20 January 2012

NYC Holiday Appeal

Remembering the Life and Struggle of Geronimo ji Jaga (Pratt)

On January 6, 125 people packed the Communications Workers Local 1180 union hall in lower Manhattan to take part in a fund-raiser with live jazz for the 26th annual Partisan Defense Committee Holiday Appeal. Along with benefits in other cities, this event helped support the PDC’s program of annual stipends and holiday gifts to 16 class-war prisoners—former Black Panther Party (BPP) members, MOVE supporters and others singled out and thrown behind bars for standing up to racist capitalist oppression. Our support to these prisoners is an expression of non-sectarian, class-struggle defense: it is the duty of the workers movement to defend such victims of capitalist repression irrespective of their particular political viewpoints.

The New York fund-raiser took place just days after President Obama signed into law the prerogative of the Commander-in-Chief to “disappear” into a military brig, here or anywhere else in the world, any U.S. citizen or foreign national whom the government deems a supporter of “terrorism.” In the fourth year of a world capitalist economic crisis that is pounding the working class and the poor, the government is intent on expanding its repressive powers, knowing that the massive and growing inequality sows the seeds of class and social struggle.

The audience heard taped greetings from “slow Death Row” by Mumia Abu-Jamal (see below). Prosecutors recently dropped their decades-long drive to execute Mumia, who had already spent 30 years on death row, falsely convicted for the December 1981 killing of Philly police officer Daniel Faulkner (see “Drive to Execute Mumia Halted,” WV No. 993, 6 January). Now Mumia—a BPP leader in his youth and later a MOVE supporter and renowned journalist known as the “Voice of the Voiceless”—is condemned to life in prison without parole despite massive evidence of innocence. The chants of “Free Mumia!” that followed his greetings were a sign of our determination that he not be forgotten and that the struggle on his behalf goes on.

Ralph Poynter read greetings from his wife, Lynne Stewart, a 72-year-old radical attorney who is imprisoned in Fort Worth, Texas, for vigorously defending her client, a blind Egyptian cleric convicted for an alleged plot to blow up NYC landmarks in the early 1990s. Stewart, who has cancer, is appealing the quadrupling of her sentence to ten years. Her resentencing was pushed by the Obama administration to make her an example in the capitalist rulers’ concocted “war on terror.”

The NYC event also heard from Francisco Torres, a supporter of Puerto Rican independence and one of the San Francisco 8 (SF8). These were former BPP members whom the government attempted to frame up for the 1971 killing of a cop, finally stopping its efforts after no less than 40 years. “So we had it all,” Torres said of the SF8 case, “the torture, the waterboarding, the electronic torture. Prior to them talking about it happening in the Middle East and Abu Ghraib and so forth…it actually started with the Native Americans here in America and prior to that, of course, with the enslavement of Africans.” As Torres said, “Torture is in the DNA of America.”

Since the PDC stipends program began, it has provided support to more than 30 prisoners on three continents, trade-union militants and others; in the U.S., a large proportion of the prisoners have been black activists. Both Rosie Gonzalez of the NYC Spartacus Youth Club and Ed Jarvis, speaking for the Spartacist League, linked defense of class-war prisoners to the fight to sweep away the entire apparatus of capitalist repression and replace it with a workers state. As Jarvis said, “Capitalist society as a prison for working people is also literally a prison for the millions who have been thrown behind bars primarily in the ‘war on drugs,’ which targets poor black and Latino ghettos.” He continued, “It will take a revolution that finishes the historic tasks of the Civil War to end black inequality—that is to say, it will take a socialist revolution.”

A highlight of the evening was a tribute by the PDC’s Valerie West to the life of Geronimo ji Jaga (Pratt), a former Black Panther leader who died last year. West’s remarks, printed below as edited for publication, were based on her work with attorney Stuart Hanlon in the legal defense of Geronimo, who spent 27 years in California prisons for a crime the government knows he did not commit.

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I think I’m more upset about Geronimo’s death than I’ve been willing to concede so far. So bear with me. I do want to say that we were all really saddened. But for me, who knew Geronimo pretty well for about a decade, it was really an unexpected personal blow. He died in Tanzania on June 2. Stuart Hanlon, who I spoke to and who was close to his family, didn’t know whether he died of a heart attack or a stroke but said that he had contracted malaria and was hospitalized. I want to try to recount some of my experiences with Geronimo.

