students for a Democratic Society.

What really solidified the strength and popularity of the Black Panther Party were its actions, including armed confrontations, to stop police brutality and to satisfy the material needs of Black neighborhoods. Day includes the Panthers’ “Ten-Point Program,” which is worth replicating here (see inserted box on the next page), especially for younger readers who may not know much about the Panthers and for those who may dismiss the Panthers as promoting an identity rather than a class politics.

It is one thing to publish a program, but it another to try to put it into practice. Paul and Eddie joined the Panthers toward the end of the 1960s when they returned from the military and became active in its programs. These were, by anyone’s standards, remarkable. They included “the Free Breakfast for Children Program, liberation schools, free health clinics, the Free Food Distribution Program, the Free Clothing Program, child development center, the Free Shoe Program, the Free Busing to Prison Program, the Sickle Cell Anemia Research Foundation, free housing cooperatives, the Free Pest Control Program, the Free Plumbing and Maintenance Program, renter’s assistance, legal aid, the Senior Escorts Program, and the Free Ambulance Program.”7 Just as the Party had become attractive to Black people, especially the young, so it attracted Eddie and Paul.

Eddie joined the Panthers first and soon became a leader. He saw that the Baltimore chapter was in disarray, perhaps because, as he came to believe, it was thoroughly infiltrated by police agents. In fact, he said, it might have been begun by them. The discipline and leadership abilities he absorbed in the army were soon put to good use, as he restored order and discipline to the Baltimore Panthers. Eddie and, later, Paul began Panther efforts in Baltimore, including the Free Breakfast Program, a People’s Health Clinic, and a food cooperative. The two did not work much together then; Eddie was a leader and Paul was a latecomer, not officially becoming a Panther until after Eddie went to prison. Ironically, given their later close friendship, Paul says he did not much like Eddie when they first met.

Unfortunately, and tragically, this work, which, as Day points out, should be considered part of the Panther commitment to the self-defense of Black communities, was cut short by the well-organized and ultimately successful campaign put into place by the vast police power of government. The Panthers were considered enemies of the state and targeted for elimination. Just as in the rest of the country, Baltimore Panther leaders were arrested on bogus charges, some shot and murdered, and police agents infiltrated the Party, sowing discord with psy-ops (psychological warfare) and inciting violence. These agents then testified, often falsely, in court against supposed Panther accomplices. Assassinations and murders occurred in Baltimore, and both Paul and Eddie were arrested—Paul on weapons charges and Eddie for murder. Police misconduct forced Paul’s charges to be dropped, but such was not the case for Eddie. He was arrested and charged with the murder of a Baltimore police officer, who was killed during a domestic disturbance investigation on April 24, 1970.

Whatever could go wrong for Eddie did: a muddled legal strategy, the judge’s refusal to allow him the lawyers of his choice, the ignoring of the recanted testimony of a police witness, the lies of a prison snitch moved to Eddie’s cell from a prison in Michigan, the unwillingness of the jury to consider his excellent alibi, and his ultimate abandonment by the Panther Party itself. Paul refused to similarly abandon his friend, and for this he was purged from the Party, as was Eddie. However, neither forsook the central ideas of the Panthers. These continued to guide them and still do.

The final major theme of The Brother You Choose is the U.S. carceral state, as told through a dialogue between the book’s two protagonists. Eddie is convinced that he will get out of prison and, remarkably, never loses faith in this, even after decades of imprisonment. Paul is less optimistic, but he nonetheless keeps empty and unsold a house he and his wife owned, just so Eddie will have a place to live when he does leave his jail cell. I found this to be an amazingly selfless gesture, but it was typical of Paul’s love for Eddie.

Not only did Paul visit his friend throughout the long years, never wavering in his support, but he also worked with him to push forward the struggle for Black liberation. And the friendship cut both ways. It was with Eddie’s encouragement and prodding that Paul opened a bookstore, which then provided books for prisoners. Eddie was from the beginning, and in spite of official harassment and punishment, active in organizing his fellow prisoners: mentoring, supplying books, teaching, trying to form a labor union, and much else. He worked with Paul on projects inside and outside of the prison, including efforts to win Eddie’s freedom. Eventually, Paul began to print books, at first putting them together by hand, and then starting a publishing company, Black Classics Press.

Through the press, not only were original and often out-of-print works by Black authors put in the hands of those incarcerated, but they were also made available to all Black people (and anyone else interested in the literature of Black life and struggle), in the United States and around the world. Paul points out the connection of his endeavors to Eddie and the U.S. prison system: “The George Jackson Prison Movement [organized by Paul and Eddie to connect those in prison with the outside world, largely through Black literature and culture], the bookstore, the publishing company, the printing press—all of that was connected to prison work. We were supposed to get books into the jail. You see, I believe that some of our best minds, some of our best people, are in jail. Some of the people we need to help us.”8 Throughout the book, Paul notes that publishing, printing, and selling books can be revolutionary acts. The printed word can help oppressed peoples understand who they are, why they face difficult circumstances, and what they might do about this. Words can be more effective than bullets, striking a deadly blow against oppressors.

