Media Manipulation and Reflections by Former Black Panther Bro Shep Shakur

Bro Shep

Interviewed by Levi Wise-Catoe

(*This interview was conducted in March 2010, but has recently been revised and formatted for Musings blog. The author has also added the introduction, which reflects back on the interview experience from the current perspective, and additional commentary.)

The media has always negatively depicted the iconic Black Panther party, so I had to figure out who the Black Panthers were. On February 21, 2024, I attended the event “Coöperism 10/13: The Black Panther Party and Cooperation” at Columbia University. The event featured speakers Flores Forbes, Jamal Joseph, Suzanne Cope, and Bernard E. Harcourt, among others. In my opinion, the conversation was taking place to raise the question: who is the future activist in America? And what must future activists in America do to challenge the status quo?

During the conversation, the speakers traced the historical origins of the Panther Party, which began in Oakland, California, in 1966 under the leadership of  Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. But more importantly, the conversation focused on the blueprint that the party followed, such as the 10-Point Black Panther Program, a set of guidelines for the Black Panther Party that states their ideals and ways of operating, a combination of the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. The speakers pointed out this information as a means of stating what the next generation should consider when challenging the government and political hierarchy in the United States.

The conversation also centered on the survival programs that the Black Panther Party developed: the Breakfast Program, the Free Clinic Program, the Ambulance Program, and the Prison Pipeline Program. As much as I felt I discovered, I also believed I needed to learn more. In 2010, I interviewed Bro. Shep Shakur [pronounced Bruh Shep Shakur], a former Black Panther Party member or, as he would say, current comrade. Bro Shep educated me further while also giving me a firsthand account of prolific cultural and political figures such as Tupac Shakur and Reverend Al Sharpton, both of whom have a history with the Black Panther Party. I expected to learn one thing in this interview, but I wound up learning so much about being Black, and about myself being a New Jersey-born, Black, “whitewashed” man in America. Bro Shep insisted on a closed-door interview at City College in the Assata Shakur Room in the NAC Building, which is where the Black Panthers would gather during  Assata Shakur’s college days (Assata was a student at CCNY). Once inside the room, I was checked for wiring and forced to watch hours of VCR tapes and view archival documents and photos. I read the rules and was shown Mao’s Red Book to read from the Marxist doctrine of the Black Panther Party. It was an initiation and I passed. 

It is interesting to me now to consider how Shakur’s mission was to inspire me to consider ways of activism and student activism, while at the time I was more interested in landing this interview. At the time, CCNY was launching a Black Student Union (BSU) but received resistance from the campus and needed all of the supporters that they could get. I was a student at Medgar Evers College, a PBI (Predominantly Black Institution), which made me the perfect ally, but in actuality, I knew nothing about the Black experience. I was raised as an Afro-Native, and my mother’s mother was born on an Indian Reservation in Cherokee Nation, North Carolina, delivered by the sister of my maternal grandfather, my Aunt Tessie (an Indian Reservation midwife). My mom is named after my grandfather’s mother, Mellie. That was my history; it was focused less on Black culture, and more on being Native American. The year 2014-2015 was a very interesting period of my life, where I would discover that I could be more than a creative writer and was moving towards becoming more journalistic. At the time, I found a sense of belonging among other socially conscious African Diasporic people at City College. Again, I had no knowledge at the time about being Black, but I knew what being a writer was. The Black student body at City College was looking for a student writer who could be a liaison through CUNY. I was soon introduced to a future Black filmmaker named Naheem Adios, and together through his filming and my writing, we launched a Black Student Union that also included Lehman College. I hadn’t studied Black history beyond what I was required to study at Medgar Evers College, which was solely to meet course requirements and not for interest.

So Shakur taught me about myself that day in a way in which I needed to be told, and maybe that was what he saw in me, and I am forever grateful. He spoke of how the Black Panthers had to read for three hours every day, how the Panthers had to always walk with their Red Book in their back pocket at all times, and how important it was to be wary of fake prophets and cults of personalities and to never place anyone on a pedestal. All of these things made sense to me later on:  consider pop music today and how social media builds up artists into cult-like figures and their followers live by their every word. I was sweating profusely. I wanted to leave, but I couldn’t. I was being taught by an expert on student activism and based on what I see going on today in America and abroad I now know why Shakur was preparing me. I knew that I was learning something, and I knew that Shakur saw me as a worthy student who would pass on this knowledge, so therefore I am sharing chosen excerpts from our meeting.

