Last time Elaine Brown was in Santa Barbara, a bank burned down.
"It’s been a long time," she said to a nearly full Corwin Pavilion on Tuesday night. Brown, the first and only woman to lead the Black Panther Party, said she remembers the 1970 burning of the Isla Vista Bank of America and the spirit behind those student protests.
"That’s what I remember about UC Santa Barbara. That’s sort of what I remember about America at the time – we were pretty much angry about capitalism and racism and all those things," she said.
In 1974, four years after the bank burning, Brown took over as leader of the Black Panther Party – a militant black political organization dedicated to a more equal America. Now, 31 years later and back in Santa Barbara, she said nothing much has changed.
"We really haven’t moved forward in any meaningful way," she said. "Some individuals have benefited from some of the struggles, but in general our people are a third-world colony and are repressed in this country."
The problems, Brown said, are many: poverty, a high incarceration rate and a lack of access to education. There is "no control," she said, "over the things that affect our lives."
In the way of the solution stands an American public that wants not to talk about it, to move on, to "get over it," Brown said. But "in order to turn that page," she said, "we have to write that page."
Writing that page, for Brown, means looking more closely at the founding of the United States and the market economy, fueled by slavery, that led to its creation. It means examining the slavery practices of founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson, who in his only book, Notes on the State of Virginia, wrote about what he saw as the inferiority of black people. It means looking at Abraham Lincoln, who Brown said did not intend to free slaves, and who, in debates with Stephen Douglas, asserted the superiority of whites.
It took 100 years for the rights guaranteed by the 13th Amendment, passed right after the Civil War, to be put into law by the Civil Rights Act. Even with that act, Brown said, four centuries of market capitalism continue to exact a toll on African-Americans – a toll she said would be eased by government reparations and solved by a socialist revolution.
The Black Panther Party fought for socialism in the 1960s, side by side with leaders like Martin Luther King Jr.
"In 1968, what was Martin Luther King doing? He was organizing the poor people’s campaign," Brown said. "Redistribution of wealth, that vision of his – of ours – was lost [when King was shot]. We’ve been backsliding a lot since then."
Brown has spent the last 30 years of her life fighting for that vision.
"She is literally, for me, a historical figure," Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Michael Young said. "She represents a piece of my own personal history, and personal struggles, of philosophy, commitment, integrity, values and conscience."
"I think she’s so inspirational," said Tara Atherley, a junior black studies and sociology major. "It’s been 30 years, and she’s still fighting for the cause."