First, let’s understand something. I’m trying to give you background. I have been called hoodlum, thug, et cetera, when I first led the armed delegation to the California State Legislature. For the purpose of reading a statement in opposition to the Mulford Act [that sought] to stop [the Black Panthers] from patrolling and observing the police. We had been patrolling for about six months. Our guns were not concealed, so in our research, as long as the weapon is not concealed, it’s not illegal. You know, the NRA goes to the legislature, and they have 50 or 60 guys sling their guns over their shoulders.
But when they projected it in the news: Black Panthers invade the California State Legislature with their guns. They’re running around intimidating the community. We wasn’t intimidating no community. All we was telling the police is: Our guns are legal. I mean, Huey researched every g------ed law related to the guns and the Bill of Rights. So, when Ronald Reagan called me a hoodlum in the newspapers, and I’m reading this, I said, I ain’t no d--- hoodlum. I worked the Gemini missile program, a NASA project. What the hell’s wrong with him? [Laughs.] I was very proud of my work history, my skills and all this kind of stuff.
I was an aircraft mechanic. United States Air Force. Structural repair on high-performance aircraft. I had a 7 skill level — that's tops for structure repair for enlisted personnel. Okay? And the other aspect of my growing up, so you can understand why I became such a top organizer of the Black Panther Party: I was raised a carpenter and a builder. My family on my father's side, the Seale side, all of them were carpenters. That's where I come from. I was doing a full-time job and going to college as an engineering design major. I began reading about civil rights and stuff like that and paying attention to it. These are the things impressing me before the Black Panther Party evolves. And then a man named Martin Luther King is coming to Oakland Auditorium to speak. And so I go. I want to hear this guy because he's not preaching on hell and damnation. It was packed. He's talking about: We have to organize the people to get jobs. We have to get economic rights connected with our civil rights.
And did that resonate with you right away?
What resonated me was this: Dr. Martin Luther King says, "Right here in the San Francisco and Bay Area, the Langendorf Bread Company and Kilpatrick's Bread Company will not hire any people of color." He says, "And all across America, a Wonder Bread Company will not hire any people of color. I say we're going to have to boycott them. And we want to boycott them so consistently and so profoundly, we want to make Wonder Bread wonder where the money went." Man, that audience, and me — one individual — hit the floor in ovation. I was just flabbergasted the way he put that. [Laughs.] We're going to boycott them so consistently and so profoundly, we want to make Wonder Bread wonder where the money went. I mean, I was just totally impressed with this man.
So I'm impressed with two people: Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Malcolm X did a speech called "The Ballot or the Bullet," criticizing Black folks in the churches voting for all these White candidates. These White candidates are not really doing anything for you. They're just hoodwinking you, blah, blah, blah, blah. I did a demographic search after his speech, and you know what I found out? There were only 55 Black folks duly elected to any political office anywhere in the United States of America.
So my whole attitude is that you have to organize something. [Virtual Murrell] and I get Black American history into the curriculum at Merritt College [in Oakland]. The war in Vietnam was raging, and me and Virtual create a rally at Merritt College in the auditorium.
There was a meeting of Black students over in Berkeley. And we says, well, we're thinking about organizing a political electoral machine, because we don't have enough Black politicians, other people-of-color politicians, and that's very important. I said, so me and Huey here are talking about patrolling the police, so we can capture the imagination of the people. With guns. We're talking about they killed Medgar Evers, they bombed kids in a church. And we got rampant police brutality all over Berkeley, Oakland, et cetera. And Frisco. And what I'm trying to explain to them, we have to get rapid notoriety right away so that we can start registering people to vote. [Ron] Dellums was there, first time I'm meeting him. And he says, that is right. "But," he says, "you're talking about having guns?" I says, yeah. And Huey went on. California Penal Code, what have you, free speech, Second Amendment, the right to bear arms and Eighth Amendment — can't subject people to cruel and unusual punishment. Fourth Amendment — no illegal searches. Patrolling the police is just a tactic.
