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The Nightmare Overhead and the Sun Below

Ashanti Alston
Date Published: 
April 01, 2007
    Editor’s note: As we begin a new year, Ashanti Alston reflects on where we’ve been and where we need to go. His musings suggest the power of dreaming even in the face of constant repression.

A new year but an old refrain: we still ain’t free.

Greetings folks. I hope you don’t mind my sharing a few words. A few comments on the state of things according to the gospel of saint Ashanti of Far Rockaway, New York. 2007 greeted us before we even had time to open the door. I think the Bell rang something like 50 times. We, like usual, got up a little groggy. Partied a little too much, enjoying the festivities, you know. Get up, getup-getup-getup… Sean Bell, lawd have mercy. Black people, my people, what we gonna do now?

On November 25, 2006, Sean Bell, a Black 23-year-old, was shot and killed by plainclothes NYPD cops when they fired 50 times at him and his friends on his wedding day. The first officer to fire was Black. The incident has sparked community outrage and public demonstrations. The five cops involved in the shooting are on paid administrative leave and have been stripped of their weapons.

So many of us nationalists and plain old revolutionaries really thought—hoped and prayed—that Hurricane Katrina would do the trick. You know, create the magic that would transform us into solid freedom fighting armies heading for the towers of white supremacist power. But it was not to be and Katrina was as major an event as you can get to kick any people out of apathy, despair, and despondency. I mean, if only ‘cause there ain’t seemingly no other way to go but back to revolution, baby.

We still ain’t free and we still must struggle, no question. Even if it seems to be just a few of us die-hards, someone’s gotta keep dreaming, keep the flame burning for more than just lighting another cigarette on a ice cold winter corner. The American neo-liberal empire has got to go. It is literally killing us in every conceivable way. That’s what it feels like, too, especially for us die-hards for the dream of being free in this god-forsaken land.

Black power, Black revolution

A lot has happened in the last 30-35 years in our communities. You can look at it as what happens when “the revolution” is defeated or what happens when you make a gallant attempt to radically change the order of your people’s lives but fall short, or are cut short, by the forces of racist domestic colonialism. The dreaming and the dreamers, the heroic fighters known and unknown, dead and still imprisoned—these are the casualties, the collateral damage. Yet, for the survivors, we must continue to struggle.

Black power and revolution, once thought crazy and futile, return once again as we face empire-building with the prison industrial complex, non-profit industrial complex and other forces of containment. How can we not continue that struggle whose message is ultimately one of complete self-determination and dignity for all people? These days we are just trying to get a lil’ bit of that pie, so contrary to the late ‘60s and early ‘70s when we were coming to the strong conclusion that we didn’t even want that damn pie. Like Malcolm would say: we want some freedom, not some American pie.

Through three decades of defeat there has been a silence—an enforced silence. This is a silence that you have to learn, that has to be enforced daily in a thousand ways, formal and informal. It is a silence that comes down from those powerful terrorists in government and the corporate world who conspired and enacted our defeat. Their direct and subtle orders are to pass the silence down until every man, woman, and child gets the message. Like they told the MOVE organization when the mayor ordered the bombing of their homes (resulting in the murders of 11 MOVE men, women, children): “ATTENTION, MOVE—THIS IS AMERICA. You will not be free or act in any way that even faintly resembles freedom.” We live through defeat and death and “no.” And when they allow us a “yes” it is with an “opportunity” to join their forces in politics, business (including the underground drug economy), and war. It is the opportunity to become Good Americans.

On January 23, 2007, eight former Black Panthers were arrested on charges related to the killing of a cop in San Francisco in 1971. Two of the men charged are political prisoners who have been imprisoned for more than 30 years. The charges, including murder and conspiracy, were originally tossed out of court when a judge found that two of the co-defendants’ confessions came as a result of multiple days of torture at the hands of New Orleans police. The eight men, ranging in age from 55 to 70 years old, are currently being held in California, New York, and Florida. Four of the eight men were called before a grand jury in 2004, but were released. Those four, and another, John Bowman, who is now deceased, formed the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights and embarked on a speaking tour to expose the torture the experienced in police custody. For more information on this case, see

Through three decades, integration into the American way has meant our continuing destruction. Forget the destruction of our institutions, it is the destruction of our freedom dreams, the discouragement of our acts of dreaming, and of course of the act(ion) required to be free. We have been enticed to walk hypnotically into the ranks of America Rising in some kind of uneasy truce with average white Americans who hate us. To protect democracy? The vote? For opportunity or the Christian way? It is not the loss of historical memory but the rejection of that memory that causes too much inner, spiritual tension, emotional unease and social despair.

From Black Power to All Power to the People of the Black Panther Party, it was the vision, the dreaming of Black people from our position in this racist society that gave our activism new import. It was being locked on the bottom rung of society that gave our unique perspective on the real American way legitimacy and relevancy. For the most part we just wanted to be free and to live dignified lives in community with other freedom loving people. We, like most folks around the world, just wanted to do honest work and feel the dignity of governing our own collective affairs, locally, maybe even regionally and beyond.

Black dreams

Being Black in the US means that every day you are reminded that you are a nigger. But being Black with a dream and armed with determination means that the revolution is still on. It means that today we still have to figure out ways of organizing to stop or slow down our genocide while taking time to boost our dignity, recover and reconstruct our history(-ies), and reach out for mutually reaching hands of those who heard our cries and for whose cries we heard. Being Black and revolutionary means that some of us will stay above insanity while still reaching out and organizing those of our folks who see no alternative to engaging in the underground economy, drive-by shootings, robberies of their own folks, or just plain becoming anti-social out of overwhelming frustration with American “no’s”, denials, refusals, and dismissals from dignified life’s essentials. Our struggle sometimes gives our words and activities the appearance of extreme desperation, framing us in the eyes of even our loved ones as crazy. This feeling sometimes carries over to potential allies who see us the same way.

As we are approached by potential white allies, we look quickly for signs of a John Brown ally. We look for those who have not come to tell us how to fight and what to do, but who come to help because they see that our freedom is tied to their own; that their privilege means something, their different upbringing means different perspectives and ways of doing and reacting and desiring things. Those allies acknowledge that their ability to be seen as an American since day one means their habits are like thick cables that are hard to cut, the same way that the self-hatred that racist America ingrained in us is still there in even the most nationalist revolutionary. So, when we say that you just don’t get it and that we ain’t got time to teach or train you, it is because your self-determination is tied to ours. Initiative to be a righteous ally in the fight must come from your own efforts. Mindsets of myth and stereotype are hard to get rid of. It will be really hard to accept that Black folks know how to conduct their own struggles, and how to think theoretically, and how to plan intelligently, and ultimately how to govern our own lives with dignity and power.

Yeah, there is a nightmare overhead, but we are the sun down below. They are death, we are life. They are the enforcers, we—we’re gonna figure it out face-to-face through real forms of democracy of self-determining peoples.

Power through the people

The two-leggeds

The four-leggeds

The winged ones

The rock people

The wind spirits

The water spirits

The Ancestors


And power to those who care and dare…

Ashanti Alston is a former member of the Black Panther Party and an ex-political prisoner. Through his zine, “Anarchist Panther,” and his public speaking, he has been an important voice on the Panthers and the history of Black Nationalist movements. Ashanti recently spent six months in Chiapas studying the autonomous structure of Zapatista communities and writing his memoirs.