A Sit-down with Kathleen Cleaver
Issue #60, April 2002
One of the pleasures of preparing to interview Kathleen Cleaver is reading her writing. Best known as the Communications Secretary of the Black Panther Party, and a leading figure of the Party's International Section, Cleaver is not intellectually dated. Whether writing about women's leadership in the civil rights movement or the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., the follies of the MOVE Organization, or the "race problem" of white supremacy, Cleaver has weighed in on many of the major issues in the wake of 1970s' liberation movements. With a researcher's eye for detail, and a commitment to grassroots activism, Cleaver's writing is marked by an ability to reveal the nuance of political positions while writing accessibly; her scholarship sacrifices neither the complexities of political history nor the need for scholars to take critical stands. Her takes are consistently fresh and surprising, marked by a warmth and generosity of humor that she has in person and that whet the appetite for her long-forthcoming memoirs. In recent years, she has emerged as an active participant in shaping the next wave of Panther scholarship, as co-curator of the International Black Panther Film Festival, co-editor of the collection Liberation, Imagination, and the Black Panther Party: A New Look at the Panthers and their Legacy, and co-director of the Human Rights Research Fund. Bad Subjects interviewed her via phone at Emory University.
BS: Your work seems to emphasize the internationalism of the Black Panther Party, not only because of your personal experience, but also because of the ideological importance...
KC: Right, it's an ideological position, and a recognition. The people who make up the African American population are people who have ties to many nations: the ancestors of the people who joined the Black Panther Party came from the United States, came from the West Indies, came from Africa, came from China, came from Europe. There are many different strands, because we have people from Louisiana, from Texas, from New York, from Chicago. And so when you go back into these families, you find an international connection, because that's how the actual plantation economy and the triangular trade that created the slave societies in North America, that's how they worked. They were international trade patterns.
So the awareness in the young people who joined the Black Panther Party during the 1960s was very sharply stimulated by international incidents such as the Vietnam War, such as the murder of Patrice Lumumba, such as the independence wars going on in Africa against colonialism, such as the incident in the Mexico City Olympics when black athletes lifted their fists in a Black Power symbol. The consciousness of that generation, more so than maybe others, was attuned to things happening in more than one place. So the awareness of the Black Power struggle as part of these international movements was very key to the way the Black Panther Party was organized.
BS: Looking at the Panther film festival in particular, the films you chose acknowledge the role the Party had internationally, and the way that people of different ethnicities seized the Party as a model for social transformation.
KC: Oh yes, there was a global connection. We saw ourselves as part of a struggle against imperialism. The imperialism that we were feeling was a domestic [imperialism], within the United States, whereas the imperialism that other people in South America or Africa or Asia were [opposing] was international. But it was coming from the same source. And the issues that we were emphasizing — which was racial and class exploitation of an outsider group — that's what the colonial world creates.
One of the foundational texts that people in the Black Panther Party studied and learned from was Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth, which is about colonialism in North Africa, and about the fight of Algerians for independence from France. But it has universal appeal and universal application because it's about this control of the white colonist or the white imperialist over the non-white person. As DuBois said, "The problem of the color line is the problem of the 20th century," so it's not limited to the United States. What we were doing, what we were challenging, was not something that's only happened in the United States.
BS: I read that growing up, your father worked at some level of the U.S. government, and you all lived abroad...
KC: Right, at the Agency for International Development, which is like a foreign aid program.
BS: What effect did that have on your concepts of internationalism and white supremacy?
KC: Well, as far as white supremacy is concerned, I was able to live in countries that had been colonized by Europeans and were no longer. In particular, I lived in India in the '50s after the British had gone, and lived in the Philippines after the Americans had gone. So it was very clear to me that Brown people, colonized people, could run their own country; they don't really need white supremacy; they don't really need white government. So it was obvious to me that Black people in the United States don't need to be controlled by white people. They're perfectly capable of running their own lives, running their own schools, running their own states, running their own cities. So it kind of repudiated [white supremacy] completely, blew it away. [laughs]
BS: Both the title of your book and the title of the film festival emphasize the role of imagination. The book's titled Liberation, Imagination, and the Party, and the purpose of the film festival is "to capture the imagination of a generation." Why the emphasis on imagination?
