Ashanti Alston - Interview
“You have to be daring and willing to take a risk,” said Ashanti Alston as he reflected on his involvement with the Black Panther Party, and the Black Liberation Army (BLA), a more actively militant splinter group of the Panthers.
“Maybe I was crazy back then. But, nothing can be changed when you let fear take hold of you.”
Alston recently turned 51. At the start of his talk in the McConomy Auditorium at Carnegie Mellon University he expressed his surprise.
“I didn’t actually think I would get to 20.”
Alston recently returned from a six month visit to Chiapas, Mexico, the Zapatista controlled region, and his talk mainly 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 towards the end of the 1960s were no longer talking about civil rights.
“You started hearing about human rights, about Black Power, and that word, revolution,” said Alston, adding that “By any means necessary,” Malcolm X’s rallying call, began to make sense at this point.
He joined the Panthers at the age of 16, and he noted during his talk last Thursday that the organization respected the non-violent approach to activism that Dr. Martin Luther King espoused. “But, we couldn’t take being spit on, hit, flushed down the street with water hoses. We wanted to rise up.”
The Panther’s iconic dress sense appealed almost as much as their politics, said Alston. “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 quickly learnt 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 learnt what motivated revolutionary struggles around the world that were not choosing capitalist forms of government. This was all when I in high school. It was such a time when even teenagers really were down with what was going on.”
Alston urged the roughly 70 people in attendance that despite his history as a soldier with the BLA for 12 years and a prisoner for 14 years for his part in a bank robbery to fund the BLA, he is still “just a regular guy."
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 the website, focuses upon the “domination and hierarchy,” that permeates capitalist society.
Anarchists, it describes, seek to "overthrow coercive and exploitative social relationships, and replace them with egalitarian, self-managed, and cooperative social forms.”
The semi-autobiographical talk involved a recount of the more sensational exploits Alston undertook with the Panthers, and after he “went underground” with a BLA 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 describes it.
“I read, and I read, and I read,” he said, “And I learnt, I learnt, I learnt.”
As well as his teachings from the Panthers, and the readings of Karl Marx and other alternative literature, Alston said he a lot read about totalitarianism and domination.
“I thought a lot about collective leadership, and organizing on a non-hierarchal basis.
The Zapatista rebellion of the indigenous people in Chiapas, southern Mexico on January 1, 1994, provided a “practical living example” to Alston for his philosophy.
The indigenous population were seen as the “niggers of Mexico,” said Alston, “because that’s how they were treated.” Their 1994 revolution against the Mexican government was based upon dignity, added Alston, who also visited Chiapas in 1997 and 1999 before his most recent trip.
“The Zapatistas wanted to build a world with many worlds, and I was, like, yes!” remembered Alston. As the Chiapas communities came together, the Mayan cultural communities merged with the revolutionary movements of poor peasants and indigenous groups who had been oppressed since the Spanish colonized the land 500 years ago, he said.
Alston’s stated mission upon his return to the United States is to teach people that no one has to be excluded, because, he said, revolution will not work with one ideology.
“It will only make sense when the “resources of diversity come together,” he said.
He used the analogy of a jazz jam session to stress his point.
“I 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.”
“Its all very idealistic, which I like, and he’s had really interesting life,” said Jess Rothman, a graduate in political science from San Diego, CA, who attended Alston’s talk during her visit to Pittsburgh.
She added questions amid laughter, “But what are you going to do? Its 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 before.
“You can’t copyright the name Black Panther Party, its open to anyone” said Alston, adding, “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. 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 [Senator John] Kerry and [President George W.] Bush.”
“It’s an empire, right?” he added, “It don’t matter whose in that puppet office.”
He expressed surprise that fellow activists were “caught up in the election, and with electing black senators.” Alston told these people they should involved themselves in their community.
“You can’t change the system from within,” he said.
“Its not about changing the world, its about making a new world.”
© Alex Ogle 2006