On November 16, political activist, author, and Captain of the Black Panther Party’s Seattle Chapter Aaron Dixon is set to give a virtual talk about his experiences in the Black Panther Party in an event organized by Politics & Care and co-sponsored by Hoodstock, QPIRG-McGill, AFESPED-UQAM and Vanier College, Well-Being: Who Cares class, Femmes Noires Musulmanes au Québec, QPIRG-Concordia, and GRIP-UQAM.
“I’m always open to talking with people,” Dixon said when asked why he decided to come to Montreal. “Particularly young people, sharing the history and experiences that I have gone through, especially experiences about the Black Panther Party, the organizing, and the work that we did.”
He added that he had been invited to speak at McGill University a couple years prior, and expressed disappointment in the fact that “they wouldn’t let me in because they said I had some criminality on my record.”
In addition to establishing the Seattle Chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1968 and co-founding the University of Washington Black Student Union (BSU), Dixon had a part in the Black Panther Party’s establishment of the Free Breakfast for Children Program as well as the organization of other community-based initiatives.
The Daily had the opportunity to speak with Dixon about his upcoming event, his experiences with the Black Panther Party, the importance of community-based organization, and his hopes for anti-oppressive movements in the future.
McGill Daily (MD): Could you speak more on the details surrounding your talk, as well as how mobilizing and organizing at the community level is important to anti-racist movements, especially with respect to the recent surge in mutual aid programs?
Aaron Dixon (AD): I was asked to speak about those particular subject matters, and I think it’s important because we were able to accomplish a lot with our survival programs. As an organization, we were always changing our tactics regarding how the government was responding to us. Initially, the Black Panther Party was talking about changing our government and society, but we realized that the people really weren’t ready for a revolution. We also observed that the people in the community – the people that we were fighting for – were struggling with a lot of different issues, including providing breakfast for their kids, struggling with medical care […] and so we started implementing the Free Breakfast Programs, the medical clinic, the legal clinic, and a whole host of other programs.
We realized that the government and other agencies were not effective in implementing social services to the community, so we became an example of how to properly organize. We also wanted to [redirect] what our energy was particularly focused on, which was educating the people and serving the people.
Our whole struggle was based upon people, and fighting for the people. That’s why we turned to organizing the survival programs and opening our Free Breakfast Programs, medical clinics and all the other programs, because the push behind what the Black Panther Party was doing was in [our] love for the people, love for the community. That’s what our whole fight was based upon. How can you say that you’re for the people when you’re not helping the people in their day-to-day struggles?
“Our whole struggle was based upon people, and fighting for the people.”
We opened up Breakfast Programs all across the country. In Seattle, we opened up five breakfast program locations. Very shortly, the Black Panther Party was feeding thousands of kids breakfast every morning. We knew the Breakfast Programs were successful when J. Edgar Hoover came out and said that they were the number one threat to the security of America. There were also Chapters where police came in with shotguns to prevent the kids from coming to the breakfast programs.
Very shortly after we started the Breakfast Program, we opened up free medical clinics, community-based medical clinics. We opened up thirteen free medical clinics all across the country, a free ambulance program in Winston-Salem and Harlem, and started the sickle cell anemia testing program, which became one of the first preventative medical programs in the country by testing thousands and thousands of kids throughout the country. We got a lot of love and support from the people when we started providing these very important programs to them.
“Very shortly, the Black Panther Party was feeding thousands of kids breakfast every morning.”
We were always told, “you know you’re doing your job when the pigs come out to attack you, and the people come up to defend you,” and that’s what happened. There were several places the Black Panther Party office was under attack – in Seattle, Chicago, L.A. – and the people came out to defend the Party. That’s because we were providing important services to the people.
Those programs were so valuable and so important that by 1974, the federal government allocated funds for those programs and made the Breakfast Program a national program that’s still in existence today, over 40 years later. Kids can go to school today and get free breakfast and lunch. That’s because of the work of the Black Panther Party.
The survival programs, Breakfast Programs, medical clinics are a service to people that we are remembered for. People still come up to us and thank us for treating them when they were kids. They’ll say, “thank you for providing breakfast for me when I was young.”
