– BLACK POWER MEDIA AND IMIXWHATILIKE.ORG PRESENT AN AFRICAN HERITAGE MONTH SPECIAL –
By Todd Steven Burroughs
(© Main text copyright 2019, 2022 by Todd Steven Burroughs, Ph.D. The “Open Letter” prologue is copyrighted 2020 by the signatories and the 2021 Congressional hearing testimonies in the Appendices are copyrighted by the witnesses. Both supplemental Appendices texts are in the online public domain and, like the Open Letter, are properly credited. The Democracy Now! transcripts are in the public domain but copyrighted by Democracy Now! The digital flyers and Safiya Bukari’s Appendices text, the latter copyright the Estate of Safiya Asya Bukari, are displayed [“printed”] here under Fair Use, as is Joe Piette’s photograph. All Rights Reserved.)
To Newark’s Amiri Baraka Sr., Seton Hall University’s Leroy Wilson III, Erwin Ponder, Raynette Gardner and Dr. Julia “Judy” Miller, print alt-media’s The Village Voice’s Joe Wood and Greg Tate, Black print media’s Mel Reeves and James G. Spady and Black digital media’s Africology: The Journal of Pan-African Studies’ Itibari Zulu and Black Power Media’s Baba Abdus Luqman, Ancestors All
An Open Letter from Original Black Panther Party Members to Black (Hip-Hop) Artists Who Have an Interest in Our Community (T.I., KILLER MIKE, CARDI B, KANYE WEST, BEYONCE’, JAY-Z, P-DIDDY, LUDACRIS, 50-CENT, and others)
JUNE 10, 2020
Greetings and Solidarity to each of you. In recognition of your individual voice, influence, and cultural following among current generations of Black people/Africans in the Diaspora and on the continent, we salute you.
While we only know you from the public domain, we know that many of you come from backgrounds where you faced poverty, police brutality, lack of healthcare and other forms of oppression like most Black people. We all recognize that we are in a watershed period of economic and government failure, a pandemic and now a resistance movement from which things will never emerge the same.
What we all do in this period will directly impact the fortunes, survival and freedom dreams of Black People, and others around the world who suffer from the same oppression. Whether it’s South American Favelas, South African Shanty Towns, Palestinian territories or the Black urban ghettoes of racist America, capitalism and white supremacy have turned the entire world into a ghetto for the profits of a few. So, we should pay attention to each other, because here, in the heart of racist America we are all we have, and along with our true allies, are truly all we need.
Individually we who write this letter are former members of the original Black Panther Party, co-founded in 1966 by the late Huey P. Newton, and Bobby Seale in Oakland, California. We were targets of the FBI’s infamous Counter Intelligence Program (codename COINTELPRO) which killed many of our comrades, including Fred Hampton, Mark Clark, and numerous other Panthers and revolutionary freedom fighters. We are veterans of government search and destroy missions that forced our beloved Comrade Assata Shakur into exile. We are former Black Political Prisoners who spent decades in U.S. prisons, like our comrades Russell “Maroon” Shoatz [now an Ancestor], Romaine “Chip” Fitzgerald [now an Ancestor], Sundiata Acoli, Jalil Muntaqim [now released], and Mumia Abu-Jamal who are still locked down today. In short, we were on the front line of government efforts to kill and destroy the Black radical movements for civil/human rights including the right to self-determination.
Some of us were also racist law enforcement’s worst nightmare, armed combatants in the revolutionary Black underground, the Black Liberation Army (BLA). Much of our history in our people’s struggle has been kept away from you and seemingly unavailable to your generation as you reinvent what was done in the past. Our people’s enemies haven’t changed, circumstances and conditions have. History never repeats itself – but it damn sure can rhyme.
The question is where do we, Black people, oppressed peoples, go from here? What is to be done? Make no mistake, we are still at war. A war that began when, as Malcolm said, “Plymouth Rock landed on us” and it has continued to this day unabated.
It is our duty as revolutionary freedom fighters to pass on lessons, wisdom, knowledge and experiences to the next generation of freedom fighters, cultural workers and activists. In that manner, an oppressed people can resist domination from one generation to the next without reinventing failures, pitfalls, or the mistakes of the previous generation. It is our enemy’s job to prevent this, and isolate one generation from the other. It is their duty to denigrate the history of militant and radical traditions and burnish the history of integrationists who think we can simply vote our way out of this problem. It is for this reason that we have stepped forward at this neo-fascist moment in history driven by the current crisis of capitalist culture, an ongoing pandemic and the now renewed attention and massive demonstrations brought on by ongoing police murders in our community.
We have chosen to focus this letter on you because our enemies constantly target you to help “calm” the people down. They hope your new class status will outweigh your racial and class analysis. You have a chance to prove them wrong and with your resources and influence, you can be crucial to the collective survival of our people. Tattoos, expensive cars and private jets don’t inoculate anyone from disease and don’t render you bulletproof. We have to collectively provide for our own human agency and not delude ourselves into thinking it’s safer to integrate into a maligned system of greed and dehumanization.
Some may say we as Panther veterans are not the Black people you should be seen talking to. Niggas should know their place we’ve been told and this is one reason that powerless Black folks have sports figures, actors, musicians and bought-off politicians as their public opinion makers. The voices of the disenfranchised are only heard when they rage against the machine that has ground down their lives.
We have all been encouraged by the energy of the Black masses and our allies in protesting the murder of George Floyd, but as each of you is well aware the murder and brutality visited upon our people is nothing aberrational or new. The butchering, torture, and dehumanization of Black people extends back to the days of bullwhips, castrations and mass rape on the plantations of America’s European “founding fathers” and continues to this day. This is the legacy from which modern law enforcement in America derived its overarching purpose, the protection of property and wealth, not people — especially not Black people. No amount of training, social sensitivity, counseling, or smaller police forces will change the current impact of this history on law enforcement. Only our control of public safety in our communities will break this historical context for modern law enforcement. This begins with decentralization of the police, and community control of public safety.
This season of political struggle is indeed about the “Ballot and the Bullet.” To organize the former, (ballot) all progressive and radical forces in America need to come together in a United Front Against Fascism and the militarized police state. This is what the BPP did at the height of the tumultuous sixties, resulting in delaying the outright consolidation of right-wing racist takeover of American foreign and domestic policy.
We must also look beyond solutions that are strictly based on legislative reform, voting, or individual capitalist enterprises. Black folks must survive institutional racist paradigms of power and exercise political and social self-determinant power. The public platforms each of you have can go a long way in creating this tactical and strategic organizing vision. With this in mind, we ask you who have a certain sway over the attitudes and minds of today’s Black youth to do the following:
• Let’s meet and talk through a strategy based on liberating Black People and our respective roles in that fight.
• Let’s create a Pan-African Refugee and Relief Agency where we become our own first responders in times of natural and/or human-made disasters/pandemics.
• Help create a consortium so we can develop a new cooperative economic system where ownership is shared and is directed towards the needs of our people/workers, not consumerist enterprises.
• Support radical and revolutionary Black organizations that have a history of accomplishment and institution building in our community that is independent of major corporate donations, government grants or foundation founding.
• Through your social media reach support the current rebellion in the streets and mass organizing for radical change.
• If you are opposed to property destruction then instead call for massive demonstrations at key government and private installations and give free concerts to ensure large numbers of people come out.
• Work with us and others to create and fund an independent Black electoral platform and candidates with radical demands for Black control and redistribution of this country’s wealth and reparations for Black people.
• Fight for the demilitarization and the decentralization of the police. Create local community boards that can control the hiring, firing and disciplining of police in their community.
• Let’s create not only a new policing paradigm and a community restorative justice model but an end to the prison industrial complex.
These are just some of the things you/we can do to create a united Black Liberation Front to challenge our oppressive conditions in the united states and erase the class divide between the overwhelming majority of our people and those few like you who have some wealth and influence. This is all our opportunity to do what’s best for our people and be on the right side of history.
Original Black Panther Members,
KATHLEEN CLEAVER, SEKOU ODINGA, CLEO SILVERS, JAMAL JOSEPH, YASMEEN MAJID, VICTOR HOUSTON, PAULA PEEBLES, BILAL SUNNI ALI, JIHAD MUMIT, DHORUBA BIN-WAHAD, KIM HOLDER, HAROLD WELTON, HAROLD TAYLOR, ARTHUR LEAGUE, RASHAD BYRDSONG, KHALID RAHEEM, ASHANTI ALSTON.
It’s not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.
Those days like one drawn-out song, monotonously promising. The quick step, the watchful march-march. All were leading here, to this room, where memory stifles the present. And the future, my man, is long time gone.
IT’S A PAINFULLY POWERFUL thing to realize the obvious: that there is no real relationship between age and significance. The revelation carries even more significance as one grows older and your bond with yourself deepens. I am spending Memorial Day 2021 trying to thematically mine and rhyme disparate memories; the three-day holiday is ample time for an exploration of correlation. It’s been a momentous week heading into the remembering zone—the first anniversary of George Floyd’s murder merged with the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa, Oklahoma massacre. Thanks to Congressman Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat, a bill facing history had been introduced in the House for a committee to review, one that would help the few survivors of the butchering gain reparations. Marches and memorials swept across Black America to remember both anniversaries.
The past is not only always present but always available. My news media diet is dominated by two morning news programs: Black Power Media’s ReMix Morning Show and Democracy Now! The radical noise happily destroys the silence of my weekday morning.
I checked out ReMix on May 25th. It was African Liberation Day, a day normally commemorating the 1963 founding of the Organization of African Unity. It is one of those days not sponsored by Wall Street, Madison Avenue or Buckingham Palace. Being a decolonized media forum, ReMix celebrated the day in many ways. One of those was to show a clip of “Black Liberation Army: Soldiers’ Stories,” Black Power Media’s members-only panel the previous weekend with living veterans from the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army–Thomas “Blood” McCreary, Sekou Odinga and Dhrouba bin Wahad. All had done political-prisoner time, but perhaps bin Wahad—part of the Panther 21, a group of New York Panthers framed by the New York Police Department—was perhaps best known.
ReMix co-hosts Kalonji Changa, Kamau Franklin and Dr. Jared Ball discussed how proud they were of those who are part of history’s whispers. “I appreciate that they are against the state and they don’t compromise their position,” declared Changa. Franklin said the Black Left and the white-led mainstream Left need to be celebrating these people the way others in America and around the world celebrate these heroes on Memorial Day and all other days; Changa agreed, saying it’s a betrayal of them and their movements if they are not celebrated: “These are our war heroes.” Dr. Ball thought the conversation was a perfect counterbalance to the nationwide, liberal commemorations of the murder of George Floyd. In this public discussion, the three brothers were not imitating the freed slaves who left memorials at Black Union soldiers’ graves in 1865, in what could have been the first Memorial Day in America. Instead, they were publicly acting as free, intellectually decolonized men, honoring secret-warriors still very much alive.
Then the digital “tape” rolled. McCreary explained that the history of the NYC Panthers has to be viewed in phases, with 1966 to 1971 being the period that the Party in New York was a revolutionary group. But the combination of the split between Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton, coupled with the never-ending infiltration and harassment from local law enforcement and the Federal Bureau of Investigation—them, as in the enemy of us—brought the New York Party into the BLA phase. After the killings of Black youth and activists started, he remembered, “we decided we were going to take the fight to them.” Telling the audience to ignore popular accounts in the few history books that even bother to mention the BLA, McCreary explained that grassroots Blacks knew, understood and believed in the dark, shadowy infantry. “We had no problem taking that fight to them because under the conditions we were living in—especially in New York, with them killing kids, throwing motherfuckers throwing kids off of rooftops—we said we cannot go on anymore like that…..When we took the fight to them, you found out that they were actually cowards.” The NYC BPP became BLA in 1971, he explained, and that police brutality decreased as a result because authorities now knew there would be real consequences meted out to them directly.
The following day, Democracy Now!, a 25-year-old television/radio newsmagazine that has slowly degenerated in the last five years or so from a grassroots, radical Leftist news forum to an established, “progressive” one, had on as Memorial Day approached Yale University professor Elizabeth Hinton, author of America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s. It’s a well-funded- and -researched book about Black rebellion and she’s the kind of guest the program likes now. With white liberal scholars absorbing virtually all of the scholarly spaces available documenting the Civil Rights Movement, many young, Black Ivy League scholars by 2021 have begun excavating what was Left—the sharper edges of the Black Movement. Many have created intellectual homes there, some by re-interpreting radicalism into antiseptic social science interactions or something else intellectually well-scrubbed and palatable to the blond and the bland.
Violence as a historical tactic was discussed thoroughly, but somehow Frantz Fanon, the guiding theorist of Black insurrection, never came up. Juan Gonzalez, the former Young Lord who is often the historical conscience of the program, brought the conversation into the present but also showed the purposeful impotence of Black response.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor Hinton, I wanted to ask you about the lessons for activists today in terms of the response of the establishment, of those in power, to these rebellions. Whether it was in the 1940s or in the 1960s or even now, there is a period of time when the system, because — is taken aback by the mass upsurge and then agrees to certain reforms. In the case of the Rodney King situation, there was a second federal trial of the officers, that sort of sought to calm the public, and as we’ve seen with the Derek Chauvin trial now after George Floyd. But the promises of systemic change rarely occur. And what happens is, the system almost seems to wait until the movement subsides, and then goes back to its old way of doing things.
ELIZABETH HINTON: Yeah, that’s actually a great way to kind of understand the currents and tendencies of history. But I think, you know — and this stems from my previous comment about some of the missed opportunities in L.A. You know, we have to go back to that critical moment in the late 1960s with the Kerner Commission. Johnson’s own National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders basically called for exactly what you’re talking about, that kind of structural change. They said to the Johnson administration and the nation that if we wanted to — if we’re serious about preventing rebellion in the future, we needed a massive investment in low-income communities of color, and not in the form of policing and surveillance and prisons, which is what ended up happening, but in a robust job creation program that — made possible by the mobilization of both the public and private sector, a complete overhaul of urban public schools and a complete transformation of public housing, and the continued support of community action programs that would empower the grassroots to address problems in their community on their own terms with funding from the federal government.
And, you know, unfortunately, time and time again, every time inequality and police violence is evaluated, all of these structural solutions are always suggested, and yet they’re never taken up, as you said. We know what needs to be done. If we’re serious about addressing the problem of police violence in this country and addressing the larger issue of racial inequality, of which police violence is a symptom, then we have to move beyond police reform. We have to support and bring about that kind of systemic transformation that the Kerner Commission suggested more than 50 years ago. We can only imagine what the United States might look like today had policymakers invested in those kinds of robust social programs rather than in policing and prisons. I would be certain that George Floyd would still be with us today.
Knowledge is not lacking here. The system/state reassured on the broadcast forum that used to criticize it consistently, Democracy Now! continued its “global news hour” focus:
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Hinton, the significance of Kristen Clarke, the first African American woman, sworn in last night by the first African American vice president, to be head of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice? And the significance of this division when it comes to reining in police?
ELIZABETH HINTON: Yeah. So, you know, I think, like Al Sharpton said, we are really facing a turning point in American policing. And the provisions of the George Floyd [Justice in Policing] Act are just a baby step. If we’re serious about public safety, we’re going to have to look beyond the police. Yes, we need to put police violence in check, but we also need to change the conditions that lead to the kind of deadly encounters that we’ve seen all too often throughout our history and, due to the bodycams and the fact that we all have cameras in our pockets now, frequently on our screens.
The program turned to such a frequent frequency: the police killing of Marcus Smith in North Carolina, one of the many, many police killings that happened since Floyd. Smith had been hogtied by police. The Marshall Project, a journalism organization that focuses on the criminal justice system, had released a report about the Smith case called He Died Like an Animal: Some Police Departments Hogtie People Despite Knowing the Risks.
AMY GOODMAN: Marcus Smith’s family is charging cover-up and filed a lawsuit in 2019 alleging wrongful death.
For more, we’re joined by two guests. In Durham, North Carolina, Joseph Neff is with us. He’s an investigative reporter for The Marshall Project who examines the deaths of Marcus Smith and others across the country in a new report headlined He Died Like an Animal: Some Police Departments Hogtie People Despite Knowing the Risks. And in Chicago, Flint Taylor is with us, one of the lawyers for the Marcus Smith family, founding partner of the People’s Law Office in Chicago.
Flint Taylor, start off by continuing to describe that night, where Marcus approached eight white police officers and asked them for help. Within minutes, he would be dead.
FLINT TAYLOR: I can’t see the video as you showed it, but just listening to it, as I have watched it several times, of course, it makes me completely upset. I’m sure that it’s tremendously traumatizing to not only people who are watching, but to the family.
What happened in that case was that these eight white police officers decided that they were going to hogtie Marcus Smith. And this wasn’t something that was unusual in the Greensboro Police Department. We have, in our lawsuit, documented that in the past five years, before the hogtying of Marcus Smith that caused his death, 275 people were hogtied by the Greensboro Police Department and that 68 or 69% of those people were African American, and over 15% of them were suffering a mental crisis, such as what Marcus was suffering.
But what happened in the case, after Marcus died in the hospital — or, actually, lost his breath and stopped breathing, and his heart stopped on the street there — the Greensboro Police Department, spearheaded by the chief of police at that time, watched the video and then chose to put out a press release that, like the first press release up in Minneapolis, ignored and left out the crucial factor that he was hogtied — what they called, in the parlance of the police department, maximum restraint. So they put out a press release that made it sound like Marcus had collapsed: He was suicidal, and he was agitated, and he just collapsed in police custody.
And that was the start of a cover-up that has continued in various forms, has been perpetrated and continues to be perpetrated not only by the police department but by all of the politicians — many of the politicians — the mayor, the City Council, the city attorney and others in Greensboro. And, of course, as you mentioned, we have had a civil suit that we’ve been dealing with for the past two years. We have taken statements and depositions of all the main actors in the case, all the police, the chief of police, the mayor, the city manager. And what’s happening now is that the city wants to put all of that testimony and all of our arguments about why it should not be secret under seal, and they want to hold us in contempt for what they say is disseminating information, information that’s not confidential, information that should be in the public domain. They want to hold us in contempt, and, unbelievably, they want to bar us from practicing law in the state of North Carolina.
And so, that’s where we stand now in this remarkable case, a case that should be looked at along with the George Floyd case and so many other cases where unnecessary and brutal restraint is used. And it’s starting to come to light, thanks to people like Joe Neff at The Marshall Project and you, Amy, so that people can see and understand the breadth of racist police violence in this country.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Joseph Neff, I’d like to ask you. Your investigation uncovered at least 23 deaths that have occurred in the past decade from people being hogtied by police departments across the country. Could you talk about how extensive this practice is?
JOSEPH NEFF: Well, it’s hard to know how extensive it is, because there’s no reporting requirement. For example, in Greensboro, where Marcus Smith died, police do not view the hogtie as a use of force, so they don’t even count it within their own department. We made public records requests from the country’s 30 biggest police departments on use of force, every type of use of force, and we got records back from about 11 of them. So, it’s really hard for the public to know. To find these 23 people who died while being hogtied, we looked in court records. We looked for news stories. That was the — we just had to scrape the web like that to find these cases.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk about how many departments permit this, or which ones don’t?
JOSEPH NEFF: Well, out of the top 30 departments that we surveyed, the 30 largest, 22 of them explicitly forbid this practice. Another four — Charlotte, Houston, Indianapolis and one other — allow it under different circumstances. So, it’s hard to — I would say that the practice is more common in smaller police departments. The big ones — New York has banned this practice for decades.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to another case. In 2017, Vanessa Peoples was doing laundry in the basement of her Aurora, Colorado, home when police officers showed up for a child welfare check. Peoples told NBC, who you did this project with, Joe, what happened next.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is Vanessa Peoples describing this, Joe. And this is Aurora. That’s where Elijah McClain would be killed a few years later, and then another woman describing the same thing happening to her. She was hogtied in front of her neighbors. And can you also talk about the hobble?
JOSEPH NEFF: The hobble is the actual strap that police use to wrap around someone’s ankles, and then they attach it either to the handcuffs or to, in the case of Vanessa Peoples, to a belt around her waist. If you showed this picture to any person in a Walmart parking lot, they would look at it and say, “Oh, that’s a hogtie,” because the feet are pulled up behind the person’s back, and the person is handcuffed behind their back. So, there’s a slight difference in that the hobble is used without attaching to the handcuffs sometimes. But it’s still — if you look at it, it’s virtually the same position.
And Vanessa Peoples, she shouted out seven times during while she was restrained, while they were restraining her, that she couldn’t breathe. And then, you’re right, they took her out, and eventually she was laying in her front yard for all her neighbors to see like that.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Flint Taylor, I wanted to ask you. You mentioned the efforts of the officials to get you — to run you out of North Carolina. But in terms of the — what kind of attacks has the Smith family had to deal with since they sought to find justice for Marcus?
