As a 17-year-old in 1950s Seattle, Mark Cook attended the predominantly white Queen Anne High School, where he was only one of three African-American students. An adult white cashier had refused to serve him at lunch.
He responded by breaking a window, and was later arrested at his home. A juvenile court decision committed him to a mental institution for an indefinite period of time. This was the moment, he says, that his politicization began.
Decades later, Cook would form the first prison chapter of the Black Panther Party at the Walla Walla State Penitentiary. Now 78 and a revered Seattle prison abolitionist, he flew to Hong Kong earlier this month to share with Umbrella activists about the growing liberation movement he started inside prison walls.
As part of a series of three talks through the first week of January, Cook spoke to an audience whose situations demanded resistance: those who are poor, and those who’ve survived police violence and been incarcerated themselves after demonstrating in the Umbrella protests. The talks were part of an exchange planned by Pacific Rim Solidarity Network (PARISOL), with hosting support from the Asian Pacific Mission for Migrants (APMM).
Those attending the talks were curious about Black struggles in the U.S. Questions ranged from “How did you get other people involved in the organizing work in prison?” to “How do you confront sexism in the movement, such as when men want women to go to the back of the actions, so that we [women] can be protected?”
In response, Cook shared his stories about his young resistance, from the incident in high school that led to his politicization, to his later days outside of jail as part of the George Jackson Brigade in Seattle.
At a time when the hippie aesthetic was all the rage outside the prison walls, state penitentiary rules demanded that inmates keep their hair short. Mark and his comrades initiated an ongoing underground newsletter featuring prisoner demands. One of the actions they encouraged was “If you care, grow hair.”
“Very soon,” Cook recounted, “Everyone was growing out their afros, their long hair and their beards. [The prison officials] didn’t know what to do!”
This was a way the inmates collectively resisted the authoritarian discipline handed down to them — something that resonated deeply with Hong Kong activists.
Insisting that the two-thirds of the Black Panther Party consisted of women who instituted universal free breakfast programs, which today’s public school meals are modeled after, Cook expressed the need for men to support women’s leadership in the struggle for liberation and #BlackLivesMatter resistance.
“Men have to get over their sexism for movements to succeed,” he noted.
The early criminalization of youth resistance was also a theme that resounded. Oscar Ho, faculty member at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, likened Cook’s experience at 17 to that of a 14-year-old girl arrested for making chalk drawings on a free speech wall at an occupation site.
Hong Kong police detained the girl in a children’s home and deemed her father, who has a serious hearing disability, unfit to be a parent.
“[Cook] brought in new inspiration and encouragement at a moment when the Umbrella Movement is, after the clearing of the occupied zones, at a stagnant state,” Ho said.
Even before Hong Kong police acquired their grisly reputation detaining and tear-gassing peaceful protesters in September, police decency was questionable, according to one United Nations High Commissions for Refugees (UNHCR) asylum seeker in Hong Kong attending one of the talks.
The man, who asked his name be withheld for fear of negatively affecting his active asylum case, is a West African refugee who has been applying for his asylum case for 10 years. He said he was targeted by the police from the get-go.
“The police here are racist,” he said. “They act in their own way, provoking people. They say, ‘Show me ID’ for no reason, even when I am not breaking the law. Even if you call them to report something, they will always take the Chinese person’s side and ignore you.”
He spent two months in immigrant detention at the now closed Victoria Prison.
“There were only two bathrooms for hundreds of us in the prison,” he remembered. “We could only sit. If we stood up, the guard would come and shout at us. Every night, we would sleep in a different police station because the prison was overcrowded.”
Other activists Cook and I met shared that the call for universal suffrage eclipsed many important social ills that needed attention.
X.W., an NGO worker who attended Cook’s talks and asked that only her initials be used for fear of police retaliation, flagged that Hong Kong has one of the largest wealth gaps in the world. The city is a global financial center with a 20 percent poverty rate.
“Many people did not just come out [to the protests] only for universal suffrage, they came out because of their political and economic conditions,” she said.
The democratic process and poverty alleviation are intertwined, something Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying has openly admonished, expressing fear that the poor vote could take over the electoral process.
On a typical Sunday afternoon in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park, hundreds of Hong Kong’s disproportionately poor Indonesian and other Southeast Asian domestic workers, take their only day off in the park. We bought food from them, sharing it with our Hong Kong friends, who express ambivalence about the Umbrella Movement — one that struggles for universal suffrage, yet overshadows overwhelming issues of class and race.
There is still no relief for Erwiana, an Indonesian worker from local migrant rights group APMM, who is trying to resist her employer’s brutal domestic violence as institutional silence on the issue maintains frequent violence against migrant women.
The seven days Cook and I spent in Hong Kong felt too short to understand all the complexities of Hong Kong political movements, and vice versa. Yet it was sufficient for both of us to feel the warmth extended by our Hong Kong friends, lighting a path for PARISOL’s future to keep sharing, learning and connecting our movements.
PARISOL will continue making connections at Seattle’s Pipsqueak Art Gallery this Saturday, Jan. 24 starting at 7 p.m. with the talk “Resisting Transnational Companies in China.” For more information about the event or PARISOL, visit parisol.net.wordpress.com or email transpacific.seattle[at]gmail.com.
This story has been updated since its original publication.