In honor of Black History month I would like you to journey with me back to a pivotal period in history where the Black Power movement began. Get ready to voyage back to 1966-1982; the era when the Black Panther Party began. Prepare yourself to receive exclusive insight into the party as Black Panther member Kato Cooks gives us his truth behind the Black Panther Party.
Renisha Marie: Thank you Kato Cooks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to give us your truth behind the Black Panther Party. Let’s dive right in. Give us a little background about Kato Cooks?
Kato Cooks: I was born in 1950, in New Orleans, La. I am the first-born of my parents, Raymond Cooks Sr. and Dorothy Bell Cooks, who were married prior to my conception. At the time, my father was in the U.S. Marine Corps; my mother worked for the U.S. Postal Service.
My youth was spent, primarily, in Los Angeles, though I lived in Oceanside, San Diego, and Oakland (California) for short periods. My parents separated when I was in Kindergarten and attending school in Oceanside.
Of my parents, my father was my primary influence. From him and my stepmother, Charlotte, I learned chivalry, altruism, family, critical thinking, and manhood. I never knew a day that my father was not in my life.
Renisha Marie: What year did you join the Black Panther Party? Paint a picture with words describing the time, state of the economy (I.e. how much was gas and a loaf of bread? Who was president, and how were African-Americans viewed during the time).
Kato Cooks: I joined in 1969, I think, after the LAPD assaulted the Southern California chapter’s main office on Central Ave. Gas was 30 cents a gallon. Nixon was president. The Viet Nam War was raging; blacks and Latinos were invariably sent to the front lines of that war. And there was civil unrest, still, at home. Local law enforcement were on a rampage against all who didn’t fit a profile. Although blacks and Latinos were most often the targets of these local acts of state-endorsed terrorism, whites were not exempt.
Renisha Marie: What moved you to join the movement?
Kato Cooks: During the attack on the Southern California chapter’s HQ, I was working at KHJ-TV as a broadcast log keeper. I became aware of the spin that the news wire services applied to the reporting of the event. Newscaster Baxter Ward had endorsed me for a newswriting internship at the station and a scholarship to Columbia University’s School of Journalism. Because of that, I was paying a lot of attention to news operations at the station and noted that the spin was pig-speak and not news reporting. I was incensed and sought to help by volunteering in any capacity the Party could use me.
Renisha Marie: What role did you play in the party?
Kato Cooks: I began as a community worker, cooking and serving breakfast in the Party’s Free Breakfast for Schoolchildren Program, the first of its kind in the country. I sold The Black Panther newspaper, worked in the Party’s Liberation School, and taught martial arts. Later, I wrote for the Party newspaper and other Party media. I was a member of the Party underground operation in the 70s, providing security and other services to Party programs and personnel.
Renisha Marie: How were women in the party treated?
Kato Cooks: One of my friends from the Panther underground, Dale Rascoe, is writing a book, Guerilla Girl, about the treatment of women in the Party. I defer to her on the first-person details. I never witnessed the mistreatment but heard about it from women in the Party, usually long after the alleged incident(s) occurred.
Much of the interaction between men in the Party leadership and subordinate women was patriarchal in the worst ways, based on my observations. Women were commodities. Some say that they were treated so badly that, after leaving the Party, they refused to acknowledge old Party acquaintances or converse with friends from their Panther days.
None of this was terribly surprising when one considers that the Party recruited heavily and easily from what was called the lumpen proletariat – the underemployed, unemployed, and unemployable. This included pimps, drug dealers, and thugs. With political education, you could end up with hoods possessed of a slick political line. In the best instances, you get someone like Bunchy Carter, founder of the gang that became the Crips. He was brilliant, charismatic, and committed to progressive social change. His hard edges, born of the street life, made him appealing to the ‘lumpen’ who would power the Party engine.
Unfortunately, often enough, I think, we had strong leadership qualities in some that were girded by violent, misogynistic underpinnings from the worlds of pimps and hustlers. That effectively turned the ‘revolution’ on its head. As Dale told me in a recent conversation, the revolution needed to begin within the Party first. It didn’t. We lagged behind our message, behind our ideology. This didn’t change until the Southern California chapter reopened in, roughly, 1977, under the strong, principle-driven leadership of B. Kwaku Duren.
Renisha Marie: Describe some of the obstacles (if any) which the party had to overcome in order to keep functioning.