FLINT TAYLOR: Well, Juan, I first want to commend the wonderful strength that Mary Smith, the mother of Marcus Smith, and the father and the sister, Kim and George, have shown, from the moment that they saw the video that revealed that their son had been hogtied. It wasn’t ’til a month later that the video was shown to the Smith family. Mary couldn’t watch it, but George watched it. And that’s the first time that anyone knew, outside of the police department and the powers that be, that there was a hogtie. They had completely covered up not only the fact that he was hogtied but the video itself. They hadn’t released it. They hadn’t moved to release it to the public.
From that moment that the family learned what actually happened to Marcus to this present day, Mary Smith, particularly, and the family, generally, has stood behind justice for Marcus Smith. And I want to say that there’s a remarkable movement on the ground in Greensboro, that is a multiracial, a multigenerational movement, that appears at every City Council meeting and asks questions about what in fact is being done about this case. They stand in front of City Hall every Monday — “Mondays for Marcus” — with banners calling for justice in the Marcus Smith case. And one of the things that the — what’s being demanded by the movement on the ground there is that there be a full apology from the mayor and the City Council for the death of Marcus Smith, there be a memorial for Marcus Smith in the city of Greensboro, and there be just compensation for the family.
The City Council and the mayor have been doing a lot of different diversionary tactics, a lot of misinformation publicly, including slandering the family, and particularly Mary Smith, who is the plaintiff in our lawsuit. We’ve been trying to fight back publicly. And that’s when they came down on us and said, “We can talk, but you can’t.” And I think that it raises — not only does the hogtying and the idea of the different kinds of prone restraints that are used across this country that being so dangerous because of positional asphyxia and sudden death syndrome and all those kinds of activities, but also now we’re looking at an attack on lawyers, an attack on the community, which they are singling out, as well as the community activists who have spoken up — a First Amendment attack.
AMY GOODMAN: Flint, you mentioned Kim Smith, Marcus’s sister. This is Kim speaking to NBC about the treatment of her brother.
KIM SUBER: Imagine your closest sibling, looking at them die. … I had no idea what a hogtie was. I had no clue. That’s how you treat an animal.
AMY GOODMAN: So, looking at this nationally, the scores of people who have died with this use of the hobble, no centralized database about how it is used, Joe Neff, the responses of the police departments to your repeated requests to explain what their policies are?
JOSEPH NEFF: Some departments were very helpful. And actually, in Aurora, they released the data. They actually released the types of restraints that they were using. So, that is how we were able — is one of the few cities where we could actually count the times the was used. And to their credit, the police chief has denounced the practice and fired the officer who hobbled Shataeah Kelly and left her in the well of a car for a drive down to the police station. She has denounced it.
AMY GOODMAN: An astounding story….
Yes, and one with no consequences for the Greensboro police as of Memorial Day. Meanwhile, Russell “Maroon” Shoatz, one of the Black Left’s political prisoners, was in an emergency situation: he had not gotten his scheduled cancer treatment. The Black political prisoner movement had to interrupt its planning for a Political Prisoner Tribunal in the fall and immediately took charge. The phones began ringing in the Pennsylvania prison and he got the treatment by the Friday before Memorial Day. And Sundiata Acoli, like Shoatz another former Black Panther who has been in jail for more than four decades, was the subject of a proposed car caravan that had to be postponed. These kinds of developments are on Black Power Media’s radar constantly but only make Democracy Now! when one of them is dying.
Thanks to Dr. Ball’s imixwhatilike.org, I once wrote about a “positive” article involving one of these political prisoners, a 2019 book review excerpted and updated here. Albert Woodfox–who joined the Panthers in prison in the 1970s and, as a direct result, was framed into what would be known as “The Angola 3,”–is in 2021, at the age of 74, out and about. His book is called Solitary: Unbroken by Four Decades of Solitary Confinement, My Story of Transformation and Hope. He is speaking and fighting and recovering from being put in Louisiana’s solitary confinement, give or take a year or two for a trial or two, from 1972 to 2016. Woodfox spent the majority of that locked-down time at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, nicknamed Angola–a maximum-security prison that was, and has a long history of acting as a former plantation.
This book’s National Public Radio-ish public face invited America to face up to the abuses of the American criminal justice system and the human rights violation of solitary confinement. It tried to straddle the ideological distance between Panther prison revolutionary George Jackson and liberal prison reform activist-scholar Michelle Alexander, who are both mentioned by the author. However, the autobio’s undercurrent is the visceral hatred whites in power had, have today, and perhaps ever will have, against the Panthers, independent of geography, context, decade or circumstance. The constantly-stoked fear of the long-defunct Party keeps so many white-controlled machines running in 21st century America–pretending-to-be-invisible ones operating in courts of public opinion and law, and proud-to-be-visible ones steadily producing white-supremacy products online and off. No amount of Amnesty International quotes and left-leaning white lawyers embedded in this narrative can obscure that harsh, racist reality, nor should it.
The Angola 3–Woodfox, Robert King (released in 2001) and Herman Wallace–stuck together even when apart. So covert craziness had to replace chicanery. When, in 2013, an elderly and dying Wallace was released (and, it must be emphasized, only after the judge threatened the district attorney who tried to block it with jail), then re-indicted, while on his “free” deathbed, Woodfox correctly diagnoses: “The vengeance by the state of Louisiana against us had long been incomprehensible to me, but this move pushed at the boundary of sanity.” Right, because many Blacks see powerful whites’ Panther obsession, no matter how many decades later, as a sickness. It is absolutely that, and it is also a half-century-old, tried-and-true way to scare older whites and exert political and legal leverage over any Blacks who become radicalized and resist, either in the streets or in prison.
Woodfox, who, at one point in his 44 years of suffering, had to drink water out of the toilet, is unsparingly honest about his criminal past. Yes, he admitted to years as a thug and a crook, one who once held a gun to a deputy’s head. He was mesmerized by the Panther’s image and enveloped in its shadow. And he paid the price in his trial.
Time halted and became twisted in the pages. The reader’s frustration builds as the emotional and physical casualties mount. “In prison, you are part of a human herd,” Woodfox recalls. “In the human herd survival of the fittest is all there is. You become instinctive, not intellectual. Therein lies the secret to the master’s control. One minute you’re treated like a baby, being handed a spoon to eat with or being told where to stand. The next, with utter indifference, you’re being counted several times a day—you have no choice, you have no privacy. The next moment you’re threatened, pushed, tested. You develop a sixth sense as a means of survival, instincts to help you size up what’s going on around you at all times and help you make all the internal adjustments necessary to respond when it will save your life, but never before. Taking action at the wrong time could get you killed.” Although Woodfox’s prison world is very violent, his internal growth and power (and the types of psychological and physical warfare against prisoners waged by guards and wardens) are not unfamiliar to those who have read any samples of prison biography, including Nelson Mandela’s autobio. Since the Panthers originally carried law books on patrol in Oakland, it’s not surprising that Woodfox decides to become an expert jailhouse lawyer.
There are plenty of details about how prison authorities framed the Angola 3, in jail for separate crimes before they became politicized, for the 1972 killing of a young, white corrections officer. Coincidences abound after decades of attempts at legal redress: Woodfox’s FBI files destroyed, and most of the evidence that could clear the Angola 3, lost. The group’s international campaign came late but struck the Black Lives Matter Zeitgeist.
The book’s epigraph defies its Amnesty International-ish marketing: “It has been my experience that because of institutional and individual racism, African-Americans are born socially dead and spend the rest of their lives fighting to live.” Woodfox infuriated authorities by doing three things: refusing to neither break nor die, continuing to believe in and publicly proclaim the principles of the Black Panthers, and consistently and publicly resisting racism and human rights violations in prison. The Louisiana Panther-no-longer-with-a-Party forced himself into an emotionally moderate existence; for decades he made himself into something as cool and hard as the metal used in prison doors.
There was no happy ending to enjoy. Even Woodfox’s 2016 release is tainted with legal and political fraud on the part of the Louisiana corrections officials. His lawyers and advisers persuade him to plea “no contest” to the correction officer’s murder because he might die in prison if he continued to attempt to prove his innocence. So he walks out into a new century, victorious and compromised because of the vicious hatred white law enforcement had for the Party and any ideological fellow travelers. Meanwhile, all those who tortured Woodfox are unpunished, because all they did was either legal or allowed. I didn’t as much finish the book but finally throw it down in disgust.
None of the liberal homilies and blurbs that surround inside and outside the covers demand that the individuals at Angola be punished along with the reform of the system. Sadly, neither does the book’s author. Instead, corporate prisons, right-wing politics, and the finances behind jail construction and prisoner occupancy, amorphous entities all, take the rap. For the organized anger it wants to generate, Solitary wants an all-too-safe ABC Afterschool Special ending to such an NC-17 racist horror tale. So after all the Black resistance and courage displayed, the book’s message is that City Hall can be overcome but not defeated, particularly if you publicly embrace the Party.
Time has yet to thaw two years later. Woodfox’s house of horror is average for a Black American political prisoner—an experience I was intellectually introduced to as a young man growing up and going to Black political-cultural events in my native Newark, New Jersey. Loosely described, political prisoners are either a) radicals who were framed with killing police or some other felony because the state considered them dangerous; b) radicals who killed police or committed some other crime as a result of their political activity, which resulted in them being treated harshly in the courtroom and in prison, or c) criminals in prison who became radicalized and, as a result, have been continually punished by prison officials and parole boards. These descriptions overlap, creating complex definitions. Not the easiest heroes to admire if you grew up being taught to worship Movement doves such as Rosa Parks and John Lewis.
In graduate school in Maryland, I began to learn more about a political prisoner who would define my life’s work as a historian—Mumia Abu-Jamal, an imprisoned writer and broadcaster who prison officials couldn’t stop punishing for his effectiveness. Twenty-five years later, I finished a draft of a journalistic biography and a general anthology about him filled with some of the world’s experts on his life and case.
I would also find grassroots materials about the political prisoner movement. The Internet was still developing in those days and the World Wide Web was at its mid-1990s infancy. So information was analog and static. I don’t know how I found so many things I would mail away for, but I would keep them, particularly if they were in book form.
One such reference book was Can’t Jail the Spirit: Political Prisoners in the U.S.: A Collection of Biographies. Another reference book—which called itself a “bookazine” because it was a journal published by the book publisher Africa World Press—was called Black Prison Movements, USA. In those mini-encyclopedias, which profiled Black, Puerto Rican, Native American and white political prisoners, I learned about: The test of wills—the state versus the individual Panther or radical; how writin’ is fightin’ in the documenting Party/prison life; their backgrounds and the “need” for the government’s movement-disrupting counter-intelligence program (COINTELPRO); their jailhouse lawyering attempts, and much more.
I am remembering these compilations now because of the amount of time that has passed and how the George Floyd murder brings back all of the now-forbidden acts of the Panther past. Was it bin-Wahad who on Black Power Media’s Renegade Culture with Kalonji Jama Changa and Kamau Franklin just asked why didn’t one of those bystanders just toss a brick at Derek Chauvin? I understand his decolonized point: Chauvin would have quickly gotten up and Floyd might have remained alive but then at least one of those bystanders would have been beaten, gone to jail or through a gunshot wound or four taken Floyd’s place in local death, if not in world history.
These now-outdated, obscure books, profile-packed with now-Ancestors (such as MOVE 9 member Delbert Africa and former Black Panther Romaine “Chip” Fitzgerald) and subsequently released, are filled to overflowing with those who had flung their bricks without any thought of consequence. It’s the knowledgeable result of rebellion that froze the Floyd crowd—if you violently interact with police, if you defend yourself or members of your community, you will die at the scene or never again see freedom—so the brick stayed on the ground, and the African-American purposely digressed to Black and then to Negro. Frozen in highly-reluctant self-restraint by an organically understood history of the punishment doled out to defiant slaves. Freeze! Police!
There were no Black Panthers at the murder site of Floyd to foment self-defense. But at least Darnella Frazier stood her ground with a smartphone in her hand, a teenage witness not afraid to stare a policeman in the eye.
Her social-media statement on the first annual commemoration of Floyd’s death:
A year ago, today I witnessed a murder. The victim’s name was George Floyd. Although this wasn’t the first time I’ve seen a Black man get killed at the hands of the police, this is the first time I witnessed it happen in front of me. Right in front of my eyes, a few feet away.
I didn’t know this man from a can of paint, but I knew his life mattered. I knew that he was in pain. I knew that he was another Black man in danger with no power.
I was only 17 at the time, just a normal day for me walking my 9-year-old cousin to the corner store, not even prepared for what I was about to see, not even knowing my life was going to change on this exact day in those exact moments… it did. It changed me. It changed how I viewed life. It made me realize how dangerous it is to be Black in America.
We shouldn’t have to walk on eggshells around police officers, the same people that are supposed to protect and serve. We are looked at as thugs, animals, and criminals, all because of the color of our skin. Why are Black people the only ones viewed this way when every race has some type of wrongdoing? None of us are to judge. We are all human.
I am 18 now and I still hold the weight and trauma of what I witnessed a year ago. It’s a little easier now, but I’m not who I used to be. A part of my childhood was taken from me. My 9-year-old cousin who witnessed the same thing I did got a part of her childhood taken from her. Having to up and leave because my home was no longer safe, waking up to reporters at my door, closing my eyes at night only to see a man who is brown like me, lifeless on the ground. I couldn’t sleep properly for weeks. I used to shake so bad at night my mom had to rock me to sleep. Hopping from hotel to hotel because we didn’t have a home and looking over our back every day in the process. Having panic and anxiety attacks every time I seen a police car, not knowing who to trust because a lot of people are evil with bad intentions. I hold that weight.
A lot of people call me a hero even though I don’t see myself as one. I was just in the right place at the right time. Behind this smile, behind these awards, behind the publicity, I’m a girl trying to heal from something I am reminded of every day. Everyone talks about the girl who recorded George Floyd’s death, but to actually be her is a different story.
Not only did this affect me, my family, too. We all experienced change. My mom the most. I strive every day to be strong for her because she was strong for me when I couldn’t be strong for myself.
Even though this was a traumatic life-changing experience for me, I’m proud of myself. If it weren’t for my video, the world wouldn’t have known the truth. I own that. My video didn’t save George Floyd, but it put his murderer away and off the streets.
You can view George Floyd anyway you choose to view him, despite his past, because don’t we all have one? He was a loved one, someone’s son, someone’s father, someone’s brother, and someone’s friend.
We the people won’t take the blame, you won’t keep pointing fingers at us as if it’s our fault, as if we are criminals. I don’t think people understand how serious death is…that person is never coming back. These officers shouldn’t get to decide if someone gets to live or not. It’s time these officers start getting held accountable. Murdering people and abusing your power while doing it is not doing your job.
It shouldn’t have to take people to actually go through something to understand it’s not ok. It’s called having a heart and understanding right from wrong.
George Floyd, I can’t express enough how I wish things could have went different, but I want you to know you will always be in my heart. I’ll always remember this day because of you. May your soul rest in peace. May you rest in the most beautiful roses.
And a final meanwhile to end the many Memorial advance week: one of the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement, Patrisse Cullors, announced she was stepping down from the group’s $90 million foundation. Like Laureen Hobbs, the Angela Davis parody in the satirical 1970s film Network, she decided to literally go Hollywood. Cue the Marvel Studios’ Winter Soldier’s activation code words, but this time to keep the freeze going: …..grants….fellowships….endowments…….television……film…..
Negroes are restricted and Africans are free. That’s a very reductive statement that obscures the complexity of current America. After all, mainstream journalists write issues around American political prisoners, depending on the size of the rally, but until the courts step in, often view them the way they view other convicted murders—as controversial and guilty, not framed. Because of the enclosed, publicly-forbidden nature of the phenomenon, there is frost thawed only by obits. Why won’t writers write about them and the abuses they are under regularly? Political prisoners around the world—including bombers!—are written about, assessed, studied in central spaces. Where are the Black public intellectuals, the major Black nonfiction writers? The answer is simple: the subject’s a dead-end, literally. A brick will be thrown into your writer/public intellectual career if you choose to seriously spotlight Black radicals who may or may not have killed white police officers and who may all die in prison for that slave-rebellious act.
Those political prisoners in those reference books I read in the 1990s and early ‘00s were, and are today, the freest Black people to exist in the modern and post-modern era, and they have the punishment record to show for it. From 1962—the year Ruchell “Cinque” Magee, Angela Davis’ original co-defendant, was arrested—to 2022. Americans of African descent that struggle to be actually free—by that, I mean, “Jonathan Jackson-level free,” to make an unfettered attempt for your liberation and not beg for it—will not exist again for 100 years because liberating language has now been colonized via establishment borders of “violence” versus “nonviolence,” a well-constructed and well-funded Civil Rights Movement internment camp. So those outside that ideological cage are frozen in real ones, restricted, suspended between life and death. Half a century of overlap between purposely-forgotten people, ideologies and documents. So questions arise from these lives that have no easy answers. What ideas link them to: Us? You? Them? Each other? What do we see about the past, present and the future from their eyes? What freedoms do we fight for and what freedoms should we fight for? What should the standards be? These questions long ago were suppressed for the sake of pol-white ppl company and its symbiont, Black middle-class advancement.
I collected biographies, autobiographies memoirs and writing collections of these men (and Assata Shakur, and Safiya Bukhari, and Angela Davis, and…) over the decades because I wanted to find some of the answers to the questions above. I also wanted to balance the lives of this slowly dying breed with the writing that I saw in the books written by those on the outside: Leftist scholarly articles about the society (which would include prisons) and agitprop Op-Ed or extended essays.
My goal mirrors theirs—exposure as activity, with the illusion of some sort of utility—but it’s more critical. Angela Davis called the 1971 book compiled in her honor and with her help, If They Come For You in the Morning, as an organizing tool and teacher about the nature of prisons and how they were used to oppress Blacks and the poor—an expansion of the political-prisoner idea to include all incarcerated victims of institutional racism. This particular journey is one of seeing and commenting on echoes: Woodfox models Malcolm X by educating himself in the prison library. He had been in prison so long, he could analyze Eldridge Cleaver, George Jackson, Fanon and Malcolm as historical figures. Cycles.
So this is not so much a search over half a century of Black radical literature, of biography and autobiography containing prison life and its horrors and hopes, but more of a professionally reckless decision to publicly dip my hands into intellectually radioactive matter in order to properly see a slideshow of the tension between the rational and irrational. To talk about armed self-defense and physical attack against oppression while surrounded by attempts at representation and witness. “The guns are not about killing people,” explained Panther 21 defendant Jamal Joseph to his childhood pastor who had asked. In a powerful flash of the naive honesty often attributed to youth, Joseph then said: “It’s about trying to inflict a political consequence.” Remembering his mid-20th century life in a 21st century Panther memoir, Joseph connects to McCreary by way of memory’s militant consistency. Documenting such diagonals is the goal here, with the result being a critical manifesto-ish construct disguised as nonfiction, a trip through the guidebooks of memory.
If America has its way (and for the most part it has), the two choices given to political prisoners are to die behind bars or die shortly thereafter, like Wallace and Delbert Africa did! Some are defying that, most notably Jalil Abdul Muntaqim, and the surviving and now “free” members of the MOVE 9. But others are on the precipice of being reduced to these small description paragraphs that double as advance-obit drafts. Here, time hurts instead of helps, because of the relationship between ideas, fear and pain; there is constant private wrestling with despair, dread, suffering. Sometimes there are rays of mainstream hope—like Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt being mentioned once by future lawyer Freddie Brooks on NBC’s A Different World. But that representation—that acknowledgment—did not free him; serious legal work fed by the grassroots forged the key.
Then/now tensions are exposed from the perspective of the jailed Cats: liberal democracy versus radical change, freedom versus liberation; “change” versus revolution. Black Americans now want “change” (comfort) while Palestinians, forever without comfort and only getting the international spotlight during bloody public skirmishes, want a liberation struggle. Mentioning either jailed Panthers or contained Palestinians out loud and privileging them as worthy of extended discussion is an act of public defiance. The intellectual frost that Democrats in office can’t thaw is this: Black America has lost control over developing their own ideas the way Ta-Nehisi Coates said Blacks have no control over their own bodies. It is time to extend these memories beyond Facebook, Twitter and Instagram posts, and now Zoom narrowcasting and YouTube broadcasting, the new public spaces where most of our personal histories now reside. So finally, this is an analog future quest, a treasure hunt for purposeful anachronism.
