A close-up look at former Black Panther leader Ericka Huggins

By Adina Pernell

Sonya Shah, an associate professor of the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS), spoke with former Black Panther leader Ericka Huggins on Sept. 8 in a candid, intimate conversation about her unique perspective on activism as a former Black Panther Party member.

The evening was made possible by CIIS Associate Director Laura Reddick’s collaboration with Joshua Sheridan Fouts, the executive director at Bioneers. Bioneers is a non-profit organization dedicated to sustainability and creating space for social activism.

As I entered the modern space of CIIS, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I just knew I was privileged to share space with Ericka Huggins among a crowd of people seeking a new kind of revolution—a more peaceful form of radicalism that comes from within.

Shah asked Huggins what things were like during the Black Panther’s heyday when she and her husband led the Los Angeles chapter.

“It was like right now, but with less awareness,” Huggins said. She expressed that between ’60s movements and movements like Black Lives Matter, there is more open dialogue now about racism in America.

Even so, she wanted to be clear the Black Panther Party did not exist only for Black rights.

“We were Black people, but it was a human rights movement. It wasn’t gendered,” Huggins continued, musing on her own empowered role within the organization.
Huggins credited a photo essay documenting police brutality against Black Panther co-founder Huey Newton as an impetus for her and her husband John Huggins’ departures from the historically black Lincoln University and their entrance into the Black Panther Party.

“The pull was strong,” Huggins said.

I sat back and tried to imagine their hope and need to make a difference, mingled with a very real fear of being killed. Images of young African Americans with large afros and fists held defiantly in the air flooded my mind.

They were youths I could identify with as a student and an African American who lives during a time when headlines of murdered young Black and Brown people are commonplace.

The sadness in Huggins’ eyes was telling as she calmly discussed the murder of her husband on Jan. 17, 1969, her subsequent two-year imprisonment and separation from her infant daughter.

I was amazed by her serene acceptance of the events that tore her life apart. She largely credits her time in prison as the reason why she embraces meditation and mindfulness practices.

She was placed in solitary confinement and not allowed to associate with other prisoners because her words were considered inflammatory. Even then, she was able to laugh a lot and recognize her light-heartedness.

“Isn’t it ridiculous that my words were considered contraband?” Huggins said with a laugh. “There are many words that are still considered contraband.”

I thought about Black Lives Matter, a movement Huggins wholly supports, and couldn’t help but think of the controversy over those three simple words.

Huggins currently works in prisons to facilitate restorative justice, a process in which perpetrators of crimes seek reconciliation with their victims. The emphasis is more on mutual healing than absolution.

“We are all connected,” Huggins said.

The event closed appropriately with a silent meditation.