In 1969, Kent Ford was beaten and jailed for his involvement with a group of African-American men who had been studying the works of Malcolm X and Chairman Mao. He said his arrest was the result of information police had gleaned from an informant hired to spy on them.
Ford had already been monitoring high-tension interactions between police and the African-American community in North Portland, and he had become somewhat disillusioned after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. the year before. Upon his release on bail from the downtown jail, he held a press conference on the steps of the station, where he said, according to an entry in the Oregon Historical Society’s Oregon Encyclopedia, “If they keep coming in with these fascist tactics, we’re going to defend ourselves.”
Soon after, Huey Newton himself officially invited Ford to found and lead Portland’s chapter of the Black Panther Party.
Over the next decade, Ford’s chapter of the party demonstrated against the Vietnam War and fought for civil rights and an end to police brutality. It enforced a curfew and members carried concealed weapons. It might be most remembered, however, for the programs it created to help members of Portland’s low-income communities. Its children’s breakfast program fed hundreds of kids before school during the years it operated and the party also opened a free medical clinic that served people of all races five nights a week.
While the days of the original Black Panther Party may be long gone, Ford’s devotion to social justice and his respected place among Oregon’s most notable activists stands solidly in place.
Ford, now 76, leads a walking tour of historic Black Panther Party sites in Northeast Portland about six times a year.
Emily Green: What’s the most difficult lesson you learned in your activism?
Kent Ford: Activism is hard work. Sometimes it feels like you’re treading water. But I’ve learned that you just got to keep going. Don’t let difficulties and hardships stop you. Stay in the mix. Don’t fall by the wayside. Part of my motivation comes out of inspiration.
I’m very much inspired by today’s Black Lives Matter movement. I’m inspired by those who are taking to the streets to confront the alt-right. I’ve always looked to other activist groups for inspiration.
During the Iraq War, there were smart, young activists here in Portland who took to the streets wearing those bright orange Guantanamo jumpsuit outfits. They created a barrier around themselves and placed themselves in a cage-like structure, as if they were in Guantanamo. This was a powerful way to raise the point in terms of human rights. The prisoners in Guantanamo are in a sort of no-man’s land, just like Harold Pinter mentioned in his Nobel Prize speech. These activists did this right here in Portland in front of the art museum. The fight against Guantanamo seems impossible, and yet that didn’t stop them. We can’t let the tough stuff stop us from taking action and fighting for what’s right.
EG: What kept you going at times when winning seemed impossible?
KF: I always try to keep my mind going. I’ve always been that way. Back in the day, when we were running the Black Panther Party here in Portland, we had a requirement that each member was supposed to read two hours every day. We also had a reading group. We would all get together and read Mao’s “Little Red Book.” We’d read certain quotes aloud and then discuss them. One favorite was “The Foolish Old Man Removes the Mountains.”
We also dug deep into Kwame Nkrumah’s writings, the socialist revolutionary and politician from Ghana. Lots of people were reading James Baldwin, Angela Davis and Malcolm X. A group of us read and discussed “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”
We would also hold political education classes every Wednesday and Sunday night so we could discuss what was going on in the community and the world. Reading about people locked in struggle can help put things in perspective when times are tough.
To this day, I try to get in at least two hours of reading a day. There are so many great books out there, like Jeanne Theoharis’ “A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History.”
I also read a lot of political news. If I want the real stuff, I go to Amy Goodman and Democracy Now! as well as The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The Atlantic and The Nation. I used to listen more to OPB, but they lean too much toward the Israelis, not the Palestinians, and I don’t have time for that.
But, I’ve learned you can never really write off the media.
Back when the Black Panther Party was rolling, we got all sorts of bad press. At one point, I just sort of stopped talking to the media because of the unfair shake we were getting. But then I got a pleasant surprise when Bill Keller, who at the time was writing for The Oregonian but who went on to The Washington Post and The New York Times, decided to write a story about us, and he really took the time to learn what we were doing. He could appreciate the free breakfast for children program we were running. Nationwide, the Black Panther Party was feeding 30,000 kids a week and selling more than 150,000 papers a week. We did around 100,000 sickle-cell tests.
We were trying to make a difference in people’s everyday lives, and Keller could tell that.
When the story he wrote about the party came out in The Oregonian, a guy came up to me on North Williams and said, “Kent, I saw your picture in the newspaper today.” I wondered, “What have I gone done now?” But it was an article by Bill Keller, and the article wasn’t bad at all.
Years later, in 1988, Bill Keller called me with foia files from cointelpro (an FBI scandal consisting of covert and illegal operations) that contained details about how the FBI was trying to undermine the free breakfast program. One plot even suggested using syringes to insert nasty stuff into the oranges that would make the kids sick and unlikely to return to the program. A journalist shared that with me. So, you can’t write off the press.
EG: What do you think young civil rights activists today are doing right?
KF: A lot! There are so many great activist groups out there, like Black Lives Matter, the LGBTQ community struggle, movements against police brutality, Ferguson, Palestine.
You can’t talk about Ferguson without talking about Palestine. You can’t talk about Eric Garner without talking about Palestine. Palestinians have had their homelands taken away. It’s settler colonialism in the extreme. You can’t understand what’s going on in this country if you don’t consider what’s happening abroad and how the U.S. contributes to the world’s biggest problems. There’s a line that runs straight through.
I just read a great article (‘Black Socialists of America is Putting Anti-Capitalism on the Map’ ) in The Nation. They stress how socialism is something you do, not something you sit around and talk about. They are anti-capitalist and they are supporting anti-capitalist ventures and programs. In fact, what drew me to the Black Panther Party was the socialistic community programs. We worked with other socialist groups in Portland, even predominantly White groups like SDS (Students for a Democratic Society). Once we started working with SDS, everything was uphill from there. They helped us raise bail money. They helped us print “Pocket Lawyers.” When the police arrested me, they helped bail me out of jail. What’s happening today with socialism is good. I hope the train keeps going. Socialists are doing stuff. They’re making things happen.
Locally, there’s the vigil for Keaton Otis on the 12th of every month at the corner of Northeast Sixth Avenue and Halsey Street. Otis was killed by police on 12 May 2010. His dad died fighting for justice for his son’s death. Fred Bryant was his name, and he always wore a picture of his son on his heart at the vigils. Black people dying at the hand of the police hurts my heart, but we need to be there for each other. That’s been my style for the last 50 years. If we lose someone in the community, I reach out, get their number and put myself at their disposal.
EG: When you look back over your years of activism, can you describe a moment that defines your legacy?
KF: For me, it has to be the free breakfast program. We made breakfast for up to 125 children each day. We served breakfast in the dining room at Highland United Church of Christ in Northeast Portland. Even today, people will come up to me on the street and say I served them pancakes and juice. In October, there will be the 50th reunion of the national breakfast program.
The legal aid clinics that we ran were also important — “law for the people.” The clinics would help people take care of traffic tickets, help people deal with police harassment and more.
We also passed out tens of thousands of “Pocket Lawyers” so people knew their rights and had resources at their fingertips. We did all this under intense repression, whether it was cointelpro or all the dirty tricks the local police pulled to undermine our work.
Big Man, a Black Panther Party leader, once said, “Never have so few done so much with so little.”
We didn’t have many resources, but we still made things happen. Those programs helped people in our community, they showed that people power was real power, and that the odds might be against us, but we were going to keep on fighting.
Courtesy of Street Roots / INSP
Read the full Nov. 13 - 19 issue.
© 2019 Real Change. All rights reserved.| Real Change is a non-profit organization advocating for economic, social and racial justice since 1994. Learn more about Real Change and donate now to support independent, award-winning journalism.