Ericka Huggins: Life In Serving People

Interview with legendary Ericka Huggins, an activist, educator and former leading member of the Black Panther Party.

The 60s and 70s saw a number of Black rights movements spring up all over the Unites States calling for civil rights, equality and self-determination. The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was one of them. They instituted many community social programs including the Free Breakfast for Children program, free community schools, free clothing program and community health clinics. Despite so many positive things that the Panthers did for their communities, they were regarded as a ‘violent’ armed group. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called the party, “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country”, and supervised a program known as the COINTELPRO, which led to the criminalization of the party and the assassination of some of its leading members.

Ericka Huggins was a leading member of the party. Today she clarifies some misconceptions about the Black Panther Party, especially the ‘violent’ tag associated with them, why she joined the party, and what her thoughts are on modern Black rights groups.

blackmattersus.com
I love the history of the Black Panther Party and The MOVE. The 60s and 70s was a time of the start of a mass movement for Black rights, the fight for justice and peace for people of color. Many words have been written about you. I’m going to try to ask you questions mostly about the things you teach and what you think now. To start, I’ve always wanted to ask you, how come at the young age of 18 you became a leading member of Black Panther Party, and you had such a huge following? 
Ericka Huggins
Well, I didn’t have a huge following at all, but the reason that I became a member of the party is because when I was fifteen I went to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and while there, I made a vow to serve people for the rest of my life. And so I looked for an organization that could speak not just to the needs of Black people but all poor people and people of color and then I found the Black Panther Party by reading a magazine which described it. I was looking for an organization that looked at race and class and gender, and the Black Panther Party was like that.
blackmattersus.com
Did you face any conflicts regarding your age, being a leader and what you were doing? Many people can be pessimistic looking at an 18-year-old lady leading a party, and how her ability is to create change? Did you face any such conflict?
Ericka Huggins
We were all young. The median age of Black Panther Party members was 19. 
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And how did you at that young age believe in yourselves so much as to be able to create meaningful change?
Ericka Huggins
Because change was happening all around us. The 50s were very stagnant, in terms of change and then the civil rights movement stepped forward and said we can change this. Martin Luther King, Ella Baker, Rosa Parks, all of those people said we can make a difference, we can make a change. And those of us who were younger than the civil rights activists said, “Well, there are civil rights which were due under the law, and then there are human rights which were due by our very birth, and we just decided if the government wouldn’t look upon us as fully human, then we had to do that inside our communities, first for ourselves and as well for everyone else.” And so the Black Panther Party was a beacon for not just change but transformation of societal structures and systems. 
blackmattersus.com
Let’s talk about the Black Panther Party. The history of this party is very conflicting depending on whom you ask. To the people in the communities, you were their hope, you had many great programs that impacted the society and caused a lot of positive change. But to the police, the media, and the authorities, you were a violent group of young people. In the history of Black movements, your movement had a reputation of being a ‘violent’ group which had confrontations with the police and was armed and called on people to arm themselves as well. How did you see the philosophy of the Party when you became involved in it?
Ericka Huggins
We live in a violent country, a country as you well know, that built its economy on owning human beings, on enslaving them, and then after undoing the shackles of that enslavement, holding them from a full quality of life, to Jim Crow laws and segregation of all kinds. I grew up in Washington, DC and my mother was from the South. I remember going to visit her home in North Carolina and seeing signs for the Ku Klux Klan. My grandfather who died when he was 75 was called Boy until the day he died. Crosses were burned everywhere and police were routinely colluding with very backward segregationists and violent organizations like the Klan and White Citizens’ Council to burn and firebomb, to rape Black women and it wasn’t uncommon to see a clergy person like a pastor, a reverend or a priest, enter the church with a Bible and a gun to protect themselves. Every human being has the right to protect themselves from harm. So that’s why the original name of the Black Panther Party was the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Children going to bed hungry is violent. Not providing full healthcare for people, that’s