Black Panther Charles Barron Invades New York City Council
The question is not to be or not to be, it’s “The Ballot or the Bullet?” And the answer played out in FBI backed assassinations, brazen bank heists and Panther politics.
One of the things that led to the decline of the original Black Panther Party are some ideas associated with a Huey P. Newton associated concept known as “Survival Pending Revolution.” That working within the framework of capitalist society was a necessary evil until that society could be overthrown.
While the Black Panthers originally embraced armed struggle as a means of liberation for the oppressed in America, in the early 70’s, the party embraced electoral politics as part of the Survival Pending Revolution way of thinking.
[Read Hip-Hop Wired’s interview with Charles Barron as he explains how he’s used those tactics as he sits on New York’s City Council.] More
This led to those who held onto the philosophy of armed struggle, such as former Minister of Information, Eldridge Cleaver, criticizing the ideas as reformist rather than revolutionary and many slipped into the underground shadows of the Black Liberation Army to continue the war while Panthers ran for political office in Oakland.
While these ideas of electoral politics versus revolutionary tactics caused conflict and division in the Black Panther Party, they have found a working harmony in one of the Party’s former members, New York City Councilman Charles Barron. While some may see a contradiction in an avowed socialist holding an office in the financial capital of New York City, for him it is a merely a matter of strategy, a means to an end. Internal infiltration coupled with external agitation.
For him, there is no either or. He wants full use of both the ballot and the bullet.
Hip-Hop Wired: You were a member of the original Black Panther Party, is that not right?
Councilman Charles Barron: I was an 18-year-old member of the Harlem branch of the Black Panther Party. I was one of hundreds of supporters. I sold my papers, I wasn’t known, no one knew me, but I knew people like Cetewayo Michael Tabor (Panther 21), and Afeni Shakur (Panther 21, Tupac’s mother), Joanne Chesimard (Assata Shakur, Tupac’s Aunt) was around then, a sister named Joan Bird (Panther 21) Jamal Joseph was there. The one who recruited me was a brother named Mark Holder. When I was in my Panther days, I was giving out my papers and I learned a lot about my politics was shaped and molded by the Black Panther Party.
I learned about the Cuban revolution, and more about the Algerian Revolution, Chinese, Revolution, Indian revolution, and independence movements in Africa. Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Sekou Toure of Guinea. So when I learned about all these movements and in the Black Panther Party you had to do Political Education. You had to read Axioms of Kwame Nkrumah. The Little Red Book (Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse Tung) and learned a lot about Marxism and Leninism and Maoism and those things and it was strange because everybody that I was against, America was for. They claim they’re fighting for democracy and regime change in Iraq and other places, but yet historically America supported the Duvaliers, Papa Doc and Baby Doc in Haiti. Murderers!
America supported (Augusto) Pinochet in Chile, a murderer of Salvador Allende, a socialist who was duly elected in Chile. (Ferdinand) Marcos in the Philippines and the Shah of Iran and the SAVAK where they [overthrew] (Mohammad) Mosaddegh in  who was duly elected by the Iranian people and the CIA came and wiped him out and put in the Shah who was a murderer! And of course in Cuba, (Fulgencio) Batista, a murderer! Capitalist murderer! And here came Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. And then the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, they supported General Samoza in Nicaragua. A murderer! So America has always been on the side of murderous dictators, even Osama Bin Laden was Ronald Reagan’s Afghani Freedom Fighter when Russia was in Afghanistan and Sadam Hussein was America’s boy when they wanted him to fight against the Ayatollah Khomeini in the Iranian war.
So this is a hypocritical country and I’ve learned a lot of my political education from the Black Panther Party and that’s why I still say I’m a Black Panther to my heart because in the 10-Point Program we talked about an immediate end to police brutality and exemption from us going to the military because we’re not going to fight against countries and people of color abroad when we don’t even have our freedom domestically and we fought for housing and clothing shelter and relevant education and this was all part of the 10-Point Program of the Black Panther Party which is still what I’m fighting for today.
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Hip-Hop Wired: How would you compare back then to now?
Councilman Charles Barron: That’s an excellent question, I was just talking to my wife Inez, (New York) Assemblywoman. Where is the Black consciousness? Where is the conscious Rhythm & Blues stars? We don’t hear the message in the music, as much as people get on Hip-Hop. Hip-Hop has some of the most radical revolutionary messages of all the music along with Reggae and even Calypso has more message than Rhythm & Blues.
There’s no M-1’s, there’s no dead prez in Rhythm and Blues. And then look at the athletes now, we don’t have the John Carloses and the Tommie Smiths now. Look at the actors, we don’t some of the actors who, even Sammy Davis, Jr. was part of the Civil Rights Movement and Harry Belafonte. Now we have Danny Glover and that’s about it.
And look at the elected officials, we don’t have any more Adam Clayton Powells and Ben Smith who was a Black communist and was the second Black City Council member elected, so the mood today is that there aren’t any movements that are prominent like a Civil Rights Movement, Black Power Movement. Those don’t exist so it’s not influencing sports, entertainment and music and all those industries.
James Brown had to say: “I’m Black and I’m proud” because we had a Black Power Movement; a cultural nationalist movement, a Black pride movement. Aretha Franklin had to say R-E-S-P-E-C-T calling for respect because that’s what we were saying: “Respect our sisters, they’re queens!” And the music was reflective of the movements of those times. We don’t have those kinds of movements. We need a Black consciousness movement in America in all our communities.
