The War Before: The True Life Story of Becoming a Black Panther, Keeping the Faith in Prison and Fighting for Those Left Behind is a collection of interviews, speeches, pamphlets and essays written by late Black Panther Party activist Safiya Bukhari. With an introduction by Laura Whitehorn, a foreword by Angela Y. Davis and an afterword by Mumia Abu-Jamal, this is a well-produced book that serves to explain all the topics to novices such as myself while tackling some of the greatest issues faced by Black Power and revolutionary movements in the 1960s and '70s.
Safiya Bukhari began her life as Bernice Jones. She had a middle-class, Christian upbringing and was expected to become a professional like her siblings. Bernice’s parents had taught their children higher education would bring them success in the world. Bernice decided to become a doctor and began studying premed at New York City Community College in Brooklyn in 1968. She joined the only integrated sorority, Eta Alpha Mu, and began to seek ways to do volunteer work. It was Bernice who convinced her sorority sisters to concentrate their efforts in the local community rather than focusing on children abroad.
Along with her sorority sisters Yvonne and Wonda, Bernice volunteered at the Free Breakfasts for Children Program. This was a program organised by the Black Panther Party in the local communities to ensure that children did not go to school without breakfast. It was during one her visits into the community that she saw police harassing a Black Panther member selling newspapers. She stood up for him and was thrown against a police car and arrested.
Her treatment during this process was inhumane and degrading to such an extent that she went straight home to tell her parents about the incident. She told her parents that she felt she had to stand up against such police brutality and her parents gave her their blessing, telling her to do what she thought was right. She went straight back to Harlem and joined the Black Panther Party*.
During her time in the Black Panther Party, Bernice became a Muslim and adopted the name Safiya Bukhari. She was arrested at the scene of a grocery store shooting in Norfolk, Virginia and charged with robbery and felony murder. Sentenced to 40 years, she served nine years, much of it in solitary confinement.
On release from prison, Safiya became involved in fighting for the rights of political prisoners in the U.S. and she campaigned on behalf of political prisoners right up until her death in 2003.
The works that make up The War Before were written from 1979 to 2002. They cover the experiences that lead to Safiya becoming an activist and member of the Black Panther Party and cover such issues as safety and security of Black people and party members; sexism within the party; Islam and activism; the plight of political prisoners in the US and finally, COINTELPRO and the efforts of the FBI to undermine the Black Power movement.
The book is fascinating and an eye opener. It is important to see the actions and beliefs of the Black Panther Party in the context of the late 1960s and 1970s where civil liberties were not guaranteed and Black people were often subjected to racism, prejudice and police brutality. That is not to say that such factors do not exist today but the Black Panther Party does not and hence a historical perspective is needed.
It is incredible to see the lengths the FBI went to in their counter-intelligence program and to learn of such events as the Church Committee which aimed to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” civil rights and other dissident political organisations. Documents opened by the Church Committee showed that the FBI achieved this by manufacturing and manipulating evidence and framing people.
So it was that the Black Panther Party moved from community-based projects to primarily defending court actions against its members, many of whom had been framed or manipulated.
The War Before raised as many questions for me as it answered and has certainly made me want to learn more about that period and the gains and losses of the civil rights and liberties movements.
The one thing the book does not offer is an objective perspective of the actions of the Black Panther Party or an acknowledgement of illegal acts or acts of sabotage that were committed by Safiya or people known to her. Organisations such the African National Congress in South Africa and Sinn Féin in Ireland have acknowledged the actions they took in order to fight for their respective causes. I imagine that in an atmosphere without the possibility of amnesty, where political prisoners remain behind bars or on death row, such a candid attitude may not have been possible — and certainly not in Safiya’s lifetime.
The other factor which seemed to be missing from the Introduction, Foreword and Afterword was an attempt to establish the book in the context of the current political context where an African American man is now president of the United States of America. Certainly, the struggle for better conditions, education, health care and freedom from prejudice, brutality, and discrimination has not been won but I believe the book would have benefitted somewhat by an explicit attempt to make it relevant and significant today. While the plight of political prisoners certainly continues, it would have been interesting to read whether there were expectations now that the current administration would impact on any of the issues raised in the book.
Despite the questions left unanswered, I would recommend The War Before to those interested in history, social justice and civil liberties. While Safiya Bukhari was astounding at times in her insight and understanding, the essays and speeches in this collection are easy to follow for even the most uninitiated reader. I would go so far as to say that this is an important book and I do see the relevance of such a book in the political climate of today.
* The Black Panther Party was originally named Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and was initially started to help the community protect themselves from police brutality. The party was founded in 1966 and was a black consciousness movement. In addition to the Free Breakfasts for Children Program, the Black Panther Party served the community by providing free medical clinics, arranging for testing of sickle-cell disease, holding classes on economics and politics, giving lessons on self-defense and providing drug and alcohol rehabilitation. Divisions within the party and a campaign of infiltration and disruption on the part of the FBI’s counter intelligence program (COINTELPRO) eventually lead to the demise of the Black Panther Party in the mid-1970s.