On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a Black man, was murdered by Derek Chauvin, a white Policeman in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Captured on camera and viewed by millions, Floyd’s brutalization inspired an uprising in multiple cities across the United States and the world.
In Seattle, WA, protesters in an area termed “Capitol Hill Occupied Protest,” (CHOP), painted a Black Lives Matter (BLM) mural on the street, engaged in film screenings and other educational activities, planted a community garden and provided free food in a festive, non-violent atmosphere reminiscent of the community-outreach programs of the Black Panther Party (BPP).
In the following interview, the first in a series with BPP veteran members, I speak with author and activist Aaron Dixon, co-founder of the Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party. Dixon discusses the Panthers, his experiences in Seattle, and hopes and fears for the current uprisings.
Yoav Litvin: What was your role in the Black Panther Party?
Dixon: I co-founded the first BPP chapter outside of the state of California in Seattle, Washington, in 1968 at the age of nineteen. We followed the ideology and the direction of the Oakland National Headquarters.
The primary, foundational goal of the BPP was to teach Black people they had a right to self-defense. Of course, the gun was very visible and important at the early stages of the BPP. We did Police patrols in Seattle and Oakland to hold Police accountable and protect our communities from their brutality and racism. The states of California and Washington had laws permitting anyone to openly carry until legislation passed to no longer allow it.
In 1969, the Director of the F.B.I. – J. Edgar Hoover – called the BPP the “greatest threat to internal security of the country”, initiating a campaign to destroy us. At that point we shifted our focus from defense to community programs. We were well aware of the economic hard times, not just for Black people but also Brown, white and other allies. People did not have enough food to feed their kids, or be able to afford proper medical care and other essential social services, and so we stepped in.
The BPP had a newspaper “Intercommunal News Service”, which was our most important weapon and instructive tool. We used it to describe and define news within our communities and around the world.
The first BPP community program – free breakfast for school children – started in Oakland in 1969. It extended to Seattle where we opened five locations and from there it spread to BPP chapters throughout the country. It was also adopted by other revolutionary organizations such as the Brown Berets, Young Lords, Young Patriot Organization, and American Indian Movement (AIM).
The BPP embraced health care rights for all as a central tenet of our activism. The first free medical clinic opened in 1969 and there were thirteen such clinics throughout the country. Our free medical clinic in Seattle, the Carolyn Downs Family Medical Center, remains open today.
YL: How did the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. affect you?
Dixon: I marched with MLK Jr. when I was 13 years old and had a chance to meet him. He inspired me to be involved in the civil rights movement at a very young age. When MLK Jr. was assassinated thousands of us across the country became radicalized.
YL: Can you recall a particular incidence in Seattle involving Police that had a lasting impression on you?
Dixon: On a Friday evening in April of ‘68 shortly after little Bobby Hutton was murdered by Oakland police, I was with five other Panthers eating dinner at a local soul food restaurant in Oakland. Oleander and I went outside for a smoke. A police car drove up to the intersection and stopped at the light. Oleander was a young buck who had participated in the armed march on the state capitol. He began yelling cuss words at the Police, calling them ‘pigs’, as we often did, adopting the image created by Emory Douglas. I joined in. The cop drove around the block and called for backup. As reinforcements showed up, the other Panthers came out of the restaurant. We were armed and wearing our Panther uniforms and still enraged by the murder of 17-year-old little Bobby.
As the pigs rolled out of their cars, Panther Robert Bay, a Vietnam vet, instructed us to spread out. We followed his command to face them. There must have been about ten of them to our five. Minutes earlier the streets were full of people and suddenly they were empty. The prostitutes remained though, proclaiming from across the street they would stay with their ‘brothers’, meaning us. It was a tense scene as the head pig began to move toward Landon Williams with a hand on his gun, threatening to search him. Landon backed up saying “you ain’t goin’ to search me.”
At that tense moment, I saw a young high school-aged teen with an arm full of groceries. Our eyes met and I remember wishing he would stay and help us out. He looked at me and blurted out he had to get home and quickly ran into the night.
I had visions of my childhood flashing through my mind as I prepared to die. The head pig continued to approach when Landon suddenly tripped over a metal garbage can lid, and quickly caught himself as the lid reverberated loudly in the silence. It seemed to break the tension. The pigs slowly began to back up, got in their cars and drove off. They had been bunched up together as we spread out. You could see the fear in their eyes. In contrast, we did not display our fear. I was never a victim.
The next Day Chief of staff David Hilliard proclaimed my official baptism into the ranks of the Black Panther Party. I detail many more similar incidents in my book My People Are Rising: Memoir of a Black Panther Party Captain.
YL: Are we currently living through the Black Panther dream coming true?
Dixon: Yes! Myself and other Panthers have been waiting more than forty years to see this day. We cannot continue the way we’ve been going the last 40 years, 100 years, 400 years. We cannot continue, we’re at the end of the rope. Change is going to have to take place otherwise it’s going to be destruction of humanity and the world.
YL: You ran as a representative of the Green Party in 2006. Why? Do you believe reform is possible?
