This is not a column, this is a call to action.
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Sunday afternoon, a crowd more than 100 gathered at the church of democracy, the Hartford Public Library, to worship action, past, present and future. The ceremony consisted of lots of talk.
Anticipation ran high, fed by the magnetism of the sound of the name of the powerful, the scary, the infiltrated: the Black Panther Party. The BPP’s allure of militants feeding school children and arming black men never ends. To many of us, born in 1972 or after, the Panthers are but a legend.
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Like Geronimo Gi Yaga (aka Elmer Pratt), Jimi Hendrix, and Butch Lewis all went to Vietnam. They all returned stateside from Vietnam angry with the government, Lewis so much so that he wanted to blow it up.
Gi Yaga ended up in jail, Hendrix dead, and Lewis helped found the Hartford Black Panthers. He said he returned from Vietnam trained how to shoot a gun that didn’t work.
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The old M-16s, they’d freeze, Lewis said, and your butt cheecks would clench tighter than a snare drum in a jazz band as you fumbled with a stick trying to unjam the ammo.
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We dodged bullets in Vietnam, Lewis said, and we came back here, and were dealing with the same thing. Hendrix sang about it on “Machine Gun: “Evil man make me kill ya, evil man make you kill me.” Music glued the Sixties political scene together. The long dead Hendrix was in the audience on Sunday, on a woman’s sweatshirt.
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Lewis didn’t talk about music, but his rich anecdotes provided context to Hartford’s past. I arrived a bit late, right at the end of a film clip of a community conversation in Asylum Hill, cerca 1969, from Lewis’ personal archive (which he has now donated to the Library.)
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The grainy black and white video showed a white man talking to a mixed race room, complaining how Hartford was worse than it was 36 years ago. He told of two whites overheard in the West End, something about someone’s dogs being the best n***er chasers.
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Lew Brown asked: Are we making the same mistakes as the past? Lewis, sounding like the man in the film, said we are more segregated now than we were years ago.
This week, three Georgian teens got tossed from Ole Miss for putting a noose around the neck of the statute of Medgar Evars. Back in the 1960s they shot Medgar Evars. But Uganda is lynching gays.
Sometimes, the broken dreams of revolt cloud perception of incremental change. People longed for yesterday, complained about today, and fretted about tomorrow.
This was not the rule of threes, but the realization I’m tired of reliving a conversation 40 years old. Much of my life has been spent in the shadow of the 60s, rehashed.
Others similarly frustrated in the big library hall felt the tension churning from the neverending flow of words, like the vexed woman wondering where the blacks were on the school board and in the classrooms.
We went there, searching, listening, seeking ways to end the injustices around us. Down with talk, talk, talk. We want walk, walk, walk. Solvitur ambulando. It is solved by walking. What would a march on Washington today look like?
This is not a question, but an attempt at an answer. I solved my dissatisfaction with the odd ending of the talk by walking up and down Main Street, first to the Wadsworth and then to the Hook and Ladder with my wife.
We thought of the silence of other invited speakers, Dr. Stacey Close of CCSU and Prof. Jeffrey Ogbar of UConn. Smart, educated men, they have a lot to say, but they let Lewis talk.
We live in Death Valley, Lewis said, referring not to the desert strip of heat in California, but the manmade string of weapons manufacturers from Springfield, Mass. to New Jersey. Death Valley builds more war stuff than any place on earth, Lewis said.
We could stretch Death Valley’s fire to Bath, Maine’s nuclear submarine facility, and down to the naval war college in Rhode Island and west to the helicopters and guidance systems and more nuclear submarines in Connecticut.
We could go west, further, to the Grim Reaper’s banksters in Manhattan. Yep, Lewis is right. But he was preaching that to the choir.
We looked for the young people in the Library. Where were the students? Butch must bring his message to the young people, my wife said over fries and drinks at Hook and Ladder. Lewis stood clear on what he thought was the issue for the future: education. Learning.
Ogbar said the same. Education is the key. How would Capital Prep’s man of Tweet, Steve Perry, react to Lewis’ stories of training young black men in Louisiana – the Deacons of Defense – to handle weapons?
That was his obligation to his people back then, Lewis said. It begs the question: what is his obligation to his people now? Telling the history?
What is our obligation to our people now? Shaping the future? How do we find that vein of radical activism in Hartford youth? How do we show them others before them fought oppression? We had to do something, Lewis said. He didn’t die there in Vietnam, and he didn’t want to die here.
I learned children died in the Park River back then. The irrepressible Steve Thornton cited the Park River protests as an example of what we should do now.
The Panthers agitated to fence the Park River in, Lewis said, suggesting those protests led to the covering of the river by Capital and Broad. I thought it was the Army Corps of Engineers.
This is not an allegory, this is a real story. Hartford was a divided city then, Lewis said. Puerto Ricans back then couldn’t even get near Park Street. The first Puerto Rican Day Parade started on Belden Street, he said.
City Councilman Larry Deutsch, active in Students for a Democratic Society back in the 1960s, said the 2-2-2 system on City Council today shows we are still divided. We have to bring this group known as the city together, be honest with each other, he said.
Could we open those rivers again? Can we cleanse our divisions through the earth’s running waters? Let’s remove the fences on Brookfield Street, and make parks along the river banks. We have emerged as a society that is capable of handling dangers.
We can prevent untimely death in ways that don’t cut us off from our planet. Blue are the life giving waters taking for granted, they quietly understand, Hendrix sang, we are bold as love.
Where is the glue that will tie the next SDS to the next BPP? I’m going to go look at the Kabbala House on Albany Avenue on the first Friday of March, and listen to Hartford’s youth create their world at an open mike night.
I want to listen to Q, a senior at the Academy of the Arts, who plays a mean guitar and has the voice of an angel. She will sings her own songs, and inspire us.
Some breakdancers will on one hand hop spinning upsidedown 360s into some pommel-horse rotations on the floor. Someone else will freestyle rhymes. We must soak in this energy of Hartford’s youth.
I will not speak a poem, I will issue this call to action. To fun. To justice. To shutting down the working gears grinding our souls to grist. Illumination springs wringing hands into fluttering butterfly shadows on the wall.
Truth stands firm. Illusions bend and distort. Free yourself from the bonds of your own enslavement of yourself. Be gone your debt, your car, your taxes, humble, yearning souls. Take time for your heart’s homeland. Find peace, and bring it to your brothers and sisters.
Do not mourn human frailty. Join the march to Hartford’s future.