The file is labeled Injustice in America. I began it over two decades ago, and it has grown thicker with the passage of time. Within its folds are stories of the numerous wrongful convictions that occur far too frequently in a nation proclaiming to have the best legal system in the world.
At first glance, the faces of the wrongfully convicted appear to be as unique as the individuals themselves. Yet they are starkly similar. They are almost always poor, usually members of America’s minority communities, incessantly convicted on the basis of flawed eyewitness testimony, junk science, lack of financial resources, and, in some cases, perjury, prosecutorial misconduct and/or the deliberate withholding of exonerating evidence. Not surprisingly, in a system this corrupt, almost all of their convictions were upheld, often in arrogant and condescending language, by appeals courts determined to preserve the legal system’s illusion of infallibility at any cost, even if it means punishing the innocent.
As I was reviewing this file the other day, I happened across an article by Terry Bisson entitled No Justice, No Mercy for the Panthers (Newsday, October 27, 1993). In this article, Bisson discusses the legal ordeals of several former members of the Black Panther Party (BPP), a “militant” organization comprised primarily of African-Americans that was active in America during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Although poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron realized in 1970 that The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, it has become painfully apparent that the continuing injustices perpetrated against the Panthers will also not be televised, despite the plethora of television “news” programs and channels, like Court TV, which are supposedly devoted to coverage of the legal system. After all, in the profit-driven eyes (and persistent lies) of America’s corporate-controlled media, tales about Britney Spears shaving her head or the death of Anna Nicole Smith are more “earth-shattering” than stories about the wrongful imprisonment of African-Americans.
So don’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of former Panther Dhoruba bin Wahad, who spent nineteen years in prison before his conviction was overturned. In the documentary Passing It On, made after his release, Wahad tells of the struggle, throughout his imprisonment, to obtain documents that would establish his innocence—documents that the corrupt power structure consistently told him did not exist. Also, don’t be surprised if, until a few years ago, you did not know the name of Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt. After all, it was only after his release from custody after twenty-seven years of wrongful imprisonment that the corporate-controlled media finally (and belatedly) summoned the “courage” to condemn the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for the perjured testimony used to obtain Pratt’s conviction. Until that time, in the eyes of these media, Pratt did not exist.
In 1993, an article by Stephen G. Tompkins in the (Memphis) Commercial Appeal revealed how far the corrupt power structure actually went to preserve America’s legacy of racial injustice. Tompkins stated that members of the United States Army’s “special forces” had spied on the family of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “for three generations,” and that members of the Ku Klux Klan were even offered paramilitary training in exchange for information on the civil rights movement.
If this wasn’t egregious enough, the FBI, then led by a virulent racist named J. Edgar Hoover, was more concerned about preventing the ascendancy of a “Black Messiah” than combating crime or promoting equality and justice. To achieve this goal, the Bureau mailed an anonymous letter to Dr. King, calling him “an evil, abnormal beast,” and trying to convince him to commit suicide. It also, in April of 1968, sought “to alert La Cosa Nostra” about a speech made by civil rights activist Dick Gregory that condemned the influence of organized crime in predominantly African-American communities.
But the worst of the FBI abuses were reserved for the Panthers, under the auspices of its now infamous COINTELPRO operation. While this covert war was wrought with many ironies, this article will examine three.
The first is that the Panthers were initially targeted for engaging in activities that were perfectly legal. As Panther co-founder Bobby Seale explained in a recent speech, the BPP based its strategy on earlier attempts by community activists in Los Angeles, California to monitor police activity in the hopes of reducing institutionalized racism and incidents of police brutality. Court rulings had determined that citizens were permitted to observe officers in the performance of their duties, as long as a reasonable distance was maintained.
Seale noted that, despite these rulings, the Los Angeles activists were eventually harassed and jailed into ineffectiveness. So the Panthers combined another legal right with their monitoring activities: the right to bear arms.
Combining these two legal rights quickly made the Black Panther Party “Public Enemy Number One” in the eyes of the FBI and the law enforcement community. In addition to the injustices perpetuated against Wahad and Pratt, Lee Otis Johnson, leader of the Houston, Texas Chapter of the BPP, was sentenced to thirty years in prison for allegedly passing one marijuana cigarette to an undercover police officer.
But when these corrupt legal tactics didn’t work, the law enforcement community simply murdered the Panthers, either directly or by proxy.
For example, Maulana Karenga (aka Ron Everett) is today innocuously heralded as the founder of Kwanzaa. But many have argued that Karenga was also an FBI dupe, whose organization United Slaves (US) murdered several members of the BPP, including John Huggins Jr., Alprentice Carter, Sylvester Bell and John Savage. Ironically, (but perhaps not surprisingly) the two US members convicted of killing Huggins and Carter “escaped” from the same prison where Panther leader George Jackson was killed during an alleged escape attempt three years earlier.
According to a November 25, 1968 memo from Hoover, FBI agents were ordered to “fully capitalize upon BPP and US differences.” To accomplish this, the Bureau circulated anonymous cartoons boasting of the US killings. In one such cartoon, Karenga is shown sitting with his feet comfortably propped upon a desk, crossing the names Huggins and Carter off a list entitled, “Things To Do Today.”