The dialogue about Eddie’s imprisonment is powerful, and readers will find it riveting. I was especially moved by Eddie’s analysis of the nature of the prison system. The one thing that the authorities cannot countenance, the one act that they cannot allow to happen, is the political awakening of the people in their cells. Most of our prison’s inhabitants are Black, Hispanic, and Native American, those who have been most severely and brutally subjugated, whose lands and bodies have been stolen and whose exploited labors have built the United States. They therefore have the least to lose and the most to gain by destroying the system responsible for all of this, including the explosion in the number of those behind bars, and replacing it with something radically different. The shackles of ignorance must be kept firmly in place. And whatever or whoever enlightens those who do not understand, who encourages them to act together to change their conditions, must be suppressed. The Black Panthers offer a stark case in point; their example surely helped Eddie apply its lessons to prisons.

Eddie describes the hostile response of prison administrators to an attempt by the men to form a labor union in an effort to end the slave labor conditions of prison employment. However, it is the proactive efforts that are most effective. The prisons encourage the formation of gangs based on race and ethnicity. They place a recalcitrant Black man, for example, in the cell block reserved for white supremacists. Violence becomes endemic, which is what the authorities want. Individual prisoners who violate real or invented proscriptions are sent to solitary confinement, in notorious special housing units (a great euphemism for a medieval chamber of horror), often for unimaginably long periods of time. Drug use is encouraged; guards might even smuggle in narcotics. Many guards are themselves white supremacists, even Klan members. Eddie says that some were members of the National Guard units sent to Iraq, where they tortured Iraqi prisoners. They come back to the United States, where they not only do the same to prisoners but also might be called upon to suppress protests in urban Black communities. As Eddie describes,

the whole horrible business is body- and soul-destroying. Then, hundreds of thousands of those locked up are released every year, returned without resources to their communities. They cannot usually find employment. They may feel abandoned and isolated. Family members sometimes cannot bear to visit their children, grandchildren, siblings or parents when they are in prison. Or given that many prisons are (intentionally) located in distant rural areas (adding to guard-prisoner antagonisms), it is difficult and perhaps impossible to visit in the first place. Once “free” under such conditions, what man or woman will not be traumatized, all set to move right back into normal life? Not many.…

Let’s get back to this one guy. He’s frustrated, he’s been abused, and he gets on the street. He knows there was nothing he could do about what happened to him in there—but he’s got this transferred aggression, rage, anger, it’s all there. Then some misunderstanding happens, and you have a violent incident.

Maybe you have a guy from Eastern Shore or a guy from Cumberland, and they don’t even know each other. They both got that anger. You have that explosion of violence. Inside, prisons are manufacturing the violence that we see in our community. People don’t understand that; they’re still asking, “Why is all this killing going on?”

This killing is going on because these thirteen- or fifteen-, eighteen-year-olds who have gone to prison are now twenty or twenty-five or thirty and they’re out. They explode. “I ain’t letting you do this to me. Because now I can do something about it.” It’s like Frantz Fanon: it’s your buddy’s fault that you’re not free.9

I suppose it could be said that this book has a happy ending. Eddie is finally released; he and Paul are reunited in freedom. Both have continued their work of liberation and revolution. They both have grandchildren now, and Eddie is able to embrace them, cherish them, teach them. And yet, Day’s The Brother You Choose really teaches us that no society should be organized as ours is. No one should be denied happy childhoods, security, and the right to fully develop their capacities as full human beings. The hidden and very visible injuries of race, ethnicity, gender, and class create generation after generation of damaged people. We allow this to continue at our peril.

We learn to navigate the world from those who came before us—our parents and elders. We discover from those we encounter along life’s path. We learn from those we never meet but know only through their words and actions. We are social creatures, and what we think and do depends on our interactions with one another. There is much to be learned from Paul and Eddie: the value of friendship, the importance of hope, the need we all have for guiding principles, the firm belief that the world can be changed for the better. Readers will not be disappointed by this book. They will surely be uplifted.

Notes

  1. The data have always born this out, and they are as clear today as they were then. See Michael D. Yates, “It’s Still Slavery by Another Name,” Monthly Review 72, no. 1 (May 2020).
  2. Susie Day, The Brother You Choose (Chicago: Haymarket, 2020), 8.
  3. Day, The Brother You Choose, 29–30.
  4. Day, The Brother You Choose, 43–44.
  5. Day, The Brother You Choose, 47; Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr., Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 2.
  6. Bloom and Martin, Black Against Empire.
  7. Bloom and Martin, Black Against Empire, 183.
  8. Day, The Brother You Choose, 97.
  9. Day, The Brother You Choose, 111–13.
2021, Commentary, Volume 72, Issue 11 (April 2021)
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