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Flores Forbes: “Will You Die with Me? My Life and the Black Panther Party”

StoryNovember 22, 2006
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Flores Forbes first joined the Black Panther Party when he was 16 years old. He became the youngest member of the Black Panther’s Central Committee and ended up spending nearly five years in prison for an attempted assassination. He is now chief strategic officer of the Abyssinian Development Corporation in Harlem. He joins us in studio to discuss his new memoir, called “Will You Die With Me?: My Life and the Black Panther Party.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Flores Forbes. William Lee Brent was the oldest member to join the Black Panther Party. Flores Forbes first joined the Black Panther Party when he was 16 years old. He became the youngest member of the Black Panther Central Committee and ended up spending nearly five years in prison for an attempted assassination. Flores is now chief strategic officer at the Abyssinian Development Corporation in Harlem. His new memoir is called Will You Die With Me?: My Life and the Black Panther Party. Flores Forbes joins us now in our firehouse studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!

FLORES FORBES: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: As you listened to William Lee Brent, your thoughts?

FLORES FORBES: You know, I remember the time. I remember I was around him a few times. I remember the hijacking, but I also—I guess the thing that I remember, for that and some of the other stories you were doing before, is that, you know, the reason why I joined the Black Panther Party is because I believed, as a people, we were being terrorized. You know, I had been kidnapped by the police.


FLORES FORBES: When I was 12 years old, I was picked up by the police. I was riding my bike as a 12-year-old in southeast San Diego, and I was taken several miles away to be identified by a couple, by a white couple. They assumed that I was the person who had snatched her purse, and obviously it was physically impossible for me to ride the bike that far. And when they brought me back, they insulted my mother. And when I was 14 years old, I was beat up by the police, 20 or 30 police at one time. So, you know, I realized that, you know, I didn’t know what the word “terrorism” was then, but, as a people, we were being terrorized. And so, I could definitely identify with what Bill believed, why he joined the party at the age of 38. I mean, he had already lived a life. I was 16 years old, and I hadn’t begun to live my life.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what happened? How did you connect with the Black Panther Party? I mean, you’re a kid at home.

FLORES FORBES: Right. Well, my brother was a student at UCLA, and he was bringing home literature from the new African-American studies courses that were being introduced at the time. And he was bringing home the Black Panther newspaper. And I started reading it. But prior to that, you know, there were the news reports of the Panthers lobbying at Sacramento in 1967, of the scene of Huey P. Newton being shot and accused of killing a white policeman. So these were things that were there, and the information was there. But I realized that if I was going to survive, I really believed that I needed to be involved with this organization that was focusing on our survival as a people who were being harassed.

AMY GOODMAN: For our listeners and viewers who are not familiar with this history—this is the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party—explain who Huey P. Newton was.

FLORES FORBES: He was the—he was a law student living in Oakland, California, who founded the Black Panther Party in October of 1966. He was a very charismatic person. He was the person who introduced many of us to the—I guess you could say the meaning of what Malcolm X meant when he said “by any means necessary.” And he was a person who obviously stood as a beacon for the self-defense stand that we took in our community.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to play a clip of Huey P. Newton, but first we’re going to break. We’re talking to Flores Forbes. He’s author of Will You Die with Me?: My Life and the Black Panther Party. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud” by James Brown, here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. … Tomorrow, on Thanksgiving, a special celebration of indigenous rights, and on Friday, we’ll be bringing you a major address just recently given in Madison by historian Howard Zinn. But right now we’re continuing on this 40th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party with Flores Forbes. He wrote the book Will You Die With Me?: My Life and the Black Panther Party, youngest member of the Central Committee of the party. I wanted to play for you from the DVD collection, What We Want, What We Believe: The Black Panther Party, a clip of Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panthers, speaking from his prison cell after he was arrested and accused of voluntary manslaughter. The charges against him were later dropped.

HUEY NEWTON: In America, black people are treated very much as the Vietnamese people or any other colonized people, because we’re used, we’re brutalized. The police in our community occupy our area, our community, as a foreign troop occupies territory. And the police are there not to—in our community, not to promote our welfare or for our security and our safety, but they’re there to contain us, to brutalize us and murder us.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Huey P. Newton in jail. Tell us how you made it into the Panther office and then how you first met Huey P. Newton.

FLORES FORBES: I was just driving down the street in southeast San Diego, and I saw the sign that was up, and it said “Black Panther Party Office, San Diego Branch.” And, you know I—I guess it’s a lot like having your—you know, the thing you were searching for, you find it. And it was there. And I was very enthusiastic. I went in as a 16-year-old and said, you know, I wanted to join. I think the people probably were a little suspicious. You know, you’re a little overenthusiastic to be part of something where people are getting killed, you know.

And I actually saw Huey P. Newton the first time in like 1971. I was part of a broader security detail for a big rally that we were having in Oakland, California. And then I began to—and when I was transferred from the Los Angeles chapter to Oakland, I had become part of the Panther military arm, and I met him, after there was an assassination attempt against his life. And I really began working with him quite a bit. And he became somebody who I worked with for quite a few years while I was there.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us who the Buddhist Samurai are?