Dixon: I was approached by The Green Party to run for US Senate against Maria Cantwell (D-WA). My main goal was to get Cantwell and other members of the Senate to stop investing more money into the war in Iraq. The war was having a devastating effect on the Iraqi people. Our campaign successfully achieved this target; Cantwell withdrew her support for funding for the war on Iraq.
I do not think reforming the system is going to take. The brutal assassination of George Floyd ignited the power of the people. We see a diverse range of folks taking to the streets: Black of course but also others, including white folks, people from different economic backgrounds, people demanding justice.
As Black Panthers we say “all power to the people” because when people get together, change happens. Racism and oppression are systemic in this country and they prevail all institutions. It’s going to take the will of the people to destroy and change those institutions. It’s not going to come overnight or be easy.
YL: How do we avoid the cooptation of this movement by liberal politicians who will ultimately sell us out?
Dixon: We have to be vigilant and aware of these things. The people are going to have to be constant in their protest and in their criticisms. We can’t allow for appeasement.
I don’t think the young people are going to allow this movement to become co-opted and neutralized. We can’t allow the liberal class to try to hijack this movement, and so we are going to have to commit ourselves until we get the kind of radical change we want and need, a real revolution.
YL: Do you see the elections moving forward in November? What’s going to happen?
Dixon: It is hard to tell. Trump sounds like a fascist dictator and has implied many times he is not willingly going to leave office. I don’t know how anyone can conceive of Biden as a savior. He has supported racist policy in the past and is a product and servant of this capitalist system. It really doesn’t matter who gets into office it’s all going to come down to the response of the people.
We missed out when we didn’t hold Obama’s feet to the fire. People thought that everything was going to be great. Obama really let the people of the world down. He expanded militarization, he gave money to the banks, he continued business as usual with the super predatory capitalist system.
We can’t go back to the way things were before COVID-19 and the murder of brother George Floyd. As we are witnessing on the streets every day, the initial rage has morphed into love and that’s exactly what happened in the BPP. We joined the BPP because of our rage, and it naturally turned into love for our comrades, for our people and for the world. Love is the guiding force. We’ve seen a lot of that. The media characterize the uprisings as “riots”, which have turned “violent”. Yet the true violence has targeted Black and Brown people within and outside of the US for 400 years.
YL: What is your opinion of the media narrative with respect to “looting” during the protests?
Dixon: Back in the day what today people refer to as “looting”, we called “liberating”; freeing things we need for our survival from the oppressor. This land is ravaged by poverty; people are truly poor, without food, healthcare or clothes.
Rage leads to damage. Rage is a reaction to systemic violence and everything representative of the establishment becomes a target, whether it is a Nordstrom’s, Macys, or other symbols of white supremacist capitalism. We saw that in the 60s when we had riots for three summers in a row; looting was always a feature.
The corporate media want to frame property damage as violence. Violence is what happened to George Floyd, to Trayvon Martin, to Breonna Taylor and so many others. State violence is what we see every day happening to Black, Latino, Native, and poor people of every color, shape, orientation, what have you.
If the media are truly concerned about the so called “violence” in the demonstrations, end the violence and the police brutality against us. Only then can we sit down and talk about property damage. Our goal is to attain equal distribution of wealth. Inequality is the primary problem in this country and state-sanctioned violence is perpetuated against all those who stand in the way.
YL: Name some of the BPP’s lasting achievements. How was the context different in the 60s and 70s? What makes you optimistic?
Dixon: We implemented community outreach and educational programs still in existence today. We forced the government to feed kids breakfast and lunch. We forced the government to open medical clinics.
We succeeded tremendously in these programs, but we were not prepared for the retaliation by the state. We did not realize that the state would come at us with the overwhelming power and infiltration that killed so many of our leaders. We had over 30 Panthers who were killed in the BPP. Very early on. Only one year after the formation of the BPP, in 1967, there was an attempted assassination of our leader Huey Newton, which meant he was taken off the streets for two and a half years. John Huggins and Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter of the Southern California chapter were murdered in January of 1969. Eleven months later one of the most important young leaders we had, Fred Hampton, and Captain Marc Clark were assassinated and many party members had to go underground. Field Marshal George Jackson was killed in 1971 as was Sam Napier the distribution manager of the BPP. It was a different environment. Had we not had the leaders of the party assassinated we would have been at a different point in the struggle today.
I think this generation and much of the United States are going through a process of awakening to the reality of oppression. The events since George Floyd’s murder are unprecedented. I feel this is part of the BPP legacy and I’m very proud and happy. We live in a special time in history. Young leaders have stepped up to the plate and it’s a beautiful thing.
YL: What are some of the global conflicts which resonate with you?
Dixon: I feel that the fight between Zionists and Palestinians is a crucial anti colonial struggle, the result of which will profoundly affect the world. We need to link what is happening in this country to what is happening in Israel/Palestine and other colonial, white supremacist projects. Every tax payer needs to ask themselves – how can we continue to allow the continued genocide and apartheid of Palestinian people? That is the heartbeat and center of conflict in the whole world. We have to end the occupation of Palestine and the exploitation of Black and Brown people by capitalist forces worldwide.
Special thanks to Malcolm X Movement (@mxmovement on Twitter)