[Ppnews] Former Black Panther patches together purpose in Africa exile
Political Prisoner News
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Sun Jan 29 17:40:17 EST 2012
Former Black Panther patches together purpose in Africa exile
In America, Pete O'Neal was an angry man, an
ex-con who found a kind of religion in 1960s
black nationalism. In a Tanzania village, he's been a champion of children.
By Christopher Goffard, Los Angeles Times
January 29, 2012
Reporting from Imbaseni, Tanzania -- The fugitive
shuffles to his computer and begins typing out
his will. He is about to turn 71, and it is time.
"My life," he writes, "has been a wild and wicked ride...."
All Pete O'Neal has amassed fits on two pages: A
small brick home with a sheet-metal roof. A few
road-beaten vehicles. A cluster of bunkhouses and
classrooms he spent decades building, brick by
scavenged brick, near the slopes of Mt. Meru's
volcanic cone. Everything will go to his wife of
42 years, Charlotte, and to a few trusted workers.
He prints out the will late one Saturday morning
and settles into his reclining chair to check the
spelling. He signs his name. Then, to guarantee
its authenticity, he finds an ink pad, rolls his
thumb across it, and affixes his thumbprint to the bottom of the page.
"I think that'll do it," he says.
When last he walked America's streets, O'Neal was
a magnetic young man possessed of bottomless
anger. He was an ex-con who'd found a kind of
religion in late-'60s black nationalism, a vain,
violent street hustler reborn in a Black Panther
uniform of dark sunglasses, beret and leather
jacket. With pitiless, knife-sharp diction, he
spoke of sending police to their graves.
This morning, he sits in his living room
uncapping medicine bottles. A pill for high blood
pressure. Another for the pain in his back and
his bad knee. An aspirin to thin his blood. Time
is catching him, like the lions that pursue him
implacably through his nightmares, their leashes held by policemen.
He pushes through his screen door into the brisk
morning air. A slightly stooped, thickset man
with long, graying dreadlocks, he moves
unsteadily down the irregular stone steps he
built into the sloping dirt. He makes his way
past the enormous avocado tree, past the horse
barn with its single slow-footed tenant, Bullet,
past the shaded dining pavilion.
His four-acre compound bustles with visitors,
many of them preparing for a memorial service for
Geronimo Pratt, a former Panther who died in his
farmhouse down the road, his affairs untidy, his
will unfinished, his death a sharp message to
O'Neal not to put off the paperwork any longer.
Most of O'Neal's big dreams have faded over the
years, or come to feel silly. Like beating the
42-year-old federal gun charges that caused him
to flee the United States. Like the global
socialist revolution that he was supposed to help
lead. Like returning home to the streets of his
Midwestern childhood. Like winning citizenship in
his adopted African country, and the prize that's
eluded him on two continents: the feeling of belonging somewhere.
This is what's left: the shell of a 20-year-old
Toyota Coaster bus that bulks before him in a
clearing. It's a stripped-and-gutted 29-seater
that he bought for $11,500 after years of
squirreling away money. It came with dents, a
cracked windshield, a peeling paint job, rotting floorboards, frayed seats.
Still, it seemed like a good deal until he found
the engine had to be replaced, costing an
additional $4,000. He's hired mechanics and
craftsmen to rebuild the bus nearly from the
chassis up, and a few of them are milling around
now, informing him in Swahili of their progress.
He rarely leaves home anymore. Crowds jangle his
nerves; traffic makes his hands shake. Yet
nothing feels more urgent than readying this bus
for an improbable 300-mile trip to the edge of his adopted continent.
A group of American high school students, mostly
white, is gathering in the dining pavilion.
They've been coming by the busload for years,
many drawn by the intrigue of staying with a
former Panther. They pay him $30 a night for a
bunk. The money together with sporadic
donations from sympathetic friends here and abroad pays the bills.
The students pause before the big poster
featuring O'Neal as a fierce young militant,
rifle in arms, Charlotte at his side. It's hard
to reconcile that image with the grandfatherly
host who greets them in Swahili as if they were
old friends, booming, "Karibu!" Welcome!
He asks where they're from. A girl says Missouri,
which happens to be his home state, and he hugs
her theatrically. Everyone laughs. "All of you
are welcome," he says, "even if you're from strange places."
He plants them before documentary footage about
his life. It's easier than explaining the whole
story himself. Where would he start? His
childhood in segregated Kansas City, Mo., where
the amusement park admitted black kids once a
year, a day so cherished that they went in their
Sunday best? Should he start with the stabbings
and shootings in the projects where he grew up?
"I lived in the streets," he says. "I didn't have time to be happy."
After one arrest, he was given a stark choice:
reform school or the armed services. The Navy
threw him out after he plunged a butcher knife
into another sailor's chest over an insult,
nearly killing him. He drifted in and out of
lockup. He pimped girls in three states. He wore
$300 Italian suits and a blond wave in his processed hair.