violent. And so what we did was, we created as young folks, survival programs, our model was Survival Pending Revolution, so we said, “Well, OK. If the public schools will not feed the children, we’ll create the free breakfast for children program. If the police come into our communities to kill us and to beat us, to snatch us out of our cars, or out of our homes, out of our churches for no reason, then we will stand up to the police and tell them that they must tell us what we’re being arrested for.” That was what we did. And then later, we created schools, I was a director of the open community school and I was a teacher in it for nine years. It was a school created by the Black Panther Party and replicated all over the world. We created the concept of the people’s free medical clinics where you could come to a medical clinic at no cost if you didn’t have any money, and doctors and nurses volunteered their time to these clinics. We had Free Busing to Prisons programs, free plumbing, free pest control programs, free clothing programs, especially on the eastern coast of the United States where children were going without coats or warm shoes. So we listened to what people said they needed and we provided that. That’s self-defense.
blackmattersus.com
So what do you think? Why is it that the history of Black movements like the Black Panthers is a bit distorted? Why is it that people like to associate such groups with only violence, why do people emphasize this to disapprove of movements like the Black Lives Matter today?
Ericka Huggins
Because they are fearful. Because of the history of the United States, they are fearful of retaliation of a kind that they don’t know how to meet. I think that if we talked more about the true history of the United States which is by the way, now permanently being displayed at the African American History and Cultural Museum in Washington, DC., when we display the violence of slavery, when we see a little shack not big enough for one family where twenty-five families are forced to live, when we see shackles, whips and leg irons , when we see the result of lynching and in that same museum, the casket of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy who was killed because he was accused of looking at a white woman. When we see these things we know where the violence originated. When we see the hold of a slave ship where people are packed in like sardines in a can, we know that the fear is that if those same descendants of enslaved Africans speak up and speak out about the violence and harm and the money that’s made on the backs and reproduction of Black people, when they see that, they’re afraid. And fear is irrational. Racism is based on fear. So this is why I say that we need to talk with one another about the truth of the United States and if we can do that, it would be great. If my husband was killed in broad daylight at UCLA, on campus, orchestrated by the FBI, how is he violent? How am I violent if I, on the same day, find out that he was killed and I’m the mother of a 3-week-old? How am I violent when the police come to my house to arrest me? 
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Talking about police brutality and the criminalization of Black people, do you talk about such cases with your students?
Ericka Huggins
Yes.
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And what do you try to bring their attention to when you discuss this?
Ericka Huggins
I don’t need to, they already know. They live in the communities where this is happening all the time. And some of this doesn’t even reach the newspapers or mainstream media. 
blackmattersus.com
The police assume that they are above the people and they don’t need to change but the people should. Do you see this situation really changing and becoming better for people of color and all people in America?
Ericka Huggins
I think that police need cultural competency training. They need training in working in communities that are not their own. If a battalion of police officers who are Black and Latino were assigned to work in white upper-class neighborhoods, you better believe that the people in those communities would say, “Why are you sending these people here? They have no idea of our needs.” But when we say that, we’re ‘angry’. So I think that retraining or new training for police officers is a must. I think a whole new system of training could be in place, a whole new system of teaching children in public schools and public universities, a new system that would be restoring justice rather than punitive justice. We incarcerate more people in the United States than any other place in the world, and they are primarily Black and brown men, with the fastest growing population of incarcerated people being Black and brown women. So I don’t have blame for an individual police officer as much as I do what they’re told is their work when they’re out there. If you sit somewhere in a white or Black upper-class community and watch how the police interact it’s completely different than the way in which they interact in poor neighborhoods of all kinds including poor white neighborhoods. The Black Panther Party worked in coalition with every organization that we could because we knew that we all had similar goals and we had one unifying purpose in existing and that is to remove people from living in conditions of abject poverty which caused them not only emotional, mental and physical harm but harm of the spirit, which is the worst, so that they feel valueless, invisible, inhuman. These were the things that the Black Panthers did and these are the things that Black Lives Matter movements are doing.