I first met him as a kind of still young attorney, and I remember being very nervous going to San Quentin. It was my first trip to a California prison and my first meeting of Geronimo, so I was pretty nervous. Right away Geronimo had a big smile. He was very welcoming and really set me at ease. Over the years I visited him many, many times and he was great company. Of course, we also had disagreements. But we spent many hours chatting, laughing, playing Scrabble, as well as tackling how to increase exposure of his frame-up conviction and establish his innocence. He always willingly endorsed our anti-Klan mobilizations and defense campaigns. And, likewise, he always asked me about my aging mother and told me that I smoked too much. At the end of each visit inevitably came this horrible moment when you had to leave, and Geronimo solved that with big hugs.

He was a really easy person to get to know and to visit. And in the course of getting to know him I learned quite a bit about his history. You can’t understand Geronimo’s case without knowing about the Black Panther Party. So I want to say a bit about that.

They were for sure the best of a generation of black militants. But they were also a deeply contradictory radical formation, genuinely seeking black liberation but lacking the working-class perspective that could show them the road. Their militant, organized stand for black rights made J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, truly apoplectic. So in the late 1960s the FBI declared war on the Panthers. And I mean war. As part of the infamous Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), Panther offices across the country were raided and 38 Panthers were mowed down in the streets. Many of the remaining leaders were jailed. Not for short little stints either.

On December 4, 1969, two Chicago Panthers, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, were murdered in their sleep. Four days after that, the LAPD conducted an hours-long, Gestapo-type raid on the L.A. Panther office. It was meant to get Geronimo but it didn’t. As a highly decorated paratrooper who had served two tours in Vietnam (he was wounded there as well), and as a dynamic black leader, Geronimo stood out as a particular target for “neutralization” by the FBI. That’s the word they used. Geronimo told me once that there were so many cases against him in the late 1960s that it was hard for him to even keep them straight.

In the end, the FBI concocted an elaborate frame-up that charged Geronimo with robbery and the murder of Caroline Olsen at a Santa Monica tennis court on December 18, 1968. Kenneth Olsen, her husband, was wounded in the incident but did not die. The charges rested on the lying accusation by one Julio Butler—a former sheriff’s deputy, onetime Panther and also an FBI/LAPD informer—who claimed Geronimo had confessed the murder to him. This was backed up by police-orchestrated ID testimony (now acknowledged to be generally unreliable in any case) from Olsen’s husband and a Santa Monica storeowner and finally coupled with phony ballistics evidence backed up again by Julio Butler. Geronimo maintained his innocence from the beginning. He was over 400 miles away in Oakland, California, attending Panther meetings at the time the murder took place.

At the time of his 1972 trial, Geronimo knew he had been framed up but he did not know that the FBI had orders to “neutralize” him in collusion with the LAPD. To make matters worse, his trial took place months after the 1971 split in the Panthers. That split was a result of murderous internal factionalism fueled by FBI COINTELPRO dirty tricks. One wing of the Panthers, the Huey Newton wing, would openly embrace pro-Democratic Party politics, while the Eldridge Cleaver wing adopted the dead-end program of urban guerrillaism.

Geronimo sided with the Cleaver wing and was abandoned, therefore, by the Newton wing. Kathleen Cleaver was the sole Panther leader who backed up Geronimo at trial. Our comrade Don A. attended portions of that trial in Los Angeles and wrote about it last year to WV (see “Geronimo Pratt Refused to Bow,” WV No. 988, 14 October 2011). This is what he said: “Without exaggeration I can say that, more than any single individual then, it was seeing how Pratt refused to bow down in that court that made me want to stay in the struggle. He knew the purpose of his conviction and that it was bigger than him.”

Geronimo was also abandoned by much of the reformist left as the influence of the Panthers waned. We in the Spartacist League and PDC, applying our policy of non-sectarian defense for those cases and causes in the interests of the whole of the working people, stood in defense of all these militants against state repression despite our many political differences. And we should be clear that we had many political differences. Unlike much of the reformist left, who initially simply cheered the Panthers, we wrote articles sharply criticizing their radical nationalist politics in contrast to our revolutionary Marxist perspective. Later, both Geronimo and Emory Douglas, who some may remember was the cartoonist for The Black Panther, acknowledged that they remembered our sharp polemical criticisms. Despite the depth of our differences, Geronimo welcomed our support and defended us when we were attacked or excluded by political opponents, particularly those who shared his views. Importantly, Geronimo offered key assistance in defense of Mumia.

