Safiya Bukhari, Presente!

Revolutionary Worker #1224, December 28, 2003, posted at

On August 24, 2003, the struggle against oppression lost someone special when Safiya Asya Bukhari passed after a long illness. Safiya was a former member of the Black Panther Party and a political prisoner. She was co-founder and co-chairperson of both the New York Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Coalition and the Jericho Movement for U.S. Political Prisoners and Prisoners of War and former vice president of the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Afrika. Safiya was a sister who fought hard and passionately against the oppression of Black people in the U.S.

Born Bernice Jones, Safiya sacrificed a career and a comfortable life to struggle against the oppression of Black people in the U.S. She was raised in close-knit African-American communities in the South and in the North. Safiya once commented, "I never had the experience of racism, because I never came in contact with people of other races until I went to college."

In the summer of 1969, Safiya was a 20-year-old college sorority sister who supported the U.S. war in Vietnam. But she took part in a fact-finding mission on hunger in New York City. Through this experience, Safiya was introduced to a brutal American reality that jolted her into a lifetime of struggle for the liberation of Black people in the U.S.

One day during that summer of 1969, Safiya witnessed cops harassing and arresting a Black Panther Party (BPP) member on 42nd Street--just for selling the Panther newspaper. Safiya stepped forward and objected to the blatant violation of the Panther's legal rights--only to find herself arrested, handcuffed, thrown into a police car, strip-searched at the station house, and charged with inciting a riot! This reality check about the hypocrisy of U.S. society was a quick and serious wake-up call for Safiya. She later said that it was the New York Police Department that made her decide to join the Black Panther Party. By the time the summer of 1969 was over, she was in the BPP.

As a Panther, Safiya became a community and welfare rights organizer. She conducted community self-defense work, participated in the Breakfast for Children program, and helped in the liberation schools. She sold the Black Panther paper and taught political education classes. Within two years she was in charge of the New York BPP's Information and Communications section.

During this time the Black Panther Party was under intense attack from the government in cities around the country. Founded in 1966 in the San Francisco Bay Area, by 1969 the Panthers had established chapters in over 20 cities around the country. Advocating a political philosophy of revolutionary Black nationalism and a program of community self-defense and self-determination, the Panthers quickly grew in membership and won thousands of supporters around the country. Leaders and members were arrested and killed as the authorities attempted to crush the organization. National leaders such as Huey Newton and Bobby Seale were framed and imprisoned. Eldridge Cleaver, another national leader, was forced into exile. Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois BPP and one of the emerging young leaders, was murdered in cold blood in a police raid in 1969.

While it was not known at the time, the FBI, through its counter-intelligence program (COINTELPRO), targeted the BPP for disruption through infiltration, dissemination of misinformation, and liquidation. Panthers were put on trial and railroaded all over the country. Safiya herself was targeted by the authorities, and she went underground.

From 1973 until her capture in 1975, Safiya worked with the Black Liberation Army. Then she served close to nine years in prison, with one brief moment of freedom when she escaped for two months to seek medical attention denied her in prison. Upon her release on parole in 1983, Safiya began to address the issue of organizing political support for the many incarcerated former Panthers and other political prisoners left behind the walls.

"[T]here are those prisoners whose arrest and subsequent imprisonment stem directly from their political beliefs, affiliations and activities in furtherance of their political beliefs and goals," she explained in an essay. "These are brothers and sisters who dedicated their lives to fighting for the freedom and liberation of people of Afrikan descent... There is no question that these brothers and sisters are political prisoners." One of her major priorities coming out of the joint was to address the case of former Panther and Pennsylvania death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal.

She worked intensely to build support for Mumia. Working closely with the International Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal, she was a forceful and passionate advocate who helped form the New York Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Coalition. She traveled across the U.S. and around the world, talking about freeing Mumia and about the fact that America's prisons hold hundreds of political prisoners.

In the late 1990s, Safiya turned her passion and attention to addressing the plight of the hundreds of political prisoners in state and federal prisons throughout the U.S. In 1998 she was a coordinator and co- founder of the historic 1998 Jericho March and Rally for U.S. Political Prisoners and Prisoners of War in Washington, D.C. That groundbreaking action brought thousands to Washington, D.C. Thousands of people forcefully confronted the policy makers--who hypocritically use "human rights" violations as a battering ram against other governments and regimes--with their own dirty secret: that political prisoners are part of the political reality of this imperialist society.

Mumia Abu-Jamal called Safiya Bukhari a "Lioness for Liberation." In celebration of her life, he wrote, "For many, especially many of the nameless and unknown soldiers from various movements still behind bars, she was a life-line. They knew that she would do whatever was necessary to defend and, if possible, liberate them. They knew that her great, loving Black heart would not turn away from them, as they dwelled in bondage... But like her spiritual grandmother, Harriet Tubman, freedom was not hers alone. She worked long and hard for the liberation of her beloved Black people... She who was once a conservative, became a revolutionary. And she never, ever stopped!"

Safiya Bukhari's untimely death is a loss for all oppressed people. Her hallmarks--selfless determination, tenacity, and devotion for the struggle against the oppression of Black people--will be remembered and missed.

Safiya Bukhari, Presente!