Black Panther veterans Denise Oliver-Velez, Ericka Huggins share experiences with new generation
Denise Oliver-Velez, left, and Ericka Huggins, right, veterans of the Black Panther Party and a variety of other movements, spoke at a forum hosted by Black Women Radicals and the Claudia Jones School for Political Education.

WASHINGTON—Coming together for another inspiring conversation, the Claudia Jones School for Political Education and Black Women Radicals hosted well-known Black activists Denise Oliver-Velez and Ericka Huggins for an intergenerational discussion on the ideas of radical friendship, the future of movement building, and radical self-care. Oliver-Velez was both an active member of the Young Lords and Black Panther Party, and Ericka Huggins was an active member and leader of the Black Panther Party.

BWR founder Jaimee Swift opened the event by invoking the idea of “Sankofa,” which is derived from the Akan peoples of West Africa, specifically the words: SAN (return), KO (go), FA (look, seek, and take). The word translates to “it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.” Fetching the valuable experiences of Huggins and Oliver-Velez for the benefit of new generations of activists was the focus of the night.

A screenshot from the forum. To the right, the headline speakers, at the top: Denise Oliver-Velez; on the bottom: Ericka Huggins. To the left, moderators from the hosting organizations, at the top: Jaimee Swift of Black Women Radicals; on the bottom: Dante O’Hara of the Claudia Jones School for Political Education.

Huggins is a human rights activist, poet, educator, former Black Panther Party leader, and former political prisoner. For the past 36 years, she has lectured throughout the United States and internationally. During her 14-year tenure as a leading member of the Black Panther Party, Huggins was the Director of the Oakland Community School, the groundbreaking community-run child development center and elementary school run by the Panthers from 1973 to 1981.

In May 1969, she and Bobby Seale were targeted and arrested on conspiracy charges sparking “Free Bobby, Free Ericka” rallies across the country. While awaiting trial for two years before charges were dropped, including time in solitary confinement, she taught herself to meditate as a means to survive incarceration and separation from her baby daughter.

Since that time, she’s incorporated spiritual practice into her community work, as a speaker and facilitator, teaching as a tool for change—not only for herself, but for all people, no matter their age, race, gender, sexuality, or culture. She’s served as a professor at San Francisco State University and California State University, East Bay, and Peralta Community College District.

Denise Oliver-Velez is a political activist, feminist, journalist, community organizer, and anthropologist. She was involved in the Civil Rights, women’s, and AIDS activism movements, and was a member of both the Young Lords Party and the Black Panther Party. Oliver-Velez was the former Minister of Economic Development of the Young Lords Party and became the highest-ranking woman in the party. She and others challenged the idea of “revolutionary machismo” in the Young Lords’ 13-Point Program, which led to the revision of the program with the new point being: “We want equality for women. Down with machismo and male chauvinism.” She co-wrote, with Iris Morales, about many of her experiences in the party in the foreword to The Young Lords: A Reader, edited by Darrel Enck-Wanzer and published in 2010.

Denise Oliver-Velez, center, distributes Young Lords Party newspapers. She has been a pioneer in radical independent media. | Wikimedia Commons

As a Black Panther Party member, she worked on the local Panther Party paper and did extensive international travel and solidarity work. Later, Oliver-Velez established herself as a pioneer in media, where she became the executive director of the Black Filmmaker Foundation. She was also a co-founder and program director of Pacifica’s first minority-controlled radio station, WPFW-FM, in Washington, D.C., and is currently a contributing editor for Daily Kos.

Beginning the discussion with how they met and their friendship, Huggins said “friendship is the most supremely important thing in our striving to serve humanity…you cannot lead with anger, you have to lead with love.” Oliver-Velez continued on the theme, saying that when she was organizing, it was a “25 hours-per-day job” and “if you were a sister, it was more like a 40 hours-a-day job because women were responsible for everything in the Party.” She told participants, “Y’all need to figure out ways to take care of yourselves now…that’s revolutionary to take care of oneself.”

