Students and community members had fists raised at a packed panel event exploring the lessons and legacies of the Black Panther Party at The Depot last week.
The event was hosted by the VCU African-American Studies Department and held in celebration of the Black Panther Party’s 50th anniversary. Three former Panthers — Sekou Odinga, Jihad Abdulmumit and Pamela Hannah — were invited to speak.
“(A) common misunderstanding is that the Black Panther Party was nothing more than a violent, terrorist group, full of criminals and sociopolitical outcasts,” said Abdulmumit, a former BPP member and current Richmond resident who now works in a local health clinic and is active with VCU’s Muslim Student Association.
Abdulmumit co-founded a Black Panther Party chapter in his New Jersey hometown, where he is no longer able to reside there due to a robbery conviction.
For Abdulmumit, the robbery he was convicted for, much like the creation of the Black Panther for Self Defense, was crucial to the development and flourishing of the Black Panther Movement, the black power movement and for furthering civil rights.
“Here we are 40 years later, and people may look at me as a criminal bank robber. But I never kept that money; I put it directly back into the work, for our community,” Abdulmumit told Richmond Magazine.
The Black Panther Party was founded in 1966 in Oakland, California by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. The party began as a community service organization that focused on protecting and promoting the civil rights of oppressed citizens in the midst of the civil rights era.
Dressed in black and carrying open weapons, the Black Panthers of Defense quickly became a divisive entity in California. Soon, the movement spread to New York, where Sekou Odinga was a founding member of the east coast chapter.
“Young people are the the future,” Odinga said. “What I would like people to take away from this, here tonight, is to go out and organize groups and to stand up for what they believe in.”
Student Asia McCall said that as a black muslim-American she worries about standing up and fighting for what she believes in.
“To me it’s so important to be here today and hear their stories,” McCall said. “The color of my skin has an embedded history of social demonstrations that changed the world around me. But my contribution to this social movement — that is so desperately needed in light of the new presidency and Black Lives Matter to me is still grey.”
Odinga’s legacy and contribution to the Black Panther Movement attracted much of the public to the event. Odinga told the crowd that the fight for social change is always on-going and he remembers the moment where he knew he had to go into underground work as part of the Black Liberation Movement.
On Jan. 17, 1969, Odinga’s influence as a Black Panther member grew when a rival black nationalist group killed two Panthers from California — Alprentis “Bunchy” Carter and John Huggins. A Panther from Odinga’s New York chapter was in police custody and had been beaten brutally; the police were actively searching for Odinga in connection to a police shooting.
“That was probably the most terrifying and emotional experience I have had as a Black Panther,” Odinga said.
Odinga was arrested on six counts of attempted murder and was convicted in 1984. He was sentenced to a consecutive 25-years-to-life in state prison as well as 40 years in federal court.
Odinga was released from prison on Nov. 25, 2014. He now runs the Jericho Movement which focuses on the rights of political prisoners in the United States — some of which have been in jail since the height of movements in the 1960s and 70s.
Hannah said the total amount of time the remaining incarcerated members of the party are serving totals around 800 years.
“Many of these people, they aren’t going to live out their sentence,” Hannah said. “They will die before they can do that.”
Hannah also commented on the similarities between her native city of Harlem and Richmond, Va.
“I was driving around the city today and it looks like gentrification,” Hanna said to the crowd. “The conditions that brought myself to the BPP in 1969 still exist today.”
During her portion of the panel, Hannah repeatedly emphasized the importance of young people looking critically into and at their communities.
“(Activism) doesn’t have to be real complicated, this isn’t a fancy community,” Hannah said. “Know your resources, focus on your resources and in the meantime instead of saving the world start with saving your community — save each other.”
Meanwhile, a group identified as “ASH Antifa Seven Hills – Antifascists Seven Hills” on Facebook shared a widely-circulated post stating the VCU Police Department were outside stopping attendees who wished to enter the over-crowded event.
“As this was happening, a young person from outside tried to walk past a cop, calmly, and he was nearly thrown to the ground, whipped around,” reads ASH Antifa Facebook post. “I’ve seen (the VCU PD) be more aggressive and physically violent more often than RPD, and that’s no f***ing compliment. They are the enforcement arm of VCU’s colonization of richmond.”
VCU PD public information officer Corey Byers said the public was not allowed in the venue at that time due to safety concerns because the crowd was over-capacity and event organizers asked for assistance.
“Despite several communications from event organizers to those outside that no one else could be admitted, one person ran past an officer and entered the building,” Byers wrote in an email. “(The person) was briefly detained and escorted out of The Depot. The man was not arrested and no charges are pending. He was not a VCU student.”
Byers said the VCU PD reviewed the incident the next morning, and Police Chief John Venuti believes officers at the event should have communicated more clearly with guests outside to explain why no one was being admitted into the building even after other participants left the event.
Richmond Struggle, a local activist group, gathered in the VCU compass on Wednesday to protest the police interaction on Tuesday evening and raise awareness of police overreach in day-to-day interactions, according to a Facebook post about the demonstration.
“Were here to protest VCU PD in general,” said Foster McClain, a member of Richmond Struggle. “With its policies of racial profiling and generally serving as the shock troops for VCU’s gentrification plan for Richmond.”
Richmond Struggle said they intend on initiating more events addressing police militarization and gentrification in Richmond in upcoming weeks.
There has been a drastic decrease in complaints against officers, use of force by officers and a decrease in bias-based complaints since 2010 when Venuti became Chief of VCU Police.
In the 2009-1- school year there were 74 such complaints, as of November 2015 there were two. The VCU PD also engaged in bias training that year to further mitigate such incidents and help make officers more aware of their interactions with the community.
Keyris Manzanares, Contributing Writer
Siona is a senior majoring in political science with a concentration in international relations and a double minor in media studies and Arabic and Middle Eastern studies. She is heavily influenced by her family’s immigrant background and often writes about the intersection of politics with identity. Siona is an advocate for grassroots activism and political movements, and her dream job involves multimedia-based investigative journalism. She has a plethora of life goals but is only focusing on two right now: learning as many languages as possible and perfecting her Instagram aesthetic. firstname.lastname@example.org