The High Tide of Black Resistance, With SE Anderson
Larvester Gaither: How and at what age did you personally become politicized around the issue of the death penalty?
S.E. Anderson It goes back a ways. I think it goes back to the late 1960s. I was politically involved in student activism and stuff like that during the mid sixties. Specifically, however, it was in 1968 when my old comrade and good friend from the Harlem Black Panthers—Eddie Ellis—was arrested and sent to prison in New York for “killing somebody.” It was a COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program) set-up. Eddie served twenty-five years and if the death penalty was active then, we knew that he would have been burnt. That was when I became very, very aware of the harsh reality of the death penalty.
Gaither: The reason that I asked you this question is that it isn’t an issue that’s really talked about in our nationalist community and very little is written on the subject.
Anderson: In the movement there is a real shortage of this material. I think it may have stemmed from the history of Black folk vis-à-vis the law in general. We understood that we would get the harsher deal from the times of slavery to the times of Reconstruction to the times of lynching. We understood that we wouldn’t get true justice and that often times many of us would be tried and sentenced before the “Bourgeois Law” could be enacted and, in effect, be lynched, or burnt.
It seems to me that the specific concern around the death penalty up until the 80’s really had no impact both in terms of the African American population in general and activist in particular because of this overarching assumption and understanding of the racist nature and class inequality of the law. And as we became more entwined within the US system at various levels and also more sophisticated towards it, the question began to be raised both in terms of the political reality of the death penalty as well as the moral aspect.
The other part is that the state through J. Edgar Hoover’s counterintelligence program operations—and even before from the days of the African [Blood] Brotherhood in the 1900s—would execute us before there was even a trial in many cases. So, for the vast majority of our activist brothers who may have been in a position of being accused of murder, they would usually be dead before they went to trial. In many cases, if there was murder involved, they would get extraordinarily long terms.
Gaither: From your experience as an active participant in SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and a founding member of the Black Panthers in Harlem, what differences do you see in the response of Black youth today to state repression versus the responses from your generation? And if there are any differences, why do you feel they exist?
Anderson: Yes. For me as a young person in the sixties, for tens of thousands of us, there was a mass social context in which we were operating. That social context was something we called The Movement. There was something happening both in the North and the South; and primarily in the South, with the Civil Rights issues, it spurred a number of us to get involved. So there was a context that shaped our developing consciousness towards militancy and struggle; whereas, with today’s young people—those who are trying to be militant and are trying to do something—there is no social context. There may be for many of them the glorification of the Lumpen or as they say, the “gangster” reality, and they get their cues from that element. They also get their cues through a filtered, distorted view of what happened thirty some odd years ago. It’s filtered and distorted through Hollywood eye lenses. So the militancy now for young people is all turned around and grounded in superficiality and anti-intellectualism.
One of the things that's fundamentally missing with the young folk involved in the struggle is the need to study and to be organized in their efforts. I think over the past generation, the normalcy of anti-intellectualism in this country has really taken a stronghold in our young Black activist forces. So it is rare to come across young sistas & brothas who are both looking at the classical works and who are studying and struggling, trying to figure out how to organize and mobilize beyond the spontaneous.
Gaither: It seems that the academization of black intellectualism parallels the deradicalization of it in a sense? The whole notion of the “public intellectual” who engages in commodified discourse centered on every issue except “What is to be done?” and we, of course, consume it.
Anderson: Yes. You talked about it, you listened; therefore you are involved. You’re engaged in struggle because you’re listening. That’s today’s perception of struggling. You don’t have to be active in the community or work place…just attend the latest meetings or cultural events.
Gaither: And the whole commoditization of it. That’s something we must figure out a way to move beyond.
Anderson: The commoditization is a very big stumbling block. In that process when things are commoditized here, everything is reduced to sound-bites and imagery. There is no substance or foundation.
Gaither: Is that a sign then that “Capitalism has usurped the Black Liberation movement?”