Levi Wise-Catoe: Hi, can you tell our audience who you are and where you are from?

Bro Shep Shakur: I am Bro Shep Shakur. I am a Black Panther Party comrade, and I was born and grew up in the Bronx. 

LWC: Who did you look up to growing up in NYC? Who were your role models? 

BSS: Malcolm X was my role model as a kid.

LWC: Let’s talk about the Black Panthers and what you learned from the party.

BSS: Well the Black Panther’s colors were black and blue—sky is the limit, black is the panther. Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton founded the Black Panther Party in Oakland California. If a Panther is cornered and he can’t turn left or right, he’ll go straight for the aggressors.

LWC: That’s interesting I never knew that but it puts the panther association in a different context for me. What did the BPP represent for you?

BSS: For me, it represented a revolution, and also change: the constitution, the political system, the economic system, the whole country’s social structure—everything in America.

LWC: Was there anyone else in America that you felt was representing any sort of change at the time other than Malcolm X?

BSS: Fannie Lou Hamer was an influence on me.

LWC: How did you feel about Martin Luther King and the American representation of peace and justice?

BSS: Well, Martin Luther King’s views were beginning to change in 1968. He began attacking the war in Vietnam and standing up for the job unions in the U.S. and his last speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” spoke of that change and he was killed soon after.

LWC: Yes, on April 4th, 1968. 1968 was a turbulent year in America. Some might argue as turbulent as 2020—following the assassination of King, the country was on fire with activism.

BSS: 1968 was a year of social change. There were snipers set up on rooftops all across Harlem during the King riots. 

[Note: Shakur allowed me to view secret tapes of the Black Panther Party from its library of VH1 Tapes. I noticed Black snipers set up on my apartment building rooftop in Harlem, the Manhattanville Housing Projects, aiming guns towards the police below from 1968.]

LWC: This is interesting because that’s where I live. Can you tell me something that might surprise me to learn about the Panther Party?

BSS: Well you realize that Martin Luther King was being blackmailed by J. Edgar Hoover.

LWC: Really? 

BSS: J. Edgar Hoover’s whole agenda was to neutralize and destroy anything or anyone fighting for Black equality. The American government began a relationship with the southern sharecroppers to put LSD in their fruit/crops through pesticides. It sold those fruits in the supermarkets up north because Black southern sharecroppers could only sell to other Blacks, never whites, and all this to turn Black people against one another mentally through drugs.*

LWC: That’s an interesting assertion. Do you think that the government found other ways to carry this out?

BSS: The white FBI was investigating the Panthers. It was the U.S. government vs. the Panthers. The FBI would utilize whatever they had by—phone tapping, mail opening, offices bugged, informant ranks, police rank and provocateurs would testify.**

LWC: Wow, it’s horrible what went on back then, and possibly today we are just not being informed.

BSS: Did you know that Tupac Shakur’s biological father was an informant who was hired by the FBI to infiltrate the Black Panther Party?***

LWC: No, I’ve never heard that.

BSS: Yeah and once he turned state evidence against the party he went into the witness protection program. I never trusted Tupac’s biological dad and knew that he was up to something; which is how Afeni Shakur was imprisoned while pregnant with Tupac, who was born in prison.Tupac became a pawn for the media. Think about it—a thug was always considered to be a negative in the press until Tupac tattooed ‘Thug’ across his chest and then all of sudden ‘Thug’ became the blueprint for every young Black male rapper that has ever followed. Imagine the impact that would have been made if he had tattooed Black Pride or Black Excellence or something or anything other than thug?

LWC: That’s a good point and one that I never considered. 

BSS: Tupac wasn’t raised that way. He was the product of two Black Panthers. He was raised on education, knowledge, pride, Black history, and art; but unfortunately Hollywood created that image of the young Black thug that he played as Bishop in the 90s movie Juice (dir. Ernest Dickerson, 1992) and slowly but surely Tupac began to believe his own hype the more Hollywood sold him on that image. Then came the branding with the thug tattoo across his chest and then they had him and it was only a matter of time until he was no longer useful to them and then he was gone.

