Freed Panther Sekou Odinga on Joining the Panthers, COINTELPRO and Assata Shakur’s Escape

We spend the hour focusing on the Black Panther Party’s legacy of political prisoners in the United States. Perhaps the most famous is Mumia Abu-Jamal, who has regularly been interviewed on Democracy Now! as an award-winning journalist. But there are many others. In fact, two former Black Panthers have already died in prison this year: Abdul Majid in New York and Mondo we Langa in Nebraska. Joining us for our historic roundtable discussion is Sekou Odinga, who helped build the Black Panther Party in New York City and was later involved in the Black Liberation Army. He was convicted in 1984 of charges related to his alleged involvement in the escape of Assata Shakur from prison and a Brink’s armored car robbery. After serving 33 years in state and federal prison, he was released in November 2014.

TRANSCRIPT

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we’re also joined here in studio by Sekou Odinga. Talk to us about how you originally got involved in the Panther Party, what drew you to it and how it shaped your own life.

SEKOU ODINGA: I got involved in the Black Panther Party early 1968, when the party first come to New York. What kind of motivated me to join the Black Panther Party was that I, along with some of the comrades that I was working with in New York, had heard about the Black Panther Party, and they were doing things that we wanted to do in New York, and we thought that would be a better vehicle than the vehicle that we had going on in New York. They were better organized, and they already had their Ten-Point Platform and Program, and people already heard about them. So we decided that we would join the party, when given a chance. In fact, a few of us had actually went out to California in late ’67 to check it out, to see if was it all we thought it was, and we had found out from them that it was. And so, when we heard they were coming to New York, we got there and joined the party as soon as we could.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But even before that, you were also a member of Malcolm X’s Organization of African-American Unity.

SEKOU ODINGA: Yes, I was, right before he passed. But he passed right — you know, the Organization of Afro-American Unity was only a year old, maybe less. I can’t even remember exactly how long. So, we didn’t really get a chance to do much work in that organization. I had been attracted by Malcolm X when he was still a member of the Nation of Islam. And I was in a — supposed to have been a youth prison, but it was really just a prison that they had turned over and said now it’s for youth. I was 16 years old when I went in there. And when I come out, I was looking for him to see if — you know, to hear him, to see him, to see if I wanted to be a part of what he was dealing with. So, it took me about two years before I actually joined, maybe a little less, but I didn’t spend much time with it. We tried to organize our own organization called the Grassroot Advisory Council. That was the group that I was saying that we were part of, that we were — thought that the Black Panther Party would have been a better vehicle for us to participate in, which is what we dropped and went into.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about how being in the Black Panther Party shaped your case, how you ended up in prison.

SEKOU ODINGA: Well, as one of the leadership of the Black Panther Party in New York, I was the first Bronx section leader when it first come to New York, and I was also a member of the — founding member of the international section of the Black Panther Party in Africa, Algeria. So I was kind of one of those identified by COINTELPRO as someone to maintain, to follow, to listen to, to control any way they could. So —

AMY GOODMAN: That’s J. Edgar Hoover’s Counterintelligence Program.

SEKOU ODINGA: Yes. And so, I think once they realized who I was, after my capture — when they first captured me, they didn’t know who I was. And there had — although there had been what they call a shootout, there was no real shootout. We were running, my comrade and I, Mtayari Shabaka Sundiata. We were running from the police. He had been involved in a action up in Rockland County, and they were looking for him, and I was trying to help him get out of New York. And so, we were running from the police, and we both shot over our shoulders while we were running, hoping to slow them down, so we could try and get away. But so when we was first captured — well, he was murdered on the street. When they caught him, they knew who he was right away, and they murdered him laying on the street.

But they didn’t know who I was. They hadn’t seen me in about 13 years, so they didn’t. When they brought me in, they at first charged me with something like — if I remember right, it was resisting arrest and having an illegal gun, or something to that nature, under Sullivan law. But after my prints come back and they found out who I was, later on that night or the next day they — actually, it was the next week, if I remember correctly. It’s been a while now. This is back — we’re talking about 34, 35 years ago. But later on, they upped those charges —

AMY GOODMAN: You were captured in ’81.

SEKOU ODINGA: Yeah. They upped those charges from the resisting arrest, etc., to attempted murder of police, which upped the time that they could give me from a few years to life, because for attempted murder of police, you can get 25 years to life. And that’s what they gave me, six charges — six counts of 25 years to life, or six sentences of 25 years to life running together. So, that’s how I think it changed. Once they realized who I was and that I was one of the targets of COINTELPRO, the charges went from low charges to extra high charges.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And this whole issue you mention of being part of the international section of the party, most, especially young people, a lot of them watching this show, don’t really understand the — necessarily, the impact that the Panthers had, not only in the United States, but internationally. And for a while after, there was a split in the party between Huey Newton and Eldridge. There was a whole group that was working in Algeria, weren’t they? Could you talk about what happened there and your impact in terms of the movements in Africa that were in existence at the time?

