The War Before

Book by Safiya Bukhari, edited by Laura Whitehorn; The Feminist Press, 2010, 320 pp.

The late Safiya Bukhari (1950-2003) is not the most famous veteran of the Black Panther Party (BPP), but the compilation of her writings, The War Before, edited by former political prisoner Laura Whitehorn at the request of Bukhari’s daughter, Wonda Jones, should be required reading alongside the memoirs of BPP cofounders Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton.

The War Before makes many significant contributions to scholarship, including its examination of women in the BPP. Bukhari recognizes serious problems of sexism and misogyny, but argues that this was symptomatic of the Left in general and, relative to other leftist groups, the Panthers had gone much further to address the problem. Women were involved in the party at every level and, in 1970, Huey Newton issued an important public statement of support for the women’s and gay liberation movements. Bukhari writes that the Panthers "may not have completed the task of eradicating sexist attitudes within the Party and in the community. But we did bring the problem out in the open and put the question on the floor."

Bukhari was a 19-year-old pre-med student in New York City when she was first introduced to BPP as a volunteer for their free breakfast program for children. Later, Bukhari and a friend witnessed police harassing a Panther for selling their newspaper on a Harlem street corner. "Without a thought, I told the police that the brother had a constitutional right to disseminate political literature anywhere," writes Bukhari. Police responded by arresting her and her friend, along with the Panther. Bukhari reflects: "I had never been arrested before and I was naïve enough to believe that all you had to do was be honest and everything would work out all right. I was wrong again. As soon as the police got us into the back seat of their car and pulled away from the crowd, the bestiality began to show. My friend went to say something and one of the police officers threatened to ram his nightstick up her if she opened her mouth again and then ran on in a monologue about Black people. I listened and got angry."

After her release, Bukhari joined the Panthers and was a full-time member by 1970. Following the Party’s East Coast/West Coast split in 1971, she became the communications and information officer of the East Coast Panthers. As the FBI and NYPD’s infamous COINTELPRO repression escalated, many Panthers were forced underground into the newly-formed Black Liberation Army (BLA). In 1973, Bukhari fled to the BLA as well.

On January 25, 1975, Bukhari was arrested and later convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to 40 years. She recounts how she and two other members of the BLA’s Amistad Collective entered a delicatessen in Virginia without intending to rob it, but that the store manager initiated a gunfight (that Bukhari did not participate in). Her co-defendant, Masai Ehehosi, was shot in the face. Her bodyguard had not drawn his weapon, but was shot and then stomped to death by the store manager and his son. Bukhari tried to press countercharges against them, but the Commonwealth attorney said that it was "justifiable" homicide.

Following her arrest, Bukhari suffered from fibroid tumors, but was denied medical treatment at the city jail. On entering the state prison in Goochland, Bukhari writes: "During my initial examination upon arrival, a doctor told me the tumors were the size of oranges and asked me how long my sentence was. I told him 40 years; he told me to come back to see him in 10…. So I followed the prison rules. I filed a grievance. In response, I was told that the lack of medical treatment constituted a difference of opinion between myself and the doctor on whether treatment was needed at this point."

Following the prison rules did nothing to get her the treatment needed, so she made an important decision: "I knew then that the only way I would get the medical care I needed was to go out and get it for myself." After two years at Goochland, Bukhari escaped. She was able to see two doctors before being recaptured two months later and they both told her that she could endure the pain or get surgery.

After being recaptured, she writes: "I decided to use the lack of medical care as my defense for the escape to accomplish two things: (1) expose the level of medical care at the prison and (2) put pressure on them to give me the care I needed." As punishment for her escape, she was put in solitary confinement from March 1978 to November 1980. In June 1978, she was taken to the hospital for medical care.

In August 1983, after eight years and eight months in prison, Bukhari was granted parole and released. She jumped headfirst into organizing support networks for U.S. political prisoners. Laura Whitehorn, one of the prisoners who had been supported by Bukhari, writes that, "She found out what we thought and what we needed, then met with activists outside, encouraging them to support us and all the political prisoners she encountered."

Bukhari joined political prisoner Jalil Muntaqim and former political prisoner Herman Ferguson in creating the Jericho Movement, which organized a large demonstration in front of the White House in 1998, calling for the release of all political prisoners. Bukhari also created the New York Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Coalition (NYFMAJC) in support of her former comrade, now on death row, whom she’d worked with at the New York City Panther office.

Since Bukhari’s tragic death in 2003, the Jericho Movement and NYFMAJC have continued to grow. Mumia Abu-Jamal writes in The War Before‘s afterword that "her passing wasn’t the only tragedy; the tragedy was that more people didn’t know her, learn from her, or grow from her fund of hard-won wisdom." In the foreword, former political prisoner Angela Y. Davis writes that Bukhari’s "words compel us to recognize how much unacknowledged labor dwells inside and behind social justice movements…. Hopefully it will teach us respect and reverence for the organizer, who so often remain the unknown and unacknowledged figures behind progressive mass movements."


Hans Bennett is an independent media journalist and co-founder of Journalists for Mumia Abu-Jamal. He has written for Alternet, Truthout, Color Lines, Black Commentator, Upside Down World, and other activist media.