Kato Cooks: The Party was destroyed, in great part, by its internal contradictions. Of course, the large-scale criminal activity of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies contributed to its destruction significantly. But what it needed to continue functioning was, in my view, more attention to those internal contradictions. With those shored up properly, external forces would have been impotent.
Interestingly, Elaine Brown, running the Party under Huey P. Newton’s leadership during his exile, buttressed the Party’s future by mainstreaming its activities. The Party school in Oakland received an award from the State of California for its educational excellence. The Party’s many other programs were heralded far and wide. Upon Huey’s return from exile, the direction changed. It changed for the worse. Elaine speaks of it passionately in her book, A Taste of Power.
Renisha Marie: Describe some of the most influential Panthers and the qualities they possess that made them so influential to the movement.
Kato Cooks: Huey P. Newton was the Party’s chief theoretician. He was light-years ahead of conventional thinking as it applied to social movements. Additionally, he was intellectually a giant. He essentially co-founded the science of social biology, co-authoring major monographs on the topic. Huey’s key writings were To Die For The People, and Revolutionary Suicide.
Bobby Seale was the Party’s chief organizer. He was a vibrant, energizing speaker who spoke the common person’s language. He was expert at taking abstract concepts and breaking them down into easily digestible parts. And he was fearless. Bobby told of the founding of the Party in his book, Seize the Time.
Fred Hampton was the common man’s man. He was eloquent. He was ‘street.’ He was an outstanding community organizer. Fred committed his every waking hour to the struggle. The Chicago power structure feared him and his influence so much that they murdered him in his sleep.
Flores Forbes is a name most won’t know but he wielded great influence within the Party. He was the first armorer and the Party’s head of the Buddha Samurai, the ‘squad,’ the Party’s enforcers and security apparatus. He describes his role in his book, Will You Die With Me?
Elaine Brown ran the Party during its, arguably, most fruitful period. Starting in the Southern California chapter during Bunchy Carter’s time (he was deputy minister of defense), she was the deputy minister of information. She was moved to Oakland and helped form the city into the Party’s stronghold.
Renisha Marie: In hindsight would you consider the movement a worthy cause that has benefited the lives of others today?
Kato Cooks: I have to say, without a doubt, yes. The Party was the largest black, militant, political organization in this country’s history. Many of the Party’s innovative ‘survival programs’ are now standard stuff: free breakfasts for schoolchildren, sickle cell anemia testing and research, free food programs, free medical clinics (staffed by community people trained as medical assistants and lab technicians), free busing to prisons program, and others.
Renisha Marie: If you could go back in time and change anything at all about the Black Panther Party, what would you change?
Kato Cooks: If I could change anything about the Party, I would change the outcome. Changing anything else would not guarantee a critically different outcome.
Renisha Marie: Do you have additional information regarding the party that future generations should know about? Information our future generations won’t find in their history books?
Kato Cooks: Future generations will do well to know these things:
1.The Black Panther Party was influenced by the Lowndes County Freedom Democratic Party and used its symbol, the black panther; the Deacons of Defense; and, mostly, Malcolm X.
2.Education was a cornerstone of the Party's foundation. We read, and discussed what we read, extensively. The Black Panther Party reading list is available on its web site.
3.The Party was not racist. Its central committee contained Richard Aoki, an Asian brother who was, on a functional level, one of the Party's founders. Key members of the Party leadership were white and Latino. Its indictments of the 'white power structure' reflected the ethnic (racial) characteristics of the power structure. It was not an indictment of white people. It is important to note that pigs (police, particularly) were - and are - of all ethnic groups.
4.The Black Panther Party that's in the news today is not associated on any level with the Party founded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby G. Seale in 1966.
5.The Party has a web site: http://www.itsabouttimebpp.com/. It's run by Bill Jennings, a former Panther and aide to Huey. He is now the official Party archivist.
6.The Party supported voter registration, Voting, running for office, and serving on juries.
7.The Party was felled by its internal contradictions more than by external forces (Mao called it).
8.The Party believed in dialectical materialism. It believed that only a current analysis of social conditions could be valid. In other words, don't use Party ideas from the 70s to address 2014 problems without a fresh analysis.
9.Anything you hear about the Party may be equal parts true and false. It depends, in great part, on from whom you are hearing it.
10.The Party supported equal rights for all. Huey included gays specifically, writing in 1971 that a gay person could be the most revolutionary. Though the Party practiced 'open love,' a polyamory-styled, personal relationship structure, it was brutally patriarchal. This is where revolutionary principles failed to meet revolutionary practices.