Bobby Seale: The Eighth Man

Black Panther-turned-barbecue master Bobby Seale talks about what's worth re-creating from the 1968 DNC.

Bobby Seale, a co-founder of the Black Panther Party, was one of the original Chicago 8 defendants charged with conspiracy and inciting a riot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The trial was one of the most divisive and chaotic in history, partly because Seale's frequent outbursts prompted the judge to have him bound and gagged in the courtroom. Eventually, Seale's case was severed from the others, and the charges were ultimately dropped after a mistrial.

That left just the Chicago 7: Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Dave Dellinger, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Tom Hayden and Lee Weiner. Hoffman, Rubin and Dellinger are dead, while Froines and Weiner have since developed professional lives away from politics. Hayden, who went on to marry Jane Fonda and become a California state senator, is now an author and activist. Davis lives in Longmont, where he runs a transcendental meditation organization (he declined Westword's request to be interviewed for this story).

But Seale, who lived in Denver for a time in the '80s and now lives in Oakland, California, had a lot to say about his experiences at the 1968 DNC. And about barbecue. — Maher

Bobby Seale circa '68.
Bobby Seale circa '68.

How much were you involved in the planning of the protests?

I had nothing to do with the planning. I was only invited. Actually, I wasn't even invited to speak. It was Eldridge Cleaver who had been invited to speak as a representative of the Black Panther Party. But Eldridge could not leave California. His parole officer would not let him leave the state. So I got some airplane tickets, got a couple of bodyguards, jumped on the airplane, armed our pistols under our coats and met some Chicago Panthers out there at the airport.

Where did you go from there?

We drove to Grant Park and met with Dave Dellinger and Jerry Rubin. Maybe 900 people were sitting down on the ground. I spoke ten, fifteen minutes. And all I said is that if [the police] attack, you have a right to defend yourself. Because that was the principles and policies of the Black Panther Party. I spoke again the next day, too.

What did the crowds look like?

More than half the people, as I remember, were dressed in suits and ties. So they were convention delegates or connected to the convention somehow. The other half was all of the yippie/hippie anti-war protest buddies, SDS and other people. We were in coalition with SDS and a lot of other white radical organizations. But we crossed racial lines in terms of our coalition.

When I got through speaking, me and my bodyguards and other party members left, got in a couple of cars and drove to the airport, and I came back to Oakland. So I didn't organize it. That was my participation. So later on, when I was put on trial for a so-called conspiracy to use interstate transportation to cause a riot, it was complete crap.

Before the convention, did you have any idea the protests were going to be so legendary?

I wasn't even paying attention. I had a big organization; I was traveling all over the country. So lots of things were happening. Earlier that year, Martin Luther King was killed. Bobby Kennedy was killed. So this sense of what was going to happen, I didn't really get it. I looked up one day, and I guess I saw the news before I went out there of the protesters getting the hell beat out of them by police. Two or three days later, I was out there speaking. And it was just another event to do. And I left and went back to Oakland. A couple days later, I was down in Los Angeles doing something else.

The Recreate '68 group in Denver wants to organize protests for next year's DNC. Do you see any parallels between 2008 and forty years ago?

Only that there's an unnecessary war going on. To me, they should be protesting the Republicans more than the Democrats. One of my best friends in the U.S. Congress is [Democratic] Congresswoman Barbara Lee. She worked with the Black Panther Party for five or six years. I know that she and several others in the Congressional Black Caucus, they're against this dumb-ass war. So I don't see the Democratic Party, at this particular time, as being an overt rubber stamp on this war as the Democratic Party was in 1968. Under Lyndon Johnson and others, the Democratic Party wasn't that far out front.

So is it possible to re-create an event like that?

I doubt it. Nothing ever stays exactly the same. I don't see history repeating itself. Now, it may be good protest fodder and consciousness-raising to be there. But the real protest needs to be where the Republican convention is going to be held. But if they're talking about re-creating the large coalition-support framework, I think they're going to get some of that. Still, if they say they're going to make it like 1968, how are they going to do that? Because, really, one of the negative characteristics of 1968 is that police beat the heads of the protesters. So I hope they don't mean they want to re-create that.

They say they don't.

Well, you've got anarchist groups. They may be in the coalition. They may want to do some dumb shit. If groups go out there and provoke something, then they're wrong, I say. But what you've really got to watch out for is if the cities and police are instituting policies that go against constitutional rights of free speech and assembly as a way to silence protesters. That's where it's going to come from these days.

Speaking of these days, what are you up to?

I'm trying to raise money for youth job projects here in Oakland. I wrote a barbecue cookbook for that purpose in Philadelphia. As a young man, I was very lucky to grow up getting trained in mathematics and engineering. But I also happen to know how to cook barbecue. If I could get a cooking show off the ground, a television series, my objective is to sell a few million books. Then I could get a few million dollars into this non-profit entity that could promote ten million youth jobs as it relates to the environment. That's how we cut down on crime better than some war-on-drugs bullshit.

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