SEKOU ODINGA: Well, let me back up a little bit. I don’t think that it was just a split between Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton. There was a split between two factions.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Right.

SEKOU ODINGA: And people have, for whatever reason, identified it as Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Right.

SEKOU ODINGA: But it was like — from my perspective, it was the left and the right, you know, that some people who were on the right, as we can — called it, were moving to the right and moving into mainstream politics rather than revolutionary politics. And those of us on the left was maintaining that we had to be different from that.

Now, to go to the effect that it was — the party was having a big effect all through the world — through Europe, Latin America, Africa. And in many places, support committees came up, in Europe and in Africa. We were able to work with many of the different liberation movements. We were welcomed by all of them that was in there, and almost everyone was in — excuse me — in Algeria at the time. So, I think we had a profound effect on many of the different movements. You were seeing people emulating our Ten-Point Program and Platform, seeing people start to emulate our dress code, the black tam cut to the side and leather jackets and stuff like that.

AMY GOODMAN: And the Ten-Point Program, what was most important to you there? What was it that attracted you to the Black Panthers?

SEKOU ODINGA: Well, the program — the whole program attracted me. But what attracted me more than anything else was the stand against police brutality, because like all the other ghettos in this country or black areas of this country, police brutality was running rampant. From my first memory of it was — in New York was little Clifford Glover, who was murdered out in my neighborhood in Jamaica, Queens, out over on New York Boulevard — Guy Brewer Boulevard, they call it now. So, I think what we were really concerned about was trying to put some kind of control on the police, or at least be in a position that we could counter some of what they were doing. So, that was the attraction, the big attraction, for me, personally, and many of the comrades that I came in with, because they really — we were not part of the civil rights movement to turn — turn your other cheek. We was mostly followers of the Malcolm X position that if someone smack you, you smack him back; if someone punch you, you punch him back; that your life was the biggest and best thing you had, and you had a right to not only protect it, but to defend it by any means necessary. And so, those were the things that really attracted me to the party.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you get out of jail after 33 years?

SEKOU ODINGA: I think — I know that the biggest thing was that I filed a Article 78, which is a legal position in the courts, claiming that New York state had — did not have the right to hold me any longer. Their law basically says that the jurisdiction — I was under two jurisdictions, the New York state jurisdiction and the federal jurisdiction. And the law basically says that the first jurisdiction, the controlling jurisdiction, has to exhaust their remedies with you before giving you to any — to another jurisdiction. And I maintained that they didn’t do that, that once they gave me up, then they lost control of me, because that’s what their law says. And basically, the judge agreed with me, and he ruled that — only thing he ruled was that they didn’t give me up deliberately, as he put it. He says that “I think they made a mistake,” which the law don’t have no position in there for making a mistake. If you give him up, you lose him. But to save the face for them, he said, “I think that they made a mistake. So, to fix that mistake, what I’m going to do is run the time that you did in the federal system with the time that you were supposed to do in the state system. And I’m going to order them to give you everything that they should have given you if you’d had been in the state,” which he’s basically saying that “You have to give him parole.” So —

AMY GOODMAN: And were you convicted of helping Assata Shakur to escape?

SEKOU ODINGA: That was one of the charges in the federal system.

AMY GOODMAN: And what was your contention?

SEKOU ODINGA: I have no contentions on that at this point. I was found guilty of it. I don’t — if anything, I’m proud to be associated with the liberation of Assata Shakur. So, since they found me — I did plead not guilty to it, if that’s what you’re asking me. I pled not guilty to it in the court case. But at this point that I’ve done the time, I don’t have no contention on it any longer. I’m proud to be associated with the liberation of Assata Shakur. She should have never been locked up for all that time anyhow and treated like she was treated, because it was clear that she didn’t murder any officer, or her comrade, Zayd Shakur. So, I am — that’s my position now.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Sekou Odinga here in New York, Albert Woodfox and Robert King in Austin, Texas. They’re about to go on a European tour talking about their experiences in jail, the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party and more. When we come back, Eddie Conway will join the conversation, served over four decades in prison. He’s joining us from Baltimore. Stay with us.

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AMY GOODMAN: “The Meeting” by Elaine Brown, here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Elaine Brown, a former leader of the Black Panther Party, as well. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.