George Edwards was an Air Force instructor working at a base in Ohio when he realized he was “a voluntary slave.”
On Memorial Day 1960, Edwards — an intense, sharp-eyed man who served in the New Haven branch of the Black Panthers Party — heard a recording of a speech by Malcolm X that made him question his service to the United States.
“I had a serious confrontation with history, politics, racism. I was becoming conscious of the world,” he said. “This man had shown a light to the darkness of my brain.”
Edwards left the Air Force shortly thereafter. He never wore his uniform again. He refused to salute the flag. And years later, he said, he was interrogated by FBI agents who accused him of plotting to kill the president.
He recalled his journey from Cold War pilot to Black Panther at a New Haven Hip-Hop conference hosted this past weekend by the Artsucation Academy Network at the Neighborhood Music School on Audubon Street.
Edwards, whose frail appearance belies the force of his convictions, has no background in hip-hop. That didn’t seem to matter to the audience of around a dozen spectators. He spoke alongside two other experts, a state representative and a retired police detective, on a panel called “Hip-Hop and the Criminal Justice System.”
“For our people, historically, the arts have always been used as a force of social justice,” said Hanan Hameen, the event organizer. And given the police violence that polarized the country two weeks ago, attendees said, it seemed logical to dedicate part of the conference to social justice in the age of Black Lives Matter.
Edwards, a North Carolina native who moved to New Haven after his military service, has deep fears about the state of the movement in the wake of a tumultuous few weeks of protests and violence.
“The Black Lives Matter movement is in the process of being infiltrated by the intelligence agencies of the United States,” he told the Independent after the panel. “When people are arrested, they become informants. The same old mess.”
He insisted that the same forces that discredited the Black Panthers in the 1960s are still at play: bad actors who appropriate a movement’s name to advance their own agenda.
A New Generation of Protesters
Teresa Sandoval Schaefer, who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico about a decade ago, ran a booth outside the main conference room to promote an organization called Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ).
Sandoval Schaefer — who along with her husband, Andy Schaefer, wore a brightly colored shirt with a traditional African design — has spent years pondering the racial politics of the United States. She came to the U.S. to study at Yale, where she researched discrimination in the health care system.
“I came with a very different idea of what the United States was,” she said. “I started noticing segregation, started noticing that the American Dream wasn’t for everyone.”
She got involved with local activism last year, partly out of alarm at much-publicized episodes of police violence against young black men. She attends meetings held by Unidad Latina en Acción (ULA), and last fall joined the New Haven branch of SURJ, which she pitched as a complement to Black Lives Matter.
“Our goal is to pull more white people in,” said Sandoval Schaeffer. “There’s too much talking sometimes, but not enough actions that are effective.”
According to Sandoval Schaefer, SURJ worked alongside Black Lives Matter to organize a recent protest on the New Haven Green, forming a protective line of white activists to shield African American protesters from hecklers.
She was describing her feelings about the panel — interesting overall, especially the contributions from the retired police detective — when a fight appeared to break out just yards away. Two teenage boys lunged at each other, as several other kids pulled out their iPhones to document the action.
It was not an actual fight but rather a demonstration by the youth organization Ice the Beef intended to illustrate the way people react to altercations.
Chaz Carmon, the executive program director of Ice the Beef, stood at the front of the room to speak. He singled out George Edwards, who had intervened to break up the fight, for particular praise. Edwards, he said, had taken action to defuse a violent situation—a lesson to all black men in this time of racial upheaval.
“Hold your heads up, black men,” shouted someone from the audience, gesturing toward the boys.
Carmon nodded. “We are all family,” he said.