FLORES FORBES: Yeah, that was Huey P. Newton’s—his creation of an esprit de corps, to help develop the kind of leadership cadre within the Black Panther Party. And he saw the administrative aspect; he dubbed it the “Buddha” type of practice. And the military side, he dubbed it the “Samurai.” And so he basically called it the “Buddha Samurai.”

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your involvement with the—well, the whole issue, when you talk about security, the Buddha Samurai, how did you come to be such an integral part of it, and what did you do?

FLORES FORBES: Well, I mean, I was recruited by Raymond Masai Hewitt. He was—at the time, he was the Black Panther Party’s minister of education. And, you know, he told me, “Well, you know, you’re someone—you know, we actually know who you are, you know. We can trace where you come from. We know you’re not an agent, that sort of thing. And also, you’ve worked in all of our programs. So you actually grasp the actual mission of the organization and participated from a very young age.”

So I went through, you know, the basic political education that we had—it was a little more intense for this particular area—and then the military training. I had already participated in quite a bit of military training in Los Angeles, but this time the focus was more on combat handgun shooting and that sort of thing. So, I got involved with that. And as I participated and, you know, we performed security for the Panthers that were running for political office and that sort of thing, and were involved in our—you know, we had a plan to take over the city of Oakland at that time, and we were focusing mostly on what Huey P. Newton called the “illegitimate capitalists,” who were the crime lords, the people who sold drugs in the community and that sort of thing, and we basically focused a lot of our attention in terms of what he called “regulating them.”

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about—well, the laws then were you could carry weapons openly?

FLORES FORBES: No, that was just in—that ended in May of 1967. So, there was previously, before that, the—Huey Newton and Bobby Seale had instituted these armed patrols of the Oakland police, and they followed the police around with loaded rifles and shotguns, and also law books. And they interdicted, a particular scene—when the police pulled someone over, they would basically let people know, you know, these are your rights, they can’t do this, they can’t do that to you. But it was also educational. So it was a scene that people in the community saw, and it informed black people not just in Oakland, but throughout the country, that you had the right not only to bear arms, but you had a right to defend yourself against a police officer if they attacked you unjustly.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your confrontations with the police. One time you thought you were about to be killed.

FLORES FORBES: There were several times I thought I was going to be killed. But I think probably the most—I guess the serious ones were the ones where you have time to wait and think. We called them “Mexican standoffs” or “almost a shootout.” The police surrounded our office in Los Angeles, and, you know, 11 Panthers had been killed in Los Angeles, and there had been several long hour—you know, one was six hours long—shootouts with the police. And this one particular incident, I had time to think about it. And I saw that this very well could be the end of my life. But, you know, by that time, I was about 18 years old. I was, you know, pretty much prepared to sacrifice my life.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play for you a clip from this new DVD collection called What We Want, What We Believe: The Black Panther Library. This is former FBI agent Wesley Swearingen discussing how FBI informants assassinated several Black Panthers and why the agency framed Geronimo Pratt.

WESLEY SWEARINGEN: The FBI had gotten rid of Bunchy Carter and John Huggins, and now—now they got Geronimo Pratt, who took their place. They’ve got to get rid of him. Well, it took them a little while to figure out his game, because that was from—because he—Carter and Huggins were knocked off or assassinated in ’69, I think that was. So, ’70, ’71, ’72. Yeah, took about two-and-a-half, three years for the FBI to work up the evidence that could be presented in court that would end up in a conviction.

Now, if they hadn’t split the Los Angeles and the Oakland chapters, and if Charles Garry had been the attorney, that trial would have ended after about two or three days, because Charles knew all about COINTELPRO from having to defend Huey and Bobby Seale, so he was used to these shenanigans.

AMY GOODMAN: Former FBI agent Wesley Swearingen being interviewed by Roz Payne. After being framed by the FBI, Geronimo ji-Jaga Pratt spent 27 years in prison before being released, actually largely on information Wesley Swearingen then got. COINTELPRO, Counterintelligence Program, talk about that.

FLORES FORBES: Well, at the time it was going on, I mean, we had no idea. You know, we just thought it was just a regular pattern of harassment and attacks against the Black Panther Party. I think it wasn’t until around 1974, when there was another attempt to get us involved in some sort of conspiracy under the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms division of the Treasury Department, did we begin to really realize this. I mean, you know, I knew Charles Garry. He never actually talked about it. He never said that, but we just believed there was a pattern of harassment. So it was kind of after the fact that I actually realized and learned about the whole Counterintelligence Program.

AMY GOODMAN: To divide—


AMY GOODMAN: To eradicate you. What did J. Edgar Hoover call the Panthers?

FLORES FORBES: I think he said we were the most serious threat to the internal security of the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you end up in jail on an assassination attempt charge?

FLORES FORBES: Well, you know, I—when Huey Newton came back from Cuba in 1977—he had left in '74. He had been charged with the murder of a prostitute. When he came back, I, as the person who was in charge of a lot of the military stuff, took it upon myself. I said, well, you know, let's knock off the witness, and that way he won’t have to worry about continuing with the trial. And in the attempt, I was wounded. My best friend got killed, and I became a fugitive. I had to seek medical treatment, so I went into the party’s underground network, which brought me out, you know, throughout the Midwest, into the Eastern United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Your father died at this time?