To the FBI, the Panthers were homegrown
terrorists who romanticized lawbreaking with
overheated Marxist rhetoric. To O'Neal, who
founded the Kansas City chapter of the party in
early 1969, it represented a lifeline out of an
abyss of drugs and aimlessness. He blazed with
purpose: End racism and class inequality, fast.
"I would like very much to shoot my way into the
House of Representatives," he declared in a
televised interview, angry at a congressman who
was investigating the Panthers. Pressed to
clarify, he added: "I mean it literally."
He stormed into a Senate subcommittee hearing in
Washington, screaming accusations that the Kansas
City police chief was funneling weapons to white supremacist groups.
Shortly afterward, a federal judge sentenced him
to a four-year prison term on a conviction of
transporting a shotgun across state lines. Out on
bail, he decided to run. He and Charlotte fled in
1970 to Sweden, then to Algeria, and finally, in
late 1972, to Tanzania, whose socialist
government welcomed left-wing militants.
The O'Neals had $700. After a few years they
bought a patch of inhospitable brush and volcanic
rock in Imbaseni, a cobra-infested village of
thatched-roof shacks in the country's remote
northern interior. They were up before dawn,
dancing with Al Jarreau on the tape deck,
gathering locals for the day's work. Their two
young African-born children, Malcolm and Stormy,
carried bricks and water buckets.
Soon they had four walls, a roof, and little
else. Plastic hung over the windows. No toilets
Soon they had four walls, a roof, and little
else. Plastic hung over the windows. No toilets.
It was the back-to-Africa experience so many
black Americans talked about, minus the option of
escape. They learned to grow corn and raise
chickens. He jarred pickle relish, smoked
sausages and bottled barbecue sauce for sale to local shops.
His temper was thunderous. When he heard
something in Swahili that sounded offensive
such as wa-negro, a neutral description of black
Americans implying no malice he would scream, ready to fight.
"We were cowboys then," says Ikaweba Bunting, 63,
a Compton-raised college professor who arrived in
Tanzania in the 1970s and stayed for years. "We
were big and hard-walking and hard-talking, and
ready to beat people up the whole street culture."
Exile was supposed to be temporary. O'Neal
corresponded with other Panthers and planned to
return home to help lead the revolution. He
watched from abroad as the party collapsed from
infighting, arrests and an FBI campaign of
surveillance and sabotage. People stopped talking
about revolution. Radicals found new lives.
O'Neal's exile became permanent. His fury abated.
Some of it was age. Some of it was Tanzania,
where strangers always materialized to push your
Land Rover out of the mud, and where conflicts
were resolved in community meetings in which
everyone got to speak, interminably.
"It is so laid back, so reasonable, that to be
otherwise makes you look, even to yourself, like a damn fool," O'Neal says.
Around that first crude brick structure, the
fugitive improvised a little island of hope. He
built a small recording studio for musicians and
a workshop for artists. He gathered castoff
computers and invited locals to come learn. He
sank a well and opened the spigot to the village.
It was, as he saw it, in the spirit of the free
breakfast program he'd run as a Panther.
"He's had a chance to grow in a way that very few
people get here," says his brother Brian O'Neal, 58, who lives in Kansas City.
Had he stayed in the States, Pete O'Neal
believes, he'd be long dead from a shootout or street fight.
If exile saved him, it has also meant a life in
which the sense of being a stranger never goes away.
"There's always a feeling of not being completely
part of this culture. I know I am of a different
tribe," he says. "People like me here, they love
me, but I'm always other than."
Back in his house, he relaxes with a few shots of
Jim Beam. He keeps a shotgun for snakes and a
wall full of books. In mock-stentorian tones, he
ridicules his early blood-soaked rhetoric. He
puts a hand over his face, like an actor reminded
of an embarrassing role, and says, "That was a
man who was trying to find himself. He was trying
to shed his skin, and emerge brand-new. I think he overstated and overacted."
For his radicalism itself, however, he won't
apologize, even if as he suspects it is the
one thing that might gain him safe entry back into the States.
"They will never convince me in my life," he
says, "that what I was doing wasn't right."
A few years back, an ambition seized him. The
village had scores of destitute children, orphans
from dirt-floor shacks and subsistence farms. He
collected donations and built a concrete-block
bunkhouse down near his tomato and pepper garden.
He spread word that he had room for a few kids.
More than 100 appeared at his door, many
shoeless. He had to send the majority away. The
most desperate, a couple dozen, he informally adopted.
Now, they roam his grounds in lively packs,
playing four square on the basketball court. They
sleep in rows under malaria nets. Volunteers and
a few staff members watch over the children and
give them English and computer classes.
They call him Babu. Grandfather.
How big is the ocean?
So big you can't see across it.
So big you can go for weeks and never see land.
He shows them a globe.
See how much more ocean there is than land?
So is it bigger than Tanzania?
The American high school students have questions,
so he takes a seat before them. It's late, and
he's weary, but this is his living. They want to
know what country he belongs to, exactly.
