Former Black Panthers members have grown, changed

When people learn that Denise Oliver-Velez and Ericka Huggins were once members of the Black Panther Party, their reactions are the same.

"People want to stick me in a box. 'Oh! You're the revolutionary!' As if that's the whole sum of who I am and as if I'm stuck in a time warp," said Oliver-Velez, who was a member of the Black Panthers and the Puerto Rican Young Lords.

"I'm not where I was in the 1960s — but I don't want to be. I don't want to be a walking caricature or cartoon of myself," she said.

Oliver-Velez and Huggins are among former members of the revolutionary activist groups who have traveled to Ashland this summer to watch the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of "Party People."

Part play and part musical event, "Party People" was crafted by UNIVERSES, an international ensemble of performers.

Members of the ensemble spent three years interviewing former Black Panther Party and Young Lords members, resulting in a play that fuses history with dance, gospel, 1960s songs and modern hip-hop.

Oliver-Velez said that for her, watching "Party People" was gut-wrenching.

The play doesn't shy away from the activist-versus-police violence that characterized the movements, and explores how Black Panther members tortured one of their comrades because they thought he was an informant. It also shows how the groups were targeted by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

"Being on the front line of that, it was difficult, and it broke our hearts," Huggins said.

As an 18-year-old in 1969, Huggins became the leader of a Los Angeles chapter of the Black Panther Party along with her husband. He was killed three weeks after the birth of their daughter.

Undeterred, Huggins went on to open a Black Panthers Party chapter in Connecticut. She was later arrested on conspiracy charges and spent two years in prison awaiting trial before the charges were dropped.

Huggins said she taught herself to meditate while in prison.

She has used that experience to teach meditation, yoga, relaxation and mindfulness in jails, prisons, schools, colleges and homes for foster kids, adopted children and pregnant teens.

Both Huggins and Oliver-Velez have made lives for themselves in academia while also continuing their activist work. They each branched out to work on AIDS/HIV issues as well.

During the height of the Black Panther and Young Lords movements, which had Marxist political components, the two turned their backs on religion.

"We were told religion is the opiate of the people," Oliver-Velez said.

In later years, the two — who didn't know each other before the "Party People" project — embraced spirituality, noting that religion has often sustained people of color.

They pointed to many leaders, from Sojourner Truth to Martin Luther King, Jr., who drew on their spirituality for strength.

"I'm not going to apologize for figuring out a way to heal," Oliver-Velez said. "Solutions are about healing."

She said many former Black Panther and Young Lords members suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder because of the violence of their younger lives.

The Black Panthers, with their black jackets and berets and penchant for carrying loaded weapons in public, were the most notorious. The Young Lords were also viewed as violent by mainstream society and sported their own berets and weapons.

But Huggins and Oliver-Velez said the movements also focused on a broad range of social, medical and educational projects.

Oliver-Velez said she didn't join the Young Lords to wear a jacket and a beret, but to instead help people in their communities.

She remembers one community that suffered because sanitation workers wouldn't visit minority neighborhoods to pick up trash, leading to wretched, filthy conditions there.

"People's children would have roaches in their ears and their kids would have rat bites," Oliver-Velez said, adding that babies had to be protected with screens.

She and her fellow activists cleaned up the garbage and bagged it. When sanitation workers still wouldn't come to take away the trash, the activists grew frustrated, threw the garbage in the street and set it on fire.

For her part, Huggins — who had wanted to become a teacher since childhood — served as the director of the Oakland Community School, which was founded by the Black Panther Party.

Women in the civil rights movement not only had to contend with racism, they also had to deal with sexism within the activist groups themselves.

Huggins recalled arriving in Oakland and preparing for a meal with members of a Black Panther chapter.

"A person came in and said, 'The brothers eat first,'" she recalled, noting that the women had prepared the food.

Women in the party wrote many memoranda to leaders about how they were being treated as second-class citizens within the movement, Huggins said.

Looking at the many changes that have taken place in America since then, but also at the lingering racism, sexism, agism and homophobia, Huggins said a society — just like a massive cargo-carrying barge — takes a long time to turn.

"What I know is, we didn't fail," she said.

As she continues on with new forms of activism, Huggins said she tries to stay aware of the accomplishments of her ancestors.

She sometimes finds herself talking to her heroes from the past, such as Harriet Tubman, who rescued more than 70 people from slavery via the Underground Railroad.

"I feel she tells me, 'You kept going. You kept walking,' " Huggins said. "I know it's important to keep walking."

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or

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