Self-defense for the Panthers meant self-defense against colonialism and imperialism. It meant self-defense against racism, sexism, homophobia, and gender-based violence. It meant self-defense against ableism and class and caste-based oppression. It meant self-defense against police brutality and incarceration. It meant self-defense against poverty, hunger, and displacement, self-defense against exploitation, self-defense against the denial of healthcare, self-defense against the denial of shelter, self-defense against dispossession, self-defense against violence to the land and to water and it meant self-defense against those systems of education that hurt and wound the oppressed. Like the Panthers we believe that education in its institutional and systemic state-led form is fundamentally racist and colonial in nature and in practice: It abuses, humiliates, neglects punishes, alienates, dehumanizes and brings long-lasting pain and damage to all students but specifically to students who are Indigenous, who are Black, who are Brown, who are racialized, who are poor, and by extension it works to do the same to their/our families and to their/our communities and to the oppressed as a whole. It kills and tramples on their dreams.
It dictates and imposes through force, threats, silencing tactics, denial, neglect, punishments, rewards and manipulation, the stories that can be told, what can be said and how it can be said. It works to shut down any possibility for the children and youth of the historically oppressed to organize and to agitate to transform their world or for them to gain a knowledge of self beyond those that it approves of or those that will make the oppressive colonial system that gave birth to it more comfortable, more stronger, more normalized. It limits and controls what is possible in thought and action. The Panthers knew this. They opposed and defended the community against all of this violence and more. They did it through their liberation schools and their breakfast programs and through their flagship liberation school the Oakland Community School (OCS). And like Elaine Brown, the former leader of the Black Panther Party told us recently, the OCS didn’t teach students ‘what to think’, it taught them ‘how to think’.
What this meant was that students would come to develop alternative and opposing anti-colonial ways to know, ways to do, and ways to be that were rooted in the concepts of collective self-defense and collective liberation. They would learn how to analyze, question and interrogate the language and the concepts that systems of oppression use to dominate. They would learn how to oppose and defend themselves against this domination and in doing so they would learn the importance of inventing their own language and their own concepts of collective resistance. They would learn that everything is connected and interrelated and so they would learn how to build relationships on those terms. They would learn about the racist, colonial, capitalist system and structure. What it was and is. They would learn how to identify it. How it tricks us into doing damage to ourselves by pitting us against each other or by making us dependent on it by making us feel inferior and less than. Collectively the students would come to understand who and what was the real enemy and what they must fight back against and what they must defend themselves against as opposed to (individually) fighting against each other and seeing each other as the enemy. What was crucial was that the liberation schools (especially the OCS) nurtured in the children and youth the unswerving belief that they (and the communities they came from) had power. So its not the system (this thing that tries to control our lives that we have come to know through our everyday experience as a very real thing even though we might not be able to name it) that has power. Neither is it the wealthy or the landlord, or the police, or the politician, or the courts or the colonial and colonizing teachers and their schools and the people that run them, or those that take our lands and our waters, or those who force our parents to work for nothing in dangerous and unsafe conditions, or those who make us homeless, or those who can bang on our doors uninvited and take us away from our mothers and fathers and families that has power. Its not them that holds power. We have power. We hold power. We the children and youth of the oppressed. We the community. We the collective. We the People. We have power. We hold power. The power to oppose, the power to determine who we are, the power to determine how we want to live our lives, the power to determine what we want in the now and what we want our futures to look like. This is the fire that ignites the revolutionary consciousness: The fire that saves, or better still, reclaims and takes back our lives.
We believe this is beyond important. We believe that a sense of helplessness and hopelessness can form when we as historically oppressed peoples already traumatized, hurt, wounded and disconnected from ourselves and everything that we are related to by oppression itself are made to believe that we are powerless, that we do not have the power to oppose injustice, that we do not have the agency to transform our conditions, our circumstances and our world for the better on our own terms. Under these conditions we might look to relieve the pain of it all in ways that do harm to our bodies as individuals and collectives (and we know this is a natural response). Other times we might be forced into fighting each other in the competition, scramble and struggle for survival in this colonial and colonizing world that we have been born into (again a natural response). The end result is almost always the same. The oppressed as a community implodes and falls apart. We believe therefore that this is a life and death issue for the historically oppressed. When children and youth are worn down, demoralized, rendered helpless, forced into a state of hopelessness, and made to believe from the get-go that they have no power to oppose the oppression and injustice that they and their families and their communities are faced with, it is unlikely that they will develop a revolutionary consciousness. If they cannot develop a revolutionary consciousness they are unlikely to become revolutionaries in the future. If they cannot become revolutionaries in the future the current system will remain unopposed. If the current system remains unopposed the conditions of life and living for the historically oppressed as collectives and as Peoples in all of their diverse complexity can never change. They can only get worse. The collective future for the historically oppressed and the planet as a whole will be one of continuous exploitation, persecution, misery and a slow collective death.
We believe this is what the colonial system and the kind of education that it throws up and imposes on the children and youth of the oppressed (and all peoples for that matter) wants, produces, and wants the oppressed to accept as normal and so we step in, we intervene. We oppose. We fight-back. We do this as an act of self-defense. Like the Panthers our self-defense is an anti-colonial self-defense. We oppose all things colonial. We oppose all things colonizing. We oppose all things imperialist. Like the Panthers we believe in collective self-defense and collective liberation. This drives our understanding of what is sometimes talked about in teaching and learning circles as ‘pedagogy’. Dictionary definitions talk about ‘pedagogy’ as the ‘practice’ or the ‘act’ or the ‘art’ or the ‘method’ or the ‘science’ of teaching and learning. Some talk about it as if its some kind of teaching tool that can be taken out of a drawer or a ‘toolbox’ to ‘manage’ a specific group of students with specific needs. But none of these definitions have anything to say about collective survival, collective thriving and collective resistance to colonial oppression as the everyday practice of life, living and love for the collective self and so they have no meaning for us. We follow what Lilla Watson the Australian Indigenous activist said many years ago: “If you have come to help me, you’re wasting your time. But if your liberation is bound up with mine then let us work together”. This is how we understand pedagogy. In our learning space, the liberation of all students, all educators, and all community members is tied-up with one another as a collective. You can see it, feel it, hear it in the language that we use. The development of a revolutionary consciousness calls for us to be grounded in language that carries with it alternative and opposing anti-colonial ways of collectively understanding our world, our relationship to it, and our relationship with one another. ‘Comrades’ (shown in the video clips here) is an example of the grounding language that we work with. Like ‘power’ and ‘power to the People’, it grounds all of us in an anti-colonial understanding of ourselves not as individuals competing against each other but as comrades, as companions and as partners in struggle who stand with and stand by each other and so defend each other against oppression as a family and as a collective. The outcome from this is the emergence of a collective revolutionary consciousness grounded in revolutionary love and revolutionary hope. This is the pedagogy of self-defense.