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Haiti’s Fanmi Lavalas and the Black Panther Party­

September 26, 2016

by Kiilu Nyasha

This year of 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, October 1966, in Oakland, California.

Attorney Charles Garry, Kiilu Nyasha, then known as Pat Gallyot, and Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton in 1970

Attorney Charles Garry, Kiilu Nyasha, then known as Pat Gallyot, and Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton in 1970

In 1968, prior to joining the Party, I was employed by Community Progress, Inc. (CPI), the nation’s pilot program of President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” also euphemistically called “The Great Society.”

I became one of the “field trainers” deployed in each of the seven impoverished neighborhoods of New Haven, Conn. Assigned to the predominately Black area of Newhallville, I worked at the Teen Center, a government facility that eventually became the site for the Black Panther Party’s free breakfast program – launched by a town hall meeting and a popular vote.

My work for CPI was to organize the community around practically every issue relevant to the needs of the residents. However, on doing so, I quickly came under attack and was eventually fired. The intention of this so-called “war on poverty” was in fact NOT to serve the people but to set up neighborhood corporations run by local governments to monitor and control community activists and quell any potential resistance.

As part of my job, I had been attending (without overtime pay) numerous community meetings re health care, lead-paint poisoning, education, housing etc., working with various groups, such as “welfare moms,” already addressing those issues.

This year of 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, October 1966, in Oakland, California.

Upon recognizing the divide and rule tactics of CPI and joining with community leaders from each neighborhood, some of us formed a group called “Seven Together.” Of course, such organizing got me in hot water fast.

At nearly every community meeting, I would encounter Black Panthers who were organizing on a strictly volunteer basis. Once I was fired, I quickly discovered there was no safety net. I couldn’t get unemployment insurance because both of the jobs I’d had – working for Yale and the government – disqualified me. So I went to the city Welfare Department, where I was offered $25 a week to support my 9-year-old son and myself.

Haiti Action Committee founder Pierre Labossiere, his daughter Malaika, with the beloved Father Jean Juste on Sept. 9, 2006 – Photo: JR Valrey

Haiti Action Committee founder Pierre Labossiere, his daughter Malaika, with the beloved Father Jean Juste on Sept. 9, 2006 – Photo: JR Valrey

“What!? I was giving you nearly double that in taxes per week,” I told them (paraphrasing). How was I supposed to pay my rent, my bills, support my child on such a pittance?

At that time, 1969, Panthers across the nation had come under vicious attack by J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO (counterintelligence program) and by year’s end a reported 28 Panthers had been murdered by police. The most blatant murders of Panthers happened on Dec. 4, 1969, in the Chicago chapter when police raided the Panther pad in the pre-dawn, premeditated murder of Fred Hampton, 21, and Mark Clark, 20.

I knew then it was time to stand up. I decided to join the Party and commit myself to a lifetime of revolutionary struggle. We single moms pooled our AFDC (Aid for Dependent Children) checks and lived communally, sharing all our resources.

Fred Hampton, chairman of the Chicago Chapter, was a dynamite organizer who brought together the first rainbow coalition and called on folks to “Repeat after me; I AM a revolutionary!”

He was also very conscious of the struggles of Black people throughout the diaspora and particularly in Haiti. He denounced the infamous brutal dictator known as Papa Doc Duvalier, who was conducting a reign of terror on the Haitian people fighting for dignity and human rights.

Since I was one of the oldest members of the Party – 30! – comprised mostly of youth in their teens and early 20s and one of the few with an employment history, office skills and church experience in quantity cooking, I started off working as the Breakfast Program coordinator. Later on, I was recruited to work as legal secretary to the Panther lawyers on the two capital trials of Panthers Lonnie McLucas and the joint trial of Chairman Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins. I continued to do community organizing as a rank and file Panther in the New Haven Chapter.

Fred Hampton, chairman of the Chicago Chapter, was also very conscious of the struggles of Black people throughout the diaspora and particularly in Haiti.

I loved working at the breakfast program, despite the difficulties of getting up before 5 a.m. to rally the troops and begin the task of feeding scores of kids every weekday morning. Sending young students to school with a full stomach instead of going hungry was very gratifying.

There were no food stamps at that time, no school lunch programs in the city. What shocked me and raised my political consciousness was when we found ourselves under attack for feeding hungry kids.

I’m reminded here of Father Jean Juste of Haiti who was brutalized and imprisoned for feeding hungry children in Haiti. May he rest in peace.