Oliver-Velez spoke of how the Young Lords Party focused a lot of their attention on health issues. “We didn’t have words like environmental justice back then, but we identified things that were wrong, rather than coming in with a Marxist textbook and culting things on folks.” Faced with COVID-19 now, she said it is similar to the epidemic of heroin (and later, crack) and told the audience to think about the death toll over generations because of the lack of health care and no medical treatment. “This society kills us,” she said. HIV/AIDS, at the time of that epidemic, was addressed along racial and gender lines. For example, Black people and women were excluded from clinical trials. “This was not a new situation,” they said.

Both women have a history of work during the HIV/AIDS crisis. In 1990, at the height of public awareness of the epidemic, Huggins was the first woman practical support volunteer coordinator at the world-renowned Shanti Project. She also developed a unique volunteer support program for women and children of color living with HIV in the Tenderloin and Mission districts of San Francisco. She helped develop citywide programs for the support of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth and adults with HIV/AIDS. Oliver-Velez has published important ethnographic research on HIV-AIDS during her time as an adjunct professor of anthropology and women’s studies at SUNY New Paltz.

Connecting the political moment that has opened up with the coronavirus pandemic to the times she was organizing with the Black Panther Party, Huggins said there are multiple viruses that we are waking up to. One is the COVID-19 disease itself, and the second is the mental and social illness of structural racism. She said that the colonization and caste systems of the past still show up in our communities today. She also said she is thankful for the people who are white who are now becoming aware of anti-Black racism. “There was no way to look at George Floyd’s murder and make an excuse for it,” she said. Huggins went on to say that it is “so important to acknowledge joy…. Doing what keeps us sane and healthy is this most important thing we can do.”

Picking up on the idea of radical self-care, Oliver-Velez spoke about how she uses gardening as a meditation practice. She also grounds herself in music, dancing, and also enjoys listening to young people, but ended on a comedic note saying, “If one more y’all young folks say ‘OK, boomer,’ I’m gonna punch one of y’all upside the head!” Huggins related this to the means by which the academic world often reproduces oppressive ideas. The idea of completing a thesis or dissertation to obtain a degree is a European and male paradigm, and knowing about the high depression and suicide rates in Ph.D. programs, this disconnect from reality didn’t bring her any joy.

A 1971 article from ‘The Black Panther’ newspaper detailing the dropping of charges against Ericka Huggins and Bobby Seale.

Huggins also broached the subject of the FBI’s COINTELPRO, or Counter-Intelligence Program, a domestic spying and repression operation that targeted radical political activists from 1956 to 1979. She spoke of her husband’s murder and her own arrest during that era. “To conspire means to breathe together,” she said. Huggins said it was yoga and meditation that helped her make it through incarceration, saying that she “began to regain the sense of herself that she was quickly losing…that she wasn’t just some incarcerated, not valuable person.”

This brought Huggins and Oliver-Velez to the issue of political prisoners, specifically mentioning those such as Chip Fitzgerald, who is still incarcerated, and those who were recently released from Angola prison, such as Albert Woodfox and Robert King. They emphasized the need to focus on those who are still alive in prison and the importance of writing letters to the incarcerated (see Jericho Movement), not just giving thought to the political prisoners of the past.

It was also important, they both said, to build the current prison-industrial-complex (PIC) abolition movement and to increase awareness of how the carceral state operates along racial and gender lines. A current example is the police murder of Breonna Taylor, who’s killers are still out free. “Why can’t we celebrate Breonna Taylor more often? Why can’t we have Zoom calls about her life? Where is the book on Breonna? Quite often, the only woman’s name we can say is Sandra Bland,” said Ericka Huggins.

Scenes from the event can be found on the Black Women Radicals YouTube channel.


Jamal Rich
Jamal Rich

Jamal Rich writes from Washington, D.C. where he is active with the Claudia Jones School for Political Education.