On a chilly spring day in 1969, a group of Columbia students stood confidently on Low Steps, chanting slogans and shaking signs of protest. Alma Mater sat above them, blindfolded by the red and yellow fabric of a Vietnamese flag. Students of all colors gathered to show their support. This protest was one of many staged by student representatives of the anti-Vietnam War movement, the civil rights movement, and the Black Panther Party. The protesters were incensed at the government, and incensed at Columbia for not doing enough to resist.
A young man with an afro stood at the head of the group. He was on bail after being arrested as part of the Panther 21 case, and the protest organizers had invited him to rally at their event.
“Brothers and sisters!” he began with conviction in his voice. “If Columbia University doesn’t recognize that the war in Vietnam is a war of capitalist exploitation, and that the United States pig military occupies Vietnam the way the New York City pig department occupies Harlem, and the way these pigs are trying to occupy this campus: brothers and sisters, do more than take this school over today.”
His last passionate plea for revolution evoked cheers from the crowd: “Burn the damn place down!”
Forty years later, Professor Jamal Joseph is rushing up Low Steps on his way to teach a class. It is the dead of winter and there are few in sight. He hears a “psssst,” he tells me. He continues up the steps until the same noise comes again. The only person in sight is Alma Mater, and, as he looks up at her, he hears, “Oh, so it’s Professor Joseph now, huh? I remember when you wanted to burn this damn place down!”
When Joseph recalls this encounter with Alma, we are sitting in a back room in Prentis Hall, a Columbia-owned arts building on 125th Street. This is my second time meeting him—the first was at a screening of his most recent film project. He wears a dark suit and leans forward as he talks, his deep voice vacillating between passion and humor. His brown eyes have an intensity that absorbs you and riles you up. I learn that he is a man of many stories, and each one he recounts is more suspenseful and fascinating than the last. He heats up some vegan baked ziti for me. The Yo Gotti song “Rake It Up” bumps through the walls from the next room.
A professor of professional practice at Columbia’s School of the Arts, Joseph teaches film to graduate students while pursuing his own projects outside of Columbia. I get to witness one of the initiatives he started as I enter the multipurpose room in Prentis. Four girls wear grey shirts printed with IMPACT Boot Camp in bold black letters. The eldest raps a song as she demonstrates the corresponding choreography to her three students. They pick up quickly and soon the energetic choreography looks seamless, ready to be performed. Someone starts the music and more kids flood into the choreography and join the four dancers. Around them, their mothers chat and snack on food from a table in the back. I hear one of them asking, “Am I too old to sign up?”
IMPACT is Joseph’s brainchild. In the 1990s, when Rudy Giuliani was the mayor of New York, his administration cut funding for after-school arts programs. At the same time, funding for police departments increased. “His idea for ending crime was not to deal with poverty and education—the two major causes of crime,” Joseph says. “It was to put in more cops and lock them all up.”
So Joseph started a weekly program for kids in Harlem based on the principles of “safe space, outstanding effort, and service to our family, friends, and community.” At IMPACT, students dance, sing, speak, and create in a room in Prentis. According to the IMPACT Repertory Theatre website, “young people use current events and their own personal experience as material to explore the issues facing young people in America” through various artistic media. This year is the program’s 20th anniversary, and over 2,000 students—who call themselves “artivists”—have passed through.
I spoke to an elementary school-aged member in the multipurpose room as her peers danced in the middle of the room. “IMPACT is really, really fun,” she tells me.
She goes to school a few blocks away and admits that, although she is still a little nervous, IMPACT has helped her public speaking and leadership skills. Her favorite part, though, is the music and dance. “You learn new dances, you learn new songs, and then when you get home, it stays with you,” she says. “I just hum the song in school sometimes because it gets stuck in my head and then I just want to sing it.”
Joseph is an expert in community organizing through productive programs like IMPACT, thanks to his involvement in the Black Panther Party. Growing up between Harlem and the Bronx, Joseph is Afro-Cuban, although he was raised by adopted parents from the segregated southern United States. They would recount stories about their own parents, who were enslaved. By 11, he was part of the the NAACP Youth Council, and by 15, the Black Panther Party.
He remembers riding in a subway car to the Panther office in Harlem with two friends to offer his services, enraged by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Drawing on what he’d heard about the Party, one of Joseph’s friends leaned over and said, “Yo, you know the Panthers are serious right? It’s like the mafia, there’s no getting out.” His other friend added, “Look, man. You’re gonna have to prove yourself. You know you gotta kill a white dude to become a Panther.” This worried him, but not wanting to falter in front of his friends, he tried to act cool. Another friend interjected, “Nah, man, get this straight. You ain’t got to kill a white dude.” Joseph relaxed. His friend clarified, “You gotta kill a white cop. And you gotta bring in his badge and his gun.”