Anderson: It’s a sign that an aspect of the Black Liberation movement has been sucked up into it. Those of us who are aware of it and are revolutionary in consciousness have a lot more work to do now. The capitalist system is very sophisticated. It learns from the past and knows how to absorb and put a spin on or redirect a lot of the reformists’ efforts that are so essential to building a movement. So we have to constantly be on the move for counter-action. I mean, crudely back in the late sixties and early seventies, what the system crudely did was to take the slogans and depoliticize and de-Black them: Revolutionary New Tide. Tide Power. The concept of power, for example, is absorbed into tings that you have to buy. It trivializes them. The same thing with individuals or the imagery of individuals. They were trivialized.
The powerful political and cultural statements made on T-shirts were just absorbed into the dominant fashions. You had the Hi Bourgeois Fashion people such as Calvin Klein and Pierre Cardin running everything on T-shirts. So the depoliticization which is so important happens also. You had that kind of absorption happening in the 70’s.
Gaither: I would like to talk more about the literary S. E. Anderson. What influenced your decision to write Black Holocaust for Beginners? How did you arrive at producing it the way you did; the illustrations and all? There’s never a dull moment and, perhaps this is the type of creative approach we will have to take towards politicizing young audiences.
Anderson: The book evolved out of a discussion with Writers & Reader’s publisher Brother Glen Thompson. He already had the title as part of his series. He told me that there was a person who was doing it but couldn’t meet the deadlines because of other obligations. He asked me if I’d be able to do it. “I’ll need it in four months,” he said (laughter).
Fortunately, over the years I had begun to look at the Middle Passage and the slavery experience. And I have tried to look at it from the perspective of the captured African and the transformation of the captured African into what one can refer to as the first modern person: The African-American. That’s in the broad sense: North America, the Caribbean and the Americas. I realized that there was really nothing out there that focuses on the Middle Passage as such or that focuses from the perspective of the captured African.
I saw this as a kind of challenge to put together something that was in everyday language, accessible to people and to use the imagery that docu-comic series developed. But this book had to be a serious one because it was a serious subject. I wanted to formulate the material in such a way where the reader is drawn from the objective to the subjective while never losing the documentation aspect of it. That’s why it goes from the broad historical overview of African civilization to the individual experience of the young Seke sister who is captured. It ends at the beginning of the enslavement of Africans in the Americas. This leads us to the next book that is entitled Slavery for Beginners. In this book I will be talking about the enslavement process itself.
Gaither: In Defense of Mumia? What led you to this interesting anthology?
Anderson: Being involved in the Black cultural movement I realize that the power of culture is formidable. There are a number of people in the world who are supportive of Mumia and we needed to show this. There was a broad spectrum of support for Mumia in the cultural field. It was also another way of chronicling the whole struggle and documenting the artistic component to it.
So, Tony Medina and I approached Glen Thompson with the idea of bringing these voices together and he said, “Yes, we’ve got to do something for the brother and as a publisher, this is my contribution to it.” So this was in the summer of 1995 and in August of 95 Tony and I had organized a very successful poetry jam at the Schomburg. The original intent of the book was to just have poetry—a poetry contribution to Mumia. But when the word got out hat we were putting his book out on Mumia, it just spread like wildfire. People started sending in material. No one looked for money. Like John Edgar Wideman, we talked to him directly and he said, “We’ve got to support this brother. I’ve got two pieces that I want you to look at.” And it was fine.
Interestingly, we sent the book to about one hundred and seventy-five reviewers and got nothing. Literally. Race & Class eventually did something. That, of course, is in England and it has a very small readership in the United States. If this was an anthology put together for Mumia by Skip Gates, it would’ve—
Gaither: --received an award, high reviews, best seller status, critically acclaimed, seminal work, et al.
Anderson: (laughter) well we did get an award. We received the Fire Cracker Award from the American Booksellers Association for best alternative non-fiction work. Also, I believe that if it was not a black publisher, it would’ve been picked up. He’s been around for over twenty years, he’s established, has all of the connections with Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, etc.