After his conviction, through a series of partial Freedom of Information Act disclosures and a lawsuit to get a few more disclosures, Geronimo began to be able to assemble proof of his frame-up. In 1985, WV did an interview with him in which he talked about his hearing in federal court, where a former FBI agent, Wesley Swearingen, testified that “Pratt was set up” and that he, Swearingen, had seen wiretap logs for Panther headquarters in Oakland showing that Geronimo was there. The FBI, on the other hand, claimed that those logs were mysteriously missing, and Geronimo got no relief.

In 1986, after the denial of Geronimo’s federal petition, the PDC began a campaign to build support for him in the labor movement. For many years, PDC and Labor Black League representatives spoke at trade-union executive boards and local meetings to garner support for Geronimo. We were actually quite successful in getting endorsements and support, particularly from unions with a significant black membership that identified with Geronimo’s struggle. We would explain that our fight to free Geronimo and all class-war prisoners flowed from our program to build a multiracial revolutionary party that serves as a tribune of the people and fights all forms of social repression.

Of course, COINTELPRO harassment did not stop even after Geronimo was sentenced to life; it followed Geronimo to prison and caused him to spend the first eight years in solitary. His only company was a dictionary during those eight years, and he memorized it. Geronimo used to joke that as a result he was terrific at Scrabble. I can attest to this because we played many games, and once in a while he let me win.

It is almost impossible to convey, simultaneously, the deadly nature and the absurdity of the COINTELPRO lies that made their way into Geronimo’s prison file. They claimed that he participated in a scheme to kill guards with poison darts and to kidnap guards’ children and hold them hostage. But these lies greatly inflamed guards and endangered his life, so he had to fight the lies, and he did so vigilantly.

It had taken a federal case to gain his release from solitary, but that did not stop the lies and the vendetta. Beginning in 1989, as PDC staff counsel, I represented Geronimo, along with his longtime counsel Stuart Hanlon (who also represented one of the SF8) in a federal suit. The suit was aimed at stopping the retaliation against Geronimo for his fighting to expose COINTELPRO, and also at literally keeping him alive. The suit was against officials of the California Department of Corrections (CDC), who got in the habit not only of lying about Geronimo but of transferring him from prison to prison, away from his family, as a prime tool of retaliation. From 1989 until his release in 1997, I traveled up and down the state, from the Sierra foothills to the Tehachapi Mountains to the Mexican border, visiting Geronimo and fighting the CDC. Stuart Hanlon and I were kicked out of Tehachapi Prison for eating potato chips, routinely permitted, because such a vindictive atmosphere had been whipped up against Geronimo.

We in the PDC, LBL and SL publicized the suit against the CDC and gained an ever-widening circle of labor support to free Geronimo. By about 1994, unions representing hundreds of thousands were on record on his behalf. That support, together with the very important assistance of several particularly friendly journalists, was critical in keeping Geronimo’s case in the public eye. Geronimo kept at it, and we kept at it. We hoped for a break, and finally one came in 1996. At the time, many of the frame-up perpetrators were either dead or retired, and the D.A.’s office in L.A. was in much need of a facelift after the Rodney King debacle. Some of you may not know what that is but you can ask later. It was bad for the Los Angeles D.A. A lower court judge in L.A. granted Geronimo a hearing, which ultimately led to his release in June 1997 when the conviction was overturned, unfortunately on the narrowest possible grounds. A dismissal of the charges followed a couple of years later.

Through 27 years of California prison hell Geronimo remained unbroken and unbowed. He fought the prison officials who regularly endangered his life, he fought to prove his innocence, and he fought to assist other victims of capitalist injustice. Now I want to say to all of you out there: As you know, we live in a period of increased state repression, and the state has pretty much unlimited resources. We need your help to continue the fight to free the class-war prisoners and to defend those cases and causes in the interest of the whole of the working people. A small but fitting tribute to Geronimo would be for those of you who aren’t PDC sustainers to become sustainers tonight. I hope that you will consider that. 

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(reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 994, 20 January 2012)

Workers Vanguard is the newspaper of the Spartacist League with which the Partisan Defense Committee is affiliated.