KC: That's from the experience of the Black Panther Party, the Party being a mobilization of tremendously talented but very young Black people who had limited financial and institutional resources, but we had unlimited imagination. [laughs] Therefore, the emphasis in the Black Panther Party was that the imagination is the most powerful weapon; we had to imagine how we could make a fundamental change in the United States that would make Black people's lives better.
So we wouldn't emphasize property relations. We wouldn't emphasize how we should organize corporations and make money, which is one means that immigrant and outsider groups did choose to make their lives better. Most of the families of the youth who became Black Panthers were working-class families. Most of the families did not have a tremendous amount of property: they might have had one home or a car or something. But people did not come out of family structures where wealth and property were the basis of holding the family together.
So that's not what we're going to focus on. Not that we're going to ignore it, because if you look at the ten-point platform and program of the Party, we wanted an end to the economic exploitation of the avaricious businessman. So there's an awareness of this, but the focus really is a creative, open-ended "Let's Change the World," and change it in these pragmatic ways. Put an end to the kind of education we were getting, the kind of treatment in the courts; put an end to the military draft, put an end to police brutality. These are the ways in which we were focused and encouraged to be imaginative, to be creative. Another way of saying that is to not be tied into doing things the way they've always been done.
BS: In going back through your writing, a phrase that seems to recur is "social transformation," "collective transformation," or "social revolution." For instance, in your essay on the International Section of the Black Panther Party, you wrote, "The Black Panther Party believed the liberation of blacks from racist exploitation and capitalist exploitation required a social revolution to transform the economic and political institutions of the U.S."
KC: Right, we did not think that for us to obtain what we saw as liberation from the economic and the social and the political restrictions that were imposed on us: we don't think that we could just be free of these restrictions, and the rest of the society could continue as it is. There's an integral relationship between [these and] the way the society is structured: the way it's structured economically in a hierarchical and white supremacist [fashion] — whites on top in an international financial and political way, there's a white hierarchy of power. In order for us to experience being liberated from that, free of that, having access to and the ability to use our resources and to control resources for our own people, we would have to, you know, it's not going to work in this existing system. That's what we meant by social transformation: the rearrangement of the institutional bases of society in a way that reflects the difference in values.
BS: The other thing that interested me in the concept of social revolution that you were talking about...
KC: Actually, I think I said transformation, right?
BS: Social transformation, right.
BS: It seemed to suggest much more than a party seizing state power.
KC: Well, yeah. Cuz that's not what the... All the avenues of exploitation and oppression that African Americans — or descendants of Africans — experience are not controlled by the state. If it was just a matter of the state being enjoined from doing what they're doing... But the state is a participant in a cultural process that has roots prior to the foundation of the United States.
I teach a seminar on the law of slavery and anti-slavery. The practice and the legal structure that supported slavery precedes the creation of the United States. When the Constitution is formed in 1787, there's already been maybe 150 years of slavery. So these racist and white supremacist and exploitative practices are engrained in the society before the government of the United States is created, and the government of the United States is created out of that. The government of the United States has to continue to support that in some fashion.
And so there was a revolutionary change during the Civil War, when the Constitution was altered not to support a slave society, and the economic sustenance of slavery was eliminated, but then many kinds of substitutions for that economic exploitation replaced slavery. And as anyone can see, the notion of racial hierarchy and racial conflict and racially stimulated violence has not yet been [eliminated]. So that's what the notion of transformation [is about] — a change that would move from one kind of reality to another kind of reality — and that doesn't come about merely by a party seizing state power. That's kind of a 19th century idea.
BS: In your essay in Critical Race Feminism, you describe the United States as "a society defined by its creation of a class of human property." One of the recurring themes in your work is that you counterpose the concept of property and property rights with the realization of a society based on human rights. Is the concept of human property intrinsic to property rights?
