"Our Goal is to Break the System. Our Struggle is Revolutionary": The Black Panthers in Algiers
Elaine Mokhtefi's account of a time when, having just overthrown French occupation, the city was a "Mecca for revolutionaries." Now 40% off until Sunday, September 2 at 11:59pm EST.
The following is an extract from Elaine Mokhtefi's memoir, Algiers, Third World Capital: Freedom Fighters, Revolutionaries, Black Panthers.
Algiers, Third World Capital: Freedom Fighters, Revolutionaries, Black Panthers and The Russian Revolution by Walter Rodney are both 40% off until Sunday, September 2 at 11:59pm EST.
In June 1969, my life took a dramatic spin that catapulted me into contact with the Black Panther Party, an encounter that would reunite me with the country I had left behind so many years before.
At the time, the BPP was the most notorious and noteworthy militant Black organization in the United States. For FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, the Panthers were “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” On August 25, 1967, in a memorandum addressed to his twenty-three field offices, he provided new muscle to a counterinsurgency operation called COINTELPRO, directing them “to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalists.” He ordered them “to destroy what the BPP stands for.”
Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon both saw a foreign hand in the opposition to the Vietnam War and gradually involved the CIA in spying on American citizens living and traveling abroad, in direct contravention of the agency’s mandate from Congress. Soon to be included among the 300,000 Americans on whom the ultra-secret unit, MH/CHAOS, operating from the basement of CIA headquarters, began collecting information were the Black Panthers who would travel to Algiers—and me.4
The BPP was known as much for its look as for its actions and politics. Panther militants dressed in black leather from head to toe, wore Afros, and paraded with loaded guns held prominently aloft. Their rhetoric resonated with all of us: “Power to the people” and “Off the pigs” became everyday expressions. Their actions could be benign—breakfast for children, health care, after-school programs—or hard-hitting. They called themselves the vanguard of the revolution, the American Revolution. Their impact was tremendous and would be long lasting.
In my years abroad, I had continued to follow events in the United States and lived vicariously the demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. The upsurge of Black and minority revolt— riots, demonstrations, underground activities—had been high on my agenda for years. I had written about them extensively at the APS and the RTA. As a result my encounter with the Panthers was not simply a chance meeting or a blind date. I knew who they were, and had followed their activities since their startling beginnings. Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and Eldridge Cleaver were familiar names to me; I was blown away by their audacity and political savvy.
Late one night in early June 1969, as I stepped off the elevator in my building, I heard the phone ringing and rushed up the half- flight of stairs to my apartment. It was Charles Chikerema, representative in Algiers of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union, the militant liberation movement of Southern Rhodesia, a country ruled at that time by a minority government of rabidly racist white settlers. Charles said he had been calling for hours. His message was brief: “Eldridge Cleaver is in town and needs help.”
No explanation. He gave me the address of the Victoria Hotel. “Go see him!”
Eldridge Cleaver was the author of Soul on Ice, the astounding book of wisdom and confession that had turned him into a celebrity. He was minister of information of the Black Panther Party, its indefatigable organizer and orator, and creator of the Free Huey campaign (Huey Newton, the party’s leader, was in prison awaiting trial for murder). Under his leadership, the Black Panther Party had mushroomed to more than forty chapters and had developed a paramilitary underground network. He also edited the Black Panther newspaper that boasted a circulation of some 200,000 copies.
In April 1968, following Martin Luther King’s assassination, Cleaver was caught up in a shootout with the police in Oakland, California. He was wounded, while fellow Panther Bobby Hutton was killed. Three police officers were also wounded, and Cleaver was charged with attempted murder. Awaiting trial, he was released from prison on a writ of habeas corpus. He then ran for president of the United States on the Peace and Freedom Party list, criss- crossing the country speaking to excited crowds. In November 1968, he was accused of parole violation and ordered back to prison; but the Supreme Court of California deemed him a “model parolee,” whose return to prison stemmed from “his undue eloquence in pursuing political goals which were offensive to many of his contemporaries.” The court was overruled on appeal.
Cleaver knew the system: “I had been State-raised. I climbed the ladder from Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles, starting at the age of twelve, to Folsom Prison, making all the stops in between." And the system knew him: he feared that a return to prison might lead to his death. In any event, Huey Newton’s order that he leave the country made his departure final.
