One tactic was to severely punish activists for relatively minor crimes. This was the fate of Lee Otis Johnson, a Texas Black Panther leader who received a thirty-year prison sentence for allegedly passing a single marijuana "joint" to an undercover police officer. Another technique was to charge activists with unsolved crimes. This was the ordeal of Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt, a California Black Panther leader who was convicted of murder based upon the perjured testimony of an informant. Pratt subsequently served over twenty-five years in prison (the first eight in solitary confinement) before an ex-FBI agent admitted Pratt had been framed. But the most severe strategy was to simply encourage the murders of such activists.
When the FBI discovered a conflict had developed between the Black Panther Party (BPP) and a black nationalist group called United Slaves (US), the Bureau sought, as articulated in a November 1968 memo, to encourage a "vendetta" by sending anonymous threats and disparaging cartoons to the competing organizations. This "vendetta" resulted in the murders of six Black Panthers at the hands of US members. When a similar effort in January 1969 failed to encourage a
Supporters of the criminal justice system argue that legal remedies are available to those who suffer such abuses. While it is true that Pratt and the estates of Hampton and Clark were ultimately awarded monetary damages, money cannot buy back time or life. Since the purpose of COINTELPRO was to destroy any political organizing or momentum these individuals were building, the prospect of spending a few dollars from the vast resources of the United States Treasury certainly did not deter governmental entities from engaging in or condoning corrupt, and often deadly, techniques to accomplish this task.
This attitude that corruption, crimes or injustices perpetrated by "law enforcement" are excusable has had some abhorrent consequences. A jury in the State of
In reality, the Coleman case is an aberration because there actually existed some evidence to test. George W. Bush's campaign boasts about the "infallibility" of the death penalty in Texas, where over one-hundred and fifty people were executed under his "watch" as governor, were premised on the knowledge that Texas destroys evidence after an execution to prevent posthumous DNA testing. Yet Bush's boasts also came despite revelations that some
The precedent for tolerating such misconduct was set in the 1980s by Ronald Reagan, who, under the facade of "forgiving those who engaged in excesses [under COINTELPRO]" pardoned two FBI agents who had been convicted of crimes against political activists. Neither ever served a day in prison. Not surprisingly, Reagan's alleged "compassion" did not result in any pardons for COINTELPRO victims, many of whom still remain in prison.
One such victim is Leonard Peltier, a former activist in the American Indian Movement (AIM). Because of its unique nature, AIM incurred COINTELPRO's wrath perhaps more than any other political organization of its day. Native-American ideologies and grievances were those of a colonized people whose traditions, languages and religions were incessantly dismissed and even ridiculed by "mainstream"
AIM also had the misfortune of becoming active just as COINTELPRO was effectively decimating other social movements. The first major Native-American protest came in 1969 when activists occupied
In 1975 two FBI agents on Pine Ridge were killed in a shoot-out involving AIM members. After two AIM members were acquitted of these killings, only one remained to be tried: Leonard Peltier. Extradited from
Oftentimes there is a desire for people to discern some "symbolic" meaning in the corruption and hypocrisy of the criminal justice system. Forgotten, however, is the very real suffering that such corruption and hypocrisy engenders.
Tragically Leonard Peltier's case embodies all of these influences. In addition, perhaps more than any other case in American history, it exposes the abject cowardice, corruption and hypocrisy that incessantly makes American justice more illusory than real. One court opinion in the Peltier case scathingly condemned the FBI for misconduct on the Pine Ridge Reservation, yet failed to overturn Peltier's conviction. A judge from this court, in a caricature of Pontius Pilate, then attempted to wash his hands of this decision by asking the President to pardon Peltier. A few years after this ruling, Peltier filed another appeal based on the government's admission that it did not know who shot the agents, and on a former GOON member's belated admission that the FBI had provided his group with ammunition and support during their conflict with AIM. The obsession to keep Peltier imprisoned was summarized by the court's terse proclamation: "Peltier gives no explanation . . . for his failure to obtain the evidence earlier." Yet even the most rudimentary logician can see the absurdity of this statement, since it incomprehensibly presumes that Peltier possessed the capability (from a prison cell no less) to make another human being's conscience awaken in a timely manner.
There are undoubtedly some in a self-centered world who will ask, "What does the Leonard Peltier case have to do with me?" The answer is simple. Peltier's case demonstrates that there are agencies in America with the power to corrupt, manipulate or intimidate the legal system, and thus all the erudite law books, treatises and journals simply camouflage the frightening reality that people's futures, fortunes, freedoms and very existence are governed not by law, but by the arbitrariness of a power structure that is largely unaccountable for its actions. Perhaps most disturbingly, the extent of this arbitrariness, under the patronage of the ludicrously named "Patriot Act," is now being enhanced with little more than verbal assurances that past abuses will not be repeated. And considering that Peltier was convicted and remains in prison despite having access to all the alleged "processes" and "protections" of the civilian criminal justice system, one must wonder how many injustices the "military tribunals" of the Bush administration will produce.
The influence of this unelected power structure even extends to the
David R. Hoffman
An attorney and university instructor in the