San Diego Black Panther Chairman Gives Context To Current Protests
Henry Lee Wallace V says organization has always fought against injustice
"The Spook Who Sat By The Door" (1973)
"The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution" (2015)
"I Am Not Your Negro" (2016)
San Diego Black Panther Party chairman Henry Lee Wallace V looks to the 1960s to provide context for today's protests.
If you grew up in the 1960s like I did, then the image of young Black men in black leather jackets and berets, and carrying guns and chanting "Power to the People" was a powerful image that you don't forget. It was also an image that scared a lot of mainstream white America and immediately got the attention of those in power who wanted to maintain the status quo.
But what was even scarier to someone like the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover was the way the Black Panther Party focused on providing free meals to kids and education that could help people in the Black community become self-reliant.
"If you go through any of the FBI documents that have been released through the Freedom of Information Act, J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, is very clear that the breakfast program is the thing that he hated the most. He says in some of these documents and some of these memos [that] if the Panthers succeed in winning the hearts and minds of the people, we've lost. And that was the thing. It was always this fear of indoctrinating a younger generation into this ideology of self-defense and self-reliance," Walker explained.
The Black Panthers remain iconic in American history and Walker said that until the recent protests, "I got the feeling that they're more like a myth than anything else. They've become like this legendary group and people don't really understand them."
But with nationwide and even global protests sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, the Black Panthers and their history are getting renewed attention.
San Diego, like many cities across the country, had its own Black Panther chapter and Henry Wallace V was eager to join because they represented something new.
"They had muscle," Wallace said. "They showed that they weren't scared of the police and they educated us on the Second Amendment. We had the right to bear arms to protect ourselves. My sister went to San Diego State College, which is now San Diego State University, and she was in the Black Student Union. So she and her boyfriend, Kenny Denmon, were approached by the Black Panther Party in '67 to open up a chapter of the Black Panther Party. And from there, my mother joined, my stepfather joined, and then I joined, me and my brothers. And ever since then, we've been Black Panthers."
The San Diego Chapter reactivated in 2016, the year of both the Black Panthers' 50th anniversary as well as the year Donald Trump was elected president.
In May, the death of Floyd ignited protests about police brutality. The issues were all too familiar to Wallace. But he suggests that what the Black Panthers did in the 1960s has laid some of the groundwork for today's protests, which he feels very hopeful about because "our kids is handling it, they taking care of business."
"What's happened today is the chickens came home to roost," Wallace said. "The seeds that were planted back in those days are fertilized now. They're turning into plants, beautiful flowers and stuff, because the stuff that the Black Panther Party tried to do back in those day was get all the people together, let them know that you're being exploited by the system because we started off working just for Black people but as time went along, we understood that there was other people that were suffering. So this protest that is going on now is the result of what's been going on before. And we did have some progress. Believe it or not, we did because I can look back over the eons and see where my mother was a maid. Had my mother been around today as a young woman she might have got a college degree. She might have been able to be a lawyer or a judge even though racism still exists, it's in the fabric of America. But I have seen progress."
Wallace would also like to remind people of the racism that exists here in San Diego and which he grew up with.
"I want people to realize that San Diego itself has never been the utopia that it claimed to be," he said. "There have always been racism in this city but the Black Panther Party, when it came out, came out to fight the injustices of the system itself because the police department was just one part of it. So it was a thing that it was always here, all the oppression of the minorities, especially Blacks."
He added that the San Diego Black Panther Party supports the current protests but is refraining from sending members out to protest on the front lines because there's also a need to concentrate on helping low income and poor people get food.
But he had these closing words: "We want you guys to know that the Black Panther Party stands with those that stand on the side of justice and that we want just what you want, but you've got to understand that everybody needs to come to the table. Everybody needs to be part of this situation and you all have the power to make change. But you can't sit up there and say, 'Oh, those poor Black people all day just brutalized.' You need to get off your ass and do something. You can vote, whatever. Don't let our country go down the tubes because you are sitting there sympathizing, but you're not getting up to vote. You are sitting there and not getting up and saying a thing. You are sitting there and not going out to join the protest. Because if we work together, we're going to have a better society. Then you won't have to worry about people being killed in the street or people being discriminated against. America is a land of plenty and wealth should be shared, and I'm talking to you capitalists out there. Y'all need to be more proactive in returning things back to the community so we don't have this situation. Power to the people."
With his fist in the air, Wallace made clear that he will always be a Black Panther fighting for change and against injustice.