Showing up at the California State Legislature, carrying weapons, dressed in black leather, you got everybody’s attention. As you said, it was a pretty small group at the time, 28, 29 members, but you burst onto the national scene, and even internationally. And your objective was ...
More people in politics supporting us and understanding where we come from. That was my objective when we first went out to patrol the police. We didn’t go to patrol the police just to say we were bad. We was there to capture the imagination of the people. And as fast as we captured the imagination of the people, to organize a political electoral machine.
The folks showing up these days at the Michigan House of Representatives, with their guns — how do you describe the difference between what you all did and what they’re doing today?
They’re terrorists. That’s what they are. They’re trying to terrorize the government on behalf of the racist policies and bull crap that Trump represents. Look, after the Party was long over, I was living in Denver, Colorado — I got a job as a talk-show host. It was one Jewish guy there. A white racist Aryan organization murdered him. Ku Klux Klan in Denver and in that area.
Can you understand why people might have seen you all as terrorists at the time, given how you see ...
Well, the point of the matter is, they didn’t get a chance to see us as terrorist beyond the politicians. See, [we] created programs in the community. And that’s when they really got upset. J. Edgar Hoover attacked us in the media, the national news: The Black Panthers’ breakfast for children program is a threat to the internal security of America. The very fact that he attacked us — people are scratching their head. How is it that a breakfast program for kids before they go to schools [laughs] is a threat to the internal security of America?
Number 7 on the Black Panthers’ 10-point platform is to end police brutality. What can the protesters against police brutality today learn from the Panthers’ experience fighting police brutality?
Do not — do not riot. One. Always a peaceful protest. Because you’re exercising the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America. It is the law of the land. I mean, even when Ferguson happened, I was sending messages: Nobody riot. And if anybody’s rioting, stop them. Tell them no. And they did that down in Ferguson, a lot of these young folks. Because they had some young brothers, they want to loot somebody. And I remember the kids stood in front of the doors and — oh, no, you can’t come in, that kind of stuff. And then what I really liked about Ferguson is that Barack Obama stepped in and told that governor and others: You will not interrupt the press. You will not interrupt the right of the people to peacefully protest.
We’re seeing a very different reaction these days, right? In this current administration, there’ve been violent reactions to protesters. What do you think of that?
This comes with the territory of those who want to oppress you. You know what I mean? And I think what helped maintain this protest from any extensive violent actions was the massiveness of the protests. And the fact that it spread not just across America, but around the world. I love the fact that young White kids and youth and people, et cetera, joined in. I loved it. Because that was my concept. One of the things that I used to say: You cannot fight racism with racism. You have to fight it with solidarity. This march, this massive march, in that one week, behind George Floyd. That was something. I was just amazed and happy they pulled that off.
What would you say is the legacy of the Black Panther Party?
The legacy of the Black Panther Party is our protest method of organizing the people and voter registration. Yeah, we had the breakfast program because people forget: What is attached to the breakfast program? What's attached to the sickle cell anemia testing program, et cetera? It is voter registration. Because we want to get more and more political Black folks elected to political office, up and down the ballot on the state legislative bodies — the senator, the governors, the legislative frameworks, et cetera, right on down to cities and counties and stuff. And more community control input to the functions of the police.
Years ago I worked on Capitol Hill when there were only 22 members of the Congressional Black Caucus. The Congressional Black Caucus now is somewhere in the vicinity of 60. But it's more than the Congressional Black Caucus. It is the progressive caucus that they built. This is the goal. You see what I mean? People have evolved to a greater constitutional democratic people's human rights of survival, existence, on the face of this Earth. And then we're going to have to do some world policing on some of these fascist-a-- organizations in the Middle East and other places that jump up — and the little fascist crap that's going on here in America with them coming up with their guns and stuff in the Michigan government, you know, et cetera. We got to repress these guys, you know? Evolve them out of existence.
KK Ottesen is a regular contributor to the magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @kkOttesen. This interview has been edited and condensed.