A Conversation With Yusef Bunchy Shakur about “Marshall Law: The Life and Times of a Baltimore Black Panther” by Marshall “Eddie” Conway
I am here with Yusef Bunchy Shakur, author of “Window 2 My Soul: My Transformation from a Zone 8 Thug to a Father and Freedom Fighter”, to talk about the book “Marshall Law: The Life and Times of a Baltimore Black Panther,” by Marshall “Eddie” Conway, former minister of defense of the Black Panther Party, who remains a political prisoner after 41 years, and Dominique Stevenson, director of the Maryland Peace With Justice Program of the Middle Atlantic Region of the American Friends Service Committee. We both read the book this summer and I knew he would have a lot to say about it.
By Karen M. Gagne
KMG: Yusef, thank you for agreeing to talk to me about Marshall Conway’s book. I was excited that you were reading it at the same time that Left Eye on Books asked if I would review it. I had only recently read your own book “Window 2 My Soul.” I thought it only proper to ask you to comment on what you thought of the book. As a book seller, collector and voracious reader, what caught your eye first about “Marshall Law”?
YBS: What caught my attention on reading “Marshall Law“ was the opportunity to read the accounts of a political prisoner and I had strong interest in hearing how he was able to maintain his political activism within the belly of the beast. I know the story of guys becoming political that entered as criminals, but never read from the perspective of one entering prison and remaining political while dealing with the prison politics of the guards and prisoners who are not politically consciousness.
YBS: His description is the most accurate I have read, directly from a political prisoner telling his/her own story and also in describing the motives of why he was target for not only his political consciousness but for exposing a police agent who became a high ranking member of the BPP.
KMG: I was struck by the chapter titles. Particularly telling are “Door of No Return” and “Slave Ship” to “The Bowels of Hell.” Others, such as Elaine Brown, have made this link from the ships to the modern prison, including you in your book, “Window 2 My Soul.” In the prologue of Conway’s book, he makes that link explicit, “Imprisonment is slavery and the enslavers have long been opting to pack the ships as tightly as possible. Block after block of this nation’s prisons are flowing with black and brown bodies. And after thirty years of capturing the strongest of the stock, the system now satisfies itself with our children.” Not only are the stories very similar in the process of enslavement, but they are also similar in the path to freedom once “in the belly of the ship.” On the next page he reminds us of the Underground Railroad and that prisons have required the building of a similar system “comprised of relationships and routes that help the prisoner escape the inhumanity of incarceration.” How do you understand this journey?
YBS: I think it was important to make those connections with the titles to able to penetrate the minds of the readers—to able to absorb his message of educating people to the daunting truth that slavery still exists, but educating people in a real way to overstand how it is true and the titles spoke to that.
YBS: George Jackson is phenomenal and set the bar of what it meant to be a revolutionary in every sense of the word. I can only imagine what the impact his death had on Eddie and other people of the era because George was huge in a very human way. He challenged you to be a better revolutionary and a more committed revolutionary.
KMG: It is in this same chapter we begin to get a real look at the inside of the prison, after his death, it “signaled the beginning of the end for the movement.” He noted that drugs would soon “sate the appetite of the rebellious prisoner” helping them to escape the reality of extremely hard times. Still, he adds that for a few extra coins they “like modern day Judases” were helping the government in its genocidal plan. This was of course, parallel to what was happening in the communities. How was the introduction of heroin in Baltimore (like that of cocaine and crack in Detroit and other cities) testament to that continued bondage? Conway suggests that Baltimore in 2011 is “more south” than Mississippi in 1962 and that the connection between drugs and the violence between blacks and whites are not a coincidence. How would you respond?
YBS: Heroin impacted Detroit in the 60s and 70s like every other major urban city crippling it to its knees, and opened the doors of crack cocaine to come in and rip the heart of Detroit and put her on her death bed, which we are still attempting to recover here in 2011. The majority of urban cities are a reflection of what the south was and still is: segregated cities bathing in self-hatred that is perpetuating the violence that we are witnessing across the nation while these cities are being manipulated and control by white people with the end goal being genocide of Black people.
KMG: I heard that in fact heroin, too, seems to be making a “comeback” (if it ever left). This has been in recent news regarding Madison, Wisconsin and Chicago, Illinois, for example.
YBS: The drug trade has become a part of the urban fabric in amerikkka. It is business in the Black ghettos of amerikkka that offers jobs for people who don’t need to know skills besides selling. As long as the imagination of people in this country is as a slave to the materialistic culture in this society you will have people who will explore drugs as a means to make fast money. The reality is the drug culture is a bastard version of capitalism in its rawest form.