LWC: That’s such a tragedy.

BCC: But the way it works once the Black pawn is of no use, just like Tupac’s biological dad the informant—where he is now? Nobody knows.

LWC: The plight of the Black man in America. Who else tried to infiltrate that Black Panther Party? I’m sure there were others.

BCC: The Action Network’s founder Al Sharpton was another person who was hired to set up the Black Panthers.****

LWC: Really?

BSS: Yeah they [the Government] had him come to one of our meetings wiretapped… The government sent him to one of our meetings wearing a wire to find out information regarding Assata Shakur’s whereabouts to set us up, but we caught him and then threw him out.  Sharpton is one of them. 

LWC: Moving on, what else can you tell me about the Black Panther Party?

BSS: Through the Black Panthers Breakfast Program we fed more hungry kids than the government but that’s not shown in the media. I always felt as though the worst thing the Panthers ever did was to brandish a gun because that’s the only image of the Black Panthers that the media actually does show. 

LWC: So do you feel that the Black community is moving forward or backward?

BSS: We are definitely moving backward. These days Black people have this “I got mine. You go get yours attitude.” We can’t rely on our enemies to save us [note: the white establishment]. We need our own preparation. Back in the 70’s every college campus had a BSU (Black Student Union). The BSU’s came out of the Black Panther Party. There were over 600 Black Student Unions on college campuses back in the 70’s and today there are less than 60 that might still exist.

LWC: So how do we as a community protect and prepare if the social consciousness is no longer there? 

{Note: This interview was in 2014 but even today Black studies are under attack, woke culture is under attack, Governor DeSantis in Florida (Anti-Woke Agenda), CRT (Critical Race Theory) is under attack, and reparations for the descendants of the formerly enslaved are under attack. Who are the gatekeepers of this new woke movement and who are they being sent by? How can we protect and prepare in 2024?} 

BSS: By not listening to white news/media. We must prepare by organizing and spreading the word, by learning Martial Law and survival and emergency tactics. The Black Panthers set up the Free Clothes, Free Shoes, and Free Ambulance programs in Winston, Alabama because white ambulance companies wouldn’t pick up Black people and take them to the hospital. The Panthers had Free clinics, they set up Sickle Cell Anemia programs that nobody knew about, Lead Poison programs, Tuberculosis programs, and a teenage illiterate program. We took over Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx, helped out the Black community, set up a free busing prison program so that Black inmates could have visitors, and set up a police program. The Black Panther newspaper sold over a million copies at .25 cents a copy. What we were doing was never told and it was unheard of because we were Black independently owned taking care of our community. I was the paper’s last regional manager. We were the only newspaper that the white-owned media could never corrupt. 

LWC: I think today’s young activists could learn a lot from the methods and community created by the Black Panthers.

BSS: Indeed there are several misconceptions regarding the party. We have been demonized by today’s media when in fact a lot of governmental programs credited to the government were founded by the Black Panther Party. Again, yes we were wrong to brandish guns, but it made the white man or the U.S. government fear us.

LWC: How do you feel about a Black man being president such as President Obama? What do you think of him?

BSS: I don’t think of him. He’s doing what they want him to do. He can’t change anything. He got money from the internet to launch his grassroots campaign; but big corporate money too, he owes the government what it needs through large investments. He’s not the first Black president, he’s one of them, he’s not one of us.

LWC: How do you feel about social media today and its impact on the youth?

BSS: Technology today controls society. Kids can’t tell time anymore unless it’s digital. The concept of the video is to create misconceptions through images that brainwash kids: sex, money, and bling. I enjoyed Hip-Hop until it became rap; NWA brought in the gangster mentality which was all negative with no balance. If you look at clothes today everybody wears the same thing like robots and they must be told what to wear like robots… no individuality, everything is the same. In the ‘60s we wore tailor-made suits, shark skin suits, no sagging jeans—that’s prison culture, thug culture, and brainwashing. That’s how they used Tupac, the product of the Black Panthers, in the same ways they exploited the image of Black Panthers brandishing guns.

[Note: the Crips were formed out of the Black Panthers and the Bloods were formed out of the Crips. Which is interesting considering Bloods and Crip members developed Gangster Rap which Tupac became its cultural figure.]

