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.