In 1968, Jamal Joseph was a Bronx high-school student on his way to college. But it was the turbulent 1960s and, radicalized by the times, he joined the militant Black Panthers. Joseph’s new book, Panther Baby (Algonquin) tells the story of his journey from young Panther to defendant in the famous Panther 21 trial to his time in jail to his current job as chairman of Columbia University’s School of the Arts film division.
After reading your book, I’m surprised you’re still alive.
I have to say, I am too.
Before you joined the Black Panthers, you were heading in a very different direction — towards college.
I was one of these kids who was in the church choir; I was in extracurricular activities, and I was in the NAACP. Martin Luther King’s death changed that. It sparked something in me, some rage and some anger. I went down to Harlem, snuck down there, was on the fringes of the riot. Threw a couple of bricks through store windows, ran from a cop and got shot at by the cops. And then discovered the Black Panther party, at first just through television, through looking at the images of the Panthers, with their leather coats and their berets and their guns, talking about black revolution. Not turning the other cheek. Those were some bad guys; I wanted to check them out.
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You were so young.
Yes, I was 15 years old when I went to the Panther office. [My friends and I] came in with all of these notions of what it was to be a Panther. First of all, we thought you wouldn’t be able to get out once you joined — it was like the Mafia. Second, you probably had to kill a white guy or a cop to be in. I walked into the meeting trembling, but wanting to prove that I was a man, especially to my friends, who were a little older than me. In the middle of a person explaining the Panther 10-Point Program — which talked about housing, education, jobs and fair trials, nothing about killing or hating white people — I jumped up and said “Arm me — I’ll kill a white dude right now!”
The whole meeting got quiet. They called me to the front of the room, and the brother who was running the meeting looked at me for a minute, and then reached into the desk drawer. My heart was pounding. I was like, “Oh my god, he’s going to give me a big-ass gun!” And he handed me a stack of books, Malcolm X and Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver. I thought, this must be a trick, right? Our secret knowledge of the Panthers said they were going to send us on a mission. I said, “Excuse me, sir, I thought you were going to arm me. He said, “I just did.”
There would be social outreach and breakfasts for kids, but there were also a lot of guns around. It sounded like a tough group.
Yes, definitely tough in the sense that the Panthers advocated self-defense, and talked about revolutionary resistance, and using guns to defend the community. That being said, I definitely held diapers and babies and books a lot more than I held guns. You were trained in how to use weapons, but you even had to go through basic training as a Panther to do that. That basic training was community service: selling newspapers, working in the breakfast program for kids. So maybe 5% of the time you actually had your turn of doing guard duty at the Panther office overnight, or at one of the apartments. Most of your work as a Panther was aggressive community organizing and public speaking.
You and the Panthers ran into a lot of legal problems.
I joined in October 1968 and by April of 1969, I was in prison. We’re not talking about a long time as a Panther, but I was really enthusiastic. I’d come every day after school, and would be there on the weekends. And from what I’d learned in the NAACP and in speech class in school, I was really a good public speaker and really good at organizing my peers, so I was kind of head of all of the high-school students who had come to become Panthers.
The Panther 21 case was designed by the New York district attorneys office to wipe out the New York Black Panther party by arresting everybody in a leadership position. I was the youngest. So I found myself as this honors student who had never been arrested before, standing in front of the judge that April morning, charged with conspiracy and counts that added up to 300-plus years in prison. My bail was set at $100,000! That’s a really high amount these days — imagine how completely exorbitant that number was in 1969. I found myself one day in the classroom and the next day in a prison cell at Riker’s Island.
How did Riker’s change you?