Gaither: You mentioned the issue of definition: their pillow is softer than mine, et al. Why else do you think this was the case? Because with Live From Death Row, your sentiments are vividly confirmed. There was enormous pressure to silence Mumia Abu Jamal through censoring the book—and this censorship continues in myriad ways as we speak.
Anderson: In this country, two things converge with Mumia: the racist hypocrisy of the death penalty and the reality of political prisoners. The powers that be don’t want anybody to know about either. And the “mainstream media” in the United States follows that line because of their class interest. In Defense of Mumia received more publicity and recognition in Europe because Mumia is very well known in Europe. It’s being circulated there and people are talking about doing translations in German and French in particular. So that’s a strong possibility.
Gaither: For people that listen and look to the “mainstream media” to inform them, talk to us about the status of the Movement in support of Mumia and where we are legally with the case.
Anderson The Mumia case is now scheduled for January 27, 1997. At this time, there is supposed to be a decision from the Supreme Court in Pennsylvania. It doesn’t have to happen on that date but that’s one of the dates that have been confirmed. The sense is that they will reject the request for a retrial. But his lawyers are prepared to go immediately to the federal level at that point. He’s still on death row. His condition is that he can only call out. People can’t call in. The press contact, which was already extremely limited, is no longer there.
We had a successful December 1996 rally on Wall Street with Mumia as the focal point, but it was also about the realty of the growing poverty in this country and the prison-industrial-complex, the opposition to the death penalty in general and exposing the reality of political imprisonment in the US. However, none of the major “Bourgeois” press was there—on any level—even though they were notified and we had, I would estimate 1,200 or 1,500 demonstrators and the thousands of people who work on Wall Street checking it out.
So his case is one in which we feel in order to get any kind of justice moving on this, the Black community must be mobilized and informed. There are various ways to do that and it varies from community to community throughout the world. Earlier this year on King’s birthday in New York City, we had a successful fundraiser with Max Roach, Cassandra Wilson, Greg Osby, Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez and others. Numerous celebrities—Spike Lee, Johnnie Cochran, Susan Taylor—were there to lend their support.
Gaither: The media, in their effort to trivialize movements, ran the line that the case of Mumia Abu Jamal was a “cause célébre.” Is there any truth to that?
Anderson: Yes, there are celebrities who see him as a cause. (Laughter) But it’s much bigger than that. Look at the worldwide effort of his support: tens of thousands of people in Europe, different countries in Europe amounting to half a million. He’s honorary Mayor of Venice! You know what I mean? That’s a slap in the face to the US because that’s an official status that is usually reserved for dignitaries and such.
So it’s a movement that is growing internationally but because of our Black Liberation movement being weak, he is not a known entity among the grassroots folks here in the United States. That’s what we’re trying to work on. The video that HBO put out is important. We have to promote that video and they’re going to do a ninety minute version in the summer again. The first one was a sixty minute version.
Gaither: All of the hoopla over the issue of crime in this country has really had a negative impact on Black and Latino youth. We are certainly faced with a challenge as we march toward the twenty-first century.
Anderson: That’s the essence of the late capitalist system. When a significant chunk of the labor force is no longer necessary, with a combination of “their” laws and racism, we are criminalized. Our potential labor force (i.e., Black and Latino youth), who are now superfluous, becomes criminalized. All of these efforts at pushing a harder and harder crime bill are the central focus of it. In addition, money can be made from it by certain people because the prison industrial complex is one of the most profitable businesses outside of the drug business in this country.
We have to in every way, shape, and form lay out to our young people the social, political, and racial reality of this country. And if we can capture an element of the hip hop community (referring to rappers) to get them to incorporate this reality into their lyrics, that will be helpful. I think that this is happening. There is a loose cadre of young activists who are really concerned about developing instead of just being spontaneous and opposed to study. There is a loose group throughout the country—in many cases they may not even be aware of each other—who are attempting to do the necessary work of pointing out that the highest form of organized crime is capitalism. And all things flow from there. It’s up to the young people to be in motion to not reform something that’s not reformable but to create revolution.