We are driving through Brixton, home of the infamous riots of the 1980s and, indeed, 2011. Both had the same cause; yet another black man dying in police custody. The burnt-out shell of a Footlocker store may not equate with the romanticised images of makeshift barriers and molotov cocktails, but, as Robert King tells us, different circumstances produce different reactions.
But we are not meeting King here. Down Acre Lane, we are meeting him at a home in Clapham, where he is staying. There is an anticipation of uncertainty as we knock on the door; what do you possibly ask a man who has spent 31 years of his life in prison, 29 of which were boxed in the brutality of ‘solitary confinement’? Nevertheless, King is relaxed as he comes in from the garden to greet us. He has a busy schedule during his two weeks in the UK, but says he simply asks what event is happening today, and then goes to do it.
October is Black History Month, an event that sparks a new round of debate and discussion each year. “There wasn’t any recognition of black history in America,” Robert King tells us, pausing to remember a time long ago, “it was snuffed out… repressed. First of all, we had Black History Week, then it became a Month, but they gave us February, the shortest month of the year!”
BHM has been praised by many sections of the community as a chance to celebrate a common experience, but for King, many of the conditions that led to it’s creation still exist. “People can recognise and commemorate, but there are still too many problems. This can be one part of a forest [to rectify them], but it doesn’t become the forest itself.”
What about Boris Johnson, we ask, the Mayor of London who, last year, slashed the allocated budget for BHM from £132,000 to a mere £10,000. At the same time, the £100,000 ‘Africa Day’ fund was slashed completely, only to be replaced with a new ‘America Day’ commanding exactly the same amount. “It’s a shame and an affront,” says King. “It’s an insult. But when people in society are insulted, affronted, or placed into a position of poverty, they have to make their feelings known.”
Here is King’s attitude encapsulated within the space of a few words; never one to dwell on the bitterness or glorification of the past, he knows from personal experience of the importance of making your voice heard. The words of another Mr. King, Martin Luther Jr, come to mind; “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
Whilst in prison, King was to feel the price of demanding his freedom or, indeed, that of the people around him. He was placed into solitary confinement after being accused of ‘attempting to play lawyer for another inmate’ by the prison authorities, and would stay there until his release.
“They gave a lot of reasons but yeah, that was the initial reason,” King reflects. “I didn’t know anything about no law, but if an inmate spoke up for another inmate… yeah, something would happen. I wasn’t trying to play lawyer, although ironically, I did act as a lawyer for another inmate at a later date. At that time, I was just trying to speak up for someone’s moral right that I saw being accosted.
I’ve seen people go in to solitary confinement as outgoing people, and come out as what many people would describe as insane. In fact, I think people can sometimes just give up, and wilfully go insane. But for me, during my time in prison, to allow my thoughts to retreat into a cocoon like that was completely out of the question.”
As well as Black History Month, this October also marks the 45th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party, of which Robert King was a member. I am keen to here his experiences of the Party, which he joined whilst in prison. But King is eager to take us back even further. The BPP, after all, was not created in a vacuum.
“The Black Panther Party emerged in 1966, but this started with many other organisations,” King tells us. “The National Association for the Advancement of so-called “Colored People” is one of the oldest, and you had the National Urban League. There were a long succession of organisations before us keeping black issues at the forefront. In fact, people had been struggling continuously since slavery, but nothing was really changing. Malcolm X came on the scene, he was assassinated. Martin Luther King came on the scene, he was assassinated. The Black Panther Party emerged as a result of this. Malcolm X was killed in 1965, and the BPP emerged one year later. We even had our co-founder, Huey P Newton, being a bodyguard for Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X’s widow.”
I mention the recent riots in London, and the way the people involved in them were denounced throughout the English media as ‘violent animals’. Were the Black Panthers demonised in a similar way?
“Of course!” King emphatically replies. “We had Emory Douglas doing our artwork, but the police would also draw posters, in the same style as ours, to try and portray us as violent. They would say that we started all the confrontations but, conversely, it was the police shooting in on the Black Panther Party. Why did they do that? Because we were raising the consciousness of the people. We said that if racists or if the KKK attack you, then you should defend yourself. You don’t need any law to have the right to defend yourself. But our biggest self-defence were the survival programs.”
For many people studying the history of revolutionary movements, the Black Panthers have become a symbol of the “ideal” organisation. Through their survival programs, the Panthers provided local communities with the clothes, breakfasts, housing and education that they either couldn’t afford, or weren’t recieving elsewhere. But King seems intent on emphasising the naivety of relying purely on organisations for a way forward.
““I did become a member of the Black Panther Party,” he tells us, “but, more than that, it was a struggle that I was joining. This is what we really need; a constant struggle of people. It goes beyond organisations. Because sometimes, when organisations de-activate, people also de-activate. That is why I am emphasising the importance of the people! People say that someone should re-start the Black Panther Party, but you can’t re-invent the wheel. You can, however, make the wheel better! The Black Panthers don’t have a monopoly on what you should do; maybe young people here can take what they see as the best parts of what we did, and apply it to their own situation. And not just us, but any organisation that you think did something good.”
Perhaps there is a sense of frustration at people’s tendencies to focus solely on the achievements of the BPP, rather than the people behind it. Or perhaps this is a recognition of a system similar in its foundations, but ever-changing in its methods of oppression, and a need for a response that can challenge it in any context. Of course, there is no use looking back to the past without using it to inform your actions in the future. So, I ask King, how has the movement developed since the Black Panthers were established.
“I think things have regressed,” he replies. “Since 1966, perhaps there have been individual successes in race relations. But institutional racism still exists. The system that was built on racism still exists. In the US, you take privilege from your skin colour.
45 years ago, the prison population was 350,000, if that. Now, we have over two million, as well as another four million on indirect probation. So, have things progressed? No, they have worsened. There might be more black people in politics, there might even be a, quote, black President. But he just happens to be a black man; first of all, he is a politician, and he is an American. An American politician. If you take an oath into a system built on racism, they will not allow you to deviate from that.
People are saying that having a black President means that racism doesn’t exist any more! Well, you still have a huge amount of people who didn’t vote for Obama. The Republicans are making statements like “We want our country back!” They would probably rather assassinate the guy!”
What about Troy Davis, the man recently executed at Georgia Diagnostic and Statistics prison, after spending 22 years on ‘death row’.
“There was evidence and too much doubt for this man to be executed,” says King. “People say that this was legal, and therefore correct. I tell people that it was completely legal to own a slave! It is not until people took a stand against legalised slavery, from a position that it was morally reprehensible, that we achieved anything. I’m not saying slavery disappeared; indeed, it reversed itself and came back in the form of a prison. People seem to think legality and morality are friends; in the courthouse, they are not.
It was legal to kill Troy Davis. It was legal to hold me in prison for 31 years, 29 of them in solitary confinement, but morally it was reprehensible. That’s why we need to change the mind-set, to show people that just because something is legal, it doesn’t mean it is correct, or something deified by God. This is what America is constructed on; a legalism that is completely void of morality.”
Who are Robert King’s role models? People like Harriet Tubman, Assata Shakur, and his grandmother, he tells us.
“It wasn’t until I was five or six years old that I realised that this woman bringing me up was actually my grandmother, not my mother. She didn’t have an education. She worked for a nickel a day cutting sugar cane… getting hand-me-downs and left-over food. But she worked so that we ate. She’s my hero.”