Jamal Joseph: How I became a Black Panther | WBEZ
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Dynamic Range

Jamal Joseph: Panther, poet, professor, prisoner

Jamal Joseph addresses a crowd, gathered on the green of the University of Vermont in 1971, on the subject of the 'Panther 21' trial. (Courtesy of Roz Payne)

On April 4, 1968, news of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination was spreading like wildfire through the boroughs of New York City.

In his grandparents’ apartment in a working-poor neighborhood of the Bronx, 15-year-old Eddie Joseph heard that people were rioting in Harlem, and he wanted to see for himself. He was a self-described good kid, an honor student and a choir boy. So despite all better judgment and everything his grandparents Noonie and Pop Baltimore had told him, he poured out onto 125th Street to witness history.

Most of the people on the street that night were peaceful. But Joseph watched as looters threw a trash can through the plate-glass window of a store and ran inside. Then, without warning, a police officer grabbed Joseph and slammed him against a wall.

He thought he would be arrested, but the cop became distracted by nearby rioters overturning a police car. The officer told Joseph to stay put, but he ran. “I was scared,” Joseph says. “But I wasn’t stupid.”

The police chased him into a corner store, then out the back into an alley. He ran down the alley, and was cornered by a wooden fence.

“Halt!” the cops yelled.

“In my mind I froze, put my hands in the air and turned around to face the cops with tears in my eyes,” Joseph recalls. “But my body kept hauling ass.”

He flipped over the fence, where he collided with a calm-and-collected posse of 20 or so black men in afros and berets. They wore leather jackets and carried guns.

“Stop running, young brother,” they told him. “Don’t give these pigs an excuse to gun you down.”

This was Joseph’s first encounter with the Black Panther Party, and it would change his life. Within a matter of months he would change his name to Jamal and become a party section leader in charge of all the Panther’s high school cadres in New York.

Then, just a year later, on April 2, 1969, he would be pulled out of his house at 4 a.m. and arrested, along with 20 other members of the Panther’s New York leadership, in a case that would become known as the Panther 21. They were accused of conspiracy to blow up New York department stores, a police precinct and the botanical gardens on Easter weekend. In an interview, Joseph now says there was “absolutely no validity” to the charges, and the jury in the case agreed with him. After a nine-month trial, the surprisingly diverse jury acquitted the accused.

Joseph is now an Oscar-nominated songwriter and associate professor of film at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. (Flickr/American Library Association)
The charges against Joseph, who was to be tried separately as a minor, were dropped as well. But not before he went underground and became a kind of black liberation movement version of Omar Little: robbing dope houses at gunpoint, then publically flushing the drugs down the sewer under the banner of “Capitalism Plus Dope Equals Genocide.”

He was eventually tried and convicted of robbery for those offenses, and served a three-year sentence. He also did a separate six-year stint in federal prison on other charges.  

Joseph spoke at Chicago Public Library last week, marking the release of his new memoir Panther Baby: A Life of Rebellion & Reinvention (Algonquin Books, 2012). During his talk, he drove home that before he was a fugitive and a convict— before he was an Oscar-nominated songwriter and Columbia University film professor— he was just a teenager who wanted to join some kind of radical movement.

In his talk Joseph described the first time he attended a Black Panther Party meeting, and how scared he was. A friend had told him he’d need to kill a white cop in order to be admitted to the group. Joseph went in thinking this would be his trial-by-fire.

He was wrong, of course, but what actually happened was equally surprising. Hear him describe the meeting and its impact on his life in the audio above.

Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Jamal Joseph spoke at an event presented by Chicago Public Library in February. Click here to hear the event in its entirety.

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