People change. Take Jane Fonda. In the ’60s she was running around in a black beret with the Black Panthers, decrying racial inequality and the genocide of poverty. Fast-forward three decades and she’s smiling in a luxury box at an Atlanta Braves game, giving the ol’ Injun Mohawk chop in unison with all the other fans.
People change. Take the Black Panthers. Where once they were mobilized against ghetto trappings and the OPD, eventually a few of them succumbed to the very options they were trying to circumvent: drug addiction and incarceration. Members of the Panthers didn’t exactly sell out — say, by becoming white-gloved tap dancers for upper-middle-class white children’s birthday parties in the Berkeley Hills or going on to play JJ Evans on Good Times — but they moved on, some to better things, some to dire straits.
That’s why Brother Malcolm’s story is so interesting. Depending on how you look at it, he’s either a Panther who’s stayed true to his radical roots by rejecting conventionality and living in the streets, preaching against the Man daily on the corner of Berkeley’s Telegraph and Haste; or he’s a down-on-his-luck man in his early sixties who has lost one leg to diabetes and is slowly losing his sight as well, spare-changing and selling Street Spirit for money. He says he’s staying true to the cause. Meet him, sit with him, and you will believe him.
Malcolm has a charisma that has drawn an entire crop of young, primarily African-American men in their twenties to him. He can’t go down the street without several shout-outs from people who weren’t even alive during the ’60s, but who hold some reverence for the Black Panthers. Sure, some of his followers probably mythologize the movement as if it were some three-page spread in Grand Royal, right after the article about Biz Markie’s greatest dumps. But others see him as a sincere realist; the person Holden Caulfield didn’t think existed. That’s why musicians like this guy, and that’s why he has a new CD of his preachings interspersed with tracks from Concepts, the Coup, Televaszquez, DJ Analog, and Subtle, to name a few.
Malcolm is a slight man with dark skin. He still wears a beret, though not a jet-black one these days — it’s more gray, as is he. He scoots himself along in his chair with his remaining leg so he can keep his hands free to light a cigarette or greet a friend. We meet at Caffe Med, which seems like the perfect place to talk about Berkeley in the ’60s. At a nearby table Julia Vinograd, the “weird and proud” poet who hawks her chapbooks up and down the avenue, eyes us curiously. It’s not everyday Malcolm gets interviewed.
“I was there when they shot up Bobby Hutton,” he says, pouring roughly a cup of sugar into his lemon tea — a poor man’s way of regulating his wayward blood sugar. “He was sixteen years old. You’d a thought he was John Dillinger. They just shot him down.”
For all his travails, Malcolm is soft-spoken, genuinely sweet, and seemingly satisfied. He joined the Panthers in the ’60s, after meeting the organizers in what is now People’s Park. In the spot where he panhandles each weekend, the building Amoeba Music now occupies, there was a Mexican restaurant with colorful, beehived waitresses. Joan Baez hung out, along with Jefferson Airplane, and Big Brother and the Holding Company. To hear Malcolm tell it, he was ripped off by Bill Graham who, Malcolm claims, stole the band Loading Zone away from him as a manager. Malcolm also says he was threatened by the Nation of Islam when they demanded that he — a tailor by trade — make clothes only for the Black Muslims and no one else; and he chilled with Patty Hearst, who was up to radical weirdness before the SLA ever got to her.
This is the kind of stuff that fascinates his “followers.” Musician Chris Loescher used to work on the Avenue, and when he started up his own record label, Harvest Freedom, the first thing he did was record Malcolm. “He’s kind of this ambassador on Telegraph,” Loescher says. “He’s just a really nice person, so people take the time to meet him. I can see how people are drawn to him … want to take care of him.” Eventually the other groups came on board and offered songs for the resulting CD, Brother Malcolm Speaks. Kool Kyle from Inspector Double Negative and the Equal Positives appears on the disc. “It’s nice just to have elders like that who are willing to hang out and share their ideas,” he says. “Even before I knew who he was, he’d always smile and say hello.”
So, what is Brother Malcolm speaking these days? In two words, “Fuck Bush.” He also says that the radical movement hasn’t really changed much: It’s just that now, instead of shotguns, people are using the power of the pen and the courts to change things. “We’re for the cause,” he says on the CD. “The only way that we’re gonna beat the system, brothers and sisters, is we gotta keep that pen and that paper with us at all times, so when we shoot out bullets, we shootin’ ’em at they pockets. That’s the only way they gonna listen.” Power to the people, y’all.