But, as the FBI soon learned, not all African-Americans were so easily duped, especially since the Bureau’s anonymous letters were written primarily by white agents endeavoring to sound “black.” So, after agents in Chicago, Illinois tried unsuccessfully to convince an African-American street gang leader to murder Chicago BPP Chairman Fred Hampton, the Bureau turned to informant William O’Neal, who subsequently provided details about the layout of Hampton’s apartment. In the early morning hours of December 4th, 1969, Chicago Police raided this apartment, killing Hampton and Mark Clark, leader of the Peoria Panthers. Although not a single shot had been fired from the bedroom where Hampton had been sleeping, he was shot twice in the head at point blank range. In fact, out of the ninety-eight shots fired during the raid, the Panthers had fired just one, and, according to Alfred Lewis’s book The Evidence Never Lies, this was in response to incoming police gunfire.
The “raid” has been used throughout the years not only against the Panthers, but also in Idaho at Ruby Ridge and in Michigan at Rainbow Farms, where questionable fatalities also occurred. The strategy of law enforcement is to file (or fabricate) relatively minor charges against a person or group of people because of their political viewpoints or activism, then organize a “raid” to facilitate arrests. Knowing that resistance is likely, law enforcement can then abandon the minor or bogus charges and file more severe ones or, as in the case of Hampton, simply kill the parties outright.
Those who doubt these motivations need only recall that a colleague of former FBI agent M. Wesley Swearingen (the man who ultimately helped expose the Bureau’s frame-up of “Geronimo” Pratt) expressed regret after the Hampton raid that more “n*****s” had not been killed.
But the war against the BPP not only targeted its members, but also its supporters. When a white activist from Michigan named John Sinclair formed the “White Panther Party” to demonstrate solidarity with the BPP, he was sentenced to ten years in prison for the possession of two marijuana “joints.” This draconian sentence resulted in the “Ten-For-Two” concert, where musicians, like former Beatle John Lennon, raised awareness of Sinclair’s situation. Today most experts agree that Lennon’s appearance at this concert was the catalyst for the deportation proceedings that were subsequently instituted against him. (These proceedings are the focus of the 2006 documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon).
But Lennon wasn’t the only celebrity victim of COINTELPRO. Actress Jean Seberg was also targeted for “neutralization” because of her financial donations to the BPP. In the Hollywood culture of Seberg’s era, rumors of interracial relationships were career-killers. Celebrities engaged in interracial relationships normally kept them secret, and, in extreme cases, African-American actors were threatened for pursuing such relationships, as was the case with Sammy Davis Jr., who had an affair with actress Kim Novak.
Feeding on this bigotry, the FBI anonymously circulated a rumor to celebrity “gossip” columnists, falsely claiming that Seberg’s unborn child had been fathered by a prominent member of the BPP. The intention, as the 1970 FBI memo plainly points out, was to “cause her embarrassment” and “cheapen her image with the general public.”
It worked far too well. The resulting stress caused Seberg to miscarry, and ultimately to commit suicide.
Thus arises the second irony: while law enforcement agencies were condemning the BPP for its claims that law enforcement in America was corrupt, brutal, racist and unjust, these same agencies, in fighting their war against the Panthers, were engaging in the very corruption, brutality, racism and injustice the Panthers were denouncing.
It would seem that all Americans would have felt threatened by, and expressed outrage at, the illegalities used to decimate the BPP. It would alsoseem that Americans today would continue to be wary about giving too much power to organizations like the FBI. It would seem that Americans would recognize the veracity of Dr. Martin Luther King’s words that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and that they would demand accountability from a government that incessantly spreads “freedom and democracy” in other lands at the point of a gun, yet undermines the democratic process in their own nation.
This lack of outrage, recognition and demand for accountability leads to the third irony: In America it is not the crime that is relevant, but who commits the crime or who it is committed against!
After all, what happened to the killers of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark? The State of Illinois trumped up charges against the survivors of the raid, and only agreed to drop them when these survivors dropped their demand that criminal charges be filed against the police. And when a federal grand jury was seated to examine potential civil rights violations resulting from the raid, there was more focus on the Panther’s political philosophy than the deaths of Hampton and Clark. Needless to say, no criminal indictments were returned.
“Geronimo” Pratt was eventually awarded financial compensation for his years of wrongful imprisonment. Nevertheless, shortly after his release and the judge’s proclamation that “false testimony” had been used to convict him, Los Angeles prosecutor Gil Garcetti, apparently deciding that his ethical duty to “do justice” was subordinate to maintaining a wrongful conviction, filed an appeal speciously arguing Pratt’s “guilt,” even though former Los Angeles Deputy Prosecutor Christopher Darden (who gained fame, or perhaps infamy, during the O.J. Simpson trial) later announced on The Oprah Winfrey Show that Pratt was indeed the victim of injustice.
