"Just amuse me for old days' sake," said former Black Panther Ashanti Alston, after getting no response to his "Power to the people" greeting.
But Alston, 54, who now calls himself an "Anarchist Panther," hardly seemed to wallow in '60s nostalgia during his lecture May 17 before a packed room at Garfield's Thomas Merton Center. It was the third in the new Anarchist Speaker Series sponsored by Pittsburgh Organizing Group, which has already featured Vermont anarchist organizer Cindy Milstein and Spanish Civil War veteran George Sossenko.
"We lost," Alston said of '60s activists. "Let's not brag" about those times. "And the young folks do great work" as activists today.
Alston was a fresh teen-ager during the 1967 riots in his small town of Plainfield, N.J. (near Newark), that united the black community, he said.
"It's the power of a movement to awaken people who had to a large extent bought into an ideology that you wasn't shit. And now you were a child of God." Looting cases of M-1 rifles from a local plant was a bit empowering too, he admitted. "I saw carloads of liberated goods that the newspapers called stolen goods" being brought back to the community. "This was for me, 13 years old, needing images of strength, community -- it was right there." Just as importantly, he said, the community uprising turned him from an indifferent to a constant student in the streets, and later in the prisons. By his junior year of high school he was working in a local Black Panther office, helping to organize free food and medical clinics.
At 19, he went underground with the Black Liberation Army, whose aim was to break those they termed political prisoners out of jail. "We made some really good attempts."
But Alston eventually did more than 11 years in jail for armed robbery -- or "bank expropriation" as he called it by then -- emerging in 1985. The BLA's actions, members felt, were the culmination of a war that began with Europeans stealing slaves and material from Africa. "It was, like: 'We are going to return this'" to the black community
But he underwent a kind of personal revolution in prison. There, he said, he discovered "there's ways we can organize and face each other" rather than following orders from above. Revolution, he learned, "has to begin to touch those things that we never even considered a part of revolution -- love.
"What do we do when we get out?" of prison, he remembered asking himself. "We can't just do the same thing. Maybe we have to be guerillas, but ... we may just become killing machines, like our enemy. We might be warriors ... but warriors who love, who create a loving world."
Watching once-inspirational movements in other countries become as oppressive as those they replaced, Alston discovered his answer for this country. "The only ones who question representative democracy so vigorously are the anarchists," he said. "No one should represent you -- represent yourself.
"I want to recognize the dignity in the faces in front of me," Alston concluded. "That's my anarchism."
More than 50 people attended Alston's talk, and 230 have heard the three speakers so far, reported POG member Alex Bradley.
"I'm real interested in radical history," said Erok Boerer, who attended all three lectures so far. "It was amazing to see someone speak who lived it."
Added Jamie Shelton: "I know [Alston] has kept a real radical repertoire over the last few years. I feel like people get one area -- 'I was a Black Panther' -- and that was it. But this guy has been involved in a lot of stuff. They've gotten a lot of really great speakers."
Neither Shelton nor Boerer is a POG member, and that's not unusual at the events: "A third of the attendees are new faces we haven't seen at any of our events or protests before," said Bradley in an e-mail. "This is one step in anarchism coming out of the shadows to interact with Pittsburghers directly to make our case for a directly democratic, free society, to replace the hierarchy, domination and exploitation of today." And that's something, he adds, "that protests and direct actions, that will of course continue, are not best suited to do."
The Anarchist Speaker Series continues with Wayne Price talking about "The Abolition of the State: Anarchist and Marxist Perspectives," May 24, 2 p.m., Thomas Merton Center, 5125 Penn Ave., Garfield.