Two-time Haiti President Jean Bertrand Aristide of Fanmi Lavalas hugs Kiilu Nyasha.

Two-time Haiti President Jean Bertrand Aristide of Fanmi Lavalas hugs Kiilu Nyasha.

Later on, during the course of the Panther trials, in order to include all the forces in the community willing to work to save Panthers’ lives from the possibility of life in prison or the death penalty, we formed “The People’s Committee,” comprised of nonmembers of the Party such as Yale students, welfare moms, Puerto Ricans, White radicals et al. We used attorney Charles Garry’s temporary law offices, including the phone service, to support a Bobby and Ericka Free Food Program among other activities in support of the Panthers and opposition to the war.

A coalition of movement forces organized an anti-Vietnam-war, free-the-Panthers rally scheduled for May Day 1970 on the New Haven Green, a huge city-center area surrounded by the courthouse, post office etc. The rally drew tens of thousands of protesters from all over the country and beyond. The city called in the National Guard, who lined side streets with rifles and bayonets in a display of military occupation I had never before seen.

We added “bring a can of food” to the flyers announcing the May 1 event for our Free Food Program. So much food was contributed, we filled a whole room of Garry’s offices (near the Green) with cans of food later distributed to needy families.

As many of you know, Panthers in chapters across the country established various programs to serve the basic needs of our people, whose civil and human rights were under constant attack. Panthers’ Ten Point Platform contained the demand for “land, bread, housing, clothing, education, justice and peace” and we set about to organize our communities to meet those basic needs.

Panthers in chapters across the country established various programs to serve the basic needs of our people, whose civil and human rights were under constant attack.

Fast forward to the early 1990s: I got involved with the Haiti Action Committee and the struggle to return to the presidency exiled President Jean Bertrand Aristide, ousted by the Haitian Army in a coup d’état in 1991, backed up by the U.S. in cahoots with the Haitian militias – death squads.

Every morning, the Panthers served free breakfast to children on their way to school in cities all over the country. This is the free breakfast program at Sacred Heart Church in the Fillmore district of San Francisco. – Photo: Ducho Dennis, It’s About Time Archive

Every morning, the Panthers served free breakfast to children on their way to school in cities all over the country. This is the free breakfast program at Sacred Heart Church in the Fillmore district of San Francisco. – Photo: Ducho Dennis, It’s About Time Archive

On learning about Aristide, a priest practicing liberation theology and serving the people, I became a supporter and advocate of Fanmi Lavalas. Lavalas means a cleansing flood that would wash away political corruption and Fanmi means family.

I saw the similarities in practice of our Panther and Lavalas activists, whose dedication to the liberation of our peoples and provision of essential goods and services were paramount and well worth any risk to our lives.

More schools were built in Haiti while the former priest was in office – or until the second coup in 2004 – than in the nation’s entire history. In rural areas, where no schools had ever existed, 195 new primary schools and 104 new public high schools were built. Fanmi Lavalas provided thousands of scholarships for children to attend private schools, subsidized schoolbooks and uniforms, and expanded school lunch programs to serve 700,000 hot meals a day to children who otherwise might have had no meal.

I was reminded of the school lunch programs instituted in New Haven public schools as well as schools across the country that resulted from the Panther breakfast programs highlighting the lack of free food programs in our schools.

Not unlike the Panthers’ free health clinics and their battle against sickle cell anemia, the Aristide government built health clinics, hospitals and dispensaries and added improved medical services. It greatly increased the number of health care workers including doctors, and spent a larger percentage of its budget on health.

Just as Panthers came under attack in the ‘60s and ‘70s for feeding the people, Aristide came under attack for serving his congregants in his parish of the poor. Ironically, his church was burned to the ground and parishioners massacred on Sept. 11, 1988 (9/11!).

This was not the first or the last attempt on Aristide’s life; he bravely faced down assassins, challenged the Catholic hierarchy, and was ultimately forced out of the Salesian order and the priesthood for his opposition to the corrupt regimes of the Duvalier dictatorship and their death squads known as the Tonton Macoutes.

Not unlike the Panthers’ free health clinics and their battle against sickle cell anemia, the Aristide government built health clinics, hospitals and dispensaries and added improved medical services.

