In 1969, Bobby Seale was convicted of inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention, already destined for disarray because of the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in June. During the trial, after Seale protested that he was being denied his civil rights, the judge ordered him restrained in his chair during the proceedings. Seale was eventually convicted, but when he got out of jail he ran for mayor of Oakland in 1973, finishing second in the race.
These are just a couple of the many astonishing aspects of Bobby Seale’s story, which are being explored in a new film project.
I understand you have a film that you’re working called Seize the Time: The Eighth Defendant. How far along is the project?
We are moving along. Over the next few months we are taking the project around the world and collecting email addresses. We need 100,000 email addresses. We’re asking for contributions – I called it a “power to the people” cause – because that was our slogan – and there are perks with each contribution. The lowest basic level is $25 to help with contribution. Now that’s another thing, we’re not trying to raise all the funds this way. We’re trying to get development funds because this is an independent film. You see what I’m getting at? There are different levels of funds and once we get that, we go back to the major houses in Hollywood, where we’ve already been and there is a lot of interest already. We’re doing this as an independent production in order to control the artistic value and the real story. High drama. Now there are different levels – $50, $100, $200, all the way up to $10,000 for contribution. The perk for a person who gives $10,000 is that I will come and speak anywhere they want me to – hopefully a college or university or something like that – plus I will supply autographed copies of my books, DVDs, posters, Barbecue’n With Bobby, which I did 5 or 6 years ago as a TV show which includes a book where I explain how I do not separate my politics from my cooking. (laughs)
They were connected.
The idea behind Barbecue’n With Bobby was to raise funds in the 1980s for what I called the Environmental Renovation Youth Jobs Project. If you know anything about me and the history of the Black Panther Party – even before – when I quit my engineering job, I went to work in the grassroots community. So I used to put together real youth jobs programs. That was my shtick back then. I created – my God – 22 community survival programs. Scattered all across the country. I organized 5,000 people while Huey [BPP co-founder Huey Newton] was sitting in jail. How to set up the Free Breakfast program. How to set up the Preventive Care clinics. How to set up and operate the Free Sickle-Cell Anemia Testing program. These were very successful programs in demonstrating the problem – the issues in our community. Hungry children before school. Medical health care clinics. This stuff is going to be dramatized and synopsized in our film.
And also how you yourself started out.
That part of the story really starts out with me in the engineering department at Kaiser Aerospace and Electronics. I was doing electromagnetic field black light non-destructive testing for all engine frames for the Gemini missile program. I put myself in the high tech world. I had already done four years in the United State Air Force repairing high performance aircraft. I had skills. I was also an architect, which I evolved before joining the military. My father was a master carpenter and builder. Architectural design, engineering design, mechanical design, three-dimensional views, that was my shtick, my forte. But I quit that engineering job to work with grassroots communities, and the first one I worked on was North Richmond Tutorial program, which was for youth jobs. Now the city government of Richmond, California, gave me a proclamation for setting up the first-ever youth jobs program in the city. They gave this to me about four years ago. I then worked for the department of Human Resources in the city government of Oakland later and I ran the youth jobs program there and these were all programs that preceded the Black Panther Party. I was still employed by the city of Oakland when I created the Black Panther Party. I knew the Mayor. I knew the chief of police. There’s drama there. I used to have to take some of the youth on tours down there and the police detectives would try to make them become fake snitches, and I used to say, “Don’t tell them a damn thing.”
What year would this have been?
So let’s go back a little – you’re an engineer. What causes you to suddenly get involved with social movements?
Dr. Martin Luther King, in 1962, came to Oakland Auditorium and there I was with 10,000 people in the auditorium. I was one of the young students then. He spoke so profoundly. There was one particular thing he said that I never forgot. He was talking about how we have to break down institutional racism and get them to hire people of color – all people of color. Bread companies. He said, (adopting King’s voice and cadence) “We’re gonna boycott these bread companies. We’re gonna boycott Wonder Bread. We’re gonna boycott them so consistently and so profoundly we wanna make Wonder Bread wonder where the money went.” (laughs) I tell you – when he said that, the whole auditorium stood up. It was a thing – a standing ovation. I was first inspired. The first African-American leader was Dr. Martin Luther King. Later I heard Malcolm. But the point is, that was where I was coming from.