MY PURSUIT STARTS IN the newsstand glossy-mag 1990s with my emerging-adult dreams of becoming a successful writer. I was a huge pack-rat/hoarder then, living alone in a ground-level studio apartment in Hyattsville, Maryland, with piles of newspapers, magazines and books. I immersed myself in print culture because I saw myself as a future history book author and magazine writer and I wanted to create my own nonfiction canon from which to draw. Instead of going to graduate school to get a comfortable job, I did the opposite: I had left a very cushy general assignment reporter job at a large daily newspaper in Newark and moved to Maryland because I sought to wedge myself into the continuum of Black letters, and what I had typed thus far in my small inner-city pond was not enough. So I focused on my Master’s and Ph.D. degrees at the University of Maryland at College Park while print culture was on the verge of being digitally transformed thanks to the birth of the Web.
From one of the sides of my mind came the discovery of those two books. Spirit was the type compiled by small groups of activists who were keeping their objectives alive through Pacifica Radio, flyers, small books and pamphlets. It was published by a group called the Committee to End the Marion Lockdown. The prisoners profiled themselves and the committee would update the book as prisoners died or were released. I had two different editions: the fourth edition, originally published in 1998 (the time of the Jericho Movement, a national mobilization for political prisoners) and the fifth, published in 2002. Black Prison Movements, USA, was co-published by Africa World Press and The NOBO Journal of AfricanAmerican Dialogue, the academic organ of the Network of Black Organizers. Today, all of this work is done online with websites (Jericho’s website seems to be the focal point for most information on American political prisoners), Zoom, YouTube and Facebook, with Twitter as a way to shoot news bullets.
Spirit was first produced as photocopies in 1988 as a way to stop the denial of American political prisoners. (“If political prisoners did not exist, then who were these people?”) The book format came because of the support of the Prisoners of Conscience Project. That was directed by Reverend Seiichi Michael Yasutake. This edition was published in the wake of Jericho ’88, an important mobilizing event I had not heard of at the time. My copy listed those who had been freed since the first edition: it had included names I had heard of (Herman Ferguson, bin Wahad, Pratt) and many I had not heard of (Kazi Toure, Alan Berkman, Jaime Delgado, Dora Garcia, Barbara Curzi, Patricia Gros, Ed Means and Carol Manning). The book explained how the organizers debated over the criteria of calling someone a political prisoner.
Reverend Yasutake did not equivocate in Spirit’s preface: the people listed, he wrote, are inmates not because of wrongdoing, “but because they did right by working to empower the powerless and the poor and standing up for their rights as human beings. Puerto Rican political prisoners and prisoners of war seek independence for their nation of Puerto Rico, still a colony of, and exploited, by the U.S. The American Indian Movement prisoners and African American political prisoners seek self-determination for their people.” To those unfamiliar with the nation’s real Left, these sentences must have seen to come from another universe in the era of William Jefferson “Black Like Me” Clinton and the emergence of neo-liberal Black politicians such as Virginia Governor L. Doug Wilder, U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun and the expanding Congressional Black Caucus. “The hundredth-year anniversary in 1998 of the U.S. conquest of Puerto Rico and Hawaii, among other nations,” continued Yasutake, “is an opportune time for us in the ‘outside’ to join forces with political people inside prisons in struggle against all forms of colonialism and for justice.”
Today viewed as a martyr to the political-prisoner movement, Bukhari wrote in Spirit: “Sacrifice is an intricate part of a people’s struggle for freedom, justice and independence. An inherent part of this sacrifice is the death of the I for the we and the me for the us.”
More essays, on Mexican/Puerto Rican political prisoners, then the list. Then the list of autobios in categories such as Native Americans and New Afrikans/Blacks. Thumbing through it, I discover MOVE 9 members Debbie Sims Africa and Delbert Africa and former Black Panther “Marshall” Eddie Conway. One political prisoner listed here I would eventually meet in San Francisco, thanks to Noelle Hanrahan of Prison Radio, without remembering him as being on the roster: Claude Marks, now the director of Freedom Archives, an important international audio collection of radical voices.
The Black Prison Movements “bookazine” carried an article from bin Wahad. I had the honor of breaking bread with him once, thanks to Dr. Ball. His contribution was the text of his comments to Mandela when the African National Congress leader visited New York City in 1990. “Today, U.S. political prisoners have no voice, they remain invisible. The ANC and the anti-apartheid forces in South Africa have always kept the names and faces of your political prisoners in public view. We should learn from your example.” This was four years before Abu-Jamal was muzzled by NPR and five years before his radio commentaries, recorded and produced by Hanrahan, were distributed on cassette by Prison Radio and Equal Justice USA, another activist group, around the pre-Web-audio world. By writing and broadcasting whole Op-Eds about his fellow political prisoners, Abu-Jamal, who always talked about other people’s cases, attempted to “mainstream” many of these folks.
The fact that most of these activists in these reference books are Baby Boomers, post-World War II babies, is far from surprising. Birthed in American freedom and the attempted genocide of World War II’s Nazis, they grew up watching on the new-fangled television former radio stars Superman and the Lone Ranger, both costumed outlaws who took American justice into their own hands. Newspapers were plentiful, and they read about the struggles across the world for freedom after the formation of the United Nations. They took improvisation from blues, jazz, and rock ’n’ roll/doo-wop: rebellious music could be purchased and played on something called a record player. Radio and television were dominant mediums, and they had spare time to absorb them, including Black radio and the Black press. Because they didn’t have to work to support their families, they were privileged regulars at public middle and high schools and public libraries.
New spaces created by American growth and prosperity created new opportunities, as new roles emerged in urban areas, from music deejays to local NAACP leaders. In these new spaces, these teens would join the Youth NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality and some would later form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The freedom they wanted was both American and worldwide. They saw themselves in the Cuba Revolution and the African liberation movements. The tension these future Cats would create was based on their refusal to be held within the ideas of American democracy. Instead, they sided with the colored oppressed around the world. During their coming of age, clashes of democracy, capitalism, racism were normal. (Back then, Americans embraced labels, not rejected them; they had no problem being categorized—unless you were called a Communist, of course!) Educated at least through high school and molded by training in reading, writing and speaking, language meant the world to them—and they could see a world language of freedom coming! And it is language that they used well when taking advantage of the expanding American news mediums, particularly local and national broadcasting. Freedom, on the other hand, would become steadily painful as they grew older, less Ralph Ellison-ish invisible and more active.
Other than Malcolm X, their revolutionary father was philosopher Fanon. From the Fanonian worldview, the world was divided by the colonists and the colonized—part of contemporary history and contemporary social reality. Party and Black Power leaders felt Fanon because they saw themselves as victims of colonialism—members of a colony. So they took up arms in both an anti-colonial way and one based on their lived experience. One of Robin D.G. Kelley’s central ideas in his classic book Freedom Dreams is that theory is both academically constructed and from the ground: perhaps Fanon the epitome of this.
The key to Fanon is the contemporary and historic nature of it; it’s simultaneously too radical and too dated. He is creating, using and forging tools at his disposal for his present, an ever-renewing now since 1945. Eventually, Fanon would link Algeria, his intellectual base, to the rest of Africa. He dies in 1961, two years before W.E. B. Du Bois. In many ways, he had succeeded the senior scholar at his most polemical—Fanon’s “Look, a Negro!” is identical, a reverberation of some of Du Bois’s work. Only near their deaths did both begin to see their ideas being spread throughout the world for revolutions real and symbolic. They sought to turn the question mark of being a problem into an exclamation point, to make the Black toy explode in the hands of the white child-like male. The sociologist and the psychiatrist.
Fanon is BC/AD, a Black Knight’s sword cleaving the century in half, like LeRoi Jones’s/Amiri Baraka’s fiery play The Dutchman. He opened a door for the revolutionaries of the Black world to walk through. Algerians, Indochina, Cubans, The Kenyan Land and Freedom Army (a.k.a. the Mau-Mau)…. Fanon, reflecting the non-nonviolent, decolonizing optimism of the times, is the mirror, providing pure, unapologetic, unqualified validation. Since 1945, people around the world slowly attempted to become the heroes they needed and wanted. Time met significance and, individually and collectively, maps of the Pan-African revolution and imagined African-American revolution were drawn.
Freedom, power, voice, jacket, beret, gun. This was noir teenage rebellion against their Great White Fathers. Risk, shock, direct confrontation with armed authority in the eyeball. All that suit-and-tie, hat-in-hand, respectability-politics, we-wear-the-mask minstrel show was gone. Like bebop’s cool rebellion against corny swing, or like rock-‘n’-roll’s noisy rebellion against the jazz’s quintet’s sophistication. A new youth club had been formed, but with spears replacing mouse ears. Impatient. Relentless. Surging. Styles were invented, personas with a new hipness created, a new tone and tenor established—a kind of performance, perhaps a self-confidence easily spilling over into arrogance. It’s not accidental that jazzmen referred to each other as cats. Go, man, go! What was understood and believed by these young Americans who were simultaneously citizens of the new United Nations was an unspoken creed, the key to any success: a willingness to die and the strength to break free from any boundaries. Being Americans, they did not know that they would unleash internal forces bent on their complete destruction.
One of my bosses during my bookish 1990s, the Reverend Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., a former political prisoner himself (the public would call the group of activists framed for firebombing a Wilmington, North Carolina grocery in 1971 “The Wilmington Ten”), would summarize this conflict of values in a book I would own decades later—Psalms from Prison. Along with Abu-Jamal’s First Amendment struggles and the trouble Robben Island inmate Mandela had in smuggling a draft of his autobiography out of prison, Chavis’ grapple to tell his truths altered my personal definition of what success as a Black writer meant:
Our (The Wilmington Ten’s) imprisonment in various county jails and state prisons in 1972 and later from 1976 to 1979 provided the setting for considerable contemplation of the vital questions of justice, human rights, and freedom. We were able to observe firsthand the institutionalization of racism and exploitation behind prison walls. The fact that our innocence of the false charges only made us more determined to fight for freedom. No one could have imagined that it would take millions of dollars and nearly a decade of struggle to win a victory in The Wilmington Ten case. But one thing was clear from the first day of confinement: We had to keep the faith in our God, our people, and our people’s collective will and yearning to be free.
I became increasingly conscious of the importance of trying to document as much of the experience of prison as possible. The prison cell became a place to do theology as a critical function of the ongoing freedom movement. In other words, I wanted to strive to extract from that experience whatever lessons were possible for future theory and practice. Throughout my imprisonment, I managed to record in writing most of my theological and ethical reflections. These were expressed in several literary forms: prayers, laments, meditations, exaltations, critical interrogations, poetry, prophetic prose, doxology, and liturgy.
There were numerous attempts by prison authorities to confiscate and destroy my writings, so I wrote cryptically on toilet tissue and paper napkins, and sometimes I wrote prayers on the bottom of the plastic cover of the bed mattress that I slept on. During visiting hours or through the mail I would send the writings to my home in Oxford, North Carolina. At other times, fellow prisoners would hide the writings wherever they could find a safe place.
Prison was not a place of rehabilitation, particularly if you were political, wrote current political prisoner Russell “Maroon” Shoatz in 2013 in Maroon the Implacable: The Collected Writings of Russell Maroon Shoatz: activist prisoners had no access to typewriters or computers and prison officials consistently attempted to “strip us of most of our reading and of written material—leaving us to the ravages of commercial TV and radio, if that!
“[A]round the same time,” he continued, “we were able to gain the aid of a few small collectives of younger activists, and a still fighting old-timer or two, who took on the task of transcribing our writings, putting them in pamphlets (zines), and making them available—free of charge—through the mail.” Also, Shoatz wrote, there was a newsletter for political prisoners across the country called This Just In. The Inside Story. Mandela, Mumia, Maroon.
My tangential reading of these reference books and other works kept pattern-ing that the Panthers and other radicals demanded to be viewed as self-defending, sexually empowered grown-ass men, not children who are wards of the state. This is why they had to die or be locked away from the physical community and much of human, day-to-day memory. “History is always unkind to those who really make revolutions,” argued H. Rap Brown in his autobiography Die, Nigger, Die!
At their best, these are people who were unafraid to define themselves and their values and, as a result of that level of reckless courage, uncompromisingly confronted the nation in the most public way possible. They were revolutionaries who thought like the Americans they were: they had used their own names, they had registered handguns/rifles and publicly-accessible headquarters with listed phone numbers in cities around the nation. That level of personal and collective transparency in a country determined to perpetually live in its own white-supremacy fantasy construction creates and nourishes constant and vicious attacks. So within the American character, that meant no option of restraint was off the table—any counterrevolutionary tactic was allowed, ranging from public ostracization to outright assassination.
Black youth must learn that if they want to be revolutionaries, spat the infamous FBI memo, they will be dead ones. Or, director J. Edgar Hoover could have added, locked in prison for almost half a century. After the FBI-encouraged bloodshed of 1969, Black youth got the message and moved on down the Soul Train line to a new decade filled with images of rebellion, such as Blaxploitation Afro pics and karate kicks. Two decades later, these reference books remained as invisible and undiscussed in the 1990s as its subjects did—at least prior to the mass movements that decade around Abu-Jamal, Pratt and the Puerto Rican political prisoners (the latter eventually “freed” by Clinton). Discovering and reading this almost-banned literature of the guilty and/or framed, then, is like entering into intellectual dungeons of knowledge, ready to hear the tales from the crypts kept there, but being surrounded by torture chambers designed to create and reinforce amnesia.
HISTORIC VICTORIES, FOR OBVIOUS reasons, were missing from the reference books. Triumphs such as the 1971 exoneration of the Panther 21. The group is absent because most of its members freed themselves, and did so while they were still young. PM Press thought about the age and significance of the Panther 21 and a largely-forgotten book they created. So they compiled Look For Me in the Whirlwind: From The Panther 21 to 21st Century Revolutions, updating and repurposing for 2017 a Black radical literary work I had never heard of: The Collective Autobiography of the Panther 21. The core 21 book—a ’70-’71 oral-history product, pretty much written and edited in real, seized time—needed to be added to the 21th-century mix to see what memories it would bring forth into the merged Floyd Memorial Day.
One Panther story that I saw that had been told twice was Jamal Josephs’. In the Panther 21 anthology, the 18-year-old sounded like a typical urban Panther, talking about his street life before the Party: “What I was doing was committing what I now recognize as reactionary suicide,” using Party co-founder Huey P. Newton’s term. “The conditions had become so intense in the neighborhood in terms of what was happening to other people, what was happening to friends: they were getting busted, and getting killed, in this life-and-death struggle that niggers get in with one another. Instead of trying to combat this, instead of trying to do something to stop this, I just submitted to the conditions. If certain things hadn’t happened to me a little later on, I would have died at the hands of these conditions. Died a reactionary death, you know. Died by being submissive, not trying to change any of this….”
“When I was around thirteen it was the era of the birth of cries for Black Power. I was wearing dashikis and an Afro, and I was running around saying ‘Black Power’ one minute and getting off into a nigger-kill-nigger bag the next….” Then, in October of 1968, Jamal joined the Party. The tenth grader had read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, had heard H. Rap Brown speak, and had been part of a young Black cultural club. At first, he thought the Party “was a totally suicidal movement.” Then he saw the bold berets on television in Sacramento. “I said, wow, those niggers are crazy.’…It seemed like the only fate they had was death, because of the type of things they were doing.” The Panthers represented: Love, world dreaming, style, resilience, experimental disposition, fire, pride, audacity, cool, collaboration, velocity and, perhaps most importantly, energy. The group had a pent-up excitement and physicality no one—including Jamal and perhaps even the Panthers themselves—was prepared to handle.
Joseph’s second telling of his Cat tale was in his 2012 memoir, Panther Baby: A Life of Rebellion and Reinvention. “I walked into a Panther office in Brooklyn in September 1968,” and was given a new, non-slave moniker by a brother who made it up on the spot—”Unbutu Usa Jamal. It means ‘he who comes together in the spirit of Blackness.’ I would find out later that James was pulling syllables and meanings out of the air, but at that moment, I had been reborn and renamed”—and became the youngest member of the Panther 21.
He endured all of the tortures of prison that all Panthers tell, and then, like the rest of the 21, got out—on his 21st birthday. With the exception of slight additions to street life, alcohol and coke, the rest sounds eerily similar to Abu-Jamal’s pre-prison life in the Philly ‘70s: “I took classes at Brooklyn College, worked various jobs and used a student loan to buy a gypsy cab. I taught karate classes in Harlem, the Lower East Side and Brooklyn…I hung out with an eclectic group that included street people, artists and folks from the nightlife.”
But it was The Man’s Tricknology and not The Life that returned him to jail in 1981. He and his wife Joyce wound up acting out a less-deadly version of the Chicago police raid on the city’s Black Panther headquarters 12 years before, which led to the murder of Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. “The FBI kicked our door in at four in the morning,” Jamal wrote. “Agents dragged me from the bedroom while a two-hundred-pound agent sat on Joyce’s back and pointed an M-16 at her head. ‘Get off me, I’m pregnant!’ I heard her angrily yell. I fought to get to her but I was cuffed and dragged from the apartment.”
He was tried in federal court. Joyce and Jamal Jr. were in the courtroom when Jamal was convicted of harboring Mutulu Shakur—who, along with members of the BLA and a white revolutionary group, the Weather Underground, robbed a Brinks armored car. Jamal remained consistent and loyal and that came with serious consequences. “I was now 29 years old, back in prison after eight years of posttraumatic stress blues. My wild post-Panther ride had led from the streets, nightlife and theater back to revolutionary comrades living underground.” He did five-and-a-half at Leavenworth State Penitentiary in Kansas. The personal university he forged within birthed a playwright.
I’ve never met Joseph, but I was in the same room with him once—a New York City movie theater in 2017, where he was screening Chapter and Verse, his feature film. I guess Joseph would wince and give me the side-eye if I said his film was (just) Boyz ‘n’ the Hood for the Millennial generation, starring a new-jack Socrates Fortlow, the hero of Walter Mosley’s novel Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned. But that’s what the film was, and there is nothing wrong with that. Joseph seemed to have wanted the entire Black community to be his audience, so he had something for everyone: for youngsters who crave ‘Hood violence; older people who will identify with Loretta Devine, who anchors this film; images of historic Black leaders in the background (are they sad angels, witnessing the 21st century Black dysfunction?) for the “conscious” filmgoer who knows he’s watching a film about Harlem done by a former NYC Panther. It was the sum of its post-Trayvon Martin and pre-George Floyd parts, no more and no less, and ambitious only in its chief theme: that the survival of the many takes real planning and real sacrifice by the few. But that February, when I saw it, mass, sustained radicalism still remained in the American background, as it does in the film.
When you live most of your life on the outside, revolutionary love—and the pure optimism and audacity it creates—can last only so long.
WITH ONE MAJOR EXCEPTION, my personal experience with political prisoners has been very fleeting. I saw, but did not get a chance meet, Odinga around 2016 when Nkechi Taifa, a Black lawyer who is a mainstay of the D.C. Black activist community, hosted him at her home to celebrate his release. I sent Abu-Jamal a letter in the early ‘00s asking if I could interview him for my MAJ biography project, and he sent me a very beautifully written no. I spent the better part of a 2015 afternoon with “Marshall” Eddie Conway at The Real News Network in Baltimore, enjoying that this man who had been through so much pain in his long life now had a slick-looking glass office and an assistant, like any other high-profile network television correspondent!
But the only story I can really claim to share with a political prisoner—albeit a historic one, from at least a decade before I entered into consciousness—is a true-life political adventure right before Abu-Jamal was fully live from death row. The former political prisoner I came to knew the best—one for whom I worked for—was another victory too successful to be mentioned in the guides. While many educated Blacks in the ’70s were buying into the system and becoming first “Afro-Americans” and then Black Americans, Ben Chavis spent almost the entire decade in prison as a member of The Wilmington Ten. All of the accused were acquitted in 1980. Chavis and the rest of the Ten collectively had become an international cause-celebre (he was mentioned as one of the Movement’s next priorities on the last page of Angela Davis’ 1974 Autobiography) and were living proof that political prisoners existed in liberal-democracy America.
My front-row seat with him happened between the ’93-’94 academic year. In Baltimore, I was near the center of a great political experiment—the Baby Boomer Black radical movement’s takeover of a major Civil Rights organization. I got to see Chavis’ style close-up, and it taught me the heartbreaking romance of radicalism and how that romance must not replace discipline.
I was so excited at first because I knew I was going to write, or write myself into, the next chapter of the Black struggle. In 1993, Chavis was elected as the executive director of the National NAACP. Just like Bill Clinton down the road in D.C., his election was more proof that Baby Boomers had now taken over the country. I had heard of Chavis via the Black press. As the head of the Commission for Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ, he inherited a nationally-syndicated Black press Op-Ed page column, “Civil Rights Journal,” that I read religiously since I quasi-formally joined The Afro-American newspaper chain in 1985. When I became a devout listener of New York City Black news-talk 1190 WLIB-AM in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I was happy to hear the audio version of the column, to have a voice to match with the newsprint picture.
When I moved to Maryland in 1992, I kept in contact with friend and mentor Don Rojas, the executive editor of The New York Amsterdam News, a historic Black newspaper. I was surprised to find out in early ’93 that he was moving to Maryland to join with Chavis in Baltimore as his Director of Communications. I knew that role meant a lot to Don: he had held a similar post in the administration of Maurice Bishop, the assassinated Third World Marxist leader of Grenada. (And in Don’s own oral-history rhyme, he was at Brooklyn bureau of The Amsterdam News back in 1979, when Bishop asked him to join his administration.) Bishop’s murder had left a political hole in many, including Don. Clearly, he saw this as a chance to inject much-needed radicalism into the coming neo-conservative Clinton years, to provide a real Left alternative to Black liberal Jesse Jackson Sr. and, perhaps, to ultimately create the United Black Front, the dream of many Black activists since the 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana. Don was part of the National NAACP’s leadership trifecta—him, Chavis, and associate director Lewis Myers Jr., a prominent Black radical attorney. They were all in their 40s then, younger than I am as I digitally scribble this Memorial Day, so I understand their excesses much better now.
I quickly joined the National Office as a part-time member of Don’s staff. I was part-time—more than an intern, but less than full-time staff—because I was still finishing my Masters degree and about to start my Ph.D., all in journalism. But for that year, I threw away my notepad as I witnessed from the inside the play-by-play of the biggest Black American story of that period.
Although I have three J-degrees I have refused to give myself permission to write about this until now. Being embedded as a writer creates subconscious loyalty and I learned from first-hand experience that being an actual part of the group creates even greater loyalty. Especially if the experience is a painful one. It was my greatest happening that until now I never wrote about.
As the leader of the NAACP, Chavis presented two sides: the traditional NAACP side that his predecessors Roy Wilkins and Reverend Benjamin Hooks made familiar to Black America and its white liberal allies, and the Radical Baby Boomer side that wanted the complete spectrum of the Black political experience represented. So Black nationalists, Pan-Africanists, socialists and others were now invited to the NAACP’s Big Tent. Chavis hit the ground running—or flying, rather—to Los Angeles to try to work with Black and Latino gang members. I remember a newspaper picture of him speaking in an L.A. church with the Bible in one hand and the Qur’an in another. Members of the Black Left were using The Establishment to offer a public alternative to the neo-liberal political mainstream! And just in time, too. Chavis’ rivals were the other nationally known radicals: Jackson Sr. on one end, and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan on the other.
All three different leaders were quite busy then because Black communities were dealing with their own internal contradictions, vis-a-vis Black-middle-class respectability politics versus Black-masses social conditions. Violence and drug sales in America’s major cities had created some elected-official and even some grassroots support for get-tough mandatory minimums. Some Black people were openly declaring that if personal safety meant locking up a large part of a generation of Black youth, then so be it. Cornel West, the new-jack intellectual of the period, even had a well-discussed essay, “Nihilism in Black America,” that gave an analysis of the melancholy, intra-racial, self-critical mood. In my view, Chavis was trying to go to Jackson’s Left (this was the period of time that Jackson was saying things like “when I walk down the street at night and see somebody white, I’m relieved”) and providing an alternative/supplement to Farrakhan’s Men’s Meetings, which would culminate in the Million Man March. In the media world, a new generation of Black middle-class writers such as Jill Nelson (Volunteer Slavery) and Nathan McCall (Makes Me Want to Holler) were defining the limits of Black respectability, dealing with the paradox of racial desegregation in a Black nationalist-tinged way. In the corporate-dominated popular culture, Black nationalist hiphop was fading and gangsta rap was growing. Afrocentrism—a post-modern version of what used to be called cultural nationalism—was beginning to feel played out.
This was a time period where Civil Rights organizations still viewed themselves as more occupying Martin Luther King’s activist space of fighting against his “triple evils” of racism, militarism and economic exploitation and less as part of the growing, politically-safe nonprofit industrial complex. So the Chavis NAACP’s response to the conservativism of Bill Clinton was to call for “economic democracy” and to continue its South Africa work as former political prisoner Mandela became president. (I remember Chavis being on The CBS Evening News when Mandela was elected. The world’s most famous former political prisoner, an African man with a significant flock, got the ultimate power in his segregated African nation, and an American former political prisoner, another Black man, one of African descent who also was a leader of his people, was commenting on it!) Responding to Farrakhan’s 1992 Congressional Black Caucus call for a “sacred covenant” among Black organizations, the Chavis leadership wanted a National African American Leadership Summit at the NAACP’s National headquarters in Baltimore in 1994, and Farrakhan would be part of it.
This new, post-modern radical nature of the NAACP was normal to me, but not to America. Reams of news and Op-Ed copy flowed around and about us since the white liberal’s nightmare had come true! My God, Delores, look! A Caribbean revolutionary, a “jailbird” and a radical lawyer were moving forward on an agenda they alone decided! There were even some internal struggles among the trio: Lew Myers wasn’t used to being attacked in The New York Times and chewed Don out about it. Don said something very real to me about that situation right afterward, articulating a thought that, to this day, I use every time I assess Abu-Jamal and other political prisoners: “You are young, so you need to know the difference between an activist and a revolutionary. To a revolutionary, it is an honor to be attacked by The New York Times.”
I was happy as hell to be doodling in the not-yet-written pages of Black Movement history! I blew off my UMCP Master’s graduation for the Movement—fuck College Park! I was living and breathing the most exciting time for the NAACP since the 1960s. But I also really approved of what the trifecta was trying out: using that Boomer energy to affect change—meaning expansion and inclusion. Go, man, go! But perhaps all of that radical oomph—that seat-of-the-pants fluidity that can easily transform into a lack of discipline—was coming at the expense of the Negro grassroots. Flush with the chance to make aging national Black Power dreams fresh and flesh, Chavis had failed to show up at those local NAACP Freedom Fund dinners, a real problem when it is understood that the NAACP is really a confederation of hundreds of local, dues-paying groups. While the Summit was being planned, the internal counter-revolution had begun.
To a media-centered person like me, the Summit was like the national Black media/political class holding a block party. Historical players were showing up who hadn’t been invited—is that Ossie Davis sitting on that chair in the hallway?!? Wait—is that elder in the wheelchair Queen Mother Moore being interviewed in that corner?!?—so they could say they were there! The National Office’s dedicated, mostly-Black female, worker-bee staff was pushed to its collective limit, and they would remember how they were asked to push even further when—before they could even take a damn breath!—Chavis announced out-of-nowhere that the NAACP would build a South African satellite.
The administration went all out in providing hospitality. At this NAACP, the de-colonized ideas merged with traditional bourgeois trappings. If there was such a paradoxical thing as a radical establishment, it was there. At one point in the Summit program, there was literally a red carpet in front of the headquarters. Participants were asked to walk down it to a meeting. I was in an alcove and standing next to me was Cornel West. He was waiting for an NAACP rep to retrieve him for the walk down the carpet. The journalist in me had to ask him what he was going to tell his Jewish supporters about endorsing a Black-agenda meeting with Farrakhan. He looked at me with a smooth smile, saying, “Don’t worry, I have my arguments ready.” For a brief moment, I thought West was just a slick, well-dressed hustler: Is that all Black liberation is about today—public arguments with powerful white liberals? To his credit, West was a little reluctant to play along; I could tell by his body language as he was escorted he thought this pomp silly and ostentatious.
My Summit highlights: An actual Big Tent on the NAACP lawn! A town hall meeting at Sojourner Douglass College in downtown Baltimore with Pan-African historian John Henrik Clarke, West and Malcolm X widow Betty Shabazz, hosted by BET News’ Ed Gordon. A meeting where the group accepted and began to implement a Black leadership plan created by political activist Ron Daniels. A Black-agenda plan that could actually be implemented, using the NAACP’s national scope and resources! Wow! So many prepared people waiting for this exact moment! It was the momentary culmination of so many things I had read about in Black newspapers and history books, seen on Black public-affairs television shows like WABC-TV’s Like It Is, listened to on WLIB.
And it was a deep thing to know all of this was coming from the leadership of a former political prisoner—somebody who had spent virtually my entire ’70s childhood in jail. I heard whispers in the NAACP halls about his going being allowed by prison authorities to attend divinity school, traveling to and fro in chains. I wanted so badly to believe in a living, breathing Black radical hero who was going to bind the different liberal and radical elements of the Black movement, so I believed in Chavis before I got to know him.
Enough was enough for the board. Washington, D.C. radio host Joe Madison, a prominent Black board member, led a successful revolt. Chavis was out and the national Black radical Zeitgeist moved on to the Million Man and Million Woman marches, O.J. Simpson’s acquittal (to a certain extent), the now-independent (and un-implementable) Summits, and the “Free Mumia” movement. Meanwhile, all the prisoners in those reference books could do is just look on with optimism.
Chavis was ousted after only 18 months because of internal conflicts resulting from a financial-sexual scandal caused by him. Chavis’ public attempts at the Big Tent at the expense of the local chapters, along with his lack of personal discipline, forced him to resign in disgrace. A case of COINTEL-BRO? This was the first time that had happened to a national Movement leader, and it caused quite a stir. This was decades before the “Me, Too” movement, so Black women were more publicly and privately torn about protecting wrong, selfish, misogynistic, powerful Black men than they are today. Back then, Chavis’ only punishment was that he was publicly banned from the white nonprofit complex.
So the gold-plated, red-black-and green wagon I had hitched to had broken apart because of the overuse of a pants zipper and the rushed use of an overwashed, faded dashiki. My hopes of becoming a mostly-invisible-but-prominent Negro notable crushed, my star-turn on my hoped-for Eyes on the Prize III dashed, my first-class ticket to the locus of the Black radical-ish movement revoked. I retreated into my College Park classes, history books and magazines, and 88.5 WAMU-FM, the local NPR affiliate. I became even more of a regular at my local comicbook stores. I focused completely on becoming an intellectual and spent all my spare time gorging myself on new Star Trek shows and on the remarkable, updated-for-adults Marvel and DC superhero animated fare that would come to dominate the decade’s Saturday morning network television lineup.
Freed from the restrictions of the NAACP, Chavis went down some interesting public paths. He converted to the Nation—he was now “Minister Benjamin Chavis Muhammad”—and became the chief organizer of the Million Man March. He kept the Leadership Summits alive for as long as he could. He worked with hiphop artists, helping them organize political summits.
It was “Minister Chavis Muhammad” (*snicker*) who I got to see again about six years later when I worked as an editor for the NNPA’s News Service, a national syndicate for Black newspapers. He was being interviewed by what I will loosely describe as the NNPA Editorial Board. (Ironically, my boss at NNPA, executive director Benjamin Todd Jealous, would within a decade become president and CEO of the National NAACP!) Ben saw my reluctance to meet with him, straight-up asking if I was frightened to do so. I lied and said no. I was scared—I was scared to show how angry I was at him, scared to lose any sense of self-control due to my pent-up anger and disappointment. In my mind, he was just like Clinton, another personally reckless, arrogant Baby Boomer who got all the power and glory that members of his generation feel entitled to, and the permission to mess up that comes from that lofty, entitled perch. So I didn’t speak at all during that interview.
Raoul Dennis, the NNPA News Service’s Managing Editor, tried to challenge him on the sexual-harassment issue, bless his heart. Chavis Muhammad had an easy response, using the same smoothie smile I saw from Cornel West in that NAACP alcove: “Brother, when I’m on the streets of our communities, no asks me about Mary Stansel,” the woman at the center of his financial-sexual scandal, the woman Chavis used NAACP funds to pay off. “They ask me to help stop the violence.” I had to reluctantly accept that oppressed people don’t have the luxury to throw their leaders away—at least they didn’t back then, at the turn of the new century.
More irony: this Memorial Day, Chavis is now in Jealous’ old position as NNPA Executive Director! He now also has a national Black public-affairs show, The Chavis Chronicles, that airs on select PBS stations across the nation. So while PBS replaced accused sexual-harasser Charlie Rose with Christiane Amanpour, it replaced accused sexual-harasser Tavis Smiley—who came to prominence right after this period, and who eventually used the Summit model for his annual C-SPAN “State of the Black Union” broadcasts and his national-Black-agenda books—with another one.
How did Chavis, who left the Nation and returned to Christianity shortly after that meeting, go from power to disgrace and then back to power? I assume it’s because of the demonstrated commitment that comes from being first an internationally-known political prisoner and second a pioneering national environmental justice advocate. Then there is the relentless public positivity of the oppressed. Optimism is key to the activist, including the political prisoner. Optimism is justified on days when 25 million people around the world protest police brutality in 2020. It is also held fast on days, years, decades when it seems that nothing goes on. The ’94 NAACP catastrophe showed that at the time there were still some believers in radical struggle who had gained positions of power. The more we get together/The happier we’ll be….the Gary triumph-fantasy. But just “coming together” is not enough agency. You have to control yourself. You have to be in control of yourself. You have to fund yourself. That’s where real self-determination begins, not just getting access. You can’t win a fight using leased weapons.
The future will be different, with the majority of the most publicly radical activists and ideological public thinkers this Memorial Day in the role of aging or middle-aged college professors. (Is there any irony in that sentence or will it continue to be true that rebels will come from the middle class?) We will have to see what happens with the “new” Black Lives Matter. There has been very effective local organizing done out of the range of the nonprofit industrial complex–e.g., BLM’s Philadelphia chapter and one of its leaders, Dr. Krystal Strong, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania. But there are no public national leader summits or accompanying red carpets, at least not yet.
For all of his faults, Chavis showed me that public, decolonized thinking and leading are possible. Like Odinga and Conway, he was always coming from the outside that Reverend Yasutake mentioned, fighting against the real America that we who followed Black media knew so well. But I did not ruminate on that after the love was gone. I was too busy being angry of the/my missed opportunity and furious that Don and Lew Myers—the latter dying in 2018—had their public reputations tarnished while Chavis stood with Farrakhan as the latter explained the cosmic significance of the number 19 in front of the National Mall and the world. Nineteen was significant to me too, because it took almost 20 years to really move on from the experience. And it’s important to note that no established radicals have been let anywhere near a national (white-funded) Black organization since then. That national convergence of the decolonized, one subsidized and sustained by major white foundation money, would never be allowed to happen again.
In his 1996 co-authored book with Cornel West, The Future of the Race, Black gatekeeper Henry Louis “Skip” Gates wrote that Chavis failed partially because the 20th century Black-Power model Chavis was using was out-of-date; the Black world had changed since Gary, he argued. In actuality, Gates was right and wrong. He was right in that just getting together doesn’t do anything. But he was wrong because he didn’t know the coming technology was going to create virtual institutions, linking like-minded people like the Black Power Media collective. We are now working together and consistently communicating in ways that no one outside of early 20th-century Science Fiction fandom could ever dream. But work such as creating virtual institutions and having control over digital information is not the same as having or using power. If we don’t have the power to free Panthers from endless jail, to give a relevant example, then we don’t have power. Our ’20-’21 Pan-African digital unity, from the African Union being forced to go virtual to 15 COVID-filled months of nightly Zoom Black American conferences of one sort or another up through Memorial Day, has educated many but solved very little.
I am now happy for Chavis and glad he is no longer a disgrace to me and to those who decide such things. To put a positive, on-the-record spin on my NAACP experience, I learned that political prisoners care about struggle, not Q ratings or the specifics of a role or a name. But I will always mourn what could have been.
Ironically, it was that pain over the former political prisoner Chavis and the NAACP, that need to be distracted from it, that opened me up to learning about another, current one, some guy named something-something-Jamal, thanks to an October 1994 Source magazine feature by J.H. Thompkins. It was titled “Death Certificate,” a great name-play on the 1991 Ice Cube gangsta-to-conscious album of the same name. That article, from half my life ago, started me down on today’s road. While many of my Black writer peers were enjoying increased success in major newspapers and national, mass-market magazines, I joined the NNPA News Service as a paid, part-time intern in 1995 to give me something to do that would force me to stop thinking about Chavis and the NAACP. I was now deep in my Ph.D. studies; I had accepted that my history book was now up to me. Enter Abu-Jamal, with a book of Op-Ed essays out that spring, a date to be executed in Pennsylvania that August, and solitary confinement and a contentious public hearing in-between. In a Pennsylvania bathroom-sized cell, he was right there for the chronicling. So with a hot national news story with both historic grassroots Black radical elements and present-day historic potential, I started over within myself and began typing in Abu-Jamal’s column to add to the News Service’s Op-Ed lineup. Happy to have the ability to spread Abu-Jamal’s words to a large national Black audience, I reverted back to being a journalist and apprentice historian. That personal/professional shift allowed me to trade my prior obsession with a five-initial Black organization to a strong interest in the story of a Black man with three.
BUT MY EGO-DRIVEN, narcissistic pain about Chavis and the NAACP was less than nothing compared to the life certificates of the oft-forgotten—the Cubs, the children of these radical inmates. In the Preface of Bukhari’s The War Before, her daughter Wonda Jones writes:
Not until my mother passed did I realize how important she was—how hard she worked, how many people admired her and looked up to her….I got to know my mother when I began to understand her political life and work…
“For much of my childhood, my mother was in prison. When I was eleven years old—a few years before my mother was released—I found out a lot about her. Until then, I thought my grandparents were my parents—even though I’d been visiting my mother in prison. Finally, an uncle told me the truth, and I began to come to terms with the new facts of my life.
I learned that if it hadn’t been for my godmother, Safiya’s sorority sister, Wonda (my namesake), I probably would have become a child of the system shortly after I was born. But my godmother called my grandmother, and she came to get me from the Panther headquarters just a few hours before the police raided those headquarters.
I was lucky. I’ve talked to a lot of Panther Cubs who weren’t as fortunate. They were hit with police sticks or had the cops put guns to their faces when they were discovered at a raid of Panther offices. I was lucky in that way. But in another, I was less lucky. They grew up with their parents, and I didn’t. I lost my father in March of 1971. Robert Webb, a member of the Black Panther Party, was found dead on a street in New York City. Police never investigated nor was anyone ever charged for the murder. Then, for years afterward, my mother was on the run or in prison, and my grandparents and other family members raised me.
With all that, I didn’t have the worst childhood. In fact, it felt like an ordinary life to me. At home, all I heard about was the church, Heaven and Hell. I never heard about the Panthers.
My mother came home from prison when I was fourteen and in the midst of teenage rebellion. I didn’t want any part of her or her life. I gave Ashanti Alston hell, too. Ashanti had married Safiya in 1985 and helped raise me.
Despite all this, we developed a good relationship in time. She worked at it. When I got pregnant, my mother supported me. The first time she heard my daughter’s heartbeat, she cried. She said, “I can be here for her childhood like I wasn’t for yours.” All the attention she hadn’t been able to give to me, she poured into my daughter Shylis. That’s when I understood that my mother did regret not having been there as a parent for me. And that’s when I forgave her.
Tragically, my mother died at the young age of fifty-three. After I got over the fury of her death—at the people who’d known she was in bad health but hadn’t helped her slow down and heal—I began to look back at it all. I saw that we all make choices in life. She wanted to fight for all the people, to make sure that everyone, including me, had a better future. So she made a choice, sacrificing being a mother to be an activist. I’m not going to say I wouldn’t have loved for her to have been there for me when I was a child, but she wanted more in life.
Childhood tears are always the most remembered–in this case, associated with parental touch and its denial. Assata Shakur’s visit by her daughter Kakuya and her mother, as documented in the Black Power classic, Assata: An Autobiography, reminded me of Abu-Jamal’s chronicle of his visit by one of his daughters, as detailed in his Op-Ed “The Visit.”
Mumia Abu-Jamal: She burst into the tiny visiting room, her brown eyes aglitter with happiness; stopped, stunned, staring at the glassy barrier between us; and burst into tears at this arrogant attempt at state separation. In milliseconds, sadness and shock shifted into fury as her petite fingers curled into tight fists, which banged and pummeled the Plexiglass barrier, which shuddered and shimmied but didn’t break.
Assata Shakur: I go over and try to hug her. In a hot second, she is all over me. All i can feel are these little four-year-old fists banging away at me. Every bit of her force is in those punches, they really hurt. I let her hit me until she is tired.
Abu-Jamal: “Break it! Break it!” she screamed. Her mother, recovering from her shock, bundled up Hamida in her arms, as sobs rocked them both. My eyes filled to the brim. My nose clogged.
Shakur: “It’s all right,” i tell her. “Let it all out.” She is standing in front of me, her face contorted with anger, looking spent. She backs away and leans against the wall.
Sadly, Hamida, a.k.a., Samiya “Goldii” Davis Abdullah, is now beyond any walls, Plexiglass, or cages. She died in late 2014, after battling breast cancer. She was only 36—four years younger than Abu-Jamal’s entire imprisonment as of December 2021.
Kukuya is still alive and participating in a June 13, 2020 Zoom panel on the children of still-incarcerated political prisoners. Hosted by Jorge Chang of the Jericho Movement, the other panelists were Theresa Shoatz, daughter of Russell “Maroon” Shoatz; Talib Shakur, the son of Mutulu Shakur; K’Sisay Sadiki, daughter of Black Panther Kamau Sadiki and the step-sister of Kukuya Shakur (Assata’s daughter) through their shared father, and Mike Africa Jr., son of recently released Mike Africa Sr. and Debbie Sims Africa, two members of the MOVE 9 whose story is told in the HBO documentary 40 Years A Prisoner. With Africa Jr. a Cub of a type, together they are a secret society expanded only by their fellow Panther Cubs (children of Black Panthers). On the phone, Africa was on a personal high, having just left a large, boisterous rally at Osage Avenue, the site of the 1985 MOVE bombing. He was also happy for another reason: in the aftermath of the worldwide George Floyd protests, the statue of Frank Rizzo, MOVE’s perennial enemy, had just been just torn down.
Some of the stories were horrible, such as told by Theresa, talking about how she had to endure her father being on the run while in elementary school which was, in a sad coincidence, across the street from her house. “Our house was raided in 1971, I was around 8 years of age, the school I was attended was evacuated; stories my dad is on the run”—along with untrue stories about a tunnel between the school and the home. “Therefore, I’m in a schoolyard with the rest of the kids and I notice where the focus is: it’s on our home. And all of the kids’ eyes are focused there. I’m just gripping that fence because I see my Mom surrounded by the FBI, the state police of Pennsylvania and the local police department. I’m in an uproar and there’s nothing I can do. And I see my mother outside and they’re all going through the home. And that kind of ripped my life apart.” The bullying from other kids and the overall trauma gave her years of “wilding out.” She is almost 56, but she has still not healed since the destruction of her 8-year-old world. “The rain inside of me never leaves, it never goes.” All of the panelists on-screen nodded. “There’s a storm inside, and the waters up to here (pointing to nose) and there’s no floodgates.”
K’Sisay, like Theresa, had to do with a uniquely Black American/Black radical double-consciousness: “When I was born the FBI was there looking for my father (who was underground with the Black Liberation Army).” There was a war between police and Black communities, and Black people were shooting back, delivering some consequences. She remembers as a young girl going to court a lot when her father was arrested and put on trial with Assata. She watched him getting beaten by police. When her mom (Pamela Hanna, former member of the Party Queens branch) went underground, she was raised by her grandmother. Not surprisingly, K’Sisay had a problem with reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in her all-white school and she had to get used to answering to different names while her mom was out-of-sight. “There was always the duality of being a child of Panthers and to have this normal life.” When her father got out of jail and her mother came out from underground, the family tried to create typical childhood experiences for the Cub—camp, Broadway. “I think it was really challenging.” Only in college was she comfortable enough to talk about her background. She said she is proud of her parents now because “they decided to fight back.”
Kaykua attempted to deny the intra-racial dynamics at first. “It definitely was like a Twilight Zone [episode]. I remember as a kid, it kind of felt surreal, like a movie.” The story was too fantastic for her: Wait–my mom is a freedom fighter who was liberated from prison and is now on the run? “It just sounded like, it’s just can’t be possibly real.” When Assata escaped prison when Kakuya was five, “it was like all hell broke loose.” They were under surveillance in Co-Op City; they believed the FBI had the apartment next door.
Five years go by, and her grandmother and her thought Assata had died. She didn’t know her father and had no memory of seeing him in prison. Her grandmother was terrified about having a relationship with anyone else political; after Assata’s escape, well—“there was no meeting my father; that was off-limits”—because Nana was afraid of Kaykua getting kidnapped by someone trying to get to Assata. When Kaykua was 10, she realized she no longer remembered her mother’s face. When the family found out Assata was alive and in exile, it was time to go to Cuba to live with Mom: “It was a necessary experience for me, because I had only known my mother theoretically.” Assata, An Autobiography, ends with this triumphant, swelled-movie-music scene and sense of a family reunited. But then there was the complicated ever-after of living together: Kaykua received “a tangible sense of her love” and Assata got in return a very angry 10-year-old child. “I gave her hell for a year or so….I asked her, ‘Why would you have a daughter if you couldn’t even raise her?’” Assata’s response, recalled Kaykua, was the same as many given by members of the Panthers and the Black Liberation Army: there was no way they were going to live, and allow their children to live, under Yankee Das Boot. Theresa went through the same emotional space with Maroon: “I had asked my dad the same thing: why did you have us four children and then you’re out there fighting and you have us and my mom is without a husband?’ Here’s what tore my anger away, because he said, ‘I couldn’t leave this rotten system for you to grow up in.’ And it hurts my heart because my dad has been in jail for 48 years. So he didn’t abandon his family, but he felt in his heart he would make a change for us.”
Kaykua had no choice but to attempt a journey toward Afro-Cubaness. She recalled a loving mother-daughter relationship, but one with a lot of unresolved trauma. “She would only give me little glimpses” into the torture, prison, solitary, attempts to feed her glass. “She was just filled with so much love. Just love for humanity and love for life and really appreciating she had this chance to be my mother in person.” She stayed in Cuba five years and tried to be a good revolutionary daughter, learning Spanish and trying to adjust to a very different culture, a different way of being. But it didn’t take. She needed to go home to the world of Black America and her grandmother. “That was the hardest thing—knowing that I was the most important lifeline to her and then leaving, leaving her alone. So my childhood was crazy.”
She finally met her father Kamau Sadiki and her sister K’Sisay when she came back to America. She was so happy to share this extraordinary experience with a sibling. But she’s under no illusions as to what is permanently lost, as she began to weep on-camera: “There is no silver lining for my mother’s story.” A lifetime of isolation for a grandmother who has never seen her grandchildren. “So much has been stripped from us and she has been vilified in such a horrific way that the only validation of her life is change. That’s the only thing that can make this feel better: That she gave her life for our children to have a better future. And so any kind of change is hope that the world she envisioned can one day be possible. So it is so important to me, to my sons, to my daughter, that we are, at this point (in the George Floyd aftermath), being heard and forcing the issue.”
The experience of hearing their stories really took the romance out of this struggle. The end of Assata’s Autobiography will now always leave a gray afterglow for me. Today, life’s autumn is winning against the forever spring of revolutionary faith: Assata is now hidden from sight, retired from public life, Mike Africa Jr.’s MOVE 9 parents are on parole for 58 years (“My parents are not free, but they are home”), and the other Panthers still in jail—their fathers—are quite ill. The child sharing not just the political prisoner public tag, but in many ways the whole psychic experience as well, adds another layer to the true meaning of the American Way.
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Wanted for Escape – Convicted of Murder of NJ State Trooper
|Scars, Marks and Tattoos: Round scar left kneeBullet wounds under right arm and left shoulder|
|FPC||AA AA AA 07 11|
AA AA AA 04 10
CONSIDER VERY DANGEROUS
AKA: Barbara Odoms, Mary Davis, Justine Henderson, Joanne Byron, Josephine Henderson, Assata Shakur, Joanne Chesterman
Remarks: Wanted for escape – was serving life plus 26 to 33 years for the murder of a New Jersey State Trooper.
Fugitive Unit File Number: H02379193
Authority: New Jersey State Police Fugitive Unit:
Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office
Now, why today is Assata Shakur now being branded a terrorist? If we look at the definition of terrorism, what is it? It is the use or the threat of use of force against a civilian population to achieve political ends. What happened in the case of Assata Shakur? You have heard, in her own words, this woman was a political activist. She was targeted by whom? J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI in a program that was called COINTELPRO. That program was unveiled by whom? Frank Church, Senator Frank Church, in the 1970s. He chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee. That committee determined that the FBI was using both legal, but mostly illegal, methods—to do what? In the FBI’s own words, they wanted to discredit, to stop the rise of a Black messiah—that was the fear of the FBI—so that there would not be a Mau Mau, in their words, uprising in the United States. And they were, of course, referring to the liberation movement that occurred in Kenya, Africa. Now, the FBI carried out a campaign targeting not only the Black Panther Party. They targeted SCLC. They targeted Martin Luther King. They targeted Harry Belafonte. They targeted Eartha Kitt. They targeted anyone who supported the struggle for civil rights, which they considered to be dangerous.
It is in that context we need to look at what happened on the New Jersey Turnpike in 1973. What they call Joanne Chesimard, what we know as Assata Shakur, she was targeted by the FBI, stopped. And the allegation that she was a cold-blooded killer is not supported by any of the forensic evidence. If we look at the trial, we’ll find that she was victimized, she was shot. She was shot in the back. The bullet exited and broke the clavicle in her shoulder. She could not raise a gun. She could not raise her hand to shoot. And she was shot while her hands were in the air. Now, that is the forensic evidence. There is not one scintilla of evidence placing a gun in her hand. No arsenic residue was found on her clothing or on her hands. So, the allegation by the state police that she took an officer’s gun and shot him, executed him in cold blood, is not only false but it is designed to inflame.
–Lennox Hinds, Shakur’s attorney, on Democracy Now!, on May 3, 2013, the day after the Federal Bureau of Investigation added her to its “Most Wanted Terrorists” list
COINTELPRO–THE DEMONIC MECHANISM that played a key role in creating these political prisoners–and its many Black Panthers victims are never that far. Today it’s publicly closer, thanks to some very bright Hollywood lights. Watching a Congressional forum, “COINTELPRO: What Happened and Lessons for Today,” on Zoom on May 10, I didn’t know that Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Democrat of California, was a BPP Community Worker back in the day. (That rank was the equivalent of associate membership.) She remembered her work at the Oakland Community School, the Panther’s most visible legacy as the Party slowly faded in the 1970s. Chairing the committee along with Lee were Congressmen Steve Cohen, Democrat of Tennessee, and Bobby Rush of Illinois, the latter a Panther leader in Chicago. Rush had by luck just escaped the fate of Fred Hampton, now a household name because of the 2021 Academy Award-winning feature film Judas and the Black Messiah.
Lee told the committee that she got a COINTELPRO file for her community service. She advised her fellow legislators to read Last Man Standing: The Tragedy and Triumph of Geronimo Pratt, the biography of the Los Angeles Panther leader who was wrongly imprisoned for 27 years, to see how the FBI’s goal was to “destroy people, family, community and organizations and (create) years of incarceration (for Panthers) that never should have happened.”
Providing testimony at the hearing: Akua Njeri (ne: Deborah Johnson), Hampton’s widow; Fred Hampton, Jr., who was in Njeri’s belly when Hampton was assassinated; Party co-founder Bobby Seale; Party leader Ericka Huggins; Betty Medsger, The Washington Post reporter who helped exposed COINTELPRO; Mike German, Liberty and National Security Fellow at the Brennan Center for Law and Justice and former FBI Special Agent, and author and Movement lawyer Nkechi Taifa.
Njeri explained that the Party was unique because of our “politic,” our radical approach to the Black struggle. That approach made J. Edgar Hoover call the Party the top domestic terrorists in America, and the consequences were, as Hampton Jr. explained, that gangsters like Stanley “Tookie” Williams and him grew up in the historical gap of its destruction. The year 1969, Hampton Jr. said, “is our 911 story—our Twin Towers” because of Hampton Sr.’s and Mark Clark’s murder that day. “My birth certificate almost became my death certificate” and “my stethoscope was the gun to my mother’s stomach….Deborah Johnson was my jail cellmate.” Meanwhile, declared Hampton Jr., police openly threatened Black youth in Chicago communities after Hampton’s and Clark’s murder, taunting and warning the youth “There will never be another Fred Hampton.”
COINTELPRO, Hampton Jr. said, is Black America’s inheritance. Only a white supremacist country, he explained, would allow the nation’s chief law enforcement agency to take 90 percent of the bureau’s counter-intelligence resources and apply it to Black people who were openly practicing the Bill of Rights. And Hampton Jr. emphasized that the pain has not gone away. “COINTEL remains a stain in our brain and a mark in our heart.” It’s hard to come to grips with, he explained. This current climate, he added is one is forced conversation: “We can’t keep up with the names, with the George Floyds and Brionna Taylors.” COINTELPRO’s legacy, Hampton Jr. explained, is the “anti-struggle” of all of the institutions of the Black community—education, music, popular culture, etc. —all focused purposely not to engage in struggle. This is one of the reasons, if not the chief reason, why political prisoners are not visible. (Near the close of the hearing, Njeri recited the names of several political prisoners and discussed some 1985 MOVE member remains that, it had been recently discovered, had been taken by universities; she said she interjected herself into the discussion because no one had asked her any questions.)
The past still seemed to be discussed—to be heard, if not said, in the present tense. Seale discussed how the Party formed as a result of being at Merritt College and his admiration of Malcolm X. Finally getting to the subject after some rambling, Seale said that after Carmichael was drafted into the Party for a very brief tenure, George Samms was sent by the FBI to monitor Carmichael the way William O’Neal was put on Hampton. Before reading her testimony, Huggins discussed how difficult it still is, 50 years later, to “pull from the past that I live with daily.” Having a husband killed as a result of FBI shenanigans will do that to you. Medsger talked about how every FBI office had at least one informant to not just spy on Black people, but “harass and destroy” instead of investigating and convicting. The Washington, D.C. office was an exception, she remembered, because it had six informants! The Bureau’s tactics used against Blacks, she said, ranged from cruel— drugging fruit with laxatives, setting them up with prostitutes with venereal disease—to murderous. Whites got files opened on them for just having Left opinions, but “just being Black meant you were considered dangerous in Hoover’s FBI.”
The questions between the two groups were an example of historical crosshatching. Discussions include how the American Legion’s spying role has been forgotten (with thousands serving as unofficial FBI informants, where are the thousands of files?) In responding to a question from Cohen, German said that COINTELPRO only officially ended; from surveilling American activists in the ’80s involved in organizing for a socialist Central America to political situations today, America is still doing what it wants: “It’s astonishing we don’t know what the FBI is doing” at the present moment. Huggins, whose husband’s killer was never found, explained that at one point, one out of every four Party members in Los Angeles was an informant. Lee moved back and forth between witness and questioner: she told Seale that COINTELPRO had actively tried to destroy the tight, public bond between her and the Party immediately post-Gary. “I was ostracized for a heck of a long time because of that.” Seale talked about the FBI’s unsuccessful attempt to recruit teenage girls as his potential sex partners, a way to get him on a criminal sexual conduct charge.
At one point, Huggins and Hampton Jr. stayed in the present. She said she gets to offer advice to “astonished” Black Lives Matter activists who are surveilled. Hampton Jr. told Rush that we have gone from “CO-INTELPRO to NOW-INTELPRO.” It’s “a non-acknowledged war” and, being Black means “there’s no neutral ground.” German said that the FBI—still a predominantly white male institution that, he pointed out, has still not published the domestic terrorist report it has promised—will continue to ignore white supremacist organizations, but monitor and disrupt those it irrationally feels are “more threatening to them and institutions they are defending.” Hampton Jr. said he wished there was an option for Blacks to opt-out, but COINTELPRO is essential for America because “our blood seems to be the oil for the machine to keep going.” So it also seems, then, that there is a 21st-century need for Panthers and others, framed or not, to remain in prison for America’s myths to survive serious scrutiny.
A NEW AVENUE OF the political prisoner movement emerged in 2021: not just unprotected live Black bodies, but now what Njeri referred to–unprotected Black radical remains treated as specimens. The MOVE Organization shared the Panthers’ anti-police brutality focus but, in stark contrast to the Cats, did not carry guns that actually worked. It defined freedom for itself. Because of The Family Africa’s extreme nature, it was harassed by Philadelphia police, jailed as the MOVE 9 to satisfy the need to pin the death of a police officer on it (with some serving up to 40 years in jail) and eventually bombed by the city.
That 1985 bombing was physically brought back into the public arena with the shocking revelation that the bones of children caught in the bombing were being used by Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania as specimens. This is what Akua Njeri made sure was going to be in the Congressional hearing’s public record. The gruesome act brought to mind Frederick Douglass’ pre-Civil War quote in his famous 1852 Fifth of July address—that white American shareholders were guilty of crimes that would “disgrace a race of savages.” Even our bones are not safe; they are subject to political imprisonment of a sort.
Inside the historic classroom of the West—the formerly-proud video evidence of the desecration of Black bodies, as transcribed by Democracy Now!:
JANET MONGE, Department of Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania: This is one of these cases where the material has some flesh on it, which, you know, is not uncommon, actually, in forensics, in forensic anthropology. In this case, there is some soft tissue that is actually remaining. And the bones were actually burned, as well. So, it’s got quite a complicated history.
So, I’ll pick up just for a moment and show you that this is really the tissue that is present on the specimen. It’s not a lot, but absolutely it’s there. This is the tendon that goes to rectus femoris, that’s actually intact, and it’s there. The femur is with much less tissue associated with it, but you still have in the fovea capitis the anchoring ligament which is present in the head of the femur.
The bones are, I mean, we would say, like, juicy, you know, meaning that you can tell that they are of a recently-deceased individual. They have a lot of sort of sheen to them. At least this one does. And that is because, of course, there’s still marrow in the marrow cavity, and it’s sort of leaching basically out and into the bone, so it gives that kind of slick sort of appearance. If you smell it, it doesn’t actually smell bad, but it smells like just kind of greasy, like in older-style grease.
The bones were juicy—filled with the blood of the history of slavery and attempted genocide of an unpopular Black back-to-nature group. Black Philadelphia—and some activist segments of Black America—went into spasms. MOVE had gotten, finally, some mainstream support: do we actually have to say that Black Bones Matter? Has it really come to this? Official Philadelphia’s response was worthy of the tragicomic. First, the city said the remaining remains had been incinerated, and then it was found that it was not so. Bureaucratic indifference merged with racism. The more public-relations savvy MOVE had just finished organizing to make sure an ailing Abu-Jamal got proper medical care, after a serious bout of COVID was followed by heart disease, and now a debacle. Dr. Thomas Farley, the city’s health commissioner, resigned over the fracas.
MOVE’s public response to the problems and the dismissals:
We repeat, it’s not rocket science the Medical Examiner’s Office acted the way it did. The experienced forensic pathologist the MOVE Commission used declared the MOVE deaths homicides. He also found buckshot fragments in Delisha Africa’s arm (from the automatic rifle-wielding, police kill squad in the back alley), and identified the remains with all the victims. The Medical Examiner’s Office didn’t rule this way, preferring ignorance, lies, and “gosh, it was an accident” bullshit. The issue isn’t WHY the chain of command “failed” at the Medical Examiner’s Office, all City agencies were just protecting politicians and the police ‘kill squad’ in the back alley behind the MOVE home. It’s that continued protection that is the real problem. The officers in the back alley ‘kill squad’ were well documented in the MOVE Commission reports; all those officers that discharged their weapons need to go to jail for homicide; those who didn’t discharge their weapons should go to jail for conspiracy to cover up the homicide. No plea deals, except for for ‘kill squad’ cops that did not discharge their weapons AND who agree to testify on behalf of the MOVE victims (one of whom, Ramona Africa, is still alive and seeking justice for her dead family members). Additionally, the heads of the Fire Department, Police Department, and Mayor should be criminally re-indicted and charged with homicide. No reasonable manager could expect to bomb a suburban home (and “let the fire burn,”) with known gas cans on the roof (police informants informed police & drew maps), and expect to not kill the occupants of the home. The MOVE bombing was an extermination operation, and until this truth is criminally prosecuted, there is no justice. And innocent Black people in Philadelphia will continue getting murdered by the City if we allow corrupt, killer employees and structures to stand.
Showing great integrity, MOVE called for any reparations to include, and be led with, MOVE supporter Abu-Jamal’s freedom.
