By JR Valrey
Born from the mud of West Oakland, California’s Black working class community, the Black Panther Party has transformed the world’s thinking about the pragmatic concept of a Black led revolution in the United States, and nearly 60 years after its founding, it still continues to be studied, emulated, celebrated, but never duplicated.
Many times, when we read or hear the stories from Black Panther history we hear about the legendary male Panthers like the Minister of Defense and co-founder Huey P. Newton or Chairman and co-founder Bobby Seale, Lil’ Bobby Hutton, Deputy Minister of Defense Geronimo Ji Jaga, the Freeman Brothers, Deputy Minister of Defense Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter, Field Marshall George Jackson, and co-founder of the New York chapter, Sekou Odinga. Rarely are the stories of legendary women like Communications Secretary and Spokeswoman Kathleen Cleaver, Director of the Oakland Community School, Ericka Huggins, Barbra Cox, Assata Shakur, Afeni Shakur, told. And even more seldom will you hear the stories of great rank-in- file women like Tarika Lewis, Yasmyn Sutton, Avotcja, Pat Brown, Kiilu Nyasha, and Sheba to name a few.
The West Oakland mural project is on the road, to change the warped perception of this Black revolutionary organization, with a mural honoring the work of the rank-in-file women of the Black Panther Party, and there were many; as well as the #SayHerName Movement, and Sandra Bland, who was executed by police in Texas, in 2015. The mural was conceived by Jilchristina Vest to celebrate the role of Black revolutionary women, and women fighting against everyday oppression, here in the United States, without a lot of acknowledgement and support.
Six decades after the birth of the Panthers, is a long time for West Oakland to have only one mural honoring such a glorious organization; that being the one of Huey, on the wall of a liquor store, in the Lower Bottoms neighborhood of West Oakland. The West Oakland Mural Project will begin to tell a more extensive story about Oakland, California, the United States, and world history. Please donate and support this effort. I interviewed Jilchristina Vest, to learn more.
JR Valrey: What inspired you to want to do a mural dedicated to the legacy of the women in the Black Panther Party? And what will the mural look like?
Jilchristina Vest: I was inspired to put this mural on my house, during the rebellion and uprising, in the wake of George Floyd’s televised lynching. I was further inspired to make it a #SayHerName mural, based on the absence of outrage for Breonna Taylor’s life. She was murdered by police 3 months BEFORE George Floyd. There was no national outcry, and no arrests made. Where I live in West Oakland, the birthplace of the Panthers, I live across the street from where Huey P. Newton was murdered. I live around the corner from the Black Panther Party’s headquarters, on Peralta. I was born in 1966, the same birth year as the Black Panther Party, and I was taught by Angela Davis and Ericka Huggins at San Francisco State University, in the late ’80’s and early ’90s. All of this meant that almost immediately, I decided to center the mural and the #SayHerName theme around the women of the Black Panther Party. They too, like so many Black women, have remained invisible, un-celebrated, and unrecognized. It will be a celebration that includes the likenesses of Panther women, their names and the 60+ Survival Programs they created and ran. It will be a simple mural, not cluttered. It will be Panther Blue.
JR Valrey: How did you meet and begin working with Black Panther Ericka Huggins on this project?
Jilchristina Vest: She was one of my teachers while I was at (San Francisco) State and we remained friends and have shared community, over the years.
JR Valrey: What were the steps that you took to bring this project to fruition in regards to the city bureaucracy?
Jilchristina Vest: No bureaucracy, this is private property. My house. My choice.
JR Valrey: How did you pick the muralist for this project?
Jilchristina Vest: Instagram. The local, young, Black man (James Shields) lives 2 blocks away. A coincidence or God? I chose a man, because it’s past time that Black men started to learn, and then tell the histories of Black women. We can’t be the only ones, just like Black people can’t be the only ones shouting BLACK LIVES MATTER, not if want change, anyway. He was the only muralist that replied with enthusiasm, and was excited about the project. He recognized immediately that this wasn’t just another mural. All the other muralists I pitched it to, said they were too busy.
The significance is that West Oakland is the birthplace of the Panthers, and many of the 60+ Survival Programs like the Voter Registration and The Free Breakfast Program.
JR Valrey: Which Black Panther women will be depicted in the mural?