We need a cultural, Black arts movement, a cultural revolutionary movement. We can’t be a post-racial society, we got to be pro our race, we got to be proud. We got to say we’re a Black doctor, not a doctor that happens to be Black. We got to be a Black president, not a president that happens to be Black. This is a different time and I think we need to raise more Black consciousness and commitment to our liberation.
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Hip-Hop Wired: During that time the Black Panthers were known to reach out directly to the artists, to be there at their concerts. Were you as aware of this practice, and what do you think that has as far as lessons today?
Councilman Charles Barron: That’s what we need to do more of instead of just criticizing them on TV, making speeches against them. Call them up, sit down and talk to them. Like Cornel West does. Like Michael Eric Dyson. Sometimes different people are reaching out to the artists. We need to do more of that because there’s no movement that can influence them by themselves, so individuals have to reach out to them. Even in the Black Panther Party, Leonard Bernstein, he was a white man who was the conductor of the symphony orchestra in New York, gave the Panthers $10,000.
Marlon Brando went to the funeral of Little Bobby Hutton. Little Bobby Hutton was the first Panther to die, 17-years-old. He was shot by Oakland cops. Jane Fonda was around the Panther movement. Sammy Davis Jr. respected the Panthers, couldn’t do what they did but he respected them. So a lot of artists identified with the Black Panthers. We had a lot of that. What’s missing today is that movement. People need to be proud to be Black. Back to being proud to be African people. And then making sure that when we’re in politics that you don’t deemphasize your Blackness to quote unquote get over to make it, because when you lose your soul and your Africanness, no matter how much money you get, you’re not making it.
Hip-Hop Wired: What motivated you to run for office to begin with?
Councilman Charles Barron: Power. I was tired of demonstrating and screaming and hollering and watching people in power ignore us or do a little bit for us, give us some crumbs off the table. I was in East New York protesting against them building a movie theater on Linden Boulevard, I had 200 people out there, media all over the place. ‘No Justice! No Peace!’ Every day I came out here another brick went up. How did this happen? Well, the city councilman has the power to determine what’s built on city owned property, and the city councilman signed off on it while we were demonstrating. To me, that’s power and if we would’ve gotten the city council member to support us and not signed off on it, it still wouldn’t have been our power that would’ve been influence.
There’s a difference between influence and power when you have to march and scream and holler to persuade people in power to make decisions that are in your best interest, that’s influence. When you have that seat, that’s power. When I found out that, I went for that seat, got the seat now I got me a little power. They have to respect me differently. They don’t care if I’m a Panther. When I said I’m not an Ex-Panther, I’m still a Panther to my heart, no matter what I say and do. White men with money that want to develop something in East New York have to come see me with respect and affordable housing or else it won’t get done because I got a little power to influence that.
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Hip-Hop Wired: You’ve always referred to yourself as an elected activist, how did you come about embracing this title as opposed to being an “elected official?”
Councilman Charles Barron: Whatever I do in life I am first and foremost a revolutionary, an activist, a freedom fighter. Whatever profession I ever would have gotten into, if I were to become a doctor I would be a revolutionary doctor, a freedom fighter doctor, a radical doctor, an activist doctor.
Because I think that whatever we do in life, (unless we get involved in this movement to radically change America so that we have a foreign policy that is not imperialistic and have a domestic policy that is not an exploitative capitalistic policy and unless we embrace the continuation of our Black Power movement, our Civil Rights Movement, our Black Nationalist Movement our Cultural Nationalist Movement,) every generation has to have these movements or else we’re in trouble.
It’ll be a misguided generation. So when you come into this 21st century and you look at the artists, you don’t see the same connections to the Black Power Movement and the Civil Rights Movement that some of the artists were in the 60’s. And when you look at our athletes you don’t see them raising their black glove clenched fists to the American flag, they’re wrapping themselves in the American flag as they run around an take their little victory trots. So I want to continue to always be an activist to always be revolutionary and to always be radical no matter what I do.
Hip-Hop Wired: What advice would you give to the Hip-Hop generation?
Councilman Charles Barron: Hip-Hop generation, I would encourage them to be like Andre T. Mitchell. He has a group called Hip-Hop Stand Up and Vote (Hip Hop SUV). Get involved in American electoral politics. We need to have Hip-Hop candidates, Hip-Hop congressmen, Hip-Hop councilmen, Hip-Hop assemblymen. I think the Hip-Hop community needs to get in seats of power, raise the consciousness fight for those things like jobs, health care, education and housing for our youth because I’m so fearful that our youth are out here.
How are they going to afford a house and get a living wage job and get beyond survival so they can fight for their liberation? We have a dual struggle out here; a struggle for survival and a struggle for liberation. Most of our people are in the struggle for survival they don’t even want to hear about no liberation. So, the Hip-Hop community can reach millions of people that many of us can’t reach and if they empower them to get involved in electoral politics and I’m not talking about supporting somebody else: support yourself!
Run candidates, we have this organization called Operation P.O.W.E.R. (People Organizing and Working for Empowerment and Respect) where we’re training people on how to win elections. We’ve done that. And how to deliver to your community after you’ve won. We’ve done that also. And how to stay Black, radical and conscious and still be involved in this process. We’ve done that as well. So that would be my message to the Hip-Hop community, we need to seize power and seize the time that we’re in and one of the best ways, I think, is through the electoral arena.