Former Black Panther William Lee Brent has died at the age of 75. He made headlines in 1969 when he hijacked an Oakland plane and ordered the pilot to fly to Cuba. He was imprisoned in Cuba for two years and would go on to spend the rest of his life there. In 1998, Amy Goodman traveled to Havana and interviewed Brent. We play excerpts. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to an issue right here at home—this is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report—an issue of history and an issue that has reverberations through to today. Former Black Panther William Lee Brent has died at the age of 75. He made headlines in 1969 when he hijacked an Oakland plane and ordered the pilot to fly to Cuba. He was imprisoned in Cuba for two years, would go on to spend the rest of his life there. Brent was the oldest member to join the Black Panthers. His death comes 40 years after the group was founded.
In a moment, we’ll be joined by the youngest member of the Panther Central Committee, Flores Forbes. But first we want to go back to an interview I did with William Lee Brent. In 1998, I traveled to Havana and talked to William Lee Brent for Democracy Now! I asked him why he joined the Black Panther Party in 1968. At the time, he was 38 years old, making him the party’s oldest member.
WILLIAM LEE BRENT: The Panthers held a rally at the Oakland Auditorium, a birthday rally for Huey P. Newton, who was the founder of the Blank Panther Party. And I went to that rally. And it was there that I became enthused with the Panther platform and program and with what they were doing. It was the first time that I had ever seen in person some of the black personalities who were present at that gathering—Stokely Carmichael, for example, Rap Brown—H. Rap Brown, Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale and, of course, James Foreman. And these people were talking, and they were talking in my language, the black language, but it was different than going to church and hearing a preacher talk in the same language. And the reason it was different was because they were saying something else, something that the preachers never did say. You know, they were talking rebellion. They were talking change. They were talking revolution. They were talking about black people taking and holding power, political power.
AMY GOODMAN: Bill Brent rose to the rank of captain within the Black Panther Party. He served as a bodyguard for Eldridge Cleaver. In November 1968, he was arrested along with two other Panthers on charges of robbing a gas station and shooting two police officers. After being expelled from the party, he decided to make a move to avoid trial.
WILLIAM LEE BRENT: Myself and some close friends decided that the best thing I could do was to leave the country. And the only way that I could do that, I had first had to find somewhere to go. And we decided on Cuba, because Cuba was—reportedly, had eliminated racism and welcomed all revolutionaries, regardless. And I needed somewhere to go. And I didn’t have time to apply legally and wait. I did apply legally, but I didn’t have time to wait. And my only alternative was to skyjack an airplane, because at that particular point in time skyjacking was a very common occurrence. And there had been, well, well over—at the time that I came, there had been well over, I would say, 100 planes skyjacked from the United States to different parts of the world, and I think over 50 of those had come to Cuba.
And I left from the Oakland airport in a Boeing 707 with, I think, 70—70-some passengers and eight or nine crewmen on it. And It was scheduled to go to—it had come from Los Angeles, with a stop in Oakland, and then it was going directly to New York. And the way I did it, I got up from my seat, left my bag under the seat and told the stewardess that I wanted to go to Cuba and to take me to the pilot, and showed her my gun. And she—well, I don’t know—she didn’t act frightened, but she definitely didn’t act—didn’t give any indication that she was going to resist or put up any argument. She took me to the cabin, the pilot’s cabin, knocked on the door and told them that there was a man here who wanted to go to Cuba. They said, "Well, tell him we don’t have enough fuel." And so I told her to insist that we go to Cuba.
AMY GOODMAN: The hijacking of TWA Flight 154 took place on June 17th, 1969. After the plane landed in Havana, Bill Brent was left off, and the plane soon returned to the United States. No one was injured. Brent expected to be treated like a hero in Cuba, but instead he was jailed for 22 months on suspicion of being an American spy. He was held in a place called Hijack House.
After his release, he cut sugar cane, held jobs on a hog farm as well as in a soap factory. He later became a disc jockey on Radio Havana. In 1996, he published his own memoir called Long Time Gone: A Black Panther’s True-Life Story of His Hijacking and Twenty-Five Years In Cuba. When Democracy Now! was just a radio broadcast, before we also expanded to television, is when I did this interview. And I asked Bill Brent to talk about the Cuban revolution, which he praised, but he also criticized aspects of life on the island.
WILLIAM LEE BRENT: They have never been wrong about the positions, the incorrect positions, that the United States government has taken. They’d always been willing to—the government, I’m speaking about—willing to stand up to the United States and tell them to their face that they were wrong, that this shouldn’t be that way and so forth. Those were some—the obvious positive aspects of this thing. And they also gave a lot of people hope in the Americas, and even in the United States of America, that they may have come up with an alternative life, alternative political form for living in socialism in the Americas.
Now, the negative side of the whole thing is basically that they are—they did not develop their internal economy to the point where they would be able to make some of those promises that they made realistic. And they did not develop the internal economy to the point. They counted on the people for certain things, but in other things they dictated to the people. They didn’t really count on the people. They didn’t go into the people and say, "Well, look, this is the problem that we’ve got, as such." They went through delegations, through the central—through the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution and so forth. There are no organized dissident groups operating in Cuba. There’s no propaganda from any dissident groups. There is no black liberation movement going on in Cuba. I think there should be one all over the world. And every place that they got two black people, I think there should be a black liberation movement. Well, I’ll put it this way: Two black people and three white people, there should be a black liberation movement. And there are no women’s dissident groups, no feminist movements, in the sense that we know feminism movements, going on here. Everything has to go through the Women’s Federation. That is the channel. That’s the window. That’s where they can, you know, express whatever it is they have to express.
AMY GOODMAN: As I sat with William Lee Brent in his apartment in Havana, I ended the interview by asking him if he wanted to come back home to the United States.
WILLIAM LEE BRENT: The truth is, I miss it. I miss not being in the struggle. I miss not being able to stand up on the street corner and say, "This is a bunch of [beep], and I want to do something about it. And you should do something about it. And I don’t agree with this." And so, I miss all of that. And I can’t do that here. But I could do it there. As big and ugly as it is, I would like to go there and do it again.
AMY GOODMAN: Why can’t you do it here?
WILLIAM LEE BRENT: Because it’s prohibited. You can’t do that. In the first place, this is not my country. I do not have a right to come here and preach those types of things. I think that a revolutionary—and I consider myself a revolutionary—I think that the revolutionary’s first duty is to make the revolution in his or her own country.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you ever see yourself going home?
WILLIAM LEE BRENT: No, I don’t, not really, not in the flesh. But I’ve found a medium where I can go home: through my—through my writings and so forth. And I can continue the struggle from here.
AMY GOODMAN: William Lee Brent. He died in Cuba on November 4th at the age of 75. He died of pneumonia. To hear our full interview, you can go to our website at democracynow.org. The author of the book Long Time Gone.