 LWC: What made you become an activist?

 BSS: I was pissed off, that’s what helped me decide to become a Panther. I discovered the being when I was at Hunter College and then I learned even more once I joined the Black Panthers. People think that it was the men that controlled the Panthers but it was the women that kept the Panthers together. Once the women left, the party fell apart because the men began to turn against one another; Huey and Bobby were both trained by female comrades.

 LWC: Really?

BSS: Yeah I was as well, it was a woman who trained me to lock and load and how to clean out my gun. If I was in the military during wartime I would feel safer in combat with women by my side than to have men by my side because with men it’s always going to be an ego against the other man.

 LWC: But going back to what you just said about the government—they turned against each other in what way?

BSS: By placing certain members of the party on pedestals, as I warned you about previously. Once Huey got locked up, Bobby Seale took more leadership within the party in Huey’s absence. Then when Huey returned back home the party became divided because Huey felt that he was the face of the Black Panther party. The government got Huey addicted to crack and Huey became paranoid and didn’t trust anybody anymore. The Panthers started killing each other.

LWC: This was definitely not what I expected to learn during this interview.

BSS: Dr. Huey P. Newton, PhD, became a crackhead and was assassinated by the Black Guerrilla movement that wanted to make a name for themselves, so they went after the Black Panthers founding member.

LWC: Wow I’m not sure how to respond to that. How did you respond to that upon learning of it?

BSS: Keep in mind Huey thought that the New York Panthers were against him as well. Huey wanted to take over the party nationally once he returned from prison. He was no longer interested in working together with other comrades; he wanted to be its sole leader. His ego took over once he returned back home and paranoia also took over him. There were infiltrators within the party and we became split in two (east vs. west). Huey began receiving phony letters with fake signatures that New York comrades were out to kill Huey so he was convinced that the East Coast were out to kill him. He received death threats to Huey by mail coming from the East Coast and the Panthers became divided, East Coast vs. West Coast, and both coasts began to believe that we were out to kill the other Coast.

[Note: this was the same tactic that was used to divide rap music in the 90’s. East Coast vs. West Coast wars which led to the death of both Tupac and Biggie. After a while, I thought what I was hearing began to make sense.]

 LWC: But was that a good thing or a bad thing?

BSS: You decide.

In closing, I found it interesting when 17th National Black Writers Conference Honoree Paul Coates stated that the Black Panther Party talked too much, and he further argued that the rhetoric made the Panthers rather than its movement. Whereas in the beginning, I felt his opinion was off, I now understand what he was saying. It’s about the ‘powers that be’ and how they have used media and manipulation to give life to the professional agitators and instigators that create negative misconceptions to divide and conquer organizations such as BBP and others that are put in place to divide and conquer the powers that be. But I did leave with a deeper understanding of the ways in which media functions.

Editor’s Notes:

Original published date is March 2010

*The editor has been unable to verify the existence of a conspiracy to contaminate crops destined for Black households with LSD. However, the CIA ran a program for decades, called MKUltra, that experimented with the use of LSD and a range of other drugs for the purposes of mind control, brainwashing, and psychological torture. MKUltra frequently used nonconsensual, illegal methods. 

**The FBI did indeed investigate the Panthers. Through a counterintelligence program named COINTELPRO, the FBI actively surveilled and sabotaged the BPP. All of the methods described by Bro Shep—phone tapping, opening mail, bugging offices, seeding informants, writing fake letters that would sow division between members and chapters of the BPP—are known to have been used extensively as part of COINTELPRO’s attack on the Panthers. Many of the Party’s internal conflicts can be traced to these illegal interventions. COINTELPRO also directly targeted leaders through assassination, imprisonment, and the construction of false charges. Martin Luther King, Jr., Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Fred Hampton, and many many others were targeted by the program. To this day, Assata Shakur remains the FBI’s most wanted woman. 

***The editor has been unable to verify whether or not Tupac’s father, Billy Garland, was an informant who was placed in the witness protection program. He was largely absent from Tupac’s life. 

****By his own admission, Sharpton has cooperated with the FBI. It is alleged that he pursued information relating to the whereabouts of Assata Shakur in the 1980s. 

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