In 1974 Elaine was the first (and only) woman to lead the Black Panther Party. So what did the Black Panthers and Huey Johnson, an environmentalist, have in common? A lot, as we will learn in this interview between Huey and Elaine. Elaine shares the lessons she learned from Huey Johnson and how they have influenced her life's work. She explains her current project aimed to create opportunities for those with "extreme barriers to employment" such as former inmates, disabled people and others. Her passion and spirit should inspire us all.
For the last four decades Elaine has been committed to, and organized significant efforts toward effecting progressive change in the United States. In addition to Black Panther Party leadership, which included editing the Party’s news organ, running for public office in Oakland (1973 and 1975), and leading the Party (1974-1977) as its chairman, she has committed her life to work for social change. Much of her recent work has been focused on radical reform of the criminal justice system and related efforts. In this regard, Elaine has authored and edited books about the plight of prisoners and the injustices in the criminal justice and prison systems, published numerous articles and newsletters in support of prison reform, and lectured widely at colleges and universities on the question. Elaine is quoted as a reliable source and expert on the criminal justice system and considered a noted advocate for its radical reform.
Elaine is the currently the executive director of the Michael Lewis Legal Defense Committee, supporting the legal appeal of Lewis (“Little B”), who, arrested in 1997 in Atlanta, Georgia, at the age of 13 for a murder he did not commit, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, where he remains.
Ms Brown is currently organizing a re-entry project in Alameda County, California, for formerly incarcerated youth, focused on developing cooperative business enterprises. She was the executive director and founder of the nonprofit education corporation Fields of Flowers; co-founder of Mothers Advocating Juvenile Justice and the National Alliance for Radical Prison Reform; a member of the Steering Committee of the December 9th Georgia and International Prisoners’ Rights Movement. She is presently a member of the Kenneth Harding, Jr., Foundation; the Committee to Free Romaine “Chip” Fitzgerald; and the Advisory Board of the 100 Black Men Community School, Oakland, California.
She studied classical piano for many years, including at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music. She has recorded two albums of original songs, one for Motown records, Until We’re Free, and her 1969 album, Seize the Time, which includes “The Black Panther Party National Anthem” (The Meeting), re-released as a CD in 2007 by Warner Bros.
Elaine grew up in the ghettos of North Philadelphia, is listed as a distinguished graduate of the Philadelphia High School for Girls, and attended Temple University, UCLA, Mills College and Southwestern University School of Law. She is the mother of one adult daughter, Ericka Abram. Her papers have been acquired by Emory University. She currently resides in Oakland, California.
Huey Johnson: Welcome, Elaine Brown. One of the joys of my life of working with you in Oakland back there on the idea of acquiring land, and saving it, and working with the community. And you picked that idea and already carried it.
Well, you know — you don’t know, so I’m going to say. I, we, learned a lot from you — the Black Panther Party — when I was a chairman, which is when I knew you, and that lesson has indeed carried over. Not only in terms of green space, but also in terms of how to think about the world, as opposed to just from a very narrow perspective. And I have carried those lessons. And anyone who knows me will tell you that I often quote you, because I did learn a lot from you.
Huey Johnson: Well, I am honored that somebody in my life listened. I’m always — I’m quick to give people advice but at a 150,000 of them, and you may be one of the few that listened.
Elaine Brown: Yeah, but look who I am. I’m a woman who headed up the Black Panther Party.
Huey Johnson: Yeah, that’s right. And that was a challenging enterprise for you. The reason back then that we experimented with the acquisition of properties in Oakland. And we got to know you and whatever; we went on after that to Newark, New Jersey and South Bronx and continued to do that. But we learned a lot here that made us a lot more effective there, so we owe you both ways.
Elaine Brown: That’s typical of the Bay Area being a little bit ahead of the curve… sometimes.
Huey Johnson: How did you become interested in the environment?
Elaine Brown: Well, I was a kid… you know there was a friend of mine that wrote a poem about why I don’t like poems about flowers because I lived in the hood. I lived in the concrete. I had no relationship to nature in any meaningful way. We didn’t even have food other than the food at our grocery store, a little small grocery store. Nothing’s going to be growing up out of the ground in Philadelphia. So it was always amazing to me that food did come from the ground; just that alone was a surprise. Now I can remember being in my home in Philadelphia, our house, which is a little, ugly row house in the ghetto, and I can remember seeing the coal gas, blue haze from coal gas inside our house to keep our house warm. But we didn’t think – we thought everybody’s house had blue haze running through it in some kind of way. So we didn’t think in terms of pollution. We didn’t think in terms of any of that and so it’s a matter of becoming conscious. And so in my own life, my consciousness about everything really grew up within the Black Panther Party, somewhat before, but after. And one of the things we tried to do in the party was to make the connection between the liberation of black people, which was our primary goal, and the interconnections of everything. So we were the only organization that talked about uniting with the American Indian Movement (AIM), we helped to create it and formed the coalition with AIM. Same thing with the Brown Berets, which were kind of the same thing with the young lawyers who were Puerto Ricans, same thing with the young patriots, poor whites, the Red Guard Chinese, and so forth. Different coalitions of people around the world who were fighting for an end to oppression.
Elaine Brown: And so we had to acknowledge that how could we be talking about the freedom of black people, people of color, and disabled people — are locked in their lives and don’t have any access to anything, and they’re invisible, you know. And what about gays and women? Believe it or not, we were – it may not sound very unique today, but in 1970, Huey Newton issued a statement that as he said it then, that a homosexual may be the most oppressed person in America. People were very, very upset about that. And then we said, “How can we talk about black people being free when we’re living in a polluted environment?” And some kind of way we stumbled onto you, I’m not quite sure. And we started talking about greening of the ghetto, the greening of the ghetto, where we have mold in almost every home because people are too poor. Often the stuff that goes to poverty and so forth, but it was because of you– and I don’t think you even remember this– that we started this program called Gardens in the Ghetto. And I remind people of that all the time and they go, “What?” And then the Black Panther Party was the only organization that took a position against having nuclear power plants in California, and every black organization was against us, and they said, “You’re what these white people and the spotted owl, and linked up with these strange Trust for the Public Land people, and you’re all involved in, you know some type of oddball… Environmentalism has nothing to do with us. And this is before people talked about environmental justice, this was before that phrase.
