From: Le Monde diplomatique <>
To: Le Monde diplomatique <>
Subject: Caged panthers
Date: Tue, 11 Oct 2005 17:55:53 +0200 (CEST)

Imprisoned black nationalists in the United States: Caged panthers

By Marie-Agn├Ęs Combesque, Le Monde diplomatique, October 2005

More than 100 inmates in high-security prisons in the United States demand the right to be treated as political prisoners, since they were jailed for acts related to anti-government activism.

MUMIA Abu Jamal has been in a Pennsylvania prison since 3 July 1982 awaiting execution by lethal injection, cut off from the world of the living by a plexiglas screen (1). He is as good as dead to those who shut him up for the murder of a policeman. Yet Abu Jamal is a dead man who moves, fights and tells his visitors: “I am a political prisoner.” Of all the prisoners on death row (2), he is the only one to claim that status.

Among the million and a half inmates of United States high-security prisons (3), there are more than a hundred who, like Abu Jamal, demand the right to be treated as political prisoners, if not prisoners of war. They are former activists of the Black Panther party (BPP), the Black Liberation Army (BLA) and the American Indian Movement (AIM), as well as Puerto Rican independence supporters and members of the white, radical left Weather Underground. Almost all have in common an initial involvement in the struggle against the Vietnam war in the mid-1960s. Opposition to that war, to the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965 and Martin Luther King in 1968, radicalised a generation of activists. But, like other western democracies, the US is not prepared to grant them the status of political prisoner or prisoner of war as defined in the Geneva Convention (4).

Geronimo Pratt (BPP) and Leonard Peltier (AIM) say they are combatants from minority peoples fighting a colonial regime for their right to self-determination. For the US to recognise that status would be to accept that their struggle is justified. This is unthinkable since all of them have been sentenced for crimes punishable under common law: murder, armed robbery or terrorist attacks. Police, prosecuting attorneys, judges and journalists have always described them as terrorists and criminals, and the authorities have used most means possible against them, from anti-mafia legislation to covert operations that Congress has since condemned as a threat to democracy (5).

The first victims of this range of repression were the Black Panthers, who are the largest group of political prisoners (around 50 of them). Their party, the BPP, was founded in Oakland, California, in October 1966 by two law students, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. Partly inspired by the Marxist rhetoric of Malcolm X, the BPP sought to organise ghettos on the basis of a 10-point programme of political and social demands, under which it claimed the right of self-defence.

It saw itself as a revolutionary avant-garde with objectives that went beyond freeing blacks from repression: “In our view it is a class struggle between the massive proletarian working class and the small minority ruling class. Working class people of all colours must unite against the exploitative, oppressive ruling class…we believe our fight is a class struggle not a race struggle” (6).

The Panthers organised tenants' associations, canteens for ghetto children and the distribution of free clothing. They enlisted the most motivated and impressed others. While the BPP probably never had more than 5,000 active members from 1967 to 1971, its aura was much greater than its numerical strength in the disinherited inner cities of the US.

By the summer of 1967 the FBI was alarmed. It decided to concentrate its Cointelpro counter-intelligence programme (7) on the black nationalist movements, and declared: “The aim is to track, expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralise the activities of black nationalist organisations that preach hatred” (8). With the diligent assistance of local police forces, these instructions were carried out to the letter.

In an interview given to the New York Times on 8 September 1968, J Edgar Hoover described the BPP as “the real long-range threat to American society”.

The next three years were devastating for the Black Panthers. Through Cointelpro, the FBI used its undercover methods (covert observation and tailing, phone tapping, anonymous letters, double agents), and also murder. In 1970, 38 activists were killed in raids by local police forces on BPP offices. On 4 December 1969 Fred Hampton, leader of the Black Panthers in Chicago, was shot dead in his bed. His bodyguard, William O'Neal (who subsequently committed suicide), had been recruited by the FBI two years earlier: he provided the police with the plan of the apartment, enabling them to hit the right target (9).

A few months later Geronimo Pratt, one of the most prominent members of the BPP in Los Angeles, was arrested for the murder of a white woman, committed in a Los Angeles suburb at a time when—according to the testimony of many witnesses, confirmed by reports from infiltrated FBI agents—he was attending a BPP meeting in Oakland. During the trial, the relevant files mysteriously disappeared. Pratt was sentenced to life imprisonment. He is still in gaol, although the representatives of the Californian judicial system all agree he was framed.

The quarrels and dissention fomented by Cointelpro within the BPP exacerbated internal differences arising from political confrontation between the party's “minister of defence”, Huey Newton, and its “minister of information”, Eldridge Cleaver, who ran the international section from exile in Algiers (10). At the end of 1970 black activists were divided among themselves and had less support from the white liberal left, which also suffered attacks from Cointelpro. They took to murdering each other.

At that point some of Cleaver's supporters founded the clandestine Black Liberation Army (BLA). By 1971 the BPP had been reduced by repression and its audience was shrinking fast. Its leaders decided to confine activities to their home base in Oakland and to participate in normal politics by supporting Democratic candidates in local elections. The most experienced BPP radical activists were either in exile or in prison. They were joined there by soldiers of the BLA, who were subjected to a new counter-intelligence operation codenamed Newkill (11), devised in the White House by President Richard Nixon, the Attorney General John Mitchell and Hoover, the irremovable director of the FBI. Anthony Jalil Bottom, Albert Nuh Washington and Herman Bell, all still serving life sentences in New York State high-security penitentiaries, were victims of that operation.

There was a second wave of repression at the beginning of the 1980s. Black nationalist activists were targeted again, as well as Puerto Rican independence supporters and white radicals. In 1981 BLA activists and white radicals from Weather Underground (12) attacked a Brinks armoured car in New York State to finance their struggle. The unsuccessful hold-up ended in a gunfight in which three police officers died. Afterwards a ferocious counter-intelligence operation led to the arrest of dozens of underground and public activists, some of whom were tried under the Racketeer-Influenced Corrupt Organisations Act (Rico) passed by Congress in 1970.

The Rico Act had been designed to combat organised crime. It gave public prosecutors the means to take action against members of criminal gangs accused of participating in at least two punishable acts within a given period, and provided for automatic sentences of 20 years' imprisonment. Under the Reagan administration, it was used several times against members of political organisations, notably after the Brinks attack. As a result, Sekou Odinga (BLA), David Gilbert (ex-SDS) and Marilyn Buck (ex-SDS-BLA) are serving extravagant prison terms with no possibility of parole: 80 years for Buck, 75 for Gilbert, and 45 for Odinga.

Besides the 20 years stipulated in the Rico Act, those involved in helping Assata Shakur to escape in 1979 (13) received even longer sentences. By comparison, an anti-abortion activist convicted in 1986 of a dozen bomb attacks on clinics was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment and released on parole after serving less than four years (14).

So black nationalist movements have borne the brunt of repression for more than 25 years, and continue to suffer from it. Cointelpro was officially ended in 1971 when its existence was discovered by students who had broken into an FBI office (15), but its effects are still felt. Hoover's orders of 25 March 1968 were carried out in full. Cointelpro had been instructed to “prevent the coalition of militant black nationalist groups…prevent the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement…The negro youth and moderate[s] must be made to understand that if they succumb to revolutionary teachings, they will be dead revolutionaries.”

A note, dated 3 April 1968, clarified the alternatives: “Is it not better to be a sports hero, a well-paid professional athlete or entertainer, a regularly paid white- or blue-collar worker…than a negro who may have got even with the establishment…and gained for him and all his people the hatred and distrust of the whites for years to come?”


(1) On 1 October 1990 the Supreme Court refused to review his sentence. On 1 June 1995 the governor of Pennsylvania signed the execution order for Mumia Abu Jamal.

(2) On 1 January 2005 there were 3,355 people under sentence of death in US prisons. California heads the list with 639, followed by Texas with 447, Florida 382 and Pennsylvania 231. Texas is way ahead when it comes to executions. After the election in the State of New York of a Republican governor, George Pataki, the state has just restored the death penalty, now in force in 38 out of 50 states.

(3) In June 2004 there were more than 2.1 million people in US federal, state or local prisons.

(4) Geneva Convention relative to the treatment of prisoners of war, adopted on 12 August 1949. Resolution 3103 of the UN general assembly.

(5) US Senate, Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Government Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, US Government Printing Office, Washington, 1976 (known as the Church Report). Geronimo Pratt was released on 29 May 1997 after 27 years in gaol.

(6) Bobby Seale, Seize the Time: the Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P Newton, Hutchinson, London, 1970.

(7) From “counter intelligence program”, set up in 1956 by Hoover (FBI director 1924-72) to monitor the activities of members and sympathisers of the US Communist party.

(8) Memo from director, FBI, 4 March 1968, “re: Counter Intelligence Program—Black Nationalist Hate Groups—Racial Intelligence (100-448006)”.

(9) See Clayborne Carson et al, The Eyes on the Prize: Civil Rights Reader, Penguin Books, New York, 1991. See also the website of the documentary film based on this book (and various other ressources), recently uncovered by veterans of the civil right movement and copyright activists. Copyright restrictions in regard to music and video clips used in the movie prevented it from being screened or released on video.

(10) Huey Newton was shot by a drug dealer in 1989. After Cleaver's return from Algiers, he joined the Moon sect, supported Reagan, and frequented Christian fundamentalist circles. On his revolutionary period, see William Klein's film Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther (1969).

(11) From the words “New York killings”.

(12) The Weather Underground Organisation, also known as the Weathermen or Weatherpeople, was a splinter group of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) that broke away at the 9th national convention of the SDS in Chicago in 1969. It advocated armed struggle and went underground. Among the leaders were Bernadine Dohrn, who remained in hiding until the early 1980s, and Kathy Boudin, who was released on 17 September 2003 after more than 20 years in gaol.

(13) Assata Shakur, BPP/BLA, was arrested on 2 May 1973 in New Jersey after a gunfight with the police and kept in preventive detention until her escape in 1979. She has since been living in Cuba as a refugee.

(14) Special international tribunal on the violation of human rights of political prisoners and prisoners of war in US prisons and jails, December 1990, Hunter College New York.

(15) On 8 March 1971 students from Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, broke into the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, and carried off all the files.Some of the contents, concerning Cointelpro, were published in the campus newspaper, Phoenix, on 2 April 1971.