COINTELPRO and the Panthers
The history of relations between the Black liberation movement and law enforcement has always been adversarial, at its best. At its worst, it is a history of murder, beatings, lies and frame-ups. There are few groups in this history that experienced the latter more than the Black Panther Party. The history of FBI and police harassment and intimidation of Panther members during the Party’s heyday is well documented. It includes the murders of several members, the constant harassment and petty arrests of members by local police forces and the framing of many of its leaders. Most of these frame-ups resulted in long prison terms for the members accused and convicted falsely.
What may be surprising to many who know this history is that these frame-ups continue today. It was under the FBI/Justice Department program known as COINTELPRO that the first frame-ups took place and it is that program’s successors that have occurred under. Two false convictions that received much of the publicity in the 1990s were those of Geronimo Pratt and Dhoruba bin Wahad. Both of these men spent over fifteen years in prison for crimes they did not commit, thanks to frame-ups carried out under the auspices of the COINTELPRO program.
Two ongoing cases that appear to be frame-ups from this vantage point are those of Mumia abu Jamal and the San Francisco 8. The former is a case involving the murder of a Philadelphia police officer in 1981 and the latter involves the murder of a San Francisco policeman in 1971. In both situations, the prosecution’s case is based on evidence that is flimsy at best and just plain false at its worst. Neither prosecution has proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt despite several chances. In addition, the politics of the defendants has been used by the prosecution in an attempt to prejudice the jury.
Mumia’s case has always carried the stench of a frame-up. The conflicting testimony of witnesses, the failure of witnesses to appear and many other instances of questionable conduct by the prosecution and law enforcement have conspired to create this perception. A recent book by Michael Schiffmannn titled Race Against Death (currently available only in German) adds even more documentary fuel to this perception. The text, which does a good job placing Mumia’s case into a historical context of racism in the United States, provides a history of the case itself and the movement that has grown in support of Mumia following the 1995 signing of his death warrant by then Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge. The new material at the end of the book includes several never-before-published photographs of the 1981 crime scene that were also never produced in court. These photos raise more questions as to Mumia’s role in the events of that night the policeman was killed. The litany of miscues and missing evidence already familiar to those who have followed Mumia’s case around the world is repeated here, with a renewed emphasis. In addition to this evidence is the newly discovered fact that a fifth bullet fired by police at the scene for comparative purposes was "lost."
The photos in Schiffmann’s text cast more doubt on the state’s case by proving that the prosecution’s statements that Mumia stood over Officer Faulkner and fired at him several times. The photos show no marks from the bullets that were supposedly fired in this fashion. In fact, the sidewalk was not damaged in any way. Schiffmann foes on to write: "it is thus no question anymore whether the scenario presented by the prosecution at Abu-Jamal’s trial is true. It is clearly not, because it is physically and ballistically impossible." (p. 205) The remainder of the photos show a scenario that constantly contradicts the testimony of officers and witnesses (apparently coerced) and the nature of the scene they described in Mumia’s original trial.
It is the continued refusal of the court to allow a new trial for Mumia that would allow the new evidence to be introduced that has been pointed to by Mumia’s supporters as part of the proof that not only was Mumia framed because of his politics and outspokenness as a member of the media, but that the frame-up continues. Added to this refusal by the court is the somewhat understandable desire of the slain officer’s family to have a perpetrator locked up, even that someone isn’t really the killer.
Other lesser known cases involving the US government and former Black Panther members are those of Veronza Bowers, Jr. and Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin (formerly H. Rap Brown). Bowers has been in prison for more than thirty years despite the fact that he is a model prisoner and has served his complete sentence under the law, been approved for parole only to have it overturned by the Justice department and is still in prison sixteen months after his sentence has expired.
Besides this travesty, the facts of Bowers’ conviction are questionable, to say the least. He was convicted of the murder of a U.S. Park Ranger based on the word of two government informers. Both of the informers received reduced sentences for other crimes in exchange for their testimony. There were no eye-witnesses, nor was there any other evidence to link him to the crime. Bowers’ alibi testimony was not credited by the jury and the testimony of two relatives of the informants who insisted that they were lying was not allowed. The informants had all charges against them in this case dropped. In addition, according to the prosecutor’s post-sentencing report, one was given $10,000 by the government.