KC: No, it's very bizarre, and it's morally controversial, and it's the grounds which stimulated a huge abolitionist movement in England and other countries saying that it's wrong: it's against natural law; it's against divine law; it's wrong to have property in man; man stealing is wrong. And so eventually, over a few centuries, the slave trade and the institution of slavery were legally abolished, as was serfdom and villainage and other feudal forms of property in man.
So it's aberrant in terms of the moral code of the Judeo-Christian world, but that doesn't mean that they didn't [practice it]. Slavery itself, the practice of slavery is ancient, and most societies at some point in time did practice it, but the modern version in which there's a legal definition of rights, the property rights, is much more barbaric. During the era of the Enlightenment, [laughs] to maintain a system of human bondage, African slavery, and use that as a form of economic organization. The ancient slavery wasn't — what's the right word? — wasn't like capitalism, wasn't like turning people into money, or using people to produce goods that you turned into money. It was a different type of slavery.
BS: In what sense? In terms of the scale of slavery?
KC: It's not a money economy. It's a pre-capitalist economy. It's an exchange or barter economy, and the relationship between slaves and their owners...they're not necessarily of different cultures. What I'm trying to get at is that with New World slavery, the slavemasters are some type of European, and the slaves are some Indians or Africans or something that's not European. It's not Europeans coming with European slaves. It's Europeans enslaving people of different land and culture and later on, we call it race.
And then the enslavement leads to a description of people as not human. They're not a subject of rights; they're not humans; they're property, and therefore, anything can be done to them: they can be bought, they can be sold, they can be exchanged, they can be used for debts, and then there's a whole arena of oppressive legislation, or the development of oppressive legislation to control, to impose the property regime on people, who actually run away [laughs] unlike other property, and who write books unlike other property. [laughs] Yeah, so it's very bizarre.
BS: How do you see the United States defined by that concept of human property today?
KC: The fact that one of the greatest migrations ever enforced in history was to force Africans into the New World at an unprecedented scale. Millions and millions of Africans were forcibly transported to the New World, and therefore, the nature of the culture, the nature of the language, the nature of the cooking, the nature of the interactions between the elites and the workers have all been radically transformed by the presence of so many Africans, and particularly Africans who were held in bondage. The consequences of that are still part and parcel of the United States, which is identified around the world as having a racial problem. There's no part of the world that doesn't know about racial problems in the United States, whether it's executions or riots or lynchings; it's sort of become part of the identity of the United States: its inability to treat Black people in a humane fashion. That's what I meant by "marked."
BS: Oh, but President Bush pulled out of the U.N. Conference on Racism.
KC: Yeah, he wanted to go to a conference for racism. He said, 'I'm at the wrong place! How can we be against it?' [laughs] That's a good way of concluding: there's a world conference, a United Nations world conference against racism, and the United States refuses to participate. Why do they refuse? Because the issue of reparations for slavery and colonialism is on the table, and they don't want to deal with that. The United States doesn't think that's an appropriate forum.
BS: In an essay called "The Race Problem," you say you prefer using the term white supremacy instead of race.
KC: Right, I think the term "race" is vague. Because what does it mean? It's given a cultural context; it always means Black. But that doesn't make sense, because that's not the only use of the term. That's not what it means to everybody. So if you talk about white supremacy, that's much clearer; we're talking about a type of racial power dynamic. And that's what most people are talking about when they use the so-called race problem. They're really talking about a society controlled and organized around the values of white supremacy. If I say that, then it's not vague, right? [laughs]
BS: And in emphasizing the role of white supremacy, you seem to be discussing something that predates capitalism. So I'm trying to get a clearer sense of the relationship between race and capitalism.