He has no passport, he explains, and the
Tanzanian government has rebuffed his efforts to
become a citizen. "I'm not sure where the hell I
belong at this particular point," he tells the students.
For years, he sought a way home. He found
American lawyers willing to work for free to
fight the gun charges. He would like to see his
91-year-old mother in Kansas City one last time.
His longing for the States comes at funny
moments, as when he sees shrimp sailing through
the air in Red Lobster commercials. He still
dreams about the Kansas City he knew as a child,
the bakeries and the public swimming pool and the
ladies with their hats. But the city seems wrong,
somehow, becoming weirdly unrecognizable.
In other dreams, he finds himself fleeing from
things he can't see or name, urging his wife, "Charlotte, you gotta run!"
He regards his complex of bunkhouses, workshops
and classrooms as "socialism in microcosm," he
tells the students, though doctrinaire Marxism
left him disillusioned. People, he concluded, are basically selfish.
Have his views on violence changed?
"I don't have the particular type of courage that
would allow me to turn the other cheek."
One fresh-faced girl says she's been in Tanzania
a week, and thinks it might be neat to move here. Does he recommend it?
Patiently, he replies: "It ain't that kind of party."
Of late, he tells the students, he's been haunted
by the deaths of other exiled Panthers. One died
in France last February, another in Zambia in October.
Then there was his close friend Elmer "Geronimo"
Pratt, the Panthers' former field marshal, who
spent 27 years behind bars on a murder conviction
before a California judge overturned it.
In 2002, Pratt bought a big farmhouse nearby with
his false-imprisonment settlement, and O'Neal
felt as though he'd rediscovered a lost brother.
They drove through the village listening to
Richard Pryor CDs, laughing until they wheezed
and tears rolled down their cheeks.
Pratt was hospitalized with high blood pressure
in May. He hated any confinement. He pulled out
his IVs and went home. Days later, O'Neal found
him on his side, dead in bed, just 63. His memorial would be tomorrow.
"People are dropping, man," he tells the
students. He doesn't say that his thoughts were
circling his own mortality so relentlessly that
he couldn't sleep last night, and climbed out of
bed to tally up what he would leave behind.
Hundreds gather for Pratt's memorial service.
O'Neal sits on the stage under the avocado tree
and tells a few stories about their friendship:
How Pratt always told him his toes were ugly. How
they joked endlessly about who was the bigger hayseed.
Amid the prayers and the singing and the
tributes, he manages to steal away for a few
moments to inspect the bus. The seats are lined
up in the dirt, ready to be scrubbed and resewn.
The windows are taped up so the painting can
begin. Panther colors: black and light blue.
He remembers discovering the ocean.
He was in his late teens, a heartland kid who
believed his fearful precinct of Kansas City was
the absolute center of the world, its ugliness
and bigotry a true picture of the world. It is
why, to his mind, violent revolution looked logical and inevitable.
Then he arrived in California to report for duty
in the Navy, and turned his head and saw the
Pacific. His breath was caught short by the
immensity of it, all that blue stretching out
into other lands, other stories. It was the start
of a decades-long lesson that the world is
bigger, more complicated and interesting than his
little plot of bitter experience had led him to suspect.
His orphans have never left this inland region of
cornfields and malarial swamps. They've never
tasted salt water, or felt hot beach sand between their toes.
"They have no idea no idea what the ocean is," he says.
Nights and weekends, they pile into his living
room and watch documentaries about sea life. He
tells them about whales, giant squid, blind fish
in the lightless deep. He regales them with shark stories.
Will they eat me?
If they're hungry enough, they'll try.
Because they don't like me?
No, it's the natural order of things.
Now and then he indulges in what he calls "Kansas
City exaggeration," and even the majestic sea
gets some burnishing. The sharks in his stories grow bigger than houses.
The kids study the TV. The sharks don't look that big.
OK. But they do have sharks bigger than that car.
The 29-seater is ready by late summer. The engine
has been replaced, the dents in the body hammered
out. The exterior has been sanded and smoothed,
primed and painted, with a Panther emblem
emblazoned beneath the big front window.
One day soon, he hopes to take the children
southeast across the country to the Swahili
Coast, with its coral reefs and pale sand and
bright-painted old dhows. He planned to do it
over Christmas, but a new pill regimen left him enervated. And money was short.
He'll need $2,000 for diesel fuel, food, tents.
He hates to beg, but he believes the trip will be
the culmination of every good instinct he's ever
had "The highest point in my life," he says
and he's calling in every favor.
His blood pressure, alarmingly high, keeps
reminding him to be quick. "I could hear Geronimo
say, 'We got a place reserved for you, come on
down and keep me company.'" He told his friend no. Not yet.
In his sleep, the lions give chase. In the
morning, he stands dreaming before the bus.
They're running into the Indian Ocean, a man
without a country surrounded by children who have
barely seen theirs. He gives them the gift of an
enlarged world, before his ends.
christopher.goffard at latimes.com
Copyright © 2012, <http://www.latimes.com/>Los Angeles Times
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
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