As for Al-Amin, he was recently removed from state custody in Georgia by federal authorities and sent to the federal control unit in Florence, Colorado. No reason was given for the transfer, despite repeated requests from family and friends. According to the website maintained by the family and friends of the prisoner Dr. Mutulu Shakur, the transfer seems to be part of a more general move by the Bureau of Prisons to prevent programs that have had an "impact on the transformation of dozens of men, from a criminal mentality to liberation consciousness." The transfers and other intimidation by the bureau seem intended to make it difficult for these prisoners to build networks of support. Other aspects of this campaign include the suspension of cultural and educational programs within the federal prison systems and the increased harassment of politically active prisoners.
As mentioned above, another ongoing case involving former Black Panthers and the government is that of the San Francisco 8. This case against eight former Panthers and Panther supporters charged with the murder of a San Francisco policeman in 1971 was thrown out of court in 1975 because the evidence used by the prosecution was obtained by torture. It was revived in the early part of the twenty-first century by the California attorney general with help from the US Justice Department. There seems to be no new evidence in the case, although the prosecution hints that some does exist. DNA taken from all of the defendants in 2005 failed to match any previous evidence and the prosecution has hinted that it will reintroduce the same evidence thrown out back in 1975 because it was extracted by torture. Evidence obtained by torture is not considered to be verifiable beyond a reasonable doubt precisely because it was obtained by torture.
Anybody following the current debate around the U.S. rendition program for terror suspects is quite familiar with the proven argument that torture does not produce credible evidence. Of course, if the purpose of the torture is something other than the procurement of credible evidence or confessions, than it doesn’t really matter as to its effectiveness.
In the case of the San Francisco 8, it appears that the prosecution was not so much interested in finding the people responsible for the killing of the San Francisco policeman in 1971 as it was interested in helping to destroy the already splintered Black Panther Party. As any student studying the COINTELPRO program can tell you, one of its primary goals was the destruction of the Panthers. This goal was pursued by a variety of means. Among them was murder, the spreading of false rumors concerning the members’ personal lives, the placing of snitch jackets on members, and the intentional framing of its members on felony charges.
The case of the San Francisco 8 falls under the latter category but is also unique if only because the entire case was based on police speculation and torture. None of the accused was ever found guilty of the murder the first time they were tried. After the torture was exposed in 1975, the prosecution’s case was thrown out. The men who were not in prison on other charges (of a questionable nature as well) returned to their communities and lived active and law abiding lives until 2005. In 2005, the Department of Homeland security revived the same case that had been discarded in 1975. Together with the State of California they convened a grand jury and called many of the same defendants to testify. To their credit, the men refused and served time for their refusal. In 2006, DNA was extracted from the men by the prosecution in the hope that this evidence could be tied to evidence from the 1971 crime scene. After more than a year of silence, the defense was told that none of the DNA samples matched any of the evidence. Despite this, the prosecution refuses to drop the case and appears to be intent on resubmitting the evidence obtained under torture back in the early 1970s despite the earlier court’s refusal to allow that same evidence. Randy Montesano, the attorney of Harold Taylor–one of the defendants-told the media after a motion to deny admission of the torture-extracted evidence that despite the refusal of the court to approve the motion "there is no way to get a fair hearing today, especially given the delay of so many years and (because) the passage of time alone precludes any reliable adjudication so we will ultimately prevail."
One respects Mr. Montesano’s optimism, yet it can not be emphasized enough that this case may not go the way it should (and the defense hopes it will) unless the light of the world is shown upon it. It will take the concerted effort of a popular movement to insure that the men known as the San Francisco 8 are not framed for the murder of the policeman in 1971. The alternative for these men would be spending the rest of their lives in prison, much like the future faced by Mumia abu Jamal. In fact, it is the growing popular movement supporting the San Francisco 8 that helped convince the judge in the case to lower the bail of most of the men and allow them to go home to their loved ones. Likewise, in the case of Mumia abu Jamal, it is the popular movement around his case that has kept him alive.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org