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For the past three weeks, Kent Ford has been walking the streets of Portland, Oregon to protest police brutality and fight for racial justice. The 77-year-old Ford knows more than its fair share of police repression and political activism. Fifty-one years ago, he founded the Portland Chapter of the Black Panther Party. After being released from the prison where he was held for two weeks for turmoil, Ford entered the old city police in downtown Portland and started the chapter publicly, saying, “If you continue with this fascist tactic , we will defend ourselves. “
It was June 1969 and the chapter was already full of private activities. After the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., Ford met with a group of like-minded African-American activists for weekly political education courses reading and discussing texts like Kwame Nkrumah’s Neocolonialism: The last stage of imperialism, Mao Zedongs Little red bookand Huey Newton’s brochure, Executive mandates number one. Soon they would have two health clinics: the Malcolm X Dental Clinic and the Fred Hampton People’s Free Health Clinic.
Violence and extinction are both part of state oppression, and it is important to keep the history of oppression alive. If dissent is crushed or goes underground, there may be some thinning of the threads that lock one generation to the next. Ford is committed to thinning these threads and working with a younger generation of activists to spread the lessons of past protests while keeping the horizon open to new tactics and techniques.
Ford’s register is a kind of wild kindness. To discuss his experiences as an activist and his thoughts on the current political economy, I spoke to Ford at numerous protests and conducted two formal interviews in June.
– Jules Boykoff
Point 7 of the Black Panther Party’s 10-point platform read: “We want an immediate end to police brutality and the murder of blacks.” That was written in 1966! This is still relevant in 2020. When the Minnesota police killed George Floyd, it was murder, public lynching, plain and simple. The same applies to Breonna Taylor. Virtually every city across America has similar stories. Here in Portland there are Keaton Otis, Aaron Campbell and Kendra James. Keaton Otis got Shot 23 times from the Portland Police just months after they dusted off Aaron Campbell. I go to a vigil for Keaton Otis every month.
I try to combine what happens in Portland with what happens in other places. You can’t understand what happened to George Floyd without talking about Palestine. Palestinians have lost their homes to Zionists. You can’t understand what’s going on in this country unless you talk about the US war machine abroad. A line runs straight through. I have to admit, I drank a little Kool-Aid that it would get better under Obama. But let’s not forget, Black Lives Matter was founded under a black president. It’s bigger than Obama. It is a system, a racist system.
JB: Please talk about the Black Panther Party aid program in Portland.
KF: Our survival programs were at the core of our daily activities. Until 1970 we had two strong clinics. At the Malcolm X Dental Clinic, volunteer dentists saw patients on Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings. The Fred Hampton Memorial public health clinic had more than two dozen volunteer doctors, around 50 nurses, and was open five nights a week from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Clock. The clinics offered everyone free care – it didn’t matter which race it was. I can tell you that the community needed this. There was a lot going on in the clinics, man.
The free breakfast program was one of the most important programs of the Black Panther Party. In Portland, our free breakfast program serves up to 125 children a day. We got up at 5 a.m. and loaded the trunk with weapons of mass destruction: bacon, eggs, pancake mix. And that was one of the biggest and worst things we did. We were often understaffed, but we made it through the grace of God. Children will come to me today and say, “Mr. Ford, you fed us in church when we were kids. “It’s just beautiful. The city had completely written off this area of Portland. It was a no man’s land. The people in the area loved us. They knew we had their backs and they had ours.
JB: And you also had political education programs.
KF: Yes, we were very interested in political education or “PE” as we called it at the time. Each party member had to read two hours a day. We also had a reading group where we discussed the writings of Kwame Nkrumah, James Baldwin, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Harold Cruse and Mao. Frantz Fanons The misery of the earth was like a bible to us. We held political education courses every Wednesday and Sunday evening to talk about what’s going on at local, national, and international levels. Our readings focused on three evils of the empire: militarism, capitalism and racism. Sometimes lawyers came to the sports courses to explain the law to us – the basics of demonstrations, minor driving violations the police used against us to limit the political situation.
JB: And you remain an enthusiastic reader today.
KF: You can make a big contribution to understanding politics by reading Arundhati Roy, Malcolm X and then adding the details with Cornel West, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur and Gary Younge. Gary Younge is one of the best brains in the world – I would bring him together with Malcolm there. There is also Michelle Alexander’s book The new Jim Crow. There are The Holocaust and the Nakba: a new grammar of trauma and history, edited by Bashir Bashir and Amos Goldberg. There are A nicer and more terrible story: the use and abuse of the history of civil rightsby Jeanne Theoharis. You read it, you process it, you take it into your heart and then you go out on the street.
JB: We have seen a lot of good / bad protest reporting in the media. What do you think about it?
KF: I know better than falling for this shit. We used to were the “bad demonstrators” in the local newspapers. We are all out there for the same thing: to fight the brutality of the police and the harassment of black and black people. We are all cut from the same fabric. The idea that these guys are bad and these guys are good is supposed to be a wedge that separates us. Look how long they have told us we should just be peaceful – remember Malcolm and Martin have had the same fate. Trump speaks of great bad Antifa as a kind of terrorist, but I want to thank Antifa for that the life of Dr. Save Cornel West in Charlottesville. I want to say to Antifa that they are welcome to our rallies – let’s bring our heads together. And don’t come up to me for looting. The United States has ransacked black communities forever.
JB: Portland is known as a white city, also because of the state of Oregon made it illegal Blacks settled in Oregon until the mid-1920s. What was it like working with white allies in a mostly white city?
KF: We had to work with that, so we went with it. We have alliances with students for a democratic society, the Party for Peace and Freedom, the Communist Party and the International Women’s League for Peace and Freedom. We have always had the support of a number of anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist groups. Even Bill Walton from the Portland Trail Blazers occasionally appeared for activist events and protests. Many of these allies provided bail when we needed it. They even set up a bail fund for us without asking questions. When I was detained for rioting and had a $ 80,000 bail, it was white people paid for it. A radiologist named Morris Malbin paid half and Penny Sabin, heiress to Blue Bell Potato Chips, put up potato chip stocks for the other half. Malbin ran fundraisers for us. All the doctors in the clinics were white. I’ve seen people come together – blacks, whites, indigenous people – and that keeps me fighting.
JB: Gary Younge recently said“When people refer to the destructive nature of the riots and uprisings, they first need to consider the destructive nature of the previous, but also the opportunities that these moments generally open up.”
KF: Exactly. The people who lead the protests in Portland are powerful, they have big hearts. They bring the right messages to people. They tell people about their legal rights. I spoke to a few of them on the phone the other day and told them to continue walking on the street. Here it is solved. You will get pressure to make concessions. We cannot be fooled by small reforms. We have the opportunity to think big: cut police budgets, end homelessness and get full employment.
Right now we’re seeing the ghost on the streets in the United States, even in small towns. Here in Oregon there are protests in cities where there is usually no protest Klamath Falls. This is the true rainbow coalition that Fred Hampton spoke of in the 1960s before the police dusted him and Mark Clark off[[[[a Black Panther member who was killed by the police next to Hampton]]. We are now on the move. We have a real chance to do things better for our grandchildren. It’s a shame that we had to see these terrible eight minutes and 46 seconds to wake people up to the reality of the situation. We have to look at each other’s backs and take care of each other. I am now 77 years old and who knows, maybe I am not here today, tomorrow or the next day. But one thing I can assure you: As long as people are on the street and fighting against the murder of black people, I will be there. I’m in the last nine, but I feel like I’m starting with the first nine. We have been here before, but this time we want to finish it. Let’s start from scratch and do it right.