Riker’s Island toughened me up. A lot of what I was doing as a young Panther before I went to prison was very romantic. You would talk about police brutality ; in prison, I was in it. I was in a cell with mice and roaches. I saw the disparity in terms of the prison being filled with poor black and Latino prisoners, very few white prisoners. I saw the brutality of the guards. I came out really understanding that I was fighting for something real. First you go through being really scared, wanting to go home. Then you start to adjust. Then, remembering why I was there, my adjustment became not just about trying to make things better for me, or worrying about me getting out, but really fighting to organize in prison. I was all alone, so it was just me and what I had learned in the movement thus far to gain the respect and the trust of my fellow prisoners and then start to do things like literacy classes.
I stayed in prison for close to a year, and then I was released on bail. I was adjudicated a youthful offender, and my bail was reduced. Every day, I would go speak to help raise money for the Panther party and the rest of the Panther 21. Afeni Shakur, Tupac’s mom, was also out on bail. We were lined up at these events that Tom Wolfe named Radical Chic. He talked about it being an event, and the Panthers being kind of a cool party addition, a reason to have a party.
You went to many of those events, right?
Well, we did. I went to a lot of those events and spoke. One of my memories is that we were always hungry; there was never enough food. Because there was no salary in the Panther party, there was no food. So part of what happened at the Radical Chic events is that the food would be there, and I’d make my way to that hors d’oeuvres tray and load up. Then we would speak.
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Your life changed significantly when you had to go back to prison.
The time I spent in Leavenworth was transformational. They had a wonderful college program from the University of Kansas, and professors that came in and taught the same curriculum, and made us do all of the same work and research. It was amazing to see how hard the guys in the college program worked, and how scared they were of the professors. These guys weren’t scared of the guards, they weren’t scared of other prisoners, but you could see a guy in the yard almost with tears in his eyes, someone who was 250 pounds of muscles doing life in prison, you’d go up and you’d go, “Hey bro, what’s wrong?” He was, like, “Naw. I don’t want to talk about it.” “What happened — parole board? Wife leave you?” “No, it’s not that, man. Professor Johnson, she gave me a C, and messed up my grade point.” And Professor Johnson, we’re talking about an older white lady in her 60s, who came in with love and hard work. People respond to that.
Do you think things have changed now that Obama is President?
Things changed, in the sense that we have a black President, and that people were able to rally together to make that happen. But when you have any leader who is presiding over a broken system, there is still a lot of work to be done. Yes, we have a black president, but the system is still broken. People are struggling; things are hard each and every day.
I still live in Harlem. It’s interesting, because of the contrast of the coops and the condo buildings. We have more white neighbors. But when I walk through those streets and those projects — I have kids in my youth program who are homeless, or who are struggling to make ends meet, whose best meal of the day is the one that we given them at Impact (the arts program that he founded and leads). That reminds me of when I was a Panther, and the best meal of the day was for the kids we fed in the breakfast program. I don’t feel this glorious change. The country is more polarized. You have a lot of Americans saying, we don’t want him because he’s black. How far have we come really?
You were on the front lines of the protests at Columbia University, long before you were teaching there.
Columbia was a hotbed for radical activity. As a young Panther, and especially as someone who was one of the Panther 21, I’d get to speak at the rallies. Usually they’d bring the Panthers on last, you know, the closers, right? (Laughs.) “The Panthers are here!”
I knew my job was just to get this crowd going. There would two, three, four thousand students, and community folks out there, and I’d give my talk. We’d be right in front of Low Library: “If Columbia University doesn’t recognize that the war in Viet Nam is a war of capitalist exploitation, and if the United States fascist pig military occupies Viet Nam the way the fascist New York police pig department is occupying Harlem, and trying to occupy Columbia, then brothers and sisters, we have to do more today than take this university over. We have to burn the damn place down!” Of course, guaranteed cheers for that.
What would you have thought if you could have seen the future that you would be Columbia University at some point?
In some ways, I could have imagined that, and in other ways, it kind of blows my mind. The little joke that closes the book, and the story I like to tell is me walking past that statue [in the middle of campus], and she looks down at me and goes, “Oh, it’s PROFESSOR Joseph now, is it?” (Laughs.)