In 1990, the people drafted Aristide as their candidate to run for president, overcoming his initial reluctance. This signaled the origin of the Lavalas movement that swept Aristide into the Presidential Palace in 1991 with 67 percent of the vote. Seven months later, in the first coup d’état supported by the U.S., Aristide was exiled, and Gen. Raoul Cedras was installed to conduct a reign of terror against the Haitian masses, including anyone associated with Fanmi Lavalas.

Like the Panthers, Lavalas knows it’s essential to meet the people’s most basic needs. A family at the table is the party symbol.

Like the Panthers, Lavalas knows it’s essential to meet the people’s most basic needs. A family at the table is the party symbol.

The people demanded Aristide’s return, so after an international campaign centered here in the Bay Area and led by Pierre Labossiere and the Haiti Action Committee, he was flown to Haiti in 1994 to finish his term in office.

Re-elected in 2000 with over 92 percent of the vote, his presidency was again interrupted with a U.S.-backed coup, forcing Aristide into exile once again, this time in Africa.

The Black Panther Party turned to electoral politics after Bobby Seale was released from prison following our people’s court victory – running Seale for mayor of Oakland. At this point, there was a split in the party due to political differences and orchestration by COINTELPRO. Some members had gone underground, eschewed elections and advocated urban guerrilla warfare. Neither strategy worked.

Look at the current electoral debacles in Haiti and America. The 2015 Haitian presidential election was replete with fraud, violent voter repression and “zombie” votes. Yet the US, European Union, United Nations and other donors that make up the “Core Group” in Haiti all endorsed the results as credible.

Now that an election committee has determined new elections must be held in October, the U.S. has threatened to withdraw millions of dollars in campaign funding if they proceed. They spent over $33 million on the fraudulent 2015 election, although millions never went to electoral authorities.

Look at the current electoral debacles in Haiti and America.

Hillary Clinton descended on Haiti to see that corrupt Michel Martelly was installed, and her husband is leading international investors in the establishment of an industrial park designed to grossly exploit Haitian labor.

In short, if the candidates chosen by the U.S. imperialists and their cohorts – the Core Group – backed by MINUSTAH, the U.N. troops occupying Haiti since 2010, are not installed as planned, they’ll take their marbles and go home.

Revolutionary journalist Kiilu Nyasha enjoys a young visitor, Aaliyah Robinson, daughter of Nia Sykes, granddaughter of Ida McCray.

Revolutionary journalist Kiilu Nyasha enjoys a young visitor, Aaliyah Robinson, daughter of Nia Sykes, granddaughter of Ida McCray.

Here in the U.S. we’re faced with fraudulent elections as well, but they’re accomplished in a much more subtle and sophisticated – less violent – way.

This government and its people are at the mercy of the ruling-class donors and their controlled corporate media. Candidates are chosen and nominees selected for their loyalty to Wall Street and the ruling class multibillionaires – not for their loyalty to the masses of people. In fact, there’s no such thing as a people’s candidate in America, one who serves the best interests of the people, not Wall Street. Third party candidates can’t even get on the stage.

In Haiti, the people’s candidate, Maryse Narcisse, is from Fanmi Lavalas and was fourth runner up in the 2015 fraudulent election. She probably should have been number one given the massive support she received.

As BPP Field Marshal George L. Jackson noted, “With all the factors of control over the electoral process in the hands of the minority ruling class, the people’s party can always be made to seem isolated, unimportant, even extraneous.”

The people’s choice in Haiti, Jean Bertrand Aristide, leader of the people’s movement (people’s party), Fanmi Lavalas, has been quashed because he serves the people, not the ruling elites.

So the question remains for Haitians and Americans: How do we implement real change if we cannot do it through the ballot box?

So the question remains for Haitians and Americans: How do we implement real change if we cannot do it through the ballot box?

The 50th anniversary of the BPP in this presidential campaign year, coinciding with the upcoming rerun election in Haiti, puts voting on the front burner in 2016. In contemplating the above question, also consider the following words by the freedom fighter and revolutionary author Frantz Fanon in “Black Skin, White Masks”:

“Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.”

And in “The Wretched of the Earth,” he wrote, “Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it, in relative opacity.”

All power to the people!

Kiilu Nyasha, Black Panther veteran and revolutionary journalist, hosts the TV talk show Freedom Is a Constant Struggle, broadcast live on San Francisco Channels 29 and 76, and blogs at The Official Website of Kiilu Nyasha, where episodes of Freedom are archived. She can be reached at Kiilu2@sbcglobal.net. This article was first published in Haiti Solidarity, the newsletter of the Haiti Action Committee.

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