Panther in the Bush

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Magi ya Chai, Tanzania—Close the door or you will be sharing your room with cobras!” warns a sign on one of the guest houses at Pete O’Neal’s United African Alliance Community Center, just outside this farming village between the city of Arusha and Mount Kilimanjaro.

The sign is typical O’Neal. He says he keeps just two guns at his large community center, but from the image he props up, people could be forgiven for thinking there was a small arms cache in his back yard. “Sometimes we’ll just go fire them off for a while at night to keep people thinking,” O’Neal says.

Guns and implied danger, strangely enough, are two hallmarks of a man who has leveraged the dollars of affluent Americans to help black youth from America and East Africa for more than 30 years.

Street hustler. Police agitator. These are not descriptions you’d usually associate with the head of a youth agency. They come from a past of failed criminal aspirations that O’Neal would just as soon forget. In their place, he has established a legacy of youth work that spans thousands of miles, includes brushes with federal agents and deals with the mob, and has helped hundreds of poor and disadvantaged children.

In the United States, prosecutors would like to lock him up. Here, the village elders gave him land.

From Crook to Cook

O’Neal came from a hard-working, middle-class family – his mother worked for the U.S. Treasury Department, his father for the Kansas City water company – but the family work ethic would not imbed itself in their son for quite some time. His early adulthood saw O’Neal get married, separate, father three children and collect checks from the Ford Motor Co. for four years while rarely showing up for work. (“I had a doctor set it up for me to be ‘ill,’ ” he says.)

He kept a stable of women who prostituted themselves, but O’Neal was not as hard as his “Iceberg Slim” image and his Lincoln Continental suggested. He suffered a breakdown, he says, and tried to reconcile with his first wife, Tilly. But, says O’Neal, the whole “Middle America thing didn’t work for me.”

His birth as a community activist began after a confrontation with police at a protest set up by his brother Brian over alleged discriminatory practices at a local charity. A subsequent visit to Oakland, Calif., brought O’Neal into the orbit of the Black Panther Party, turning his vindictiveness to conviction. He came to see police as part of a racist system that held blacks in Third-World conditions – conditions that caused black communities to expect little from youths and to accept drug dealing and pimping as understandable career paths.

He formed the Kansas City chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1968. The name of the game, says O’Neal, was to highlight contradictions. “With more repression, it was easier to revolutionize the masses,” he says. “We wanted confrontation.”

But O’Neal’s outfit became known as a more dynamic breed than other Panther chapters, which seemed to draw daily headlines for confrontations with the police. In 1969, the chapter started a breakfast program for Kansas City youth. The Panthers began to ask local businesses – “forcefully” – for assistance.

“We explained to them that they made money in our community, and at night they took it somewhere else,” O’Neal recalls with a grin, declining to comment on the consequences for a reluctant donor. “There was an implication there. A lot of people gave.”

The program received a huge push from an unlikely source. One day, as O’Neal recalls, a black Cadillac with tinted windows pulled up at Panther headquarters. “A friend wants to talk to you,” the driver said. “It’s going to be of great benefit to you.” The meeting place: a meat processing plant.

The “friend” turned out to be Nicky Savella, head of a prominent Kansas City crime family. “Our two groups have a lot in common,” O’Neal recalls Savella saying upon greeting him. “I knew everything that followed would be complete B.S.”

But he says Savella became a staunch supporter of the Panther’s breakfast program, providing financial assistance and some of the perks a “meat processor” can afford. “We were probably the only breakfast program ever that had kids eating steak and eggs before school,” boasts O’Neal.

The Panthers fed the kids powdered eggs, vitamins, toast and healthy doses of anti-establishment propaganda (O’Neal’s wife and fellow Panther, Charlotte, fondly remembers leading her young wards in rousing choruses of “Off the Pig”).

At its height, the program fed 700 youths a day. The government would not begin a national breakfast program for six years, when in 1975 Congress voted to permanently authorize funding to schools for the School Breakfast Program, which now feeds more than 7 million children a year. Even O’Neal’s most formidable opponent – former Kansas City police chief and future FBI Director Clarence Kelly – admitted that O’Neal wasn’t always such a bad guy.