In the Panther office, Joseph admired all the other young black men and women around him in leather jackets, berets, and African geles. He sat listening to a Panther elucidate the Panthers’ 10-Point Program, which includes demands for housing, education, justice, and peace—nothing about killing cops. At point five, he tells me, Joseph couldn’t help but jump up and interrupt, yelling, “Choose me brother! Ah, me! I’d kill a white dude right now!”
The whole meeting got quiet as everyone stared. The leader called Joseph up front. As Joseph stood by his side, he pulled open a desk drawer and reached far into it. Joseph’s heart pounded, as he was thinking he was going to be handed “a big damn gun.”
Instead, Joseph got a huge stack of books. Among them were The Autobiography of Malcolm X and The Wretched of the Earth. In shock, Joseph said, “Excuse me, brother, I thought you were going to arm me.” Solemnly, he recalls the Panther’s reply: “Excuse me, young brother, I just did.”
From then on, Joseph invested his efforts into organizing the community against the intersection of capitalism and racism, which the Panthers believed was causing many of the most urgent problems they faced. He volunteered for initiatives like the Free Breakfast for School Children Program, which provides students free meals in the morning so they can focus on learning instead of lunch while in class. The Panthers started a free health clinic where doctors and nurses volunteered to treat patients who could not afford care. The Panthers that Joseph saw organizing free services in their communities stood in shocking contrast to the menacing, gun-toting, violent criminals he saw on television. Joseph explains that the guns were an expression of self-defense, and that they protected the Panthers’ ability to patrol the police. They were never to be used violently outside of this express purpose.
“It’s also how you show a contradiction in the system,” he explains. “If the Black Panther Party can do all of this with no money, how is the richest government in the world allowing people to live in poverty and hunger and on the street?”
Threatened by the popularity and reach of the Black Panther Party, according to Joseph, the New York Police Department arrested the 21 leaders of the New York Black Panthers, including him. They were charged with planning a bombing. Joseph was held at Riker’s Island and later, for almost six years, at Leavenworth Penitentiary, where he earned three college degrees. Despite the incredibly long wait, the jury at their trial decided to lift all the charges against the Panthers in less than an hour.
Joseph spent the following years combining art and activism. In addition to creating IMPACT, Joseph was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song in 2008 for a song he co-wrote for the film August Rush. He also published Panther Baby, an autobiography detailing his involvement in the Black Panther Party, and wrote a biography, Tupac Shakur Legacy, as Tupac was his godson. (He tells me that his favorite 2Pac song is Dear Mama because of his close friendship with Shakur’s mother Afeni, also part of the Panther 21.) Joseph’s most recent production is a film called Chapter & Verse.
I watched Chapter & Verse at the Maysles Cinema in Harlem; this is where I first met Joseph. The film followed Sir Lance, a man who struggles to keep a job and rebuild his social life upon his release from prison. Viewers see how his criminal record keeps Lance from climbing the social ladder. After the lights came back on, tears dripped down my face, and probably the faces of half the audience members. The owner of the cinema commented to the audience that it was one of the best films ever screened in his hall.
I was left with the desire to take action against our system of mass incarceration, which, as Joseph mentioned at the screening, leads to the arrest of one in three black men.
Joseph was excited when I introduced myself to him as a Columbia student at the post-film reception. I felt somewhat out of place among all the Black Panther Party members who milled about laughing and talking, but speaking with Joseph felt natural. I asked him about his thoughts on our University’s expansion into Harlem. He replied that we must continue to resist. He credits students’ resistance with the fact that Columbia now engages in programming that gives grants to the community. As a result, Columbia is “making sure that the space like the one that we have across the street is a public art space where people come,” indicating the Manhattanville campus across the street from where we sit in Prentis Hall.
I ask him what he would recommend as the most effective methods of resistance for Columbia students, as he is an authority on resistance himself. He first credits Columbia student activists for their past successes, like divesting from prisons. Then he encourages stepping away from technology and organizing in person, like he did with the Panthers. “Many people retweeting something is one thing,” he tells me. “Many people volunteering to make sure homeless people are being fed, to make sure the police are not brutalizing people—that’s real change.”
Have fun leafing through our seventh issue, and subscribe to our weekly newsletter, As We See It!