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The Black Panthers in Algiers


The June 2017 issue of the London Review of Books includes a fascinating memoir essay by Elaine Mokhtefi, a translator, writer, and militant who was a close associate of Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver during his exile in Algeria from 1969 to 1972. Mokhtefi writes about the delicate relationship between Cleaver and his hosts in the FLN-led Algerian government, the growing factionalism of the Black Panther Party, and the many notable international visitors Cleaver received, including Timothy Leary, who was on the run from American authorities. Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

It was June. I remember it very clearly. I can see myself walking down a side street between the Casbah and the European sector of Algiers towards the Victoria, a small, third-rate hotel. I climbed four flights of stairs and knocked. The door opened and there was Cleaver, and beyond him, flat out on the bed, his wife, Kathleen, eight months pregnant. The sense of awe I felt that day never left me. The shortcomings of the Black Panther Party are clear enough in retrospect, but they took the battle to the streets, demanded justice and were prepared to bear arms to protect their community. Their slogans – ‘The sky’s the limit’, ‘Power to the People’ – resounded through black ghettoes across the US. They denounced American imperialism as the war in Vietnam gathered pace.

Cleaver had arrived secretly in Algiers using Cuban travel documents. After ambushing a police car in Oakland, he had jumped bail and headed for Havana, where he spent six months as a clandestine guest before he was ‘discovered’ by a journalist. The Cubans had put him on a plane to Algiers without informing the Algerians. Cleaver felt his life hung in the balance. He had been assured in Havana that everything had been cleared with the Algerian government, that he’d be received with open arms and allowed to resume the political activities denied him in Cuba. But his handlers at the Cuban embassy in Algiers were now telling him the Algerians weren’t willing to offer him asylum.

I’d never known the authorities to refuse asylum seekers, whatever their nationality. Since I was the only American the local officials knew, I was often called on to interpret and explain, and to take responsibility for Americans who arrived without realising that hardly anyone in Algeria spoke English. Later that day I talked to the official in charge of liberation movements, Commandant Slimane Hoffman, a tank specialist who had deserted from the French army to join the Armée de Libération Nationale (ALN) and was close to Boumediene. I explained that Cleaver wished to remain in the country and to hold an international press conference. Hoffman agreed straightaway, but insisted that Cleaver’s presence be announced by the Algerian Press Service. ‘You saved my life,’ Cleaver told me repeatedly; he was convinced the Cubans had set him up.

Image: Elaine Mokhtef and Eldridge Cleaver. Via LRB.


Also of considerable interest, but not mentioned in the memoir is the fact that Kathleen Cleaver and Bill Stephens soon returned to the U.S. By 1973, Stephens and others had established the People’s Communication Network in New York. Among other activities, that group produced a video account of a visitors day at Green Haven Prison that was cablecast. An extraordinary video is available of the “Queen Mother Moore Speech at Green Haven Prison.” This event became possible due to the tense aftermath of the Attica Prison Rebellion in 1971. The Facets DVD collection “Disruptive Film:Everyday Resistance to Power” includes this video. I co-curated this collection, with Sherry Millner and Jill Godmilow.