“He kept a lid on any violence,” Kelly was quoted as saying in The San Francisco Examiner in 1992. “They were exuberant about the possibility of doing some great things. Instead of doing it the way it should have been done, they went about it all wrong.”
Criminal charges ultimately caught up with O’Neal, and his trial depleted the Panthers’ resources, spelling the end of the breakfast program.
O’Neal was sentenced to four years in prison under the federal Gun Control Act for transporting a weapon across state lines.
Fearing the disproportionate sentences levied against his Panther brethren nationwide, Pete and Charlotte O’Neal left Kansas City for Algiers in 1970.

O’Neal has never returned to American soil. If he does, he faces up to 15 years in prison.

Exile

After two years in Algiers, which became increasingly intolerant of the political dissidents it once warmly welcomed, the O’Neals moved to socialist Tanzania, where they learned to farm and raise animals. After they settled in Arusha, it wasn’t long before villagers were sending their sons to learn plumbing skills from O’Neal and their girls to learn art from Charlotte, who also convened nutrition classes.

Noting the O’Neals’ contributions to the community, village elders offered them some land on which to hold community events. “That really blew me away, man,” says O’Neal. On that land the couple established the United African-American Community Center (UAACC) in 1991. (The “American” was recently changed to “Alliance.”)

Today, UAACC stands as a well-organized youth services effort in a country often dependent on foreign nongovernmental organizations to provide such programs. The compound that once barely accommodated staff quarters now features an open-air art studio, an English classroom and a new computer center, each building decorated with vivid African landscapes and portraits of African-American leaders. About 90 youth and young adults are served in an average week. Many walk hours to get here.

The computer lab hosts various age groups learning skills that range from e-mailing to creating Web pages. The most advanced students publish a monthly village newsletter, and three students recently passed online courses sponsored by virtual high schools in Plano, Texas, and Omaha, Neb. Students in the art program practice traditional African techniques, and get to exhibit and market their crafts.

The program maintains a connection to the United States, through its Heal the Community Project. Each year since 1995, the collaboration with Kansas City’s De La Salle Education Center has brought 10 troubled kids to spend part of the summer here, while sending five Tanzanian youths to Kansas City, where they attend De La Salle.

Although he’s 7,000 miles from his old home, O’Neal still manages to fund his programs in part from the pockets of suburban America. He has linked his organization with several study abroad programs, including the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vt.; the State University of New York at Stony Brook; and the University of Oregon in Eugene.

These programs pay O’Neal for their students to stay at his center for a week or two. O’Neal often arranges cultural visits and safari trips for them. It isn’t the surest money in the world – O’Neal says he realized that more than ever after the Sept. 11 attacks. Projects at the center often sit unfinished while waiting for more money to come in.

Most tasks are eventually completed, but both O’Neals know where the honey pot for future dreams lies. “Pete could probably raise a lot of money if he went back” to the United States, says Charlotte, who has returned to visit family. “But it’s not gonna happen.”

No Turning Back

If there is one thing O’Neal and U.S. law enforcement have agreed on, it is that he is not welcome in his homeland. Pro bono lawyer Paul Magnarella’s fight for O’Neal has been halted at every appeal.

O’Neal’s best chance came in 1990. Sen. Nancy Kassenbaum (R-Kan.) was prepared to facilitate a pardon for O’Neal, in recognition for the work he had done with UAACC. O’Neal proudly shows off the paperwork, which he considers a back-door admission of his innocence.

Like so many of the center’s projects, the paperwork lays incomplete. O’Neal refuses to accept anything less than a verdict of “not guilty.” He admits that he “bought and carried hundreds of weapons across that state line … but not the one they said I did.”

T his might seem a bit hard to swallow, coming from a former pimp and drug peddler whose youth was consumed with exploitation. People beg for pardons; families plead for them retroactively for deceased relatives. Who turns one down?

Perhaps someone who doesn’t want to go home. In Kansas City, O’Neal is a polished relic, a man whose presence might now have more appeal than effect. “There is a strong level of pride over him in the African-American community,” says Jim Dougherty, executive director of the De La Salle Center. “But this city has problems it is facing now.”

Back in Magi ya Chai, O’Neal reigns supreme. He is the American exile turned good, the toast of the village. He is the subject of a documentary that will tell his story of urban street to bush to thousands of film festival viewers.

“Pete is a man of principle,” Dougherty says. “He has a legacy of resistance, and [accepting a pardon] would put a whole cloud over that legacy.”

The exile of Pete O’Neal helped make him what he is today, taking him from a life on the edge to one of relative tranquility.

Even if the country that pushed him away welcomed him now, there is no going back.

Contact: UAACC at www.uaacc.habari.co.tz.