The Black Panther Party is often associated with the image of leaders Bobby Seale and Huey Newton holding guns and wearing black berets. But that association ignores the impact on society of 10,000 party members, longtime Black Panthers Jennifer Yasmeen Sutton and William “BJ” Johnson told a Princeton audience March 5.
Sutton and Johnson reminded the 50 people who attended the talk that many issues they protested in the 1970s — police brutality, economic injustice, and omissions in the way history was taught in schools, for example — are still relevant today.
They encouraged students to take up these issues and work for change. “You have the power to win,” Sutton said.
But when students asked the pair for advice, Sutton and Johnson said they couldn’t be specific on ways to organize because the world has changed so much. “Some of the conditions were the same for us,” Sutton said. “[Now] it’s your time.”
Working with the Black Panthers “was all about serving the people, sun up to sun down, and we served people body and soul,” Johnson said. One of the group’s most successful programs provided free breakfast to schoolchildren while teaching them about black history.
Johnson went on to work as a labor organizer and Sutton worked for various nonprofits, including Greenhope Services for Women, a New York-based program for women returning home from prison.
Both are involved with the Black Panthers’ alumni association, working to draw attention to political prisoners in the United States. They said 13 Panthers remain in prison after convictions in the deaths of police officers, while no police officers were held accountable for the deaths of Panthers at the hands of law enforcement.
“It is not Black Lives Matter or All Lives Matter,” Sutton said. “To this government, law enforcement’s lives matter more than anyone else’s.”