September 10, 2015
When he walked into the Black Panthers NY office in the late 1960s, an angry 15-year-old boy, Jamal Joseph was ready to take up arms for the cause.
Instead, the group’s leader handed him the Autobiography of Malcolm X, Wretched of the Earth, by Franz Fanon, Mao Tse Tung’s Little Red Book, and a number of other books about black oppression in the U.S., the importance of education and more.
“I thought this was a test. I said ‘Excuse me brother, I thought you were going to arm me,” Joseph told the audience gathered for CUNY Law’s Public Square. “He said, “Excuse me brother, but I just did.”
Joseph, now a professor at Columbia University, was among an esteemed group of civil rights activists and lawyers who came together, on Sept. 10, for the law school’s first Public Square event of the school year, “Defending the Panthers.”
Lelia James (’17) of BLSA, Maria Amor (’17) of CUNY-NLG and Jorge Gomez (’17) of LALSA introduce the event.
The five-person panel recounted numerous personal, powerful, and important stories of the Black Panther Movement and its importance to civil rights and black empowerment, before a full crowd of students, faculty, staff, and long-time activists at CUNY Law’s Dave Fields auditorium.
Joseph relayed stories of his time as one of the NY Panthers 21, who were arrested in a pre-dawn raid on April 2, 1969 and charged with conspiracy. With the tireless help from young lawyers, that included panelists Robert Boyle and Gerald Lefcourt, all 21 New York Panthers were acquitted two years later, in May 1971, after the longest political trial in New York’s history.
Gerald Lefcourt and Jamal Joseph speak to students.
The Panthers “were young and bold and that was true for us lawyers as well,” Lefcourt told the crowd.
Lefcourt and Boyle were both young lawyers involved in helping to defend the Panther 21, along with several members of the CUNY Law audience who attended the event.
Reading from several pages of statistics and historical information, Boyle described “the dark side”—the government’s COINTELPRO, or counterintelligence programs, conducted by the FBI, the CIA and other government groups to undermine and, ultimately, destroy the Black Panther group.
“COINTELPRO was a political program,” explained Boyle. “It was about quashing efforts of political empowerment and fundamental change to society.”
Panelist Denise Oliver-Velez, a professor at SUNY New Paltz and a prominent figure in the Young Lords Party as well as the Black Panthers, spoke about the true Rainbow Coalition movement, which started long before Jesse Jackson in the 1980s, she said, but with Fred Hampton in the 1960s with a vision of drawing various people together to fight for social justice. “We had intimate close ties, it wasn’t lawyer/client. It was a struggle,” she said.
Michael Hardy, a panelist and executive vice president and founder of the National Action Network, connected the oppression of blacks in the 1960s and 70s to many of the struggles against oppression and police brutality today.
Michael Hardy addresses the audience, as Robert Boyle and Lefcourt listen in.
To fight against the oppression of blacks and police brutality requires bringing love and dedication to a movement, Hardy said.
Each of the panelists, along with Dean of Student Affairs Cheryl Howard, moderator of the event, urged the young law students in the audience to take up arms of their own, by using their law degrees to fight for social justice.
Denise Oliver-Velez and Dean Cheryl Howard answer questions from the audience.
“This is a lesson that I think we miss in the books sometimes, that the law should be a tool of empowerment,” Dean Howard told students in the audience.
Oliver-Velez added: “The law has to be a tool and you are the force for that tool. You are part of that fusion movement.”
Boyle received the most laughs as he encouraged the young lawyers: “You’ve got to take up the struggle from us because we’re getting old and crotchety.”
Watch the video of the event here: