Friday, March 8, 2013

Aaron Dixon, Author & Activist, Madrona

Aaron Dixon has survived bullets, betrayals and intrigues while fighting for social justice with the Black Panther Party. Despite all that, he retains an almost otherworldly calm charm and warmth that draws people to him.

Photo by Madeline Crowley

Whenever I meet any of my friends from childhood we all agree were really lucky to be growing up in Seattle and particularly in Madrona. It was like a cocoon. We were almost protected from what was going on in the outside world. It was a really special place and a special time.

After moving to Madrona as a child he later became the Captain of our Black Panthers who implemented free food programs for children, and co-founded a free community health clinic that still exists in the Central District. Later, he founded Central House providing transitional housing for teens and co-founded Cannon House, an assisted living home for Seniors. Aaron also ran for US Senate in 2006 on the Green Party ticket.  His remarkable, stirring book, “My People Are Rising…” is a great, well-written read that shouldn’t be missed.

My People Are Rising... Haymarket Books

Aaron on our Community:

You mentioned in your book that your early childhood was in Chicago. What was your neighborhood like in Chicago?

The south side of Chicago, it was all black, black every day, all day. Everywhere you went there was nothing but black people. Policemen, all the businesses, everything was all black.

Was the diversity a shock when you first moved to the Central District?

Well, it was different.  We had also lived in Champaign, Illinois in Burch Village. My mother says it wasn’t a housing project, but it was. It was a housing project. It was all black, everyone in Burch Village was black. The only white people we saw were our teachers and the milkman and the bread man who came by to deliver.  

I wouldn’t say it was a shock when we first came here and saw such diversity because we were so young. When you’re little, you just take everything in. For my parents this neighborhood was the perfect environment, especially for my father.

What were your first impressions of Madrona when you were small?

(Aaron moved to Madrona when he was about eight years old.) I remember first being impressed with how big the trees and houses were. I was happy that the Madrona Playground was right across the street from our house. When you’re young and you move into someplace new, though, your biggest issue is trying to fit in with the kids in the neighborhood. That took a little time. It didn’t take much time, though. Very quickly we felt we were privileged to live on top of this big hill in this nice neighborhood.

What about the other kids in the neighborhood?

I mentioned this in my book, like kids anywhere when you’re new you have to fight to fit in; it’s how you learn how to fit in. One impression that stuck out was there was so many different types of nationalities in the area: Filipino, Chinese, Japanese, White kids. But on the other side of 34thAve., it was all white. It wasn’t long before we had friends of all ethnicities and white friends too. We had experience with families of different ethnicities as we grew up, that made it a really special place to grow up.

Did you have a relatively happy childhood here?

I did. It was happy. Whenever I meet any of my friends from childhood we all agree were really lucky to be growing up in Seattle and particularly in Madrona. It was like a cocoon. We were almost protected from what was going on in the outside world. It was a really special place and a special time.

I’ve heard the neighborhood now is comparatively sedate. When you were growing up in the 60s and 70s here, is it true that the community had more parties and more kids playing in the streets?

That was the time of the baby boom generation; there were just so many other kids around. There were kids everywhere. Seattle had to build all these schools in this area: Madrona, Leschi, Mt. Baker. There were so many more kids in the neighborhood than there are today.

Was the style of child-rearing back then, ‘Get out of the house and go play outside?”

It was. There was no hanging in the house. There was no lying around watching TV. We didn’t even know the word ‘boring.’  It was a different time, there weren’t any video games. There was nothing like that. Every year, every spring, we built our own go-karts. We used the parts from our Christmas presents like the wheels from skates. We made bows and arrows; we made stilts, skateboards, and slingshots. Lots of kids had BB guns, there was no problem having a BB gun back then. Some kids had .22s. We just found so many things to do in the park across the street. We’d play ping pong on rainy days. You just couldn’t be in the house, your parents weren’t going to put up with that. There was so much to do.

Was the diversity of the neighborhood common at that time or was Seattle unusual in that respect?

No, Los Angeles, Oakland was also mixed. Blacks and Asians lived together at that time. Richard Aoki, who became the Field Marshall of the Black Panther Party, he lived in a black neighborhood.

Perhaps that’s a west coast thing?

Yes, that is definitely a west coast thing. We’re closer geographically to Asia so you naturally have more Japanese here than you do on the east coast, and Chinese, too.

When did you become friends with Guy Kurose? (Later a Peace Activist and Karate Black Belt.)

My younger brothers both went to Madrona Elementary and I finished my last year at Colman Elementary School. My brother Elmer had a Japanese friend named Hugo who was Guy’s older brother. I knew Hugo before I knew Guy. I got to know Guy in Junior High.

It’s interesting that there were Japanese people who were involved in the Panther Party but were there also Chinese people?

No, but there were Chinese people we’d gone to school with who were activists involved other organizations, like Michael Woo, Director of ‘Got Green,’ the activist group fighting poverty and global warming.

Do you think the Japanese involvement and support of the Black Panther Party had to do with Internment?

I don’t know. Maybe so. The Internment issue did affect older Japanese people. They really came out and supported the Panthers with donations, and in a lot of other ways. At the time, I didn’t know why they supported us.  It was puzzling to me but it would make sense if it had been because of their experience of Internment.

How did your family react when you joined the Black Panthers?

My parents were supportive of that decision. Yet, they did tell me earlier, “No, you shouldn’t join the Marines”. They did say that. I was a college student so they understood I would make my decisions. Also, I think they had a sense of this change in the culture that was beginning to take place, as well as all the events of the 60s, especially the assassinations. They already had a political consciousness and political awareness so they could see the how the Civil Rights Movement moved into the Black Power Movement. We just became part of that Movement.

Were they terrified for you, having had that historical knowledge of what had happened in the past to those who stood up to mainstream authority?

I don’t know if they were terrified. I think it was probably similar to sending your child off to war, you’re worried about them, you want them to come home but if they’re fighting for a just cause you accept this is what they have to do. They never expressed any fear to us, even though they got calls in the middle of the night making threats on our lives, they never told us until much later. They kept that to themselves.

It sounds like a significant reason the Black Panther Party in Seattle wasn’t smashed as it was in other places was because it had broad, local support. Due to the qualities that you and your brother Elmer had, the Party you built here was viewed as a part of the larger community. Do you remember other instances of support from the neighborhood?

We used to do fundraising events; we’d sell soul food dinners. All the neighborhood women would get together to cook these dinners and we’d deliver them to people. The people supported us by both buying the food for the dinners while others bought the dinners.

Also, there was a huge music scene in this neighborhood. There were a lot of bands and a lot of musicians in this neighborhood. Elmer was in a couple of bands too. The musicians were always willing to support us by playing fundraisers. We had one at Garfield Park. We never had a problem getting two or three bands to participate.

There was other significant support though; I mention this in the book. There was a man, an undertaker at a funeral parlor on 12th Ave. He called and told us to come over because he had something for us. Inside, there was a line of caskets but one of them was filled with rifles. He went out of his way, to get these rifles for the Party. They were old weapons but they were weapons nonetheless. That meant a lot to us.

Then, there was the old Black man who worked for the Justice Department.  He went way out of his way to warn us they planned to eliminate us.

There were so many different types of support. Mr. Melonson lived four houses down from us. He worked at Boeing and was originally from Texas. He had a big family, seven kids. All his kids went to Catholic School. He was very conservative and strict with his kids.

When we joined the Party, he told his kids not to associate with us. One night, there was an incident. It was probably a set-up by informants who infiltrated the Party. We were all walking along together and suddenly they shot at some Police Officers. Then, they disappeared. I find myself alone. I had to hide so I ran into Mr. Melonson’s back yard but I had forgotten he had these 10-foot tall bushes and a fence so there was no way out. I heard the policemen getting out of their cars and then coming up the front stairs. I pulled my gun out, I thought, this is it. Then, Mr. Melonson came out onto the back porch and silently waved me inside. After I was hidden inside, the police came in the backyard looking for me.  Mr. Melonson saved my life.

Then, I also go into this in the book in more detail, but Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman also prevented the ATF (Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) who had days prior launched deadly assaults on other branches of the Black Panther Party) from coming in and launching an assault on the Black Panther Headquarters here.  He told them if they attempted to raid our office, he’d send the police in our defense. I remain grateful for that.  

Jumping back to the earlier mention of being Catholic. This has come up in other conversations I’ve had about the neighborhood, people will talk about black Catholics expressing a sense of superiority over other blacks. Is there a socio-economic difference?

There is. It’s probably even more so now, Catholic School costs money. When I was a kid, I wanted to go to Catholic School or the Military Academy. We felt like they were getting a better education than we were. And they were getting to wear those uniforms. Later, I did put my daughter into St. Therese when she was in Middle School. A lot of people from a higher social economic category had their kids in Catholic Schools. I think that now there’s an even bigger difference between families who can afford that and families who can’t.

What do you see as the biggest changes in the neighborhood since you were young?

Well, the lack of kids in the area. There used to be kids of all ages out playing in the street. Sometimes when I go to the Madrona Park I see only young kids with their parents. When we were kids playing at the park, there were no parents there. That was a place for kids. Parents would send their kids over to the park to be with other kids.

Also, people are definitely not as friendly as they used to be here. People aren’t friendly; they’re not open, when you walk down the street, no one says, ‘Hi.’ They don’t acknowledge you; they don’t nod at you and recognize your existence. When I was growing up here, we knew everybody in the neighborhood, white, black, pink, red, it didn’t matter. Everybody knew everybody. Everybody was friendly to everybody.

This area was a community.

[Aaron was chosen for this project after a talk he did at Gray's Barber Lounge on 34th Ave]

©  Madeline Crowley People of the Central Area 2013   All material is covered by copyright. Express written permission must be given for any copyrighted material on this page. Email to request permission to copy or paste materials. 

This project was supported in part by
4Culture's Heritage Projects program

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About Me

Seattle, WA, United States
I am not a professional photographer nor a trained journalist. At community meetings, it became clear that many of us don’t know each other. We haven’t heard each other’s stories and don't know each other’s circumstances. This is my attempt to give a few people the chance to tell their story, to talk about our community, to say their piece in peace. As such, comments have been disabled. The views and opinions expressed here are those of each narrator and do not necessarily reflect the position of views of the CentralAreaComm.blogspot blog site itself. The is not responsible for the accuracy of any information supplied by narrators of this project. All interviews have been edited and in places condensed.

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