And your emphasis was on programs.
Programmatic organizing. One thing about the history of the Party is I created all these programs. When Dr. King was murdered, I only had 400 members in the Party all along the West Coast.
In ’68? Really?
Seattle chapter was pretty good – small group in Portland, Oregon – about 100, I was shocked to find out, mostly female in Sacramento – and the headquarters was in Oakland of course. One little office in Palo Alto, one little one in Vallejo. And a small group in Fresno and L.A. But add them up and it was 400 among all the chapters. Now back then, Dr. Abernathy called me – everybody knew I was the main spokesman of the Party. Huey was in jail. The question was, “Mr. Seale, you’ve become a prominent organizational group, and would you like to have a representative in a round table and also to help further along the upcoming Poor People’s March we’re going to have.” And my answer was, “Yes, we will participate.” They wanted to hammer out greater economic rights. Civil rights is economic rights. And I said, “Yes, sir.” We agreed with that. And this was just a few weeks before Dr. King was killed.
Had you known Ralph Abernathy before that?
No, not before the day he called my office phone.
Six or seven weeks before Dr. Martin Luther King was killed. When had they scheduled the first group meeting?
They called back, and said – they might possibly have a meeting in the next month or two. Something like that.
Wow. That’s really interesting. I did not expect you to say that you got involved in this partly because of Dr. King. Now King had become more radicalized. He started to talk about the Vietnam War. He gave the famous speech on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his murder. Do you think that he was ever responding to or influenced by the Panthers?
No. Dr. King had said at one point, if this war continues in Vietnam, there may come a time when I may not be able to tell the young militants that we need to continue our nonviolent protest. Something to that effect. Kwame Ture and others had wanted him to come out against the war, and he did come out against the war before he was killed. Now in the research for our film, and this comes from a Senate investigation into the FBI – I have some researchers from UCLA – and the documents show that J. Edgar Hoover had declared Dr. Martin Luther King a violent agitator! (laughs) Of all people!
He was worried about a new Black Messiah.
Yeah, he said he was worried about that. Take Malcolm X. He left the Nation of Islam, which I was always happy about.
You were in favor.
There were some aspects of the Nation that were okay, but all the separatism and stuff, I didn’t have no time for that. I didn’t see the world as they saw it. When I studied Africa, I didn’t study it for the aesthetics. I studied it for the mineral resources buried in the bowels of Africa. I was in the high tech world. Metallurgy crosses over into what I’m coming from. So when I’m studying Western Africa, Togoland, Ghana, I find out that there was a smelting plant for bauxite. I knew what bauxite was about – all aluminum products in the world come from bauxite and it is plentiful in Western Africa.
You have a practical edge to your work – programs for the people, and a very practical analysis of how the world works. Huey Newton is more theoretical – he’s coming from Frantz Fanon and so on. How did you come together?
I was Huey’s supervisor. Remember I was 6 or 7 years older than him. Well Huey was stealing. He’d ask me for a ride – and I’d drop him off at Grove and this happened three days in a row. And finally I asked him, “Where are you going?” He didn’t want to tell me but finally I got it out of him. He would go and wait in the bushes in the emergency area at Herrick Hospital and – he wrote it in his own book – he would wait in the bushes for sometimes an hour and somebody would always come up with an emergency situation and they would leave their purses, jewelry, he would rob people. I said, “Man, you can’t be doing that, we’re trying to start an organization.” And he said, “Man, I need the money.” I said, “Huey, you can’t do no crap like that. You’re a common thief.” I had heard something – I asked Mr. Lowe with the board “Didn’t you mention something about an assistant that could work with me?” [It turned out] there was ten months left [of salary in the budget]. It was about 40% of my salary. My salary was $620 a month, a lot of money in those days. So I called up Huey and said, “Come down here man, I got a job for you.”
I told him, “You know why I hired you, right?” And he said, “What?” I said, “You can’t go down to the hospital and ransack people’s cars! Shit, we’re talking about starting a new organization, we can’t do that kind of shit. You’re gonna have near $280 a month in your goddamn pocket. Do you get $280 a month out of people’s purses and shit?” And he said, “No.” So you see, there’s all kinds of drama in my little movie. A prelude to the shootouts.