A group of his supporters made contact with Cuban emissaries at the UN. According to Cleaver’s account in his autobiography, Soul on Fire, he was made up as an old man, with a baggy suit and shuffling gait, when he boarded a plane to Montreal. Other versions of his escape have him disguised as an interna- tional traveler, the consummate diplomat: dark suit, bowler hat, and pencil mustache. He left Canada hidden on a cargo boat bound for Cuba, arriving on Christmas Eve, 1968.
Early on the morning after Charles’s phone call, I walked down a short side street located between the Casbah and the “European” section of the city to the Victoria Hotel. It was drizzling, as I remember. An attendant, wedged in behind a narrow counter at the end of a short entrance hallway, gave me the room number. I mounted the steps to the fourth floor with some trepidation. I was curious and anxious. What could this forty-year-old white woman do for a leader of the Black Panthers in Algiers?
I knocked. Cleaver opened the door. He was twice my size, a powerhouse of a man whose body outdid the small room. I could see the top of his head swipe the ceiling, then dip a bit. His wife Kathleen, heavily pregnant, was stretched out on one of two beds. She nodded to me.
We remained standing and Cleaver talked. As he spoke, the upper half of his body effected a slight lateral movement, though he looked me straight in the eyes. He had impressive hands, with the longest, straightest fingers I had ever seen. He used them to illustrate and underscore, and to smoke. We both smoked, despite the pregnant woman on the bed. The room became hazy.
Cleaver told me that day how he had run afoul of the authorities in Cuba by trying to reunite with other African-American asylum seekers, most of whom were hijackers with warrants out for their arrest in the United States. Contrary to their expectations, the exiles were not received with open arms as fellow revo- lutionaries: instead they were subjected to intense interrogation and, in most cases, isolation. Many were living and working on farm camps in the Cuban countryside; others had been put in prison.
These were delicate issues for the Cuban authorities, whose support for American activists had become more circumspect over time. For whatever reasons, they had decided that Cleaver should be content to remain a clandestine guest in Cuba. He had expected more: to be hailed and supported as the head of a libera- tion movement, with privileges like a radio program transmit- ting to the US, and guerrilla training for BPP militants. He was aware of the enthusiastic welcomes Robert Williams and Stokely Carmichael had received. Stokely had traveled with Castro, he’d sat next to him on stage in Havana. Cleaver never even met the Cuban leader.
Cleaver pursued his agenda nonetheless, and gradually filled his apartment with wanted Americans. When—five months into his stay—Reuters disclosed his presence in the Cuban capital, he was deemed too heavy a burden by his hosts. The informant had been an American woman: Bunny Hearne, an admirer of the Cuban revolution who knew most of the Cuban elite, including Fidel.
“The Cubans dumped me,” Cleaver told me. They convinced him that he would be welcomed in Algeria, able to engage more freely in political activity there than in Cuba. All arrangements, they said, had been made, including Cuban travel documents. But on arrival at the airport in Algiers, there had been no recep- tion committee—only a Cuban embassy official. Then, Cleaver’s contact at the Cuban embassy reported that the Algerian authorities no longer agreed to harbor him. As a result, the Cubans were proposing to send him on to Jordan or Syria, with his final destination one of the Palestinian liberation movement’s camps in those countries. They had ticketed him for departure on the next plane to the Middle East.
Cleaver interrupted his tale, picked up some plane tickets lying on the dresser and waved them in the air: “Can you help me?” he said.
Something was amiss. I was remembering the warm welcome and offers of political status that Stokely Carmichael had received in Algeria two years earlier, and how ready the authorities had always been to help other Americans who came through, even the unaffiliated stragglers. I couldn’t count the number of times I had been asked to come down to the FLN headquarters to meet some Americans, usually Blacks, who had arrived on the door- step with no understanding of where they were or how they would survive in a country in which they had no contacts, and spoke neither French nor Arabic. The party functionaries had always acted with kindness, often supplying temporary housing and a few dinars.
Had the Cubans really laid out their plan and received a negative reply? It was hard to believe. “Curious,” I said, “it’s not in the nature of things here. I know the man in charge of liberation organizations. I’ll call him.”
Eldridge left the room, went across the hall, and brought back Bob Scheer. Scheer, a well-known radical journalist, editor of Ramparts magazine and a member of Fair Play for Cuba, was a close friend and advisor to Cleaver; he had trailed him immediately to Algiers. By the time Scheer entered the room, I had pushed aside a pile of clothes on the second bed and sat down. I was more at ease by then: I knew what had to be done.