KMG: Very well put! Thank you. I wanted to touch on a topic I thought Conway wrote eloquently about, which is family life and what he is able to see in retrospect about his relationship to his family as he entered the political movement and then again after he is incarcerated. He talks about his new role in the political movement, which he always saw as working toward making life better for him and his family simultaneously resulted in their separation and a distance between them. This happens when Conway first leaves for Europe. He notes that he “lacked the necessary balance to create a strong family unit” and that he lacked understanding of what it meant to be a father and husband. Later in the book, he notes a similar distance as a result of the pain of his family having to see him through glass and concrete. Do you think that Conway’s ability to reflect on the importance of balancing one’s involvement in the movement with family life comes from simply “growing up” or are there things that happen while serving a long prison sentence that make one have to see things in a new way? I also wonder what wisdom he wants to share with the new generation of Black Panthers, to suggest that this balance is necessary for long term struggle. How do you see this in your own experience not only in surviving a lengthy prison sentence but also in becoming more and more active in the movement?
YBS: The social break down of Black families has played a crucial role in the destruction of Black neighborhoods, and the fabric breakdown of Black neighborhoods has contributed to the destruction of Black families. We have to find the balance as activists to not only fight for a better world but fight for better families through productive fathers and mothers as well as being on the frontlines of the struggle. Finding that balance is essential for leading us to victory and for maintaining a strong morale.
KMG: There is a passage in the chapter entitled “Home is Where the Hatred Is” when Conway talks about coming home from the Army and trying to find a job. He went to the employment office and was immediately sent over to the pipefitters and general labor area. He challenged them and said that he wanted a firefighter position. The scene is straight out of the pages of the novel “The Spook Who Sat By The Door” by Sam Greenlee. Despite attempts to integrate the fire and police departments, he was given the run around and told that he needed to be “qualified.” Even after he passed all the tests they still resisted him at every step. When he finally was let in, he was among six African Americans out of 101 firefighters and would get “most of the isolated duty at the outpost or fire patrols of the shipyard.” This is when he becomes angry and politicized–he was working here when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.
YBS: Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s required a young teens to be politicized even when they didn’t think so. The movement and struggle were completely part of everything happening, and this challenged you as a human being either to get involved or sit on the sideline. With history being his guide, this led him into the movement. We have to recreate and redevelop a culture of revolutionary struggle today that will help shape the next generation of activists to lead the revolution.
KMG: Even though there are a couple of decades difference between you and Conway, how do you connect with his experience—both before you entered the prison system and during your incarceration…And now that you have been back in the community for eleven years?
YBS: I connect with bro Conway on many different levels. Historical, personal and political. History-wise he and other political prisoners/prisoners of war (PP/POW) are living testimony of the struggle of justice, equality and freedom in this country. Reading his story for me was like reading my father’s story. My father, Ahjamu Baruti, is a political prisoner here in the State of Michigan. He taught me about what endurance it takes to be a PP/POW under constant repression everyday while being surround by ignorance. Also, reading Conway’s book added fuel to my fire to continue to fight the here in the 21st century and reinforced that I made the right decision by joining the fight even though we are in a low tide. But Conway’s story inspired me that we have to continue to fight no matter what. That is our obligation to humanity.
KMG: I thought about your father when I was reading the book, and how he also is one the elders and “griots” now on the inside. Can you talk more about this connection you see between Conway and your father? How do you see them in this light? How are they influencing the youth, both inside and outside?
YBS: It is because of men like Eddie Conway and Ahjamu Baruti in prison that a Yusef Bunchy Shakur could exist [see Baruti’s book “Scribes of Redemption: Letters from and Incarcerated Father to His Incarcerated Son”]—because without them I still would be an undeveloped human being labeled a criminal. These kinds of men provided me with the models, and the care and love to rehabilitate, redeem and transform myself in prison. These type of men are holding down the mandate of reeducating and rebuilding as many of the broken and lost young men entering prison as they can.
KMG: You recently attended the 45th anniversary of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California. What did the contemporaries of Conway—the original members who are still alive—share with you about their activity in the movement and about what wisdom they’ve gained now 45 years later? How are they still connected to those like Conway, who remain incarcerated?
YBS: For me it was more about what I saw as well as what was conveyed to me. To see the comradeship amongst them that was built out of blood and strength is something to respect and admire. Many of them know the struggle continues and that the job is not finished with so many of their comrades trapped behind the enemy’s line and communities across this country still oppressed. They all were still committed, dedicated and educating.
KMG: Conway writes much about the issue of FBI informants within Panther meetings and activities. They would also be sent inside the prison, and even to bunk with him in his same cell. This part of the “Door of No Return” chapter is very interesting. Further, we know that the trials were rigged when it came time for the members to go to court. Can you talk about this history in the context of the 1970s, but also as it continues through the decades? How does this work once someone is already convicted to ensure his long stay behind bars?
YBS: The oppressive climate in which he was tried and convicted is the same in all the cases of PP/POW here in amerikkka, and prisons are nothing but an extension of that oppression. The terrain may change but the oppressive system remains the same and prison offers an opportunity to bury revolutionaries alive by cutting them off from the people.
KMG: But, this is where the paradox is in the system. In its attempt to bury revolutionaries they also cultivate the environment for them to collect their thoughts, build coalitions within and between POWs inside and out, as wells as individuals who would normally never associate with each other on the inside. Maybe this is what is making for a new day?
YBS: Those of us who are politically aware overstand rather that we are in prison on the streets—the oppression continues by our oppressors, so the struggle to continue to fight lives within every revolutionary. They can never be buried under those circumstances. The spirit of the people is too strong. The ideas they are committed are too strong. You can kill a man but you can’t kill the ideas that created him. That is what is fueling a new day—a day that is connected to the past.
KMG: Speaking of a new day, Yusef—I know that you have been working hard on a new book as well. Was reading “Marshal Law” in any way inspirational or motivating in moving on that? Can you say a little about it? Will Left Eye on Books be looking forward to reviewing this book as well?
YBS: Yes reading “Marshal Law” was a huge inspiration because I was anxious to read his story and see how he maintained his political activity while in prison. I wanted to convey the challenge of becoming political aware in prison and making the transition to the outside–of how I was able to emerge despite the many social challenges I faced coming home and engaging in revolutionary activity. There have been thousands of men who have come home from prison prior to me with the same mission and 95% of them have failed for whatever reason. My new book “My Soul Looks Back: Life After Incarceration” (forthcoming in February 2012) is a compelling journey of my 11 years of facing social rejection as I emerged as a father, college graduate, author, business owner, national speaker, author and respected community activist. It would be an honor.
KMG: Thank you, Yusef, for talking with me about “Marshall Law”. I hope people will pick up a copy. And yes, we will look forward to reading your new book and talking with you again very soon!
Karen M. Gagne is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. She teaches about the Prison Industrial Complex in her Contemporary Social Problems course. Her publications: “’I Arrived Late to This Book’: Teaching Sociology with Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust”, the ‘Novel.’” Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge,” Spring 2008; “On the Obsolescence of the Disciplines: Frantz Fanon and Sylvia Wynter Propose a New Mode of Being Human.” “Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge,” vol. V, Summer/Fall 2007; “Fighting Amnesia as a Guerilla Activity: Poetics for a New Mode of Being Human.” Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge, vol. IV, Summer/Fall 2006; “Falling in Love With Indians: The Metaphysics of Becoming America.” CR: The New Centennial Review, 3:3 Fall 2003; and “On Coloniality & “Condemnation”: A Roundtable,” Discussant. “Proud Flesh: New Afrikan Journal of Politics, Culture and Consciousness,” vol. 1, no. 2. 2003.
In prison before he was 20, Yusef Bunchy Shakur would meet the father he never knew behind bars. The father that had been foreign to Yusef was now determined to reshape his lost son – not into a hardened criminal – but into a responsible man and leader.
Since being release from prison 10 years ago, he has overcome many challenges to emerge as a college graduate, author, business owner, inspirational speaker, community organizer/activist and father are some of the significant roles taken on by the dynamic and inspiring Shakur. He has been instrumental in making a significant change in the community since his release through embarking on his mission of restoring the neighbor back to the hood by helping to transform the lives of misguided young people in inner city Detroit by using his life as a testimony of transformation.
Shakur’s notable accomplishments and recognitions include: being elected as chair of H.O.P.E. (Helping Our Prisoners Elevate), receiving the 2008 Rev. Dr. Wendell Anthony Social Activist Award, Silent Hero Award 2009, Leaders, Legends & Luminaries Award 2010 and receiving the Local Hero Award from Bank of America 2010.
Shakur tells his story of redemption in the critically acclaim self-published “The Window 2 My Soul: My Transformation from a Zone 8 Thug to a Father & Freedom Fighter”, released in 2008 that has been used at the University of Michigan, Michigan State, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Wayne State, Wayne Community College and Merritt College in Oakland, California. Also, in 2010 he released “The Window 2 My Soul Curriculum Guide Designed for Middle School, High School & Mentorship Programs.”
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