The Black Panthers are often connect in the public mind with guns. I’ve always thought the thing that really got Hoover agitated and COINTELPRO going was feeding and educating the children. How do you feel about that?
Well, we have documents on that. You have to understand COINTELPRO. The Black Panther Party was on their list. When they really started to focus on us was right after Nixon got elected. He gets elected in November 1968. One of the first people Nixon meets with – before the inauguration, before January 1969 – is J. Edgar Hoover. Now, right in the middle of December 1968, Hoover is on television saying that the Black Panthers are a threat to the internal security of America. Four months later, he is back on television saying that the Free Breakfast for Children Program is a threat to the internal security of America. He goes on to say it is Communist inspired. (laughs)
In our film, we are showing real documents subpoenaed by a Senate committee that our research assistants have gotten ahold of that show Hoover sent out one communique as a directive to 43 district offices of the FBI. In this thing, he is directing them to do – in any creative way you can – to disrupt, discredit, and destroy the breakfast program. You must further try to make sure that moderate blacks and liberal whites do not support this program. In a Gallup poll at the time, something like 90% of the black community approved of the Panthers and the breakfast program. Those programs caused a lot of people to look at us differently from “guns.” Hoover didn’t like that. And they were on us.
Now when Hoover said that, I sent a directive out to all Black Panther Party offices. I want them fortified. So I took out my drafting pencils and sketched out methods to sandbag, build boxed areas up to the windowsills all the way around, find a joist on the ceiling to install heavy duty hooks so you can install plywood with heavy hinges – synchronized and spaced with the joist to hold them – so when the police come around, everyone can get down behind the sandbags and hit the hooks so these heavy duty covers will fall over the windows. Now, the problem with Fred Hampton is they didn’t kill him in the office. It was in his apartment. They just busted in there at five a.m. shooting everybody.
And he had been drugged.
Yes, he had been drugged, that’s documented. My film starts out with Fred Hampton.
That’s literally and metaphorically the end of the Sixties, I’ve always thought. He’s killed December 1969.
December 4, that’s right.
And Little Bobby Hutton getting murdered by the police. It was war. Like Huey’s book said, War Against the Panthers.
Yeah, it’s war, but Huey’s book is limited. It’s a Ph.D. thesis. There is more than that here. Huey doesn’t have the reference points we have – and the point is, he was just knockin’ off his thesis. (laughs)
Well, he was – a more theoretical sort of guy, right?
He was quite theoretical, but he wasn’t an organizer.
That’s what I mean.
I gave him a lot of credit in my book Seize the Time. I never have forgotten, when he got out of jail, he’s sitting in the right hand front seat, I’m in the back next to David Hilliard and my brother, somebody’s driving, and Huey says, “Hey, I read Seize the Time, you didn’t give yourself enough credit.” I told him, “I wrote it that way to help you get your butt out of jail.” Anyway, my point is, my film here is called Seize the Time, but the subtitle is The Eighth Defendant. The emphasis is on what I did, how I organized the Panthers, 5,000 strong, while Huey was in jail. The emphasis is on the programs I created. The programs that evolved out of the original 10-point program.
Could this happen today? Could there be programs to do this work now?
Yeah, it could work. The programs would be different. This is what I want to do. Now a certain amount of money I need for my family from the film. But the other money is to initiate the Environmental Renovation Youth Jobs Projects. That’s what I would do. Set an example or two, go from city to city and get a whole movement going. Right back to programs. Barack Obama learned his lessons when he ran against Bobby Rush, way before he became a Senator or President. Bobby Rush was a former Panther organizer. He survived the crackdown – when they were out to kill all of us.
Bobby Rush beat him two to one. He still had the Free Health Clinic in his community. So you know what Barack did? He created his own clinic. And it was a great one! Better than anything we ever put together. He was responsible for it. And it’s almost like Brother Barack Obama figured out, that is the way to run. And to this day, I love Barack Obama…it’s the same stuff I did when I ran for mayor of Oakland. And I was speaking at Santa Clara before the election, talking about these programs and I advised them, Barack Obama is going to give Mitt Romney an electoral ass whoopin’.
That seems like a good place to close. Thanks for speaking with me, sir, it was an honor.
For more information on the film, see http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/266927,