Ex-Black Panter Happy to Be Alive
- News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
The Pitt News.
By ALEX OGLE
Senior Staff Writer
February 28, 2005
Ashanti Alston was surprised to make it to 51 this year.
Reflecting on his involvement with the Black Panther Party
and the Black Liberation Army, a more actively militant
splinter group of the Panthers, Alston said, "I didn't
actually think I would get to 20."
"You have to be daring and willing to take a risk," he said
during his Thursday talk in the McConomy Auditorium at
Carnegie Mellon University.
"Maybe I was crazy back then, but nothing can be changed
when you let fear take hold of you," he said.
Alston recently returned from a six-month visit to Chiapas,
Mexico, the Zapatista-controlled region, and his talk
revolved around his own life and the lessons to be learned
from the indigenous communities of Chiapas.
After 400 years of black oppression in the United States, he
said, the black community toward the end of the 1960s was no
longer talking about civil rights.
"You started hearing about human rights, about Black Power,
and that word: revolution," Alston said, adding that "By any
means necessary," Malcolm X's rallying call, began to make
sense at that time.
He joined the Panthers at the age of 16, and he noted during
his talk that the organization respected the non-violent
approach to activism that Martin Luther King Jr. espoused.
"But we couldn't take being spit on, hit, flushed down the
street with water hoses. We wanted to rise up," he said.
The Panther's iconic style of dress appealed were almost as
appealing as their politics, Alston said.
"Oh yeah, we did want the black beret, the black leather
jacket, the boots, the pants and the gun we thought we'd get
when we joined," Alston said.
Alston quickly learned that while "the gun was a tool, and
we did receive weapons training," the organizing, the hard
work to serve the black community with lunch programs and
clothing programs and the political education that new
recruits received were more important aspects of their training.
"We learned what motivated revolutionary struggles around
the world that were not choosing capitalist forms of
government. This was all when I was in high school. It was
such a time when even teen-agers really were down with what
was going on," he said.
Alston stressed to the roughly 70 people in attendance that,
despite his history as a soldier with the Liberation Army
for 12 years and as a prisoner for 14 years after his part
in a bank robbery to fund the army, he is still "just a
He is currently the northeast coordinator for the
anti-capitalist activist organization Critical Resistance
and also a board member for the Institute for Anarchist
Studies, a nonprofit foundation whose research, according to
its Web site, focuses upon the "domination and hierarchy"
that permeates capitalist society.
Anarchists, the site said, seek to "overthrow coercive and
exploitative social relationships, and replace them with
egalitarian, self-managed and cooperative social forms."
The semi-autobiographical talk involved an account of the
more sensational exploits Alston undertook while with the
Panthers and after he "went underground" with a Black
Liberation Army cell, including a failed attempt to break
imprisoned Panther leaders out of a New York jail.
Alston emphasized his education in prison after the failed
"bank expropriation," as he described it.
"I read, and I read, and I read," he said. "And I learned, I
learned, I learned."
In addition to his teachings from the Panthers and readings
of Karl Marx and other alternative literature, Alston said
he read a lot about totalitarianism and domination.
"I thought a lot about collective leadership and organizing
on a non-hierarchal basis," he said.
The Jan. 1, 1994, Zapatista rebellion of the indigenous
people in Chiapas, which is in southern Mexico, provided a
"practical living example" to Alston for his philosophy. The
indigenous population's 1994 revolution against the Mexican
government was based upon dignity, said Alston, who had also
visited Chiapas in 1997 and 1999.
"The Zapatistas wanted to build a world with many worlds,
and I was like, 'Yes!'" Alston said.
As the Chiapas communities came together, the Mayan cultural
communities merged with the revolutionary movements of poor
peasants and indigenous groups that had been oppressed since
Spain colonized the land 500 years ago, he said.
Alston's stated mission since his return to the United
States has been to teach people that no one has to be excluded.
"It will only make sense when the resources of diversity
come together," he said, explaining that revolution will not
work with one ideology.
He used the analogy of a jazz jam session to stress his point.
"If you got a horn, bring a horn. If not, bring your voice.
If you've got no voice, bring your feet or your hands.
People can come together, and they don't have to give up who
they are as people," he said.
Jess Rothman, a political science graduate from San Diego,
attended Alston's talk during her visit in Pittsburgh.
"It's all very idealistic, which I like, and he's had a
really interesting life," Rothman said.
"But what are you going to do?" she asked with a laugh.
"It's all good theory, but can anyone actually envision a
revolution in this country? This is America. Come on, I
don't think so. The state would crush you."
At the conclusion of the main lecture, Alston was asked
about the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense. Malik
Zulu Shabazz, the controversial national chairman, visited
CMU a week earlier.
"You can't copyright the name Black Panther Party. It's open
to anyone," Alston said.
"But when you've had history, when you've lived with the
group, been hurt by it, you want the people [who use the
name] to take upon your original goals," he added. "There
are things we all need to talk about together, but not up
here on a stage, not as entertainment."
In discussion of the presidential election, Alston said he
"could not take being asked about [Sen. John] Kerry and
[President George W.] Bush."
"It's an empire, right?" he added. "It don't matter who's in
that puppet office."
He expressed surprise that fellow activists were "caught up
in the election and with electing black senators." Alston
told such people that they should involve themselves in
"You can't change the system from within," he said. "It's
not about changing the world, it's about making a new world."
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As the Government of the United States of America is not, in
any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in
itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or
tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never
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Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no
pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce
an interruption of the harmony existing between the two
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