KC: [White supremacy] is still here. White supremacy is a function of the colonial or imperial domination of peoples of color. When you use these Europeans as the rulers of Indians and Africans in creating a society based on a plantation system of slavery, in which the majority of the workers are Black or Brown, and all the owners are completely white and European and speaking a different language, then the core of the development of a society is white supremacy: white economic and political and military supremacy over the people of color, who are your laborers, your indigenous, your servants, your slaves. So that particular institutional complex was built in North America, and it still operates in what they're talking about as globalization. It still has those values, even if there's no longer any slavery. That's where the economic base of it came from, and it lasted so long it has a lot of cultural overtones to the point that it's considered the norm: don't question it; it's accepted. But it has not always existed, and I can be pretty sure it won't always exist, but during this period right now, it seems to be impervious.
BS: In your interview with Henry Louis Gates for Frontline, he asked you a question about class polarization within the Black community, and your response emphasized "the takeover by corporate interests of the legal and political structures that govern our lives." You told Gates "that particular power base of corporate power being able to use governments to advance its agenda was exactly what the Black Panther Party were opposed to."
KC: That's true, that's very true.
BS: So I wanted to ask you about today's anti-corporate politics, and its origins in that time.
KC: I don't understand the question. You want to ask me about the origins of it? Is what we're talking about the anti-globalization movement? To me, it's a part of the anti-imperial struggle that's been going on for a couple of centuries [laughs] but that's not what I think you're asking.
BS: Well, part of it was asking for you to discuss the Panthers as an anti-corporate movement.
KC: Well, I think that's too narrow. See, the Panthers are a liberation movement; that's the frame of reference, in order to obtain freedom for the people who we see as essentially colonized, and we can use that word, because that had a meaning at that time.
The anti-WTO demonstrations are protesting economic and social policies at this stage, the ways in which these countries are controlled. It's not really protesting colonialism; it's protesting in South America what they call neoliberalism or what in Africa we call neocolonialism.
Essentially, that is the way in which the Black communities of the United States are controlled, dominated in sort of a neocolonial form. Atlanta is a classic case, in which the power structure — the visible government structure of police and judges and mayors and many of the schoolteachers, et cetera — will be actually Black people, but the economic base of the city is not controlled by Black people, so there's this economic control that manages the political face, which is now a Black face.
But that's not really what the Black Panther Party and the movements of liberation in that era [were about]; we were about what we called self-determination and community control. What we have now is the opposite of what we were trying to get. At the time of the Black Panther Party, there were almost no Black judges and very few Black mayors and very few Black governors; now we have Black mayors, we have Black judges, we have Black congressmen, we have some measure of political participation, but it's within a system that is really designed to injure us. [laughs] And so the participation in that system does not represent self-determination. What it does represent, you might say, is integration or inclusion within the structure that we thought had to be transformed, in order for Blacks to be liberated. So instead of having the structure transformed, we have Black people participating in the structure as it exists. That may be a type of reform, but it's certainly not a measure of self-determination. But that doesn't mean people understand the difference.
BS: I also wanted to ask about your perspective of the organizing, and the various corporate campaigns.
KC: Oh, this anti-corporate organizing? Well, I'm intrigued by it. I'm not part of it, in the sense that what I've read about are college groups, challenging the licensing of their name to sweatshop companies and using the school, putting pressure on the school to require the companies to abide by better labor practices. I really think it shows a sophisticated recognition on the part of students on how the world they go to school in is part of the corporate power structure, which is not something I think students thought about twenty years ago.
I mean, twenty years ago, we were into divestment, remember? [laughs] So there's a recognition, but the approach was, "Get out! Sell your stock! Don't have any stock! Boycott!" instead of saying engage with them and require them to do certain things. And it could also have to do with the fact that multinational corporations are far more pervasive now than they were twenty years ago, which I also think is true. So it's a good step. I think that Union Summer is a good step. The effort to try to recomprehend, restudy, retrace some of the steps of the civil rights movement: I think those are good things. I would hope that they are steps along the way to a very different consciousness of what the United States should and could be like.