While I type this account, there was breaking news-that-is-not-such: In Canada, where whites snatched Indigenous people and put them in colonial-type schools, a discovery was found right before Memorial Day. More publicly acknowledged bones. The remains of two-hundred-and-thirteen children—at least one as young as 3-years-old, a baby!—were found on the site of one of these cultural-detention centers disguised as schools. Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation called the discovery an “unthinkable loss that was spoken about but never documented at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.” (This reminds me of Mike Africa’s stories of the orphanage MOVE children were forced to temporarily reside.) Add to that the recovery of bones from dumped Black bodies in Tulsa as the century is marked. As Julia Wright, the writer-activist and daughter of Richard Wright, wrote in an email to the “Free Mumia” listserv about the situation, “Such a paradox: we are left unburied but the truth about us is buried.” The ground is being dug up in historic Western crime scenes because souls are beginning to cry out, causing their bones to shake.
TIME CONTINUES TO PLAY games with all of us, allowing some of us losers to walk away with illusions of permanence and importance. A chronic email forwarder, I recently sent a press release to a friend of mine I received from Black Enterprise magazine, who referred to itself in 2021 as “the premier multimedia resource for African American entrepreneurs and business leaders.” My friend laughed at it, asking if the now-just-digital rag’s editors and public relations staff were delusional. My response to him was this, “Well, we remember when it was that.”
The exchange reminded me of two things. The first was when Black Enterprise, along with Essence, was a major magazine, just under King Ebony in audience reach and cultural importance. Black Enterprise showed its commitment to the Black Power movement by becoming a primary spot to read about apartheid South Africa and the divest-from-corporations-doing-business-in-South-Africa movement that had taken hold in America in the mid-1980s. I was enthralled by serious magazines—particularly after I read a 1987 special issue of Newsweek on Black men called “Brothers.” I was young then and these magazines were so powerful, with Essence being the Black Consciousness space and Black Enterprise being an economic and political magazine. I remember when Black Enterprise produced a calendar pullout that listed the convention dates of every major Black organization. The second thing I was reminded of was a PBS documentary on Adam Clayton Powell, where John Henrik Clarke said of the subject: “To understand Adam Clayton Powell you would need a very young child and a very old man. You need the young child to say that the emperor has no clothes. And then you need the old man to say that ‘Yes, but he had clothes once, and they were beautiful.’”
That quote was aired during a time that I miss: my New Jersey newspaper and Maryland grad school years, where I was being sucked into historical documentaries, biographies and magazines. Decades later, I’m still not completely forced out. It’s my trapezoid. Everyone has a trapezoid—something they’re trapped in—and circles—real-life controlled by those in charge of that—surrounding it.
With Black Lives Matter under new leadership this Memorial Day, I keep wondering if and how the movement will spread: What to do with no overthrow? How deep can radical reform go when states are controlled by conservatives? How will “Defund The Police” as an idea stop police violence: Isn’t that just reducing state violence, not stopping it? No answers in this period of mourning and memory, but there exist plenty of study groups and Black organizing still going on strong around the nation and the world. I’m unsure if we are still in a “woke assimilation” state, with online technology (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Zoom) at least for now more friend than enemy, unifying but within boundaries: the cameras and mikes are now ours, but it ends there. One year later, twenty-five million who had filled the world’s streets are somewhere else breathing quite well, thank you. This movement ebb is important to point out because the political-prisoner movement keeps its champions alive through public protest, extending the time for the legal system to work or not.
I remembered what Bukhari wrote: “Some of us mistake the people’s anger, frustration, and distrust of the system as meaning they are ready for revolution. It is true that they possess a deep-seated anger at the system. It’s true that they distrust the system. But it is also true that they have not made the connection between the source of this anger and distrust and creating a revolution.”
There is constant movement and struggle, inside and outside the prison. Inmates such as Kevin “Rashid” Johnson of the Revolutionary Intercommunal Black Panther Party are still organizing. Johnson may be serious, but there is always a danger of some of the blackest berets disappearing on release date. Eddie Conway wrote the following in his memoir The Brother You Choose: Paul Coates and Eddie Conway Talk About Life, Politics, and The Revolution: “I worked with this one particular guy for six to seven years. He thought he was George Jackson reincarnated: black belt, martial arts, jungle fatigues—in fact, he was our karate instructor. Read all the books, knife in his mouth, the whole nine yards. Then he gets released. They open the door—he walks through that door, took off his jungle fatigues; he threw the Red Book on the penitentiary steps. The next time we see him, two weeks later, he had a Jheri curl, a maxi leather coat, two sex workers and a pimpmobile.” This one example lends proof to what Kwame Ture said and believed about the lumpenproletariat: they can’t be trusted because they vacillate too much.
But the constant corporate news flow makes almost everyone vacillate. This Memorial Day, it is clear that the so-called “controversies” over the teaching of Critical Race Theory in several states and the tenure denial of superstar journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is the beginning of the creation of white minority rule. With the Senate Republicans deciding to publicly forget that January 6, 2021, was an attempt of a white, right open revolution, we see the neo-apartheid state slowly but openly forming.
Meanwhile, the political prisoners are where they have always been. The eventual deaths of these Baby Boomers will solve many problems for White America. In a post-literate, social media culture, only so many words and people will stay as intellectual currency. Movements are either forced into memory or force memory, depending on the age we are living in at the moment. Do movements keep currency in a memory-disposable but now constantly recorded-and-archived society?
And can the political prisoners, many denied access to audio and video forums, survive in print? Print is still (only your eyes move) and stays still (in bookstores, then libraries). As is with political prisoners, print is stationary. But are their ideas intellectually stilled? Digitizing might save them. Will they only exist in university classrooms or small Black Marxist study groups by the middle of the 21st century? We are quickly about to find out.
Meanwhile, victories of people entrenched inside and outside for decades are literally staring me in the face. Time creates clarity by producing in the ether a visible sense of humor sometimes: It is difficult to believe I am now old enough to see MOVE leaders Pam and Ramona Africa (the latter one of MOVE’s most prominent political prisoners) among the May 2021 honorees of a mural for Black women in downtown Philadelphia at the former site of the Mayor Frank Rizzo statue. The mural, part of a set honoring Black activism, is called “Crown: Freedom.”
Just a few weeks before, radical Philadelphia was the core of those gathered for Abu-Jamal’s 67th birthday on April 24, 2021. Since he is arguably the world’s most famous Black political prisoner, he normally gets the biggest demonstrations and coverage out of the caged group. One of the highlights of the rally and march was the live roll call of freed radicals. Gabe Bryant, one of the many organizers of the rally, first called up National Jericho chair Jihad Abdulmumit, himself no stranger to the cell. Bryant talked about how it is wrong to be self-defeating in this protracted struggle. He then called up Odinga. Then Kazi Toure, another Jericho leader and a former political prisoner. Then Janet and Jeanine Africa, freed in 2019. A huge cheer took to the sky, then chants of “Free ‘Em All!” “Free Mumia!” Bryant reminded that the victory all saw was the results of years of emails, conferences, arguments, trips to prisons and writing letters. (Worker’s World, in its coverage of the event, said: “The group has spent a combined over 150 years behind bars.”) After declaring “We will never leave our comrades in these cages!” Bryant turned to them: “We salute you. We thank you. We appreciate you. And we can never say enough how much we love you for your persistence, for your resilience, and your strength.” The event happily seemed to contradict, at least on its most obvious level, what Huey Newton said in his memoir Revolutionary Suicide: “The first lesson a revolutionary must learn is that he is a doomed man. Unless he understands this, he does not grasp the essential meaning of his life.” But Newton continued on that thought, proclaiming that you can’t have the revolution and old age. So the political prisoners—particularly the freed ones, the ones who got the right piece of hidden evidence, in front of the right judge at the right and achieved release—represent the old age of a post-revolutionary or, perhaps even more accurate, non-revolutionary situation.
The “Free Mumia” movement correctly sees that 2021 mural as a significant victory. The painting comes in a time of anniversaries, e.g., 50 years since Attica, 50 years since the Panther 21 group Autobiography. The movements know that the political prisoners are not frozen, so the key to activists trying to get other activists back to outside life is to try to move as fast as possible. Outcomes: Parole, release, illness, death, denial of parole, corrections restrictions. Obstacles: public indifference, but not from the state (government) or the local Fraternal Order of Police. Cold must now become heat, stillness must transform into motion. Confrontation is just a temporary tactic now, a way to dissipate rage, so it’s not an end to itself. Please MOVE faster, because bodies and bones are at stake!
COVID has turned Coleman Prison back to the Dark Ages. I remember a time at Marion USP when I was put in solitary for so long, when 72 hours could make you start to forget who you were. I once wrote down who I was on the concrete floor under my bed, so if I forgot, I could read it back to myself. I traded my last cigarette for a pencil. I’d rush to the door when a guard left the meager plate of food, just to see a glimpse of another human being — even if it was one that hated me, it was another human and good for my mind for a minute.
I’m in hell, and there is no way to deal with it but to take it as long as you can. I cling to the belief that people are out there doing what they can to change our circumstances in here. The fear and stress are taking a toll on everyone, including the staff. You can see it in their faces and hear it in their voices. The whole institution is on total LOCKDOWN.
In and out of lockdown last year at least meant a shower every third day, a meal beyond a sandwich wet with a little peanut butter — but now with COVID for an excuse, nothing. No phone, no window, no fresh air — no humans to gather — no loved one’s voice. No relief. Left alone and without attention is like a torture chamber for the sick and old.
Where are our human rights activists? You are hearing from me, and with me, many desperate men and women! They are turning an already harsh environment into an asylum, and for many who did not receive the death penalty, we are now staring down the face of one! Help me, my brothers and sisters, help me, my good friends.
The fifth edition of Spirit contains a tribute to one of the organizers of the fourth: Reverend Yasutake. He had died in 2001, as the fifth edition was being born. The Committee to End the Marion Lockdown printed the text of a slideshow tribute to him in 1996.
He was in the Japanese concentration camps, which America euphemistically calls internment camps: “We could not take anything except what we could carry in our own hands. We were moved to Minidoka, Idaho by broken-down trains with the shades pulled down. They wouldn’t let us see where we were going, so we could have been going to the gas chambers, as far as we knew. They were drafting people for the war right there in the camps. There were several hundred who resisted the draft, and 66 of them got sent to prison. So these men said, ‘I’m not going. Hell, no, I won’t go’ way before Vietnam.”
The committee’s loss is so normal, so usual in this circumstance—activists in the political prisoner movement who don’t outlive the ones under lock and key. There have been scores of people who have died in the last 40 years or so while fighting to get those Panthers and others out of jail. The people have spanned from legacy media to de-massified media, from paper newsletter to Tweet. It’s a reminder of my mortality, my life in memory. The struggle has been turning 50 since 2010 when the year was 2010 and I was 42. I’m 53 on this Memorial Day. The continual half-century marks point that these are really the days of late summer, if not autumn. All too soon I will enjoy being in the valley of forgotten people, re-reading forgotten documents such as those political-prisoner journal-books that are in the gargantuan library of the Realm of the Ancestors.
AND NOW THE VERDICT. My juvenile attempt to write myself into the history I have tried to study has failed: in a post-literate culture, such a thought is now ridiculous. My destiny will never intercept with a Wikipedia quote or an entry. But my attempt at cryogenics has partially succeeded, thanks to digital spaces Facebook, Twitter, Zoom, YouTube and Google. Living through books has been a wonderful experience: I actually thought all books were supposed to be permanent dialogues, which I now know is the height of grad-school naïveté. My two political-prisoner guidebooks are memories of what these people were like near and after the turn of the century.
But a dwindling few featured in those old books are still here. They are still very current spokespeople of a very specific kind—anchors, reporters, biographers and autobiographers of unapproved and unsanctioned ideas—including two essential ones. Firstly, that violence (including its fraternal twin, the so-called “nonviolent direct action,” which only works when violence is guaranteed) is always the response to the most blatant, terroristic abuse of power. Secondly and paradoxically, that the most consistent white restraint and Black freedom results when Black people openly and unapologetically defend themselves. Card-carrying members of a visible unit then, and now scarred-carrying, still-living archives of a different time. A singular generation, they crossed the Rubicon from radical belief to radical action—for example, when Sofiya Bukhari wasn’t getting the proper medical care she needed in prison in 1976, she didn’t call Jesse Jackson and Operation PUSH, she liberated herself!—and paid America’s steepest prices. The consequences that the state experienced—the ones that the BPP Jamal and the BLA McCreary mentioned as a goal—have, unfortunately, been relatively small compared to so many framed, so much trauma and fear instilled.
One of those consequences we all have experienced in this half-century is half-memory. The nation’s goal is, as always, amnesia. Even now, with recorded Zoom calls, Facebook and more, content is recorded and archived, so there’s no need to remember anything. Ironically, the tech era we have normalized through the creation and maintenance of our own digitized archives gives a glimpse into this permanence illusion, as we see the most recent past embracing the reality of yellowing, crumpling newsprint, or being buried in a university library database somewhere. With as much 2-D human life as possible digitized, me and we are fated to be forgotten by the masses until we are searched. After all, our individual brains can hold only so much of the present and past simultaneously. Hey, remember when Mumia Abu-Jamal and Geronimo Pratt separately made the cover of Emerge magazine in the ’90s? Man, that George Curry could really be progressive when he wanted to be! Remember Emerge magazine? Remember George Curry? Remember Geronimo Pratt?… Remember millions marching somewhere? Something like that….
These uncompromising activists have spent the most productive, most energetic years of their lives in jail. The state has fought to make sure they cannot reproduce in any way. Did they/we win or lose? A complicated question. A generation that viewed jail as a right of passage and a platform for organizing the lumpenproletariat and reading—Bobby Seale said he read Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, which postulated that “(c)hallenging the colonial world is not a rational confrontation of viewpoints”—are now, or fast becoming, too old and sick to do that anymore. Diabetes, dementia, decay, death.
Either way, lo, there will be an ending. America will tidy up, cut all loose ends and disconnect, finally, from the oh-so-uncomfortable radical world of the post-World War II era. Paper radicals will continue to fight with paper progressives, and paper progressives will continue to fight with practical liberals, and the state will never be threatened by any of them: it will pull the ideological elastic bands as far as it can until as many as it can grab are snapped in and co-opted. America will whitewash its records, but there will be those who remember, small groups who will continue to pay the online domain-name bills and those who will always know where to go way in the back of the bookshelves. The music will eventually end, and all the intellectually and culturally safe spaces—all the nice-looking musical chairs—will be filled. In the time of Fanon, et. al., there were agreed-upon definitions people worked with, since the view from the ground was hatefully consistent. Today the world is constructed by overwhelming wealth and corporate power. Fuzzy. So targeting Target solves little.
The imaginary Black Panther Party brick from more than half a century ago, one that could have hit Chauvin and perhaps saved Floyd, ricochets between the trapezoid and the circles, ever rebounding, waiting for the next crack in the barrier, the next unknown incident that will cause a major public disruption. Ancestral circles are directing the brick while the state is fortifying the trapezoid walls.
What I’ve learned as an Abu-Jamal biographer—long-ago used to being dipped waist-high in radioactivity, an examiner of one type of brick among many—is that the following is a debatable question in America: Do the words, thoughts and opinions of a convicted murderer matter? Answer: it depends on the identity, the position of the murderer and the murdered.
Remember LAPD Officer Christopher Dorner? (Thankfully, Dave Chappelle did.) His firing/alleged killing/$1 million manhunt made headlines in 2013 until he died in a standoff with police. Dorner may have been accused of murder, but that did not make him wrong about the nature of the police in California, a history anyone from a city teenager to an aging Black Panther can recite. “I know I will be vilified by the LAPD and the media,” he wrote in his now-famous online manifesto. “Unfortunately, this is a necessary evil that I do not enjoy but must partake and complete for substantial change to occur within the LAPD and reclaim my name. The department has not changed since the Rampart and Rodney King days,” he added, referring to the ’97-’98 scandal in which approximately 70 L.A. police officers were found to engage in beatings, planting of evidence and other misconduct, and the 1991 L.A. police beating of Black motorist Rodney King, respectively.
While writing and thinking about all of that, the People’s Organization for Progress, a New Jersey-based grassroots activist organization, sent me a press release, so I am forwarding part of it to the reader:
HAMM WILL HONOR BLACK CIVIL WAR SOLDIERS ON MEMORIAL DAY
Lawrence Hamm, Chairman, People’s Organization for Progress, will honor Black Civil War soldiers during the Memorial Day holiday on Monday, May 31, 2021, at 11:30 a.m. at the Pennington African Cemetery, 413-17 So. Main Street in Pennington, New Jersey.
Hamm was a candidate for the United States Senate in last year’s New Jersey Democratic Primary Election.
“I am going there to put flowers on the graves of African-American soldiers buried at the cemetery who served in the Union Army and fought in the Civil War,” Hamm said.
He said that the courage, sacrifice, and contributions of all who fought for the Union and defeated the Confederacy must be recognized.
“However, the role of Black soldiers has not been adequately or properly recognized. They helped bring about that victory which made our freedom possible,” he said.
The Pennington African Cemetery Association will be having a Memorial Day program starting 12 noon at the cemetery.
Hamm is honoring a cadre of 19th-century freemen who took up guns and used them to kill to achieve an American liberation denied them. His quote about the role of Black Civil War soldiers and their standing could, with a little decolonized thinking, apply to the Cats barred up. From that perspective, both of these categories of warriors are nearly identical; it doesn’t matter that the state-approved fatal violence is only for the former. The sanctioned and unsanctioned soldiers, the Union Blue and the Cats Black, understand the transforming power of warm liquid red.
Political prisoners’ collective status as perhaps the freest Black people that America has produced in the 20th and 21st centuries cannot be equaled or reproduced today in the nation of their birth. They are actors against the state in one form or another, so that makes them convicted murderers, but not the famous kind. They are American revolutionaries who will not get a shiny, hip Broadway musical because—to just list one of many reasons—they and the apparatus that sentenced them are still alive. Humming bars from Hamilton, the now-no-longer-in-vogue slaveholder singalong: They’ve lived, they’ve died/They’ve told their story… Raise a glass to freedom. Something you will never see again.
So many are still so here and so clear. But there are only a few struggle ebbs-and-flows moments left for them. I’m sure Fred Hampton Jr. would agree that their defiance is equally our inheritance. These heroes-not-saints with complicated pasts are paying lifetimes for the flashing moments of frightening clarity associated with youth. But the guns in their hands and where they pointed them has made them singular in their enclosed status. Age can expose and betray experience as long as the elder is present and lucid. But there is no African conception of time for these inmates: their spirits constantly threatened by the state, these prisoners are both still and linear, headed for very-old-age release or horizontal pine boxes. For those of us lodged between our circles and our trapezoids, time normally disappears during a single day and is given back in the promise of the next, filled with new opportunities as long as we stay within the society’s edges. But these Cats will always be remembered for how they used the time they had—the collective age they created and the individual age they now have very little control over. Why dey be in jail for so long? Why can’t dey get a compassionate release, particularly with COVID? Because, in the very provocative words of Young Lords Party scholar and Abu-Jamal champion Johanna Fernandez, they consciously chose to be “responsible for civilizing American society.”
The only hope for the rescue of the perennially unpopular from being the victims of Father Time’s scythe is a collective, protracted action from those willing to socially and politically sacrifice themselves: continually tossing the strongest possible legal and public-outrage spears to pierce both state circle and trapezoid as if Shango himself hurled them from the African heavens. (If the legal-eze is not at-least skewer-sharp specifically and especially, the judges will simply wait until these prisoners are completely hollowed out by dementia and disease; Shoatz’s hospice release has now set a not-too-happy precedent of sorts.) Didn’t George Jackson once write that “revolution is aggressive?” The result from such self-destructive risk will be the creation of new, unconfined circles, with a gigantic one resembling the ever-optimistic shape of the outdoor, mid-afternoon sun, offering fleeting moments for those most-alive soldiers of yore before that setting sphere begins to be submerged by the West. TO BE CONTINUED IN THE SEARCHED-FOR WHIRLWIND
The dignity and beauty of man rest in the human spirit which makes him more than simply a physical being. This spirit must never be suppressed for exploitation by others. As long as the people recognize the beauty of their human spirits and move against suppression and exploitation, they will be carrying out one of the most beautiful ideas of all time. Because the human whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. The ideas will always be among the people. The prison cannot be victorious because walls, bars and guards cannot conquer or hold down an idea.
–Huey P. Newton, “Prison, Where Is They Victory?,” an essay written while in prison
- On January 31, 2022, Democracy Now! aired a major segment on Leonard Peltier. It was recently announced that he has COVID. Peltier led the “tease” a.ka. “billboard” at the top of the weekday newsmagazine and was the day’s lead segment.
- On the same January 31, 2022 Democracy Now! episode, Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors talked about her new book, An Abolitionist’s Handbook: 12 Steps to Changing Yourself and the World. In the interview, she outlined her life in militant activism and the radical, anti-capitialist infuences that shaped and continue to shape it. Host Amy Goodman congratulated her on successful campaigns she has run to reform California’s justice system.
