Rebecca Dickson, Reporter
Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, spoke at Pierce College Fort Steilacoom on April 4 to share historical insights and messages of political activism.
“To this day, our voting rights (are) still being threatened,” Seale said. “I want you to excel. (Get on the) wagon to protect your right to have a good job.”
The event, titled Equity in Education was scheduled by Equity and Diversity coordinator Oneida Blagg. She said the event started after the Institute for Community Leadership, a community leadership organization based in Kent, offered to get Pierce involved in Seale’s tour.
“We decided the best way would be to have a private event for Pierce,” Blagg said. “It was hoped that we could do it at the Puyallup campus (as well), but Mr. Seale’s schedule wouldn’t allow him to do it at both campuses.
Blagg said that while the college was offered the opportunity in January, serious planning began in February. More than 25 people were involved in the process of creating the event, including student leaders, vice presidents, administrative assistants and more.
The event started with a brief introduction by Roy Willson, Director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center.
“Mr. Seale has contributed to the development of democracy in a moving way,” Willson said. “The (mainstream message of the) Black Panther Party is full of mythological, alternative facts. We want you to leave this morning with true facts.”
The Black Panther Party was a political activist group in the 1960s which aimed at increasing equity and diversity in all sections of society.
The party often focused on specific goals, including electing more people of color into political office, creating a free breakfast program for youth in poor neighborhoods and preventing police brutality.
Seale explained one misconception of the Black Panther Party is that it was a violent organization.
One measure the Black Panther Party used to prevent police brutality was following around police cars with weapons and standing watch to make sure police weren’t assaulting civilians. While they wouldn’t shoot and were in full constitutional rights to have firearms with them, many saw these actions as violent.
Members also took law books, flashlights and recording devices in order to protect those who were being pulled over, which many are unaware of.
Seale explained that members of the Black Panther Party stood about 20 feet away from police, which gave them the legal right to observe, but not obstruct police work. In addition, they didn’t interact with the police until they spoke to the members, as this gave them no legal grounds to say they were breaking a law.
Seale got this idea from his work as a community liaison for Oakland, Calif., where he went into the building with his personal pistol while it was being robbed.
“No one ever said anything about my guns (before),” Seale said.
The reason they chose to bring guns with them was because of the rampant police brutality which took place. For example, an organization in Los Angeles was monitoring the police when they were beaten up, their tape recorders and law books were taken away and they were arrested, said Seale.
“(That) was one of the reasons (I said) we aren’t going out there without guns,” Seale said.
Another misconception about the Black Panther Party was that it was just for people of color.
“It wasn’t just for black folks, it was for progressive white folks and any other types of folks,” Seale said.
While these misconceptions are still ever present in American culture. Seale said that there was research done before any action was taken by the Black Panther Party.
“We knew our laws, we know our African American History, we knew our constitutional rights, we knew our Declaration of Independence,” Seale said. “It was so disciplined, it was so articulate, it was so well researched just to (observe the police).”
When faced with arrest, Seale said they wanted to go to court, as this gave them a medium to fight for equal protection of law.
In 1969, Seale was charged with 16 counts of contempt of court, and was bound and gagged during the proceedings. According an interview with Seale in the documentary Unfinished Business, created in celebration of the 45th anniversary of the Black Panther Party, while in jail he was put into solitary confinement, where he was stuck in an empty room (7 by 5 feet), where raw sewage would flood his cell from a hole which was to be used for a toilet. Despite his pleas with the officers on duty to fix the toilet, he claims they didn’t do anything to help, and instead flushed the toilet every hour, flooding the cell.
Despite this, Seale worked towards desegregation.
“I see humanity in an anthropological sense,” Seale said. “(Changing the power structure) is what pissed off the power. We crossed all ethnic and racial lines.”
The Black Panther Party also had several initiatives which are often not unknown by the general public, including providing 10,000 full bags of groceries in Oakland, registering more than 4,000 people to vote, testing 7,000 people for sickle cell anemia and providing a free full breakfast daily to neighborhood youth.
“We never stooped to the level to hate or despise other people due to the color of their skin,” Seale said. “You’ve got to realize humanity.”
After his speech, Pierce Students had the opportunity to ask questions. Many of these questions focused on current events.
When asked about Betsy DeVois, U.S. Secretary of Education’s plan to lessen or eliminate federal free and reduced lunch programs, Seale believed this was wrong.
“They’re taking a basic human right away from you,” Seale said. “I’m totally against that.”
When asked about the biggest current political threat facing the nation, Seale said, “Running around and getting shot by a bunch of fascists (is now a possibility). Trump and company will do this.”
Sarah Koestler, an employee of Pierce College and a University of Washington Tacoma student, went to both Pierce’s event and UW-T’s event.
Koestler said that the differences in events were drastic, as UW-T’s event was public, and interested community members were there. This, Koestler said, made the audience more engaged.
“When you bring in community members, they come out there because they put their heart and soul into it,” Koestler said.
Koestler believes the event would have been more successful if there had been more advertising. While Blagg said that they advertised at all Pierce Campuses, Koestler didn’t hear about the event until the day of the event. Koestler said advertising seemed to be limited to specific classes.
“It should have been something (which was) advertis(ed) for all.” Koestler said. “(People like Seale) lived through a story that the younger people should come and learn from. Having somebody in an organization like the Black Panther Movement is just such as huge honor that we shouldn’t take for granted.”
Blagg said the event was “a team effort” and that having Seale on campus “provides students with a perspective on world views.”
“In a case like this, (Seale) was someone whose work impacted students from the 60s to today,” Blagg said. “(Students) are going to be the leaders (of the future). It’s important that they have sufficient knowledge to thrive in the evolving world. Our initiative, in terms of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, will be designed to facilitate student success.”
With a focus on political power, Seale provided students an opportunity many have said allows for people of history to understand where the United States is coming from in terms of race relations. Overall, Seale focused on political activism. While there may be disagreements on what the Black Panther Party did, his supporters and opposition alike agree he used power effectively. Seale spoke on this, and explained that students must use their power to make political change.
“Power is the ability to define phenomena (and to act on it),” Seale said.
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