BS: Talking about corporations, you've mentioned some of the differences now from twenty years ago, in terms of their pervasiveness and power. I wanted to return to the quote from the Gates interview, when you mentioned "the takeover by corporate interests of the legal structures that govern our lives." I wanted to ask you more specifically what you meant by that.
KC: The government of the Congress and the state governments and let's say school boards: these are the institutions that have a lot of effect on poor Black people, middle-class Black people. They are the public agencies, you know, like the health, education, and welfare, or some type of public housing set up by the government, or courts set up by the government. These are the kinds of institutions that are public institutions supposed to operate for the welfare of the people, but the Congressmen and the budgets and the tax system, it's all really serving major corporate interests, largely because major corporations finance and dominate many of the campaigns and much of the legislative discussion.
For example, right after the World Trade Center bombing, there was discussion in Congress about who should be bailed out, and who should get economic stimulus. And they were all major corporations! Massive benefits to airline companies, not massive benefits to the people put out of work by airline companies, but to the corporate entity. So there's a bias in favor of concentrated economic power. Why the airline industry? Everybody was messed up by the bombings: let's say all the restaurants that depended upon people who worked in the World Trade Center, all the offices that were in the World Trade Center, all the shops that were in the World Trade Center; there were a lot of small businesses there. Did we hear about stimulus packages for them?
No. But I'm saying that's because they're not plugged in. And they're not considered politically dominant. There's a book called Opposing the System by Charles Reich, and he talks about corporate power, which he calls economic government, taking over the functions of the state, and the state now operates at its behest. But we don't see it; we still see political government. But he says in a workplace in the corporate world, you don't have a vote; you don't have any participation; you don't have any freedom of association; you do what you're told. And so as the corporations become more and more powerful in charge of the government, their hold of dictating what people do becomes what happens in government, and the values of the corporate world become the values that are reflected in government, and so it becomes essentially what the Italians called the corporate state. That's what we're up against: the corporate state. That's not accessible or responsive to the needs of the people.
BS: Why did you decide to become a law professor?
KC: I didn't actually decide to become a law professor; I decided I was gonna be a lawyer, cuz I was gonna help all the prisoners who were arrested and unfairly tried and put in jail by the government. However, it took a long time between the time I made the decision and the time I actually got into law school. By the time I actually got into law school in the '80s and I graduated, there wasn't much I could do for those prisoners; most of them were pretty well locked down. And so I went to work in a wealthy corporate firm to learn how they did litigation, how they tried cases. And I found out that the only part of the work that I enjoyed was the research, that I didn't really care about the trial or the way in which the briefs were written; I cared about doing research and explaining it. That's pretty much what I do in the classroom: research an issue and explain it. Just as far as a personal level of comfort, I ended up in the classroom, because the trial arena and the courtroom were not something I felt comfortable in, even though I spent a lot of time going to court and watching trials. That was an earlier period in my life, and I didn't want to continue being in the courtroom.
BS: You were also in the courtroom fairly recently, for Geronimo Pratt.
KC: Right, that was a special case; I came back in with Johnnie Cochran. I had been involved in this case much earlier, as a witness, and I continued to visit him as a comrade, and so by the time his habeas case came up again, I was able to participate as part of the counsel. One of the few times I was able to do what I thought I went to law school to be able to do. [laughs]
BS: And does that in part reflect the way that corporations have taken over the practice of law as well?
KC: No. I think it's the other way around: the creation of corporations generates a certain kind of legal practice, and in fact, the existence of corporations — the legal benefits that they get in the United States — is actually a product of the Fourteenth Amendment, which was supposedly used to revolutionize the Constitutional basis of the government, in order to provide equal protection of the law to all persons. That's a revolutionary notion in a slave society: that the law will protect you equally. And it became an amendment that was interpreted by the Supreme Court to benefit corporations, that kind of artifical person.
BS: In talking about the research and the legal work, can you discuss your human rights work?
