I Was a Teenage Black Panther

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When Jamal Joseph was 16, he was was one of the "Panther 21" -- a group arrested for an alleged plot to blow up the New York Botanical Gardens and several department stores. Here, he recalls the events that drew him into the organization's fold.

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Bill Ingraham/Associated Press

I walked into a Panther office in Brooklyn in September 1968. Dr. King had been assassinated in April of that year. I'd gone down to 125th Street in Harlem that night, where protesters swarmed the streets, setting trash can fires and hurling bricks at white-owned businesses. Some ran into the stores and started taking clothes, appliances, and whatever else they could carry.

Not everyone looted, but it was enough for the police to start making arrests. A cop grabbed me and threw me against the wall, but before he could handcuff me, a group of rioters across the street turned a police car over. The cop told me to stay put and ran toward the rioters.

I was scared, but I wasn't stupid. My heart pounded as I ran into a clothing store and found a back door that led to an alley. When I came up against a wooden fence, the cops caught up with me. "Halt," they yelled. In my mind I froze and put my hands in the air, but my body kept hauling ass. I grabbed the fence and scurried over the top. Two shots rang out. One splintered the wood on the fence. This gave me the adrenaline push I needed to flip over the fence, pick myself up off the ground, and scramble out of the alley.

"You have guns?" the cop asked, a tinge of fear in his voice.

When I turned out on the street, I almost collided with a group of 20 or so black men in leather coats and army fatigue jackets, wearing Afros and berets, standing on the corner in a military-like formation. "Stop running, young brother," one of the men with a beard and tinted glasses said. "Don't give these pigs an excuse to gun you down." I doubled over, trying to catch my breath. I didn't know this man, but his voice sounded like a life raft of confidence in a sea of chaos.

Moments later, two cops ran around the corner. They stopped in their tracks when they saw the militant men. The men closed ranks around me. "What are you doing here?" one of the cops demanded. "Move aside."

The black man with the tinted glasses didn't flinch. "We're exercising our constitutional right to free assembly. Making sure no innocent people get killed out here tonight."

"You have guns?" the cop asked, a tinge of fear in his voice.

"That's what you said," the man with tinted glasses replied. "I said we're exercising our constitutional rights." The cops took in the size and discipline of the group for a moment and walked away.

By this time, I'd caught my breath, but I was speechless from what I had just seen: black men standing down white cops. "Go straight home, young brother," the man with the tinted glasses said. "The pigs are looking for any excuse to murder black folks tonight."

When I entered the apartment, my grandmother, Noonie, was sitting on the couch watching images of Dr. King on TV. Tears fell from her eyes. Noonie had been born in 1898 in a poor and segregated section of North Carolina. She told me how white men in sheets lynched people they considered to be "uppity niggers." One such uppity nigger was Noonie's favorite uncle, who'd been beaten, lynched, and burned for striking a white man who had spit tobacco in his face. Despite all this, Noonie was a follower of Dr. King and believed that love and peaceful protest were the tools for equality. I sat next to her and put my arm around her, and we watched the TV reports of the assassination and the riots.

By July 1968, the country was still smoldering, but in the hills of Camp Minisink, in upstate New York, kids and teens from Harlem were just happy to enjoy swimming in a lake, miles from the melting asphalt of their home. Camp Minisink was the oldest African American camp in New York State. I had a job there as a junior counselor. That summer, I hung out with two older boys from my neighborhood, James, 19, and Eric, 17. When they weren't on duty as counselors, James and Eric swapped their camp T-shirts for African dashikis and played Miles Davis and Malcolm X records. A red lightbulb that gave their cabin the feel of being a black militant speakeasy in the woods.

At the end of the summer, H. Rap Brown came to speak at a youth conference at Camp Minisink. He was often in the news as a militant leader who dismissed integration and stood for black nationalism. I was blown away by his whole style: the 'fro; the shades; the finger that jabbed the air like a Zulu spear when he spoke, slicing up white America. Wow, man, Rap could rap.

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Jamal Joseph is a writer and activist in New York City. While incarcerated in his teens, Joseph earned two college degrees, wrote five plays, and produced two volumes of poetry. His most recent book is Panther Baby, a memoir about his years as a Black Panther.

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