A few hours later I was able to speak to commandant Slimane Hoffman, head of the FLN’s office in charge of liberation movements. The conversation was brief. I explained who Cleaver was, just in case: after all, Algiers is a long way from Oakland, California. I explained that he had arrived in Algiers from Cuba, and that he hoped to stay in the country and announce his arrival with an international press conference. Apprehensive, I took a deep breath and waited for him to respond.
Hoffman had an interesting, unique background for an Algerian political cadre. His father was a member of the French Foreign Legion; his mother was Algerian. He had been a professional soldier in the French Army, a tank specialist. In 1957, with a small group of Algerian comrades, all officers, he had deserted to join the Algerian Liberation Army. He would later be named “wali of the Algiers Wilaya,” that is, governor of the capital and its region.
“No problem,” was Hoffman’s laconic reply. He had one condition: that the announcement of Cleaver’s presence in Algiers be made first by APS.
How the Cuban embassy took this news I never knew. Bob Scheer said I had “pulled their chestnuts out of the fire,” and told them so. I did learn that the Algerians had never been informed of the arrangements for Cleaver’s transfer. They were, however, aware of Kathleen’s arrival, and had wondered why she was holed up in a nondescript hotel near the harbor with a Cuban, or at any rate a man carrying Cuban travel documents.
Eldridge was convinced he had been “double-crossed”; but why? Was it because relations between the Castro regime and Boumediene’s Algeria had soured so mightily since the coup d’état that cooperation between the two countries was at a virtual standstill? Or was Eldridge’s fate the fault of incompetent and incoherent Cuban emissaries in Algiers, isolated and out of touch with the authorities? Whatever the case, he was uneasy with the game the Cubans were playing and wondered out loud whether they intended to “off ” him.
Afterward, he said: “You saved my life.”
“Come on, Eldridge, all I did was make a phone call.”
The group in Algiers—Bob Scheer, Kathleen, and Eldridge— had been cloistered inside their hotel, dependent on the Cuban embassy’s car. I had “wheels,” as Eldridge labeled my Mini, and was able to take them on a tour. I introduced them to La Pêcherie, an open-air fish restaurant below the Casbah facing the sea. Technically speaking, they were undercover until Eldridge surfaced officially, but Scheer and Cleaver from then on displayed themselves regularly at La Pêcherie. They stood out like camels at a ski resort, but the news of their presence somehow remained closeted until the press conference.
Scheer and Cleaver saw to the details with precision. Reuters was brought in at the planning stage. It was difficult keeping them at bay. I had to keep reminding them of Hoffman’s condition that the first press release be made through the Algerian press agency. The announcement hit the Reuters wire a few minutes after the official APS communiqué.
The press conference took place on July 15 at the University of Algiers, in the Salle des Actes, in the center of the city. The auditorium was filled with Algerian and foreign journalists, students, liberation movement representatives, and diplomatic personnel. This was Cleaver’s first public appearance since the day he had vanished from San Francisco in November 1968.
Eldridge was taut, nervous—he couldn’t stop pacing. He had Kathleen dig through their luggage for a favorite brightly colored dashiki and a gold ear hoop. Whatever her state of pregnancy, she looked amazing: her impeccable hairdo—the Afro she had displayed all across the United States—plus dark glasses.
Kathleen, Eldridge and I sat on the dais. In a low voice I repeated in English what was being said in French on the floor. Julia Wright (Ellen and Richard Wright’s daughter) and her husband, Henri Hervé, had come over from Paris to interpret from English into French for the audience.
Hervé, used to a Parisian university climate where roughly addressing students with orders to “shut up,” “sit down,” “get out,” etc. was de rigueur, misjudged the crowd. His brusque interjections of “assieds-toi” and “ta gueule,” as the meeting got rolling and people tried to intervene, were met with cries of anger. He was hissed off the stage. No one in postcolonial Algeria was going to accept being bullied by a Frenchman. Julia took over interpreting.
Eldridge spoke about the struggle in the US, about his excitement to be in Algiers, to be in Africa. “We are an integral part of Africa’s history. White America teaches us that our history begins on the plantations, that we have no other past. We have to take back our culture.”
“Oppressed people need unity based on revolutionary princi- ples rather than skin color,” he said, adding: “Our goal is to break the system.” He closed with, “Our struggle is revolutionary.”