- Meanwhile, also on January 31, 2022, the 9th parole hearing for Sundiata Acoli began in New Jersey. He has been in jail for 48 years.
- In the Marcus Smith case discussed on Democracy Now!, U.S. Magistrate Judge Joe Webster in the fall of 2021 denied three motions made by the family and its lawyers: 1) to make public police body camera footage of 50 similar incidents that had been provided to the plaintiffs under seal; 2) to provide the police body camera footage of an additional 28 incidents where the Ripp Hobble hogtie was used, and 3) a request by the Smiths to amend the complaint with a Monell claim of muncipal liability in Smith’s death–an attempt to prove that the Greensboro city policy itself led to Smith’s consitutional rights being violated. Said the judge in his order: “On its face, Plaintiff’s motion seemingly seeks to make the Exhibits public for nothing more than the improper purpose of promoting a public scandal.”
- Russell “Maroon” Shoatz was granted compassionate release on October 25, 2021. At the time of his release, doctors gave him one month to live. His death was announced on December 17, 2021. He was 78.
- Jaan Laaman, longtime considered a political prisoner by the Left, was released on May 15, 2021. He was fundraising after Memorial Day.
- Darnella Frazier, the chief recorder of George Floyd’s death, has received several honors, most notably a Special Citation by the Pulitzer Prizes on June 11, 2021. The Pulitzer Board cited her for “for courageously recording the murder of George Floyd, a video that spurred protests against police brutality, around the world, highlighting the crucial role of citizens in journalists’ quest for truth and justice.” Also, The Marshall Project would win the Pulitzer in National Reporting.
- Congressman Bobby Rush, the former Chicago Black Panther Party member who understood COINTEL-PRO first-hand, announced in January 2022 that he would not seek a 16th term in the U.S. House of Representatives.
- Consuewella Africa—the MOVE member who is the mother of Tree Africa, whose remains were held by Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania—died on June 16, 2021. In a statement, the MOVE Organization said that Consuewella “had been hospitalized these past couple of weeks due to health complications behind the stress” on the remains mess. “Consuewella was a minister of confrontation for The MOVE ORGANIZATION, and a survivor of The August 8th 1978 Confrontation who spent 16 years in prison for refusing to renounce MOVE.” The July 3, 2021 Abu-Jamal march and rally in Philadelphia was dedicated to Consuewella Africa.
- The BBC reported on June 24, 2021 that The Cowessess First Nation counted 751 unmarked graves in a white-run residential school for Native children in Saskatchewan. On June 30, 182 bodies were found near a third Canadian indigenous residential school, a First Nations group in British Colombia reported. More such discoveries continued into 2021.
- On June 25, 2021, Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who murdered George Floyd live on the street, as recorded by Frazier’s cell-phone camera, received a 22.5 year sentence. He would be eligible for release after 15 years, 2/3rds of his sentence.
PARTIAL ROLL CALL OF BLACK AMERICAN POLITICAL PRISONERS
JALIL MUNTAQIM [freed]
THE MOVE 9 (MICHAEL DAVIS AFRICA, CHUCK SIMS AFRICA, JANINE PHILLIP AFRICA, JANET HOLLOWAY AFRICA, EDDIE GOODMAN AFRICA, DELBERT ORR AFRICA, MERLE AFRICA, PHIL AFRICA, AND DEBBIE SIMS AFRICA) [freed or Ancestors]
RUSSELL “MAROON” SHOATZ [now Ancestor]
KOJO BOMANI SABABU
RUCHELL “CINQUE” MAGEE
VERONZA BOWERS, JR.
ROMAINE “CHIP” FITZGERALD [now Ancestor]
FRED “MUHAMMAD” BURTON
SEKOU ODINGA [freed]
AL-AMIN JAMIL ABDULLAH
HANIF SHABAZZ BEY
ABDULLAH MALIK KA’BAH
REVEREND JOY POWELL
EDDIE CONWAY [freed]
LEONARD PELTIER (longtime Native American Political Prisoner)
DAVID GILBERT (longtime White American Political Prisoner) [freed]
An email on the FreeMumia Listerv on Memorial Day, May 31, 2021:
ON THIS SO-CALLED “MEMORIAL DAY” HOLIDAY IN AMERIKKKA! – WE REMEMBER OUR OWN BLACK/NEW AFRIKAN FREEDOM FIGHTERS THAT WERE ASSASSINATED OR LOST IN COMBAT DURING THE 1960s, 70s, & 80s.
WE WILL REMEMBER OUR OWN BLACK/NEW AFRIKAN FREEDOM FIGHTERS WHO WERE KILLED IN COMBAT; ASSASSINATED BY U.S. GOVERNMENT INTELLIGENCE & POLICE AGENCIES; PASSED AWAY AS FORGOTTEN POLITICAL EXILES; AND/OR WHO AS CAPTURED POLITICAL PRISONERS & PRISONERS OF WAR HAVE DIED IN PRISON ESCAPES & FROM PRISONER MEDICAL NEGLECT IN THE 500 YEAR-LONG CONTINUING WAR FOR BLACK/BROWN PEOPLES LIBERATION, INDEPENDENCE & SELF-DETERMINATION FROM THE CAPITALIST, IMPERIALIST, GENOCIDAL SYSTEM OF A WHITE SUPREMACIST MALE-DOMINANT RACIALLY STRATIFIED PIG EMPIRE, THAT WE REVOLUTIONARIES KNOW & CALL THE UNITED SNAKES OF AMERIKKKA.
–From The Desk Of Veteran Black Panther Zulu King Sadiki “Bro. Shep” Olugbala
“Lest We Forget” Our Own Fallen Revolutionary Soldiers
Excerpt of a Pamphlet By Safiya Asya Bukhari
Veteran Black Panther Party Leader & Former Black Liberation Army Prisoner of War
Note: In response to all of today’s ameriKKKan Memorial Day weekend propaganda we republish here a commemorative article by revolutionary leader Safiya Bukhari, first published in 1981 in pamphlet form. Bukhari was a member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army. She was a political prisoner from 1975 until 1983 minus two months when she escaped to seek medical treatment denied to her by prison authorities.
Among other roles she served as included vice-president of the Republic of New Afrika, co-founder and co-chairperson of the New York Free Mumia Coalition and the National Jericho Movement for U.S. Political Prisoners and Prisoners of War. Dubbed a “Lioness for Liberation” by Mumia Abu-Jamal and a “legendary figure” by Angela Davis, Bukhari’s autobiographical The War Before: The True Life Story of Becoming a Black Panther, Keeping the Faith in Prison & Fighting for Those Left Behind remains essential reading.
Black Seeds Introduction
Constantly people of color are confronted with the reality that death is our ever-present companion. We’ve had to live with the conditions that make us more prone to high blood pressure, diabetes, high infant mortality, strokes, heart attacks, etc., for so long that we see these things as part of our heritage. It has become commonplace to hear that someone known to us or related to us was killed in an argument, gambling, or trying to take someone off. Even more commonplace is our spending our lives in the living death of prison.
We’re not shocked or surprised by this. In fact, we’ve become complacent with this as the status quo. We’ve begun to plod along, waiting for our number to come up. On a very real level, we are the walking dead: people without a future and with an extremely chaotic past. We have been aimlessly wandering through life, purposeless, directionless–slaves to other people’s whims, ideas, and desires.
Throughout history, voices rose out of and above the quagmire and declared themselves men and women. Human beings with souls, who wanted to know how it felt to be free and live outside the shadow of death. Cinque, Nat Turner, Gabriel Prosser, Harriet Tubman, Denmark Vesey–men and women who lived and died to the tune of “Oh freedom, Oh freedom, Oh freedom in my heart. Before I’d be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.”
There is no equivocation when we recall those heroes. Why? Because it’s safe to remember them. They are far removed from our day and time, so we can glory in their battles and victories vicariously with no threat to us.
While we are busy recanting the glory of our long-dead heroes, new heroes are going forth into battles to carry our struggle for dignity, freedom, independence, and humanity one step closer to reality in the spirit of Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die”:
If we must die, let it not be like hogs. Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot. While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs, Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die, So that our precious blood may not be shed In vain; Then even the monsters we defy Shall be constrained to honor us through dead!
O, kinsmen! We must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave, And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack, Pressed to the wall dying, but fighting back!
The past years have seen some doors crack for Blacks and other people of color in America. These changes didn’t occur in a vacuum. They were political moves in an attempt to undermine the rising tide of Black unrest and our demands for civil and human rights. No concrete changes in the very real condition of Black people occurred. We’re still at the bottom of the totem pole.
With the advent of the twentieth century, the Black man in American began to take a decided shift away from quiet acquiescence to our plight. We had begun, in massive numbers, to say, “No More.” Our leaders–Marcus Garvey, Elijah Muhammad, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X–articulated the determination of our people to wait no longer for the realization of people of African descent as human beings in the eyes of mankind.
The twentieth century became the time to take a stand. Four hundred years of racist oppression and economic exploitation were enough. Not one more century. Not one more generation without a collective, organized resistance. “Either/or” became the battle cry. America was put on notice: the choice is the ballot or the bullet!
Realizing that no concessions would be gained without a fight, brothers and sisters determined to lay down their very lives, if it became necessary, to achieve our freedom. The following is a chronicle of those unsung heroes who have given the only thing that was theirs to give–their lives!
A People’s War of Liberation is like the points of a starfish. When a soldier (guerilla) dies, another grows and takes his or her place in the struggle, or in the body of the army.
Here below are just some of those fallen:
Arthur Morris. Member of the Southern California chapter, Los Angeles Branch, of the Black Panther Party. Arthur was the first member of the Black Panther Party to die in the struggle for Black liberation. ASSASSINATED March 1968.
Bobby James Hutton. Affectionately known as Lil’ Bobby Hutton, born April 25, 1950. He was the first person to join the Black Panther Party. He joined when he was sixteen when the Party was founded in 1966. He served as finance coordinator. He was one of the Panthers arrested on May 2, 1967, at the Sacramento legislature protest where Bobby Seale read the Party’s position on self-defense for oppressed people (Executive Mandate No.1). Bobby was murdered two days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., by dozens of Oakland police. He was unarmed, but with utmost courage, sacrificed his life so others might live. ASSASSINATED April 6, 1968.
Steve Bartholomew, twenty-one; Robert Lawrence, twenty-two; and Tommy Lewis, eighteen. They were riding in a car when they noticed they were being followed by a Los Angeles police squad car. They stopped at a gas station so that any incident could be witnessed. The squad car stopped also. As Steve was getting out of the car a volley of police gunfire killed him instantly. The Panthers returned fire and Robert was killed. Tommy died later at a Los Angeles Central Receiving Hospital from peritonitis (severe intestinal inflammation) caused by stomach wounds and loss of blood. ASSASSINATED August 25, 1968.
Nathaniel Clark. Member of the Los Angeles Branch of the Black Panther Party and a student at the University of California, Los Angeles. Killed as he slept. ASSASSINATED September 12, 1968.
Welton Armstead. Member of the Seattle, Washington Branch of the Black Panther Party and a student at the University of California, Los Angeles. Killed as he slept. ASSASSINATED October 15, 1968.
Sidney Miller. Twenty-two days after the Seattle police murdered Welton Armstead, a white Seattle businessman murdered Sidney Miller, twenty-one years old. He was shot point-blank in the head as he was leaving a West Seattle grocery store. The owner said he “thought” Sidney was about to rob the store. ASSASSINATED November 7, 1968.
Frank Diggs. Los Angeles chapter, Black Panther Party, forty years old. Frank was shot to death and left in an alley on the outskirts of Los Angeles by unknown assailants. ASSASSINATED December 30, 1968.
Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter. Came from the streets of LA, where he was “the Mayor of the Ghetto.” He became the organizer and driving force for the Southern California chapter of the Black Panther Party, the first chapter of the Party outside of the Bay area. Before coming to the Party Bunchy had been a member of the Slausons, one of the largest gangs in LA. The sum total of his life experiences imbued Bunchy with a revolutionary fervor and commitment. Bunchy was shot from behind and killed on the steps of UCLA while organizing and educating Black students around self-determination and student control of the Black student unions in preparation for community control. Though the fingers that pulled the trigger on Bunchy were members of Ron Karenga’s US organization, in the final analysis, Bunchy’s death is the responsibility of the racist American government. ASSASSINATED January 17, 1969.
John Jerome Huggins. Born in New Haven, Connecticut. John and his wife Ericka, became members of the Southern California chapter of the Black Panther Party soon after its doors opened. Together with Bunchy Carter, John, as deputy minister of information, provided the leadership needed as that chapter grew. The assassination of Bunchy and John, on the steps of UCLA, by members of the US organization was part of the COINTELPRO strategy to foment a war between the Black Panther Party and the US organization so they would kill each other off. Bunchy and John. ASSASSINATED January 17, 1969.
Alex Rackley. Member of the New York chapter, Harlem Branch, of the Black Panther Party. Alex was killed by George Sams, a police agent who infiltrated the Party. He was shot through the head and heart in New Haven, Connecticut. The New Haven Police Department also had an informer on the scene at the Sams-engineered-and-ordered execution, but no effort was made to prevent it. ASSASSINATED May 21, 1969.
John Savage. In the aftermath of the assassinations of Bunchy and John, relationships between the Black Panther Party (BPP) and US grew increasingly tense. On Friday, May 23, 1969, John Savage and another Party member, Jeffrey Jennings, were walking toward the Party office in San Diego, California, when they met a US member named “Tambozi.” As they walked past, Tambozi grabbed John Savage by the shoulder, jammed a .38 automatic to the back of his neck and pulled the trigger. John, age twenty-four, died instantly. ASSASSINATED May 23, 1969.
Sylvester Bell. Less than three months after the assassination of John Savage, US struck again. Sylvester Bell became the fourth member of the Black Panther Party murdered in cold blood by Karenga’s men. Sylvester’s murder came at a time when the AL trial of US members for the assassination of Bunchy and John had just begun–an attempt to intimidate witnesses at the trial. Sylvester was thirty-four years old. ASSASSINATED August 15, 1969.
Larry Roberson. On the morning of July 14, 1969, Larry Roberson, twenty years old, and Grady “Slim” Moore, members of the Chicago Branch of the Black Panther Party, noticed police harassing a group of elderly Black men, forcing them to line up aga wall, and they went to investigate. An argument ensued and without hesitation, the police pulled their guns and started shooting. Larry was critically wounded in his stomach, thigh, and leg. (Grady Moore escaped uninjured.) Larry managed to wound two of his assailants. He was taken to Cook County Hospital and placed under police guard. He was harassed, threatened, and periodically beaten. He died in the hospital. Because Larry placed himself between the oppressor and his people without thought for his own life, Fred Hampton said, “Larry Roberson was too revolutionary proletarian intoxicated to be astronomically intimidated.” ASSASSINATED September 4, 1969.
Walter “Toure” Pope. As soon as he was released by the California Youth Authority from Tracy, California, Walter joined the Black Panther Party. Toure, twenty years old, was singled out for constant harassment y the Los Angeles Police department because of his effectiveness as distribution manager of the Black Panther Community News Service in Southern California. In three months he increased the circulation from fifteen hundred a week to over seven thousand a week. Walter was brutally gunned down in broad daylight as he left a store where he had just dropped off some newspapers. According to eyewitness reports, the police suddenly came upon him and opened fire. Toure never had a chance. ASSASSINATED October 18, 1969.
Spurgeon Winters. “Jake” was an honor student in school and a revolutionist. He worked on the Chicago chapters Breakfast Program and the free health clinic and was part of the education cadre. He was killed when one hundred policemen opened fire on him and Lance Bell, who was wounded. Three policemen were killed and seven wounded in the attack on the deserted building where the two took refuge. Jake was nineteen. ASSASSINATED November 13, 1969.
Mark Clark. Mark was a Defense Captain for the Peoria, Illinois, Branch of the BPP. He made frequent trips to Chicago to confer with the leadership of the Party’s chapter there in order to help him organize in downstate Peoria. Mark made one such trip in December of 1969 and stayed at Fred Hampton’s apartment. Chicago police raided Fred’s apartment on the morning of December 4, Mark was murdered by the raiders as they crashed through the apartment door. He was shot through the heart. Several other occupants were wounded by indiscriminate police gunfire. Mark Clark was twenty-two. ASSASSINATED December 4, 1969.
Fred Hampton. The name Fred Hampton has secured a permanent place in the annals of the people’s struggle, because, sadly enough, this was one of the hundreds of thousands of Black deaths America chose to publicize. A young outspoken critic of America’s treatment of Black and poor people, Fred’s dedication to the cause of freedom led him and others to organize in Chicago. The organizational and speaking abilities of Fred Hampton won him national attention. Political persecution of Fred Hampton included numerous false arrests. He was convicted of a seventy-dollar ice cream truck robbery in 1969, but community pressure forced his release. Such persecution culminated on December 4, 1969, at four o’clock in the morning, when a raiding Party of Chicago police invaded Fred’s apartment and shot him several times as he slept. He was twenty-one years old. The Black community lost a beautiful warrior for human dignity, but Fred often said, “You can kill a revolutionary but you can’t kill the revolution.” ASSASSINATED December 4, 1969.
Sterling Jones. Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were only days in their graves when the Chicago Police Department struck again. On Christmas Day, Sterling Jones, seventeen, a member of the Illinois chapter, responded to a knock at his family’s apartment door. As Sterling opened the door, he was shot directly in the face by an unknown assailant. The bullet killed him and his assailant fled into the night. ASSASSINATED December 25, 1969.
Jonathan Jackson. On August 7, 1970, a young Black man entered the Marin County Courthouse in California. The events that followed came to be called the August 7 Movement. Jonathan had walked into the courthouse where San Quentin prison inmate James McClain was defending himself against charges of assaulting a prison guard. Also present were two inmates serving as witnesses on behalf of McClain. They were William Christmas and Ruchell Magee. Jonathan interrupted the court proceedings, stating, “We are revolutionary justice,” then gave weapons to McClain, Christmas, and Magee. They all left the courtroom. Several jurors, the prosecutor, and the judge were also taken. Within minutes the van that Jonathan and Party had gotten into was riddled with bullets from the guns of San Quentin guards and other state agents, who disregarded the lives of not only Jonathan Jackson and the three inmates, but also those of the jurors, judge, and prosecutor. When the shooting ended, Jonathan Jackson lay dead, as did William Christmas, James Mcclain and the Marin County judge. George Jackson summed up his brother’s heroic actions in this way: “Man-child, Black man-child with a machine gun in hand, he was free for a while. I guess that’s more than most of us can expect.” SLAIN IN COMBAT August 7, 1970.
Carl Hampton. Brother Carl was chairman (coordinator) of the People’s Party II, a revolutionary organization in Houston, Texas. Carl was the motivating force of the small organization, which followed the example and the policies of the BPP. At the time the Party was not organizing in the South, so Carl, seeing the need for a Party that would serve the people’s needs and desires, started the People’s Party, which sold the BPP newspaper. Culminating a series of incidents on July 28, 1970, Houston police surrounded the Dowling Street area where the People’s Party II office was located and attacked the entire community. Carl was killed at two a.m. in defense of the community. SLAIN IN COMBAT July 28, 2021.
Fred Bennett. Pieces of the body of Fred Bennett were found in April 1971, in a mountainous region near Oakland, California. Fred had been the coordinator of the East Oakland branch of the BPP and had been a Party member for three years, having joined in early 1968. Fred’s body was mutilated when the police claimed they “found” him. They held onto Fred’s body without announcement for more than two months. ASSASSINATED February 1971. Ralph Featherstone and Che Payne. Killed by a car bomb outside a Maryland courthouse where Rap brown was scheduled for a hearing. ASSASSINATED March 9, 1970.
Babatunde X Omarwali. A member of the Illinois chapter of the BPP, Babatunde was a shining example of our many revolutionary brothers who have turned from being used as Black cannon fodder by the US military to become dedicated soldiers in service to the oppressed community as Black liberation fighters. Babatunde joined the Party in Chicago after serving two years in the US army, and he quickly became one of the Party’s best organizers. In the summer of 1970, he had just returned to Chicago from the Cairo-Carbondale area, after organizing a National Committee to Combat Fascism (NCCF) office there. On July 27, twenty-six-year-old Babatunde’s remains were “found” lying across railroad tracks in a deserted area of the city by Chicago police. They claimed that Babatunde had been attempting to destroy the tracks and that the bomb went off prematurely killing him. Although mutilated beyond recognition, the body of “Black Panther Babatunde X Omarwali” was positively identified by the Chicago police. They could do so because it was the police themselves who murdered him and laced his body on the railroad tracks. ASSASSINATED July 27, 1970.