MD: In what ways do you think current issues, such as the ongoing pandemic, have changed the anti-racist movement since your time as an active member of the Black Panther Party? In what ways would you say they’ve stayed the same?
AD: I think the pandemic […] has really exposed a lot of the conditions that people are subjected to here in America. It exposed the fact that people who don’t have full-time jobs – and even people who do have full-time jobs – aren’t able to afford medical coverage. It also exposed the fact that a lot of people who work [temp] jobs, or jobs that they do on their own without any company behind them – once those jobs don’t exist, then they have no way of getting any income. So, it exposed the tremendous amount of poverty and homelessness that exists in America.
It exposed the racism that exists in America even more, in terms of the number of COVID cases and deaths, who are largely poor people, people of colour, and people who faced other systemic issues which caused them to succumb to COVID.
“The one thing that COVID did was allow people to stop, think, and observe.“
Of course, you had [the death of] George Floyd, which happened while people were sitting at home. The one thing that COVID did was allow people to stop, think, and observe. And it gave them an opportunity for contemplation, which we don’t typically have time for – we’re always running from one thing to another. It gave us time to slow down and stop, and it took away the events that take a lot of our time, like sports and entertainment. Those things weren’t available to us, so we have more time to look at the news and see what was happening with George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and all the other people that were killed, that have been being killed [for] so long.
People began to realize that there really was something wrong with policing in America, and it also gave people an opportunity to go out and protest because a lot of people were off of work. So they had the time to spend to go out onto the streets, protest, demonstrate, and demand that conditions change.
MD: Could you speak more about organizing with the Black Student Union at the University of Washington and about what activism looks like within academic institutions?
AD: We organized the first Black Student Union at the University of Washington, and from there we began to demand Black and ethnic studies programs. This had a spreading effect, because it also led to Latino studies, Native American studies, women’s studies… A lot of people don’t realize that these Black studies programs opened up a whole avenue for oppressed people.
This started in San Francisco State University with the Black students demanding Black studies programs. A lot of those people who were involved in those demonstrations in San Francisco State were members of the Black Panther Party, just as was the case at UCLA, just as was the case at the University of Washington, and at other universities. A lot of students joined the Black Panther Party around that time. Once they got tuned in to the Black Panther Party and what we were about, a lot of those students dropped out of school – I was one of them.
“[…] these Black studies programs opened up a whole avenue for oppressed people.“
At that time, there were a lot of faculty that were supportive of what we were doing, and so the campuses became a place that students not only went to to get educated, but also a place where students began to exchange ideas about society, while beginning to develop plans of implementing things and reaching out to people in the community.
By the 1980s, there was a movement to stymie that, as college institutions were pushed to become more profit-oriented and began to remove some of those ethnic studies programs. They were no longer hiring radical faculty. They began to change because they understood how important colleges and universities were in terms of developing a political awareness among students, so that’s what led them to try to change the direction of what colleges and universities could do on a political level.
MD: What are you hoping to see from movements toward Black liberation in the future?
AD: It’s not just about Black liberation, it’s about liberation of all oppressed people. When the Black Panther Party started out, most of us were Black nationalists. We had a Black nationalist concept, and our slogan was Black Power. But very early on, as the party began to evolve, we understood that it was all oppressed people that the struggle was all about, and so I’m hoping that this movement will evolve to [a point] where it recognizes that. After this past election, one of the things we’ve learned is there’s a lot of work and organizing that still has to be done.
“It’s not just about Black liberation, it’s about liberation of all oppressed people.”
This is something the Black Panther Party did when we started the first Rainbow Coalition in 1969 in Chicago. We had a coalition with the Puerto Rican community in the Young Lords, and with the poor white community in the Patriot Party. One thing we learned in the Black Panther Party is that […] everything is in a constant state of flux. As a result of that, the Black Panther Party was always changing, because we were always evolving.
It’s my hope that this movement also understands that it has to be an evolving movement, that it has to be constantly growing and changing with the dynamics, and that we have to bring in more people. This is my hope – that this movement becomes a movement of all oppressed people throughout the whole world.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.