KC: It's the Human Rights Research Fund. We're attempting to demonstrate in public and documentary form the ways in which American citizens over many decades have had their human rights violated by actions of law enforcement and government officials in very serious ways. We're talking about gross human rights violations, not just everyday problems, and those gross violations include murder, assassination, torture, use of the legal system to unfairly prosecute or imprison people because they are dissenters, use of psychological or chemical warfare techniques against people who are members of dissenting organizations, and what they call "black propaganda." That is, using the media to demonize people, as you can see in the case of someone like Leonard Peltier, who is portrayed in the media over and over and over again as a murderer, as a dangerous man, when the reality of who he is and why he was prosecuted and the fact that he was framed comes out much less. All this is to destroy the organizations of people who challenged the principles and the practice of government, so that's what the Human Rights Research Fund looks at. We would like to be able to persuade a public body such as the Congress or the United Nations to engage in hearings on these kinds of violations.
BS: What does the Panther legacy mean to you in your own life, and in what sense do you see your work as a continuation of that legacy?
KC: Well, what the legacy is is very much up in the air, because the people who created the Black Panther Party — who gave it its energy, who gave it its ideas, who gave it its impact, who in many cases paid for that with their lives — they were very young. And so I think it's premature to talk about the legacy: we have to see what all of these former Panthers do. What organizations will they find? How have they impacted their communities? You have to trace quite a few thousands of people, and what they have done, to see what that legacy was. I think it's too early.
What I see as important to do is to make it accessible, to make that knowledge, that history, that phenomenon that was the Black Panther Party as accessible as possible to another generation, so they can benefit from those mistakes; they can benefit from those advances; and they can essentially learn from the past.
BS: If you had to specify a few things that next generation activists should learn from the Party, what would you say?
KC: Well, one thing they need to learn is the value of study. You know, careful study of political phenomenon, of writers, of history, of theology, of thinkers. We studied Kwame Nkrumah, we studied Mao Tse-Tung, we studied Frantz Fanon, we studied Che Guevara, we studied Malcolm X, we studied Marcus Garvey: we had an analytical framework to interpret the world around us. And then we attempted to apply what we had studied within an organization; the organization changed many times, but we recognized the significance and the crucial importance of collective activity. We're not trying to run out and do anything as individuals but as a collective.
We also recognized the importance of having the support of people we lived and worked among. We're not trying to dictate to people but actually to include and create an example that people could take up. As an organization, the Black Panther Party could [not] achieve the kinds of changes we thought were necessary, but we could explain and illuminate and demonstrate to people in our community, "This is the way we should go," and that the power to make it happen was contained among the people. That was why we [emphasized] Power to the People.
BS: That's another thing that comes very clearly in some of your writing. I'm thinking of the essay you wrote on the death of Martin Luther King and also the review you wrote of different women's memoirs and biographies from the civil rights movement. It really emphasized the different sectors of society and the need for all sectors to mobilize to effect social change. You seem to have this compound conception of what it means for civil society to be engaged in a movement, as opposed to focusing on an individual leader or a particular party.
KC: That's probably one of the real clear legacies that there is: the legacy for the Black Panther Party to have a broad base of leadership. We did not have one leader: every chapter had a central staff and a central committee, and then we had a national central committee, and then we had collective and broad-based leadership, and we rotated them. That's another thing that needs to be studied and understood, about how the Black Panther Party was able to generate that. It's a theory of community organizing, which is an idea that many people have discussed and talked about as a big, big part of the '60s and '70s protest movements. But the discussion about community organizing seems to have fallen through. There's a lot of academic or intellectual critiques out there, but not much discussion and not much evidence of organizing.
BS: Why has it fallen through?
KC: It's dangerous. It's not that it has really fallen through; it's that the organizers have been rounded up, organizations have been destroyed, many of the members have been intimidated, leaders have been killed, funds have been withdrawn, and communities have been flooded with drugs and economic depression. Which they conveniently refer to as recession. [laughs] Anyway, I've got to go.
Aaron Shuman is a member of the Bad Subjects Production Team.