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‘The Black Lives Matter Movement Has to Go in There and Get Political Seats’

Bobby Seale, the Black Panther Party cofounder and author of Seize the Time, has advice for the Black Lives Matter movement: Seize the time.

Bobby Seale, photographed in 1969 while incarcerated in San Francisco.


This is "Think Tank," an occasional series of conversations with Bay Area power players, conducted by San Francisco editors. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.  

Name: Bobby Seale
Occupation: Political organizer and social activist
Age: 80
Residence: Oakland

San Francisco: On October 22, you turned 80. With all the turbulence you’ve lived through, did you ever think you’d make it to 80?
Bobby Seale: When my friend Marlon Brando turned 80, he called me; one of his female lovers had recently had a child. It stuck in my mind then that I definitely wanted to live to at least 80.

Racial inequities have been a fact of life in America since the beginning. Why do you think so many people have begun calling it out now?
I think the Occupy movement set the tone for a lot of this. The argument was simply 99 percent of the wealth in this country is controlled by a few avaricious corporate money people. That’s what it’s about. 

So you see a kinship between Occupy and Black Lives Matter?
Yeah. Occupy, Black Lives, and, let me say this, the climate change movement. Because you’re talking about our whole ecological balance. Are we going to wind back fossil fuel use? The corporate-money rich doesn’t want to do that. Donald Trump is denying climate change.

Your 1970 autobiography was titled Seize the Time. What needs to be done to seize this time?
When I was first trying to organize the Black Panther Party, we went out to patrol the police. Legally! We researched all the laws—we had every right to be out there with our tape recorders and our guns as long as they were not concealed. But that was just a tactic to capture the imaginations of people so they’d organize into a political, electoral machine. If you remember correctly, in 1967 that book Black Power came out. People were running around saying, “We want black power!” I told them you can’t think about getting black power or power at all until you take over some of these political seats. They said, “That’s the white man’s seats!” I said, “You better get some colored folks into ’em if you want to get some of that power.” I did my demographic research at the time. Only 50 black men had been duly elected to office in the whole of America. I found out there are more than 500,000 political seats you can be elected to. That’s where the laws are made. Where the rules are made. Where the policies are set.

So the next move is to become part of the government?
My objective was to get thousands of people across the country elected into political office to replace the right-wingers or racists in those seats. There was an objective behind the idea of getting elected: to change the racist laws manifested in city charters. That’s where I was coming from when I created the Black Panther Party. The young Black Lives Matter movement people have got to see this: You’re not going to get community control of the police until you get more and more control of some of these political seats.

Do you think BLM activists should run as mainstream candidates or in third parties?
You should run as whatever the heck you want. You just need a relevant agenda to the people’s needs. You have to be there where the laws are made. Starting at the city level, then the county level, and, as much as possible, at the state level and all the way to the federal level.

What are your hopes for November’s election?
I wish Hillary Clinton could get a big landslide. That would probably kick the House of Representatives back into the hands of the Democrats, and that’s where there’s the biggest amount of progressive people. We need more progressive types. We need more people like my man in the Senate Bernie Sanders, like Barbara Lee, like Bobby Rush. I’m saying, the Black Lives Matter movement has to go in there and get political seats. How are you going to get a climate change infrastructure bill passed? How are you going to ultimately get universal health care? 

That sounds like a revolution.
Revolution is not about the need for violence. It’s about the need to re-evolve and get more political, economic, ecological, and social justice and empowerment into the hands of the people. We can change the racist laws, change the laws of exploitation. That is what the revolution is all about. You see what I mean?


Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco

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