Huey Johnson: Yeah.
Elaine Brown: So as far as the majority of blacks that were organized, they considered issues of environment were the concern of white people, but we didn’t necessarily plant gardens with vegetables or food. We planted for the purpose of, as you talked to me later about, the green and the importance of having green space. West Oakland today has the highest asthma rate in probably the entire Bay Area of any community, and if we had kept some of those green spaces, we might have been able to at least…
Huey Johnson: Balance it out.
Elaine Brown: Yeah, so that’s the importance of the relationship we developed with a consciousness that disaffected us as black people, and very specifically as black people because all of our communities were the most polluted.
Huey Johnson: Often still are.
Elaine Brown: Oh, absolutely.
Huey Johnson: What are you doing now?
Elaine Brown: Well, funny enough, I have an urban farm at 7th and Campbell Streets in West Oakland right in front of a public housing project called Campbell Village. It started out and it remains, it’s called Oakland and the World Enterprises, and the idea was to begin to sort of address the questions of recidivism, especially among blacks. And so, when asked by a county supervisor named Keith Carson, what would I do to address and resolve this issue of high rate of recidivism of blacks coming out of prison, going right back in because they don’t have any money. And then at the end of the day I said, “Well, I don’t see there’s any real possibility for these people unless they have their own money because they’re not going to be getting a job, and so the only thing I can think of is to just to start their own businesses.” And he said, Keith Carson said, “Well could you do that?” And taking it from the school of Huey Johnson, which I can go back to why I’m saying that now, I said “Sure.” I had no idea how I would do it. Doesn’t that sound like you?
Huey Johnson: That’s right, that’s right.
Elaine Brown: Sure, I can create businesses for people coming out of prison. No problem. And so then I thought, “Well, what should the businesses be?” And the idea is to create, to launch and sustain for profit businesses for cooperative ownership by formerly incarcerated people and other people, as I like to say, facing extreme barriers to employment – which may include disabled people and anybody else. And in addition, it’s on 7th street, and Huey Newton came into a confrontation with the police where he was wounded, cop was killed. He was on trial for the murder of a policeman, which gave rise for the Free Huey Movement and it was on that very block. “I’m sorry, okay this is my property. I’m supposed to have this property so I would like to have it. May I?” And the city said “No. We’re going to try – we foreclosed on a loan, and we want our money.” And so I then had to go to the political route of saying, “Okay, so who’s holding this back?” And through one meeting after another, I ended up talking to the mayor, the then mayor, Jean Quan [Oakland, CA] and I said, “I have this idea of these prison–former prisoners…” She said, ultimately she said, not right away, she said, “Let’s do this.” And she brought every single agency of the city to the table and they gave me a license for a 2.2 million dollar project.
Elaine Brown: So I go, “Now that we have it, like what are we supposed to do? I don’t have any money for this.” I had no money, zero. And I go, “What do we do now?” We just plant stuff. Can this woman Kelly, that I met by accident, can you like plant stuff? Can you clean this up?” “Yep.” I get this guy who’s been twenty six–did twenty-six years in prison, he’s on my advisory board. I say, “Go find former prisoners. Go out and bring them here so they can – and they started working, and we began paying them twenty dollars an hour. And these were people that were slinging dope before this and they are growing food — and I am not making this up — and it makes me cry because it actually happened and it took only a year and a half.
Huey Johnson: What a wonderful story. You mentioned remembering my hope of being able to plant the idea of the importance of being a generalist. Can you – to my astonishment — you remembered it.
Elaine Brown: I use it all the time though as I told you. You didn’t ask me, I told you.
Huey Johnson: Yeah, that’s right.
Elaine Brown: I said, “One of the things that I remember most about what I learned from you, was this concept of recognizing that if you want to get something done and you have an idea, that you cannot do everything.” And of course, some of us think we’re really smart, and I was like, “What do you mean? Of course I can do everything.” You’ll be spinning your wheels. And so he [you] said, “You have to become a generalist.” I said, “What was that? Generalist? This is a term that I’d never heard.” He [you] said, “You’ve got to surround yourself with–meet people who know stuff that you don’t know, and as a matter of fact, you probably won’t know but you know people now who know this.” And that is exactly what I did as the chairman of The Black Panther Party. Listen, I ended up doing stuff and I learned that and I’m doing the same thing now. I have a board for Oakland and the World Enterprises and everybody on that board, and I’ve told them this, so this is not a secret, “You’re there because you have something to bring to the table, otherwise I can’t see you.” And it all comes from this concept, so I wasn’t kidding you. I understand that I can’t focus on everything.
Huey Johnson: There you go.
Elaine Brown: But I can be a part of everything by joining forces with those people who are doing it. So I bring the black experience into all of these issues and that’s the way they have to be seen. So these things are connected, and they all go to the question of human beings exploiting ourselves, and the land, and the earth. And then when you talk to the native people, you will really get into some understanding about the earth, because they don’t play and they’re still there. That’s when you see that people can understand each other, and you don’t have to be me, you don’t have to be black. You don’t have to eat black food and say, “Oh, I have black friends, and be multi-cultured and all hold hands and we’ll have the rainbow.” But you do have to know that we are connected on common ground issues and that’s what we learned and did, I think. I think it has to come back.