Finally, and perhaps most repugnant of all, Ronald Reagan, shortly after being elected president, pardoned two FBI officials who had been convicted of crimes they committed during the COINTELPRO operation. Neither of these officials spent a single day in prison. Yet Reagan’s excuse for the pardon—forgiveness for “the excesses of the past” - did not extend to the Panthers or others victimized by COINTELPRO, many of whom remain in prison to this day.
These include former Panthers Marshall Eddie Conway of Maryland, Ed Poindexter and Mondo we Langa of Nebraska (often called the “longest serving political prisoners in the United States”), who remain behind bars despite unanimous, and repeated, recommendations from the parole board that their sentences be commuted, and Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox of Louisiana, where evidence now indicates that a prosecution witness was unduly influenced with promises of a pardon in exchange for his testimony.
Of course, things have changed, or at least that’s what you’re supposed to believe. After all, the United States Department of Justice is now actively prosecuting members of right-wing hate groups who murdered African-Americans and civil rights workers during the 1950s and 60s. Unfortunately the record doesn’t reflect that trend:
1. Richard Oakes, a Mohawk Indian and leader of the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz Island, was shot and killed by a white man whom Oakes had confronted for allegedly abusing Native-American children. As is incessantly the case in “Indian Country,” the man was only charged with manslaughter and ultimately acquitted of that.
2. In Greensboro, North Carolina, both federal and state juries acquitted Klansmen and Neo-Nazis of murdering five members of the Communist Workers Party during a protest march in 1979. A subsequent civil trial revealed that Greensboro police had failed to take the steps necessary to protect the protesters.
3. In Illinois, a jury acquitted and then celebrated with police and prosecutors who had been charged with using perjured testimony to send two innocent men, Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez, to death row.
4. In Chicago, Illinois (a city now vying to host the Olympic Games), the City Council refused to name a street after Fred Hampton. Meanwhile the injustices that Hampton denounced, and that ultimately resulted in his death, live on.
It was recently revealed that officers at Area Two Police Headquarters on Chicago’s South Side, under the command of Jon Burge, often tortured suspects into confessing, resulting in several innocent men being sent to death row. Burge now enjoys a police pension and retirement in Florida.
5. In 1997 in Amarillo, Texas, the state with the highest execution rate in America, a white high-school football player was sentenced to a mere ten-years probation for killing Brian Deneke, a member of Amarillo’s “punk rock” community, by intentionally hitting him with his automobile, a 1983 Cadillac, then backing over him.
As many local residents pointed out, had the status of the victim and the perpetrator been reversed, the sentence would almost certainly have been death.
6. More recently, a Mississippi grand jury refused to indict an individual believed to have played a role in the 1955 lynching of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, meaning that nobody will ever be convicted for Till’s murder.
7. Finally, confirming a prediction I made in several previous
Pravda.Ru articles, it was just revealed that the FBI, in a Dickensian resurrection of the ghost of abuses past (and, perhaps more disturbingly, the ghost of abuses yet to come), repeatedly broke the law by abusing the authority it had been given under the hysteria-inspired “Patriot Act.”
My prediction, however, had less to do with precognition than with the very logical axiom that unbridled power can never be safely entrusted to those with a history of abusing power, particularly when their overseer is a torture-endorsing, civil liberties hating hypocrite named Alberto Gonzales; therefore it was unadulterated lunacy for the United States Congress and the judicial system to believe that the “Patriot Act” would not be viewed as an invitation to lawlessness.
It is clear from the recent murder indictments of several former Black Panthers in California, known as the San Francisco Eight (whose earlier confessions in the case were ruled to be the result of police torture), that the true impetus behind the Justice Department’s current and conspicuous crusade to prosecute those responsible for decades-old civil rights murders is simply to deflect accusations of bias when pursuing their true targets, former “left-wing” radicals.
But this bias is evident nonetheless. After all, those responsible for civil rights murders have usually enjoyed decades of freedom, and often obtained “celebrity” status in their local communities. Many of the Panthers, on the other hand, endured, and continue to endure, torture, corrupt trials, and decades of imprisonment for crimes they did not commit.
Why the dichotomy? The answer is simple. When the government replaces basic concepts of morality and justice with a “cost-benefit” system, injustice is inevitably the result. Under this ideology, paying monetary damages to the Panthers for years of wrongful imprisonment, or to their estates for their wrongful deaths, was a small price to pay to destroy the BPP and the racism, corruption and injustices it exposed.
But the weakening of the left has invariably resulted in the strengthening of the right, and, ironically, many of the violent right-wing groups the government used, and even rewarded, for attacking and destroying groups like the Panthers, are now viewing the government, and members of law-enforcement, as their enemy.
Remember this the next time a person argues that America’s legal system is “infallible,” that there are sufficient “safeguards” in place to prevent injustice, that expanding police powers through unconstitutional laws like the “Patriot Act” will not result in abuses, or that developments in technology will not be exploited to spy upon and destroy the privacy rights and freedoms of law-abiding citizens.
That song has been sung before. While its melody is soothing, its lyrics are chilling, and a threat to all who dare to raise their voices against the crimes, hypocrisies and abuses perpetrated by those in power.
Think this threat is not real?
Go ask the Panthers.
David R. Hoffman
Legal Editor of Pravda.ru