by Lumumba Akinwole-Bandele
August 24, 2013 will mark 10 years since the passing of former Panther and freedom fighter, Safiya Bukhari. As I reflect on her life I am reminded of some valuable lessons her life represents. Some of these lessons she articulated and others she exemplified. I thought my first introduction of Safiya was in the mid 90’s, but I was wrong. In 1995, a group of student and youth organizers came together to coordinate the Azabache organizers training conference. Azabache was designed to have organizers from the civil rights and Black power movement offer practical and applicable organizing lessons. As one of the coordinators, my task was to identify panelists and speakers. During this time period the name Mumia Abu Jamal, was becoming more visible in organizing circles and one of the people largely responsible for that was Safiya Bukhari. I invited Safiya to close out the conference as the speaker for the “Which Way Forward” segment. The conference coordinators were prepared to introduce a proposal to coordinate a campaign on police brutality, but Safiya Bukhari changed those plans. Her speech was a fiery history lesson and political education on the life and case of Mumia Abu Jamal and the desire of the State of Pennsylvania to execute him. She challenged us to do all we could to make sure he was not only removed from death row, but ultimately free. Most of those listening to her speech were soon active members of the Free Mumia Student/Youth Committee. This marked the beginning of my work to free political prisoners in the United States. I later found out from my father, Adeyemi Bandele, Safiya Bukhari had worked with him decades before while he was active in The East and the Black United Front. He called her BJ (short for Bernice Jones). She was one of many organizers that knew my family and knew me as a child.
Commitment and consistency!
I began to learn a lot about Safiya in the following years. I knew she was a former political prisoner, but until that time had not learned of the work she had done on women’s health while in prison and read some of her writings on organizational security and the role of women. Like most young organizers I was impressed not only with her commitment to her work, but with her ability to take her destiny in her own hands. In December of 1976 Safiya escaped from prison in Goochland, Virginia. This was a bad woman!
Shortly after the Azabache conference, I joined the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) where most of my political prisoner support work was based. Safiya was also a member of the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Afrika and actively pushed the principles of New Afrikan nationalism. She, along with former panther and current political prisoner Jalil Mauntaqim, and veteran organizer and educator Herman Ferguson co-founded the Jericho Amnesty Campaign. Jericho is a broad coalition of defense campaigns of political prisoners from around the country. This unification of these individual campaigns was a major part of Safiya’s vision of raising awareness of the existence of political prisoners in the US in order to ensure their freedom.
Years into the work to free Mumia and all political prisoners I became aware of Safiya’s health challenges. While Safiya’s health challenges increased, it seemed as if her work did as well. I remember speaking with her in passing and casually asking, how are you? She replied just as casually, “I’m ok, I need to take it easy”. At the time I did not know the extent of her health issues, but didn’t think they were life threatening. I began to hear of periods of hospitalization but couched that with my image of this bad, hard working woman who escaped from prison. She could beat anything. Weeks later she passed away. I often wonder how the culture of the movement may have contributed to her poor health. Hard work is expected and sacrifice is necessary, but time off to take care of yourself was foreign.
Currently I work as an organizer on the legal team of Mumia Abu Jamal and often think of how my work on political prisoners has come full circle. Had it not been for the fire, commitment, vision, and sacrifice of Safiya Bukhari, I would not be doing this work. Her lessons remain with me and I have no shame in taking time off to take care of my health and encouraging others to do the same. This is a protracted struggle and our physical, mental and spiritual health are needed to maximize our efforts an ensure victory.
Love and miss you Sister Saifya
Free em all!