blackmattersus.com
Could you please tell us more about spiritual practice in activism and social change? How does it work and how do you teach this?
Ericka Huggins
Well, I don’t really teach it so much as I talk about it. When I was incarcerated for a crime I did not commit from 1969 to 1971, I thought myself to meditate. It was something natural to me. One of our lawyers – I went to trial with Bobby Seale – got me a book about physical exercise and meditation and so I began to do what I noticed in the book and that just meant sitting quietly and noticing my breathing, this helped me to remain sane and clear and less sad. I’d lost my husband, by that time my three-month-old baby had been taken from me, and I was on trial as well. I want to say that I believe it got me through those two years so that I was less scarred than my peers who were there for less time. I did tell them about this while I was incarcerated, as a matter of fact, I formed a little organization in the prison to talk about the ways in which we could take care of ourselves and helped them write letters to get lawyers and rightful bail and those kinds of things. I’ve continued to do that, and so if it worked for me in a prison cell, why wouldn’t it work for anyone else in any other cause or fight. I knew that I couldn’t keep going and going without taking care of myself, and that’s why I talk about it now, because young activists are pushing themselves to the brink, they’re not sleeping, they’re not eating, they are not kind towards one another. They spend long hours doing things but they are not grateful for what they have done, what they are doing and what they will do. And so when I talk about it, quite often students come to me after in tears, thanking me for saying that. Nothing in us would think that we should go for a whole year without sleeping, yet we think we can go for a whole year without resting our minds. When we rest our minds we have clarity and we can do the next great thing.
blackmattersus.com
Why do you think that political prisoners like the MOVE 9 are still in prison? Who’s afraid of them now, and why aren’t they being released?
Ericka Huggins
There are at least thirty political prisoners that have not yet been released, it’s because of that fear I spoke about earlier and a long historical memory and grudge-holding on the part of individuals or groups who have this ‘bigoted thinking’. If you keep someone like my friend Eddie Conway, he was in solitary confinement for 37 years. Now what is the reason for that? These people who imposed those kinds of sentences and adjudications, would they last one day? It’s to stifle those people but also to quell any movements. That’s why they’re still there. One, economically, it’s ridiculous in terms of the amount of money, but two, there’s no rehabilitative benefit to doing this. So they could let people free, especially those men and women who are now in their 70s and 80s for crimes that they really didn’t commit or crimes that have the word ‘conspiracy’ in front of them, like what Bobby Seale and I were charged with. We could devise what many countries around the world are beginning to do, that is community programs for those people who need to be sequestered from the mainstream population for a while, but provide them with the tools, the education and the forum for being accountable and responsible and for asking for forgiveness if it’s a crime that involves human beings.
blackmattersus.com
What do you think about calls to restore the Black Panther Party and modern creations like the New Black Panther Party?
Ericka Huggins
I don’t think anything, I don’t like to judge others but I will say the Black Panther Party was unique in its principles and if an organization wants to follow those principles, that’s great.
blackmattersus.com
Are you involved in any activity of any group of activists today?
Ericka Huggins
I support the Black Lives Matter movement, I’m a restorative justice practitioner and I travel with films that foster conversations about race in unlikely very homogenous places. Because I believe that if we’re going to change structures and systems, then we need allies. We need particularly wider European-American people who are willing to step up and step out and speak out about not the past harms, the harm that is occurring right now. In other words, what I’m saying is that white privilege can be used as a resource to make change.
blackmattersus.com
What would you like to say to Black rights movements of today?
Ericka Huggins
To take care of yourselves. To remember that it is love that first prompted you to step forward, to always hold that highest in your awareness, love people and to remember that love is a great power and that we can each use it to transform our world. 

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Women revolutionary leaders:
former Black Panther Party Chairman Elaine Brown
former Director of the BPP Oakland Community School, Ericka Huggins
BPP Communications Secretary and the first female member of the party’s decision making body, Kathleen Neal Cleaver
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