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Remembering Safiya Bukhari: An Interview With Laura Whitehorn

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Photo: Safiya Bukhari

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Former political prisoner Laura Whitehorn has edited the new book, The War Before: The True Life Story of Becoming a Black Panther, Keeping the Faith in Prison, & Fighting for Those Left Behind (The Feminist Press, 2010). The War Before features the writings of the late Safiya Bukhari, who was born in New York City and joined the Black Panther Party in 1969.

Imprisoned for nine years, for charges related to the Black Liberation Army, Bukhari was released in 1983 and went on to co-found the New York Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Coalition and other organizations advocating for the release of political prisoners. She died in 2003 at the age of 53 years of age.

A preface by Wonda Jones (Bukhari's daughter), a foreword by Angela Y. Davis, an afterword by Mumia Abu-Jamal, and an introduction by Whitehorn are also featured alongside Bukhari's writings.

Just released this month, The War Before has been reviewed by Lenore J. Daniels, Dan Berger, and Ron Jacobs. The website states: "The War Before traces Bukhari's lifelong commitment as an advocate for the rights of the oppressed.

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Following her journey from middle-class student to Black Panther to political prisoner, these writings provide an intimate view of a woman wrestling with the issues of her time--the troubled legacy of the Panthers, misogyny in the movement, her decision to convert to Islam, the incarceration of out spoken radicals, and the families left behind.

Her account unfolds with immediacy and passion, showing how the struggles of social justice movements have paved the way for the progress of today."

Angola 3 News: When did you first meet Safiya Bukhari?

Laura Whitehorn: I met Safiya in the visiting room of the Federal Correctional Institution (for women) in Dublin, California, in 1997--but when we embraced, it felt as if I'd known her all my life. At the time, Safiya was traveling to various prisons, visiting political prisoners to talk with us about Jericho '98, the national campaign, beginning with a march rally to the White House, that she was organizing (with Herman and Iyaluua Ferguson, political prisoner Jalil Muntaqim, and others).

I was in Dublin, along with six other women political prisoners--Puerto Rican Independentistas Lucy and Alicia Rodriguez, Carmen Valentin and Dylcia Pagan, and my codefendants Marilyn Buck and Linda Evans. Another North American comrade who had been in Dublin with us, Donna Willmott, had recently been released.

Safiya's heart was so deeply involved in the cause of supporting political prisoners--and fighting for their recognition and release--that she immediately felt like an old friend with whom I'd been on the barricades, so to speak.

A3N: What can you tell our readers about who Safiya was as a person?

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LW: Safiya lived her politics, exuded solidarity from every pore and in every fiber of her being. She acted on her beliefs--and she was constantly questioning, refining and developing those beliefs. When you read her book, you will see that fighting for justice was a necessity to her.

Resolving the inequitable, brutal situation of Black people and other oppressed groups was her bone-deep desire. She spent every ounce of her being trying to figure out how to proceed, evaluating past actions, pushing others to revitalize dormant work and struggles. And she loved her comrades behind bars in the most revolutionary way--by refusing to let them be forgotten.

She took all political exhortations very personally, trying to apply them in practice, and trying to submit them to scrutiny and honesty, to bring them from the realm of the bullhorn to the arena of what you do when you get up every day. Safiya was not just a revolutionary during the revolutionary times of the 60s and 70s. She struggled to live as a revolutionary woman during the non-revolutionary times that followed and persist.

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Over 40 years ago in Louisiana, 3 young black men were silenced for trying to expose continued segregation, systematic corruption, and horrific abuse in the biggest prison in the US, an 18,000-acre former slave plantation called Angola. In 1972 and (more...)

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