Robert Webb. Deputy minister of defense of the BPP. Spent years organizing coast to coast, building the discipline and security of the Party and community in preparation for liberation. When it became apparent that there were corrupt forces operating within the BPP, Robert took a stand for principles first. That stand was to bring about his death. ASSASSINATED March 8, 1971.
Sam Napier. Circulation Manager, The Black Panther. Lived and breathed the Black Panther newspaper. He would constantly intone, “Circulated to educate to liberate.” Sam was another casualty of the internal split of the BPP. Fanon talked of the contradictions in Wretched of the Earth when he referred to colonial war and mental disorders. Oftentimes we lose sight of who our real enemies are and give into our emotional responses. In the deaths of Robert Webb and Sam Napier, the people’s liberation struggle lost two of its staunchest supporters. Psychologically, COINTELPRO scored a bull’s eye. ASSASSINATED April 17, 1971.
George Jackson. George Jackson spent the last eleven years of his life behind prison walls, seven of them in solitary confinement. During his imprisonment, George attained an extraordinary level of revolutionary political consciousness. He was appointed field marshal of the Black Panther Party. He was an eloquent writer. He authored two important books: Soledad Brother and Blood in My Eye. The latter was completed shortly before his assassination. On August 21, 1971, nameless guards of California’s San Quentin prison assassinated George Jackson. They said he was trying to escape, but the brothers inside said that George gave his lie to save the lives of others. The people of the oppressed communities of the world know that the San Quentin prison officials carried out a premeditated plan to silence a voice that was so full of revolutionary humanism they could no longer bear it. ASSASSINATED August 21, 1971.
Harold Russell. The first Black Liberation Army member to be slain. The BLA–the people’s liberation army–boldly declared themselves to be soldiers fighting against the oppressive regime of the US government. Harold was killed in a shootout on 122nd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues in Harlem, New York. Prior to becoming a member of the BLA, Harold had been a member of the Brooklyn Branch of the BPP. SLAIN IN COMBAT spring 1971.
Sandra Pratt. Wife of Geronimo. Known as Red to her comrades and friends. The death of Sandra was especially heartfelt because of its senselessness, beastiality, and brutality. The sister was pregnant with new lifeblood for the people’s struggle. The reactionary forces that slew the sister mutilated her and placed her body in a mattress cover and dumped her in an intersection in Los Angeles. ASSASSINATED fall 1971.
Frank Fields. Known to his comrades as Heavy, a member of the Olugbala tribe of the BLA. Open warfare had been declared between the US government and the BLA. Frank was killed on one of the FBI’s search-and-destroy missions in Florida. SLAIN IN COMBAT December 31, 1971.
Ronald Carter. The response of the government to the BLA was to close ranks and consolidate their forces. For the first time, they realized that every act of aggression they launched upon the Black community would be met with an act of revolutionary justice. The FBI launched a nationwide manhunt for BLA soldiers and ordered them killed on sight. Ronald was killed in one of these confrontations in St. Louis, Missouri. SLAIN IN COMBAT February 15, 1972.
Joseph Waddell. Joseph Waddell, or “Joe-Dell,” joined the BPP in September 1970 while in the city jail in High Point, North Carolina. Before going to jail, he had functioned as a community worker. Joe-Dell was transferred to Central Prison in Raleigh, North Carolina, and because of his revolutionary posture, he was frequently beaten by prison guards. On June 13, 1972, twenty-one-year-old Joseph Waddell was pronounced dead by prison officials. They said the cause of death was a heart attack. Joe-Dell was physically healthy before his death and had never suffered from heart troubles before. Prison inmates close to Joe-Dell said he was the victim of the prison authorities, who had probably drugged or poisoned him to induce the attack. Joe-Dell’s internal organs were removed by prison authorities before they released his body to his family. KILLED BY PRISON MEDICAL NEGLECT, June 13, 1972.
Anthony White. Known affectionately and in struggle as Kimu Olugbala. Kimu had been captured and seriously injured in the process, but his spirit had not been broken. While incarcerated at the infamous Tombs (the Manhattan House of Detention for Men) in New York he escaped to rejoin his comrades in struggle. On Monday, January 22, 1973, Kimu was killed in a shootout with New York police, choosing death over slavery. SLAIN IN COMBAT January 22, 1973.
Woodie Greene. Known in the struggle as Changa Olugbala. All we need to know about Brother Woodie is that he was a warrior in the people’s army. He was a young man who’d once been bound and gagged and caged in the white man’s zoos (jails) and had vowed never to return. He was slain in the same shootout that same the death of Kimu. SLAIN IN COMBAT January 22, 1973.
Mark Essex. Mark became involved in the struggle for Black liberation while still within the US military apparatus. He served as a dental technician in the navy. Upon his release, his first stop was at the Harlem office of the BPP. he wanted to learn as much as possible to take home with him to Emporia. Kansas. Mark died valiantly holding off enemy forces in Louisiana. SLAIN IN COMBAT spring 1973.
Zayd Malik Shakur. Known as Dedane Olugbala, Zayd was the minister of information of the New York Black Panther Party. He spent months and years educating the people on what must be done to secure our freedom and liberation. On May 2, Zayd died the way he lived–in combat, resisting the forces of oppression. He was killed in a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike, in which Assata Shakur and Sundiata Acoli were captured. Zayd was a soldier in the people’s liberation army. SLAIN IN COMBAT May 2, 1973. Twymon Myers. “The elusive Twymon Myers” is what he came to be known as–to the oppressors. To the People he was friend, comrade, and defender. Twymon was no superstar; he just did what had to be done and faded into the night. He cared about everyone, especially the children. He believed that the only way to achieve freedom was to be willing to fight and die for it. If it wasn’t worth fighting for, it wasn’t worth having and you didn’t really want it. On November 14, 1973, a combined force of New York police and FBI agents surrounded Twymon on a Bronx street and opened fire. Eight bullets riddled his body. As he lay dead a police officer stood over him and shot him again in the head. The police rallied in front of the Forty-fourth precinct in celebration. Twymon Myers was a warrior we can all be proud of. SLAIN IN COMBAT November 14, 1973.
Alfred Butler. Known in struggle as Kombozi Amistad. Became a member of the BPP in his youth and functioned out of the New Rochelle, New York, office. Kombozi later transferred to the West Coast from whence he went underground to carry the struggle to the next level–the armed struggle–as a member of the BLA. It was in his capacity as a soldier in this formation that he was SLAIN IN COMBAT in Norfolk, Virginia, January 25, 1975.
Timothy Adams. Known to his comrades in arms, friends, and family as Red. Red was critically wounded in a battle with the enemy after attempting to liberate fellow comrades from the infamous Tombs in 1973. For many years he was confined to a wheelchair as a result of these wounds, but his spirit was undaunted. Even though his death came years after the battle, it was directly related. His life, his struggle to overcome, and his death, were a source of inspiration to us all. KILLED BY PRISON MEDICAL NEGLECT.
Melvin Kearney. Known in struggle as Rema Olugbala, he was a member of the BLA. Rema was killed in a courageous attempt to escape from the Brooklyn House of Detention, when the rope he was climbing down broke. He was twenty-two years old. Even against the overwhelming odds posed by prison officials, Rema never lost his combative spirit. DIED IN COMBAT May 25, 1976.
“COINTELPRO: WHAT HAPPENED AND LESSONS FOR TODAY”
U.S. Representatives STEVE COHEN (D-Tennessee), BOBBY RUSH (D-Illinois) and BARBARA LEE (D-California)
May 10, 2021
Written Statement of Michael German, Fellow, Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School
Thank you for inviting me to discuss the harms that result when a powerful law enforcement agency is allowed to operate without effective constraints or oversight and feels empowered to “disrupt,” “discredit”, and “neutralize” people and organizations based on racial, religious, and political biases rather than evidence of wrongdoing.
I joined the FBI in 1988, more than a decade after the Church Committee exposed the COINTELPRO abuses and Congress and the Justice Department implemented reforms intended to prevent their reoccurrence. I felt fortunate to be joining the FBI after these hard lessons had been learned.
The primary reforms targeting the FBI were designed to require it to focus its investigative powers where objective facts indicated that illicit activity was likely taking place, so that evidence of wrongdoing, rather than bias, drove investigations. In 1976, Attorney General Edward Levi issued the first set of guidelines delineating the FBI’s authorities to conduct domestic security investigations. Subsequent Attorneys General loosened these guidelines somewhat in 1983, and 1989, amending the standards to require “facts or circumstances [that] reasonably indicate that two or more persons are engaged in an enterprise for the purpose of furthering political or social goals wholly or in part through activities that involve force or violence and a violation of the criminal laws of the United States” before opening a terrorism investigation.
These were the guidelines in place when I was an FBI agent. While bureau officials later complained they were too restrictive, I found the “reasonable indication” standard provided plentiful authority to conduct proactive terrorism investigations like my successful undercover operations against violent white supremacist groups and far-right militia groups in the 1990s. While the requirement to document the criminal predicates before initiating investigations was intended to protect the innocent from unnecessary scrutiny, it was also an effective way for me to keep my operations properly focused to where the most substantial evidence pointed. This discipline helped ensure these operations ended with successful prosecutions and minimized unnecessary interference with individuals merely expressing opinions I found odious. Indeed, when FBI Director Robert Mueller was questioned during his confirmation hearing in July 2001 about how he would prevent the bureau from targeting political dissent, he replied that he would establish internal mechanisms to ensure agents had sufficient criminal predicates to justify each investigative step.
Unfortunately, after 9/11, the Justice Department instead loosened the guidelines, significantly lowering the standards for conducting intrusive investigations in 2002, and again in 2008. Congress assisted in the destruction of post-Church Committee reforms, by passing the Patriot Act and amending the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to allow broad electronic surveillance and secret intelligence collection against Americans not suspected of wrongdoing. Removing the requirement for reasonable criminal predicates did not make the FBI more effective in identifying gathering threats, it only filled FBI databases with irrelevant data and opened the door to another era of abusive investigations targeting communities based on race, ethnicity, religion and political dissent.
I also became alarmed in the months after 9/11, when language from the COINTELPRO era crept back into routine usage at the FBI. The FBI resurrected a discredited theory of terrorist “radicalization” that J. Edgar Hoover used to target immigrants and labor organizers in the early 1900s, and civil rights leaders and anti-war activists in the 1960s. The FBI began producing anti-Arab and anti-Muslim counterterrorism training materials and disseminating them to other agencies. The FBI formally adopted a new “disruption strategy,” authorizing agents to take aggressive actions like pre-textual arrests and deportations against individuals that they suspected, but could not prove, were involved in terrorism.
So it wasn’t long before the FBI replaced the COINTELPRO targets – Black Nationalists and the New Left – with updated labels like Black Identity Extremists, American Muslim Extremists, anarchist extremists, and “antifa.” In 2005, the FBI publicly declared that “eco-terrorists” were the number one domestic terrorist threat, despite the fact that environmental activists had not committed any fatal attacks in the U.S. In 2006 the FBI initiated a racial and ethnic mapping program. Peace groups, environmental activists, Black Lives Matter leaders, and Standing Rock water protectors have all reported FBI surveillance and repeated harassment at their homes and workplaces by Joint Terrorism Task Force agents. Meanwhile, the FBI cannot tell you how many people white supremacists kill each year, because they do not track the violent crimes they perpetrate.
The lessons learned from COINTELPRO, and the evidence of new abuses, demand that Congress act to protect the American public. Restoring reasonable criminal predicates and conducting more aggressive oversight are essential steps to ensure FBI resources focus on real threats.
Written Testimony Of Nkechi Taifa, President, The Taifa Group
Good afternoon, Congressmen Cohen, Rush and Lee, and other Members who have joined this auspicious forum. My name is Nkechi Taifa, President and CEO of The Taifa Group, civil/human rights attorney, and a long-time advocate for justice system reform and transformation. I am honored to address this critical subject, and will begin as follows:
Cointel’s got Blacks in hell, they open up our mail
Tap our phones, kick our bones and railroad us to jails
Angela Davis, Reverend Ben Chavis, Imari and Assata too
Ruchell Magee all wanted to be free from you know who
FBI went so low they invented COINTELPRO
To stop the rising fire of a Black Messiah
Who could unify and electrify Black people to revolutionize
Co is for Counter, which means to use against
Intel is for, Intelligence
Pro is for Program, they thought it was the perfect solution
Counterintelligence program, to crush the revolution
Fred Hampton and Mark Clark
Will never depart from our hearts
While COINTEL’s got Blacks in jail, this is hell.
So goes excerpts from a poem I wrote in 1975, as a college student, while Chairperson of the National Committee to Free the RNA-11, a group whose organizers and leader, Imari Obadele, were direct targets of the FBI’s COINTELPRO. During the course of that case, I had the inglorious opportunity to scrutinize thousands of pages of heavily redacted documents, starkly revealing the Bureau’s goals to disrupt and destroy Black movements, stop their leaders from gaining respectability, and appalling strategies to stop the long-range growth of Black militant organizations, especially amongst the youth. And I was personally witness as well as victim to the tactics used to bring these goals into existence.
How does all this relate to today? In a number of ways:
First, there are people, victims of the COINTELPRO era, who still languish in prison, some for nearly the past 50 years. Elderly people, facing life-threatening conditions, such as Dr. Mutulu Shakur — fighting advanced bone marrow cancer; Russell Maroon Shoats — fighting stage 4 cancer; 84-year-old Sundiata Acoli — suffering early-stage dementia; Imam Jamil Al Amin (aka H. Rap Brown), afflicted with smoldering myeloma; Mumia Abu-Jamal — recovering from heart surgery; Veronza Bowers – treated for lymphoma; Kamau Sadiki — in jeopardy of foot surgery, and more – nearly all also trying to recover from post-COVID-19 symptoms while being denied parole time after time. While these elders deteriorate behind bars, not one governmental official ever served a day in prison for COINTELPRO crimes, despite the Senate Church Committee’s findings that the COINTELPRO constituted an illegal and unconstitutional abuse of power by the FBI.
As the country comes to a historic reckoning on race, let us remember the 4th provision of the Japanese-American reparations bill — a pardon to all those who resisted detention camp internment. We must keep that precedent in mind for former members of the Black Panther and other groups who still languish in U.S. prisons from the COINTELPRO era, as well as others who are exiled, such as former Kansas City Black Panther Party leader Pete O’Neal in Tanzania, and include in a reparations or other clemency package, a pardon so that those incarcerated might live out their last days on the outside with loved ones, and those in exile be able to return to the U.S.
Second, it is critical to understand that Black resisters are still being monitored, surveilled and subjected to unwarranted harassment and abuse through COINTELPRO-successor, over-reaching governmental programs. COINTELPRO did not end. It simply shape-shifted, morphed into a Black Identity Extremist program, an Operation Relentless Pursuit program, among others, and now, with a nefarious assault on constitutionally protected protests, which, if history is any guide, will be disproportionally used against demonstrators and communities of color.
State legislators are now steamrolling a new wave of anti-protest legislation, jeopardizing the constitutional rights of free speech and peaceful assembly. According to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, 34 states have recently introduced 85 anti-protest bills, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of last summer’s protests were peaceful, involving no property damage or police injuries, in stark contrast to the January 6th white supremacy terrorist insurrection on the U.S. Capitol.
Many of these measures increase penalties for demonstrators while providing legal protection for counter-protest measures. Some grant immunity to drivers who strike or injure protestors with their vehicles during demonstrations. Others prohibit anyone convicted of unlawful assembly from working in a state or local government role, or prevent those convicted of an unlawful protest violation from receiving student loans, unemployment benefits, or housing assistance, just to illustrate a few laws that have either passed or are on the drawing board.
Although some point to the deadly insurrection at the Capitol as grounds to enact harsher penalties for protestors, what these laws actually do is put a target on the back of Black demonstrators in an attempt to silence movements for justice and accountability, and as a ploy to put more protestors in prison – a tactic direct from the COINTELPRO playbook. This Congress must not be duped by the false narrative that governmental restraint leading up to January 6 was in some way an outgrowth of restrictions from the FBI’s past domestic spying abuses. It was not.
And finally, rather than rushing to embrace these thinly veiled laws, it is my hope that this Congress will look at and learn from the abuses from the past and pass Congressman Bobby Rush’s bill requiring the government to open up the FBI files and have a full, un-redacted accounting of COINTELPRO’s constitutional abuses, and I strongly submit, free victims still incarcerated from the era.
Thank you for your consideration.
Testimony of Ericka Cozette Huggins, former leader, Black Panther Party
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak today. The FBI Counterintelligence Program, COINTELPRO, has had a profound impact on my life, the lives of my family, dear friends and the communities I call home. Today I will focus on one traumatic event that continues to reverberate in a multi-generational way.
I was raised in Washington, DC. In 1963, at the age of 15, I attended the March on Washington. From that day I knew I wanted to be part of making change and I made a vow to serve people for the rest of my life.
In 1967, at Lincoln University, I met John Jerome Huggins. Together, we decided to leave school, and [we] drove across the country to California to join the Black Panther Party. We both wanted to be part of a movement uplifting communities of color.
The Party had been founded in Oakland in 1966. What began as a community patrol organized in response to the police abuse of power against Black and brown communities, would grow into nationwide community programs across the country: free breakfast for children, free health clinics, education and adult literacy programs, to name a few.
John and I arrived in Southern California in late 1967 and joined the Party. John was 22. I was 19. As we began working in the community, we immediately discovered that Party members were routinely followed, harassed, and even killed by police. Attending funerals became almost routine.
Our phones were tapped, our houses were under surveillance, our offices were watched daily. There were informants planted in our midst.
We knew this was not solely the work of the LAPD; something larger was at play. The name COINTELPRO had not reached our ears but we knew that there were government entities, like the newly formed para-military S.W.A.T. team, that would not hesitate to kill us.
By mid-1968, John and I were pregnant with our first child, and we embraced our Party work even more fully. We were intent on creating a better world for our unborn child.
In late December, our daughter, Mai, was born. We were overjoyed.
Three weeks later, on the morning of January 17, John smiled at the baby and I, said goodbye and walked out the door.
That day John was attending a meeting of Black students at UCLA, where he was a student in their High Potential Program. After the meeting, John and Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter, leader of the Southern California chapter, were murdered on the UCLA campus.
While the shooter was said to be a member of another organization, this episode was the culmination of what had been an intentional and relentless plan to artificially create and foment conflict. Only years later would I learn the full extent of COINTELPRO involvement.
I got a phone call from a man I knew from the Party. He told me two men were shot on the UCLA campus that morning. The phones were bugged, so we spoke little.
I knew immediately that the men who were shot were John and Bunchy.
Instead of police showing up at my door, hat in hand, to say, “We are so sorry for your loss”, they came in great numbers to arrest us—surrounding the house, forcing the door open and standing, guns drawn, at the bottom of the steps.
I knew what I needed to do. I ran to the bedroom and wrapped my baby in a coat and rolled her gently under the bed. As I looked into her eyes, I thought maybe I might die. She may be fatherless and motherless but, she will be alive.
I heard the police officer at the bottom of the steps shout, “Come down with your hands up.” I moved to the top of the stairs so I could see his eyes. There was something sane there; something humane. I spoke out, “I have a baby here with me.” It seemed he was willing to protect us from his trigger-happy partner so I ran back to the bedroom, and gathered my daughter. I knew she would be safe.
As I waited at 77th Street station, two men arrived that I thought I knew. I almost called out to them until I saw them slap hands with one of the detectives.
Holding my baby daughter, I noticed on the precinct wall a felt scoreboard with white letters, proclaiming:
Panthers – 0
I wondered if John and Bunchy were already reflected in that body count.
Years later I would be contacted by a former FBI agent, who met with me to apologize for their involvement in the events that led to John and Bunchy’s death.
I wasn’t confused about what happened then. I’m not confused now. A government agency, supported by taxpayer dollars, helped murder these two brilliant, respected and beloved men. They were sons, brothers, husbands, friends and fathers. They were destined to be great leaders.
They would have become wonderful grandfathers. I have long wondered when the right time would be to tell this story to my grandsons. Today is that day—my oldest grandson is listening to this testimony as I speak.
Fifty years later, I would like to believe that things have changed. However, those same forces are still at play working to vilify, spread disinformation and destroy the efforts of young people whose only goal is to help create a more just and equitable world.
The fact that a simple statement affirming that Black lives have value—“Black Lives Matter”— can be distorted and equated with terrorism is a symptom of our social disease.
Fred Hampton’s life matters.
Bunchy Carter’s life matters.
John Huggins’ life matters.
Thank you for listening.