Jilchristina Vest: No one in particular really. Images of Panther women that all Black women and girls can relate too.
JR Valrey: Where will the mural be? And what is the significance of the location to the legacy of the Black Panther Party? Why did this mural have to be in West Oakland?
Jilchristina Vest: The mural will cover 50% of my house, over 2000 square feet, the entire 9th street side and the back; the two largest surfaces. My house is on a corner and the back of the house can be seen from a block and half away. The significance is that West Oakland is the birthplace of the Panthers, and many of the 60+ Survival Programs like the Voter registration and The Free Breakfast Program. The house/mural is also across the street from where Huey P. Newton was murdered, and it’s 2 blocks, and around the corner from the Black Panther Party’s headquarters, at 1048 Peralta Street. The artist lives 5 houses down, on Peralta. All of this is significant.
Based on this ethos and the 10 Point Platform, they were deemed terrorists and a threat to the American way of life. Why? Because the American way of life is white supremacy and the oppression of Black, and poor people.
JR Valrey: What does the Black Panther Party mean to you and why does it deserve to be remembered, celebrated, and studied?
Jilchristina Vest: The Black Panther Party was an amazing organization of young revolutionaries that came together to serve the people, body and soul; to protect, uplift and inspire Black people and communities in Oakland, and subsequently all poor, and oppressed people across the globe. They were revolutionaries, in that they said, if the police aren’t going to protect us, we will protect ourselves. If the government isn’t going to feed us, we will feed ourselves. If the schools aren’t going to educate us, we’ll educate ourselves. This had not happened since before desegregation.
Based on this ethos and the 10 Point Platform, they were deemed terrorists and a threat to the American way of life. Why? Because the American way of life is white supremacy and the oppression of Black, and poor people. To go against this turns you into an enemy of the state, hence J. Edgar Hoover and Cointelpro (a series of covert and illegal projects conducted by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation aimed at surveilling, infiltrating, discrediting, and disrupting American political organizations) and the destruction of the Black Panther Party.
They ‘deserve’ to be remembered, celebrated and studied because they are people that fought and died, fighting for the liberation of Black, poor, and oppressed people. They earned their place in American and world history, and most definitely Oakland’s history.
JR Valrey: What is the significance of a mural of Black Panther women in this era where Breonna Taylor was executed in her bed as she slept, by police over 6 months ago, and no one has been indicted or punished for her murder?
Jilchristina Vest: Exactly. That’s why this is in conjunction with the #SayHerName movement and the chronic blindness towards and seeming invisibility of – Black women. Being a Black woman, too, often means you are the person in the room that everyone is staring at, or the person in the room that no one sees. The side of the house will be “All Power To The People” and centered around the women Black Panther Party members and the back of the house will be #SayHerName, and Sandra Bland. This will be paying homage to fierceness, life, and service. And to how Black women show up. This mural is not a reminder of what has been done to us, but a reminder of what we can do for ourselves.
JR Valrey: When will the mural be unveiled?
Jilchristina Vest: Because of COVID the unveiling will happen via a ZOOM program, instead of a block party. And the date is now to-be-announced, because of the fires, ash, and poor air quality. We are hoping for the end of October. The mural install cannot happen until it’s safe. All updates will be on the website as well as a link to the ZOOM, when it happens.
JR Valrey: How much money needs to be raised?
Jilchristina Vest: We have been fundraising since June 15th. The project started small, 100 square feet, and then ballooned, as did the budget. With prepping the house, repairing dry rot, moving gutters, renting scaffolding, scraping, and priming 2000 plus square feet, plus booms, scissor lifts, and a 7 person muralist team (that will be paid well), this mural is costing over $50,000. Please continue to help by donating on our website via paypal or venmo. During the mural install, we want food trucks and food delivery donations, or deep discounts to feed the mural team once a day, for the duration of the install- which is about 10 days. My contact info is also on the website if people have questions.
JR Valrey: And how could people support this mural project?
Jilchristina Vest: Spread the word. Share the website. Start a conversation. If you know any Panther women, please have them email or call me. The mural will have the most comprehensive list of Panther women in existence, and we are still collecting names. #SayHerName. Keep checking the website and plan on logging in for the unveiling celebration. If you have other resources that you think would be helpful, please contact me.