FLORES FORBES: Right, right. I found out around 1980, in fact, after I had a secret meeting with Charles Garry to kind of ascertain what my—

AMY GOODMAN: The attorney.

FLORES FORBES: Yes—what my status was. And, you know, he kind of shocked me. He said, “Well, you know, they believe that you’re dead.” And so I then took it upon myself to kind of break security, and I called my family, called my brother, and he told me that my father had died, like in 1978. This was 1980.

So I basically turned myself in around that time, October of 1980. And because of the—there was a change in the sentencing laws in California, that obviously favored, you know, whatever kind of sentence I would get. This was related to obviously the manslaughter, second-degree murder and first-degree murder. And I was charged with felony murder. You know, I was charged with vicarious liability of committing a felony—if someone gets killed, you get charged with that murder. And I had a great defense attorney; J. Tony Serra defended me. And I was convicted of second-degree felony murder and only wound up doing four years, eight months, nine days in prison.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you’ve come out. And one review talked about the urban guerrilla to urban planner. You’ve become a chief planner in Harlem at Abyssinian Church?


AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about this transition and reflecting back on what your involvement with the Panthers was, your history, reflecting back on the issue of violence?

FLORES FORBES: I mean, I think that what I’m doing today, you know, is a manifestation or an implementation of much of the 10-point platform and program. You know, I mean, we’re focusing on affordable housing, jobs. We’re focusing on developing programs for people who were formerly incarcerated, coming out of prisons. And many of these respond to the same kind of issues that the Black Panther Party was focusing on. I mean, the 10-point platform and program was basically a survey that was conducted by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale back in 1966. And it was focusing on the needs and aspirations of people in the—African-American people in the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Area. And, you know, so I think that I’m continuing that mission with regards to what I’m doing. Obviously, it doesn’t involve the—what Huey Newton called the sterner stuff of politics or some sort of use of violence as a policy instrument.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think of that versus violence?

FLORES FORBES: Well, I mean, I—well, I mean, I think the—today, you know, I think it’s really important for people to realize that violence is a policy instrument for the state. The United States uses violence as a policy instrument in its activities. And it’s done so for the last 200 years, you know. There are other countries that do that. I remember several years ago Bush number one said to Nelson Mandela, “Well, if you renounce violence, I think we’ll be able to really work with you a lot better.” And Nelson Mandela told him, “I think you must have lost your mind,” because there’s no statesman who ever renounced violence as a policy instrument.

So, we adopted that stance, and we looked at it like that. And we felt, because of the violent treatment that black people had received in this country for 200 years, whether it was physical, economic or political or social, you know, we felt that there is a point where you have the—you have the right to do that. You know, as Frantz Fanon said, you’re not going to be free unless you really believe you can kill your slave master. You know, so I think that is something that I believed then. You know, today, obviously, I believe that we have to do—in terms of seeking self-determination, you have to use other means. And I think that many former Panthers are actually doing that.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of former Panthers, in Louisiana, a state court official has argued for overturning the murder conviction of a former Black Panther who’s been held in solitary for more than 30 years, Herman Wallace, and two others, known as the Angola Three. Prisoners’ rights groups say they have been held in solitary confinement at Louisiana’s Angola prison because of their involvement with the Black Panthers. Do you know more about the case?

FLORES FORBES: No, I—actually, you know, there are people who are political prisoners today that, I mean, I remember them years ago. You know, there are people who were fugitives who have disappeared. There are people who were in exile and left the country I never heard from again. You know, so it’s kind of difficult to follow. Yu know, I was familiar with some of the people who were in Louisiana. And, you know, like I said, there are other cases that involve people that I’m—that I knew and I’m more familiar with. But I, obviously—I hope that they’re—that they will be liberated some day.

AMY GOODMAN: Difference in the treatment between Black Panthers and the Weather Underground?

FLORES FORBES: I think that the Weather Underground, I guess, at some point, when—you know, this is a society where if you’re a white person, you can stop being a radical and become a white person again. I think for black people, it’s much more difficult, because I think that we’ve already had entries—I mean, you know, resistance to entries in particular areas and that sort of thing. If you stood up, and if you said that you were going to fight this system for the liberation of your people, you know, that’s a stigma that’s going to be against you forever. Today, I think, maybe because I’m a professional involved in different areas of work, I mean, I know people in the city government, state government, federal government today and have done work in the public policy area. You know, I think that much of what they accept about me is that they probably believe that I’m serious about what I’m trying to do. But it’s been very difficult.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for being with us, Flores Forbes. His book is called Will You Die With Me?: My Life and the Black Panther Party. He was recently profiled in Crain’s New York Business as the chief strategic officer of the Abyssinian Development Corporation in New York City, youngest member ever of the Black Panther Central Committee.

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Roundtable: Four Freed Black Panthers on Party’s Legacy & Members Still Behind Bars 50 Years Later

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