From student to Black Panther, from writer and teacher to jailbreaker, Safiya Bukhari lived life to the end.
Safiya Bukhari, political-prisoner-rights activist and radio journalist, passed away due to illness on Aug. 24. She was 53 years old. Bukhari, a former member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army, was a major force in the emergence of the movement to free American political prisoners. She served as co-chair of the Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Coalition in New York City, and was a founding member of the Jericho Movement, an organization that does support work for political prisoners and prisoners of war.
“The loss of Safiya is irreparable,” read a statement released by the Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Coalition “A deep-thinking and brilliant sister, a grassroots organizer, a political strategist and a unifier around principled positions, Safiya was and is irreplaceable, particularly in the movement to free our political prisoners.”
Activism & Repression in the 1960s
Bukhari’s activism began when she pledged the sorority Eta Alpha Mu at New York City Community College (now New York Technical College.) As part of her community service the sorority investigated hungry children in New York City. This investigation introduced her to members of the Black Panther Party in Harlem, and she began working with the Panthers’ breakfast program as well as their liberation school.
“It was nothing the Black Panther Party did or said that made me become a Panther. It was the actions of the police department in New York City that made me join the Black Panther Party,” Bukhari said in a 1996 interview with The Shield magazine. In addition to working with children, Bukhari also edited Panther literature.
In 1969, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover declared the Black Panther Party to be “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”
Under the auspices of local police departments, the federal government launched the Counter-intelligence program or COINTELPRO aimed at destabilizing radical groups, most notably the Panthers. In this period, more than two dozen Panthers were killed by the police, including 21-year-old Fred Hampton, who was shot in his bed by Chicago police.
The Black Liberation Army
In New York, the entire Panther leadership was arrested on charges of conspiracy. The “Panther 21,” as they were known, were held on $100,000 bail each. The conspiracy trial and subsequent effort to raise bail strained the party in New York. Money designated for breakfast programs now had to go to bail and lawyers’ fees.
COINTELPRO also had an effect on the political life of the Panthers. In 1971, a spilt occurred between Panther Minister of Defense Huey Newton and Minister of Information Eldridge Cleaver, with the majority of the East Coast Panthers supporting Cleaver. As a result, the Panther 21 were expelled from the Panthers’ national organization headquartered in Oakland.
Facing internal strife and continued harassment by law enforcement, many Panthers went underground and formed an armed wing called the Black Liberation Army.
Bukhari, still in New York at the time, became secretary of the East Coast Communications Branch of the Panthers and edited the BLA newspaper Right On. She was involved in several attempts to free BLA prisoners, which led to her going underground.
Bukhari was captured in 1973 along with Masai Ehehosi. Both Bukhari and Ehehosi declared themselves Prisoners of war, and proclaimed that the government had no jurisdiction over them because they were not citizens of the United States.
Bukhari at one point escaped from prison, but was recaptured in 1975 and sentenced to nine years.
Political Prisoner Support
When released from prison in 1983, Bukhari threw herself into the work of supporting political prisoners. Tirelessly she followed appeals and the health status of prisoners.
In 1998 she co-chaired the historic Jericho march for Political Prisoners and Prisoners of War in Washington, D.C. Ten thousand demonstrators attended, making it the largest support rally for political prisoners in this era. The event attracted great attention to many political prisoners.
In recent years, many political prisoners have been released including Geronimo Pratt, Laura Whitehorn, Kathy Boudin and members of the Armed Forces for National Liberation (a pro-independence Puerto Rican group, known by their Spanish initials FALN) received presidential pardons.
Bukhari also worked as a radio journalist, co-hosting the program “Where We Live” on WBAI. With co-host Sally O’Brien, she sang as a member of the group Love and Struggle, performing benefits for prisoners and their families. In recent years she embraced Islam.
Bukhari is survived by children, grandchildren, and a host of political prisoners and comrades who cherished her work.