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Defend Our Movements

February 11, 2006


Boston Chapter of the Jericho Movement, Massachusetts Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, and Prairie Fire Organizing Committee

Why is it important to defend our political prisoners? Why should young activists work to defend these veteran warriors, men and women who have been imprisoned for decades, when there is so much new work in our communities to be done?

As anti-imperialist political prisoner David Gilbert wrote in a message to mark the International Day of Solidarity with Political Prisoners on December 3rd, support for political prisoners can be “an important way to reaffirm the history of struggle and to contribute to the spirit and energy of today’s movements.”

We must continue to work to free our political prisoners because in defending our prisoners, we are defending our movements. As the events of the past few years have shown, and continue to show, the U.S. government still sees our political prisoners as symbols of resistance, even if some of us have forgotten them. The U.S. government continues to punish the veterans of our liberation movements as a way of intimidating younger activists. If we allow this, we are surrendering a vibrant history of militant struggle and letting the state limit our future struggles. Moreover, movement veterans still have important lessons to teach us about the importance of resistance, solidarity and struggle, by any means necessary.

Several Panther veterans taught us an important lesson about how to resist government intimidation recently. On November 1, 2005, Richard Brown, Ray Boudreaux, Hank Jones, Harold Taylor and John Bowman were released from jail in San Francisco without being charged. All five men are veterans of the Black Panther Party and were jailed for refusing to cooperate with a grand jury investigating the killing of a police officer back in 1971. Harold Taylor and John Bowman were first charged with this crime thirty years ago, but a judge dismissed the charges because police had tortured them with cattle prods, and other horrific methods, to get “confessions.” Now, as the Bush regime is advocating the use of torture against its’ enemies, an assistant U.S. attorney worked with the California State Attorney General’s office to reopen the case. However, all five former Panthers were steadfast and the grand jury’s term expired without any indictments being issued. After being released the five expressed their thanks for all the support they received, but cautioned, “it ain’t over yet!”

In fact it’s not over, as veteran activists around the country are being investigated on decades old charges. For both federal and state prosecutors, reopening old cases and charging radical veteran activists appears to be a surefire way to appear “tough on terrorism.” We need to change this equation by using these cases to educate and organize. The Panther veterans provide a strong example. By refusing to cooperate and going to jail, they blocked any indictments and illustrated how to build a culture of resistance.

The Puerto Rican independence movement provides another example. On September 23, 2005, while Puerto Ricans on the island and across the diaspora marked the “Grito de Lares,” celebrating resistance to the Spanish Empire, FBI agents, serving a 20 year old warrant, shot and killed Filiberto Ojeda Rios, