Interview by N. Zahra and Steve da Silva
Basics Issue #10 (Aug/Sep 2008)
In June 2008, Basics visited political prisoner and former Black Liberation Army member Robert ‘Seth’ Hayes at a prison in upstate New York known as Wende Correctional Facility.
Robert Seth Hayes is one of the longest held political prisoners in the U.S.A. In 1973, Hayes was sentenced 25 years to life in prison on trumped-up charges.
This interview was pieced together by Basics members Steve da Silva and N. Zahra from our written notes, because we were not allowed to bring anything into the prison to record the interview.
Basics: What is a political prisoner?
Seth Hayes: We have people in these prisons who are just coming into a revolutionary consciousness, and we have people in here who have always been revolutionaries, agitating against the state. They are all political prisoners…
But one thing that more brothers in here need to be able to do is develop patience and a sense of appreciation for the scale of the struggle we have ahead of us. Things aren’t going to change overnight.
Unless you have a very strong sense of appreciation for the deep exploitation and oppression of the people and unless you are driven by strong love for the people, you will not last long. If you don’t love yourself and the struggle, you won’t last long at all.
Another problem in here is that many people think that by becoming political they will become modern-day Assata Shakurs or George Jacksons, but they end up breaking down under the pressure of the system because they are not working from a foundation of revolutionary love.
If we are to build a revolutionary movement, we need a strong foundation to stand on, and that foundation is love.
Another problem is the baggage that a lot of people come in here with. We have a lot of people who come from gangs, and they are accustomed to living by very different principles. So we are patient in our work with these people. It is a long, protracted pedagogical process.
We are trying to teach analytical thinking and social investigation, but the youth today are so used to instant gratification, and give little time to reading and writing. If the foundation is not secure, then anything that we build upon it will collapse…
Basics: So you’re saying that study is a prerequisite for revolutionary change?
Seth Hayes: It’s absolutely necessary. Our struggle is protracted in all senses.
A major aspect of the work of the Black Panther Party was our Political Education classes. Every member of the Party had to carry out political education. When I came back from serving in the Vietnam War, I didn’t know the first thing about Stalin, Ho Chi Minh, or Mao Tse-Tung. But I soon learned the value of studying these revolutionary thinkers, and why the ruling class does everything they can to prevent us from studying these thinkers.
After carrying out our community work, we would always have to carry out our educational work. We would have these educational raps whereby each of us would have to study a different revolutionary thinker, and then we would have to debate one another on the merits of the various thinkers. These dialogues proved incredibly fruitful in advancing our thinking.
It was such a pleasure to study back then, at a time when we weren’t wasting ourselves away with all the distractions of modern entertainment.
Basics: What was the significance of studying history in the foundation of the Party and what is the significance of the history of the Party itself?
Seth Hayes: In the Party, we summarized and criticized what had come before us. Previous movements of Blacks in America had no clear sense of direction and no clear revolutionary program. We did. Unfortunately, the generation after us has been left with no memory of what we did, despite the fact that our legacy lives on vividly today.
Basics: How does the legacy of the BPP live on today?
Seth Hayes: Before the Black Panther Party, there was no such thing as a Black politician.
Why? Because before the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army, there was no strong force in the Black community upon which Black opportunists could refer back to in their own compromising with the system.
So all Black politicians, Obama included, can thank the BPP for paving the way for this small advance in the Black community…
Basics: Is struggle still possible today?
Seth Hayes: We must realize that it may take us some 25 years of struggle for our work to really begin to make its mark felt. More importantly, we must realize that the capitalist class is itself planning its next 25 years of terror.
When we look at the runaway inflation that the capitalist economy is experiencing, and the dying away of the American dollar, the ruling class’s response here is the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). And to make this all a reality, they will need to suspend any outstanding liberties we have. This is all a hell of a legacy to leave for our children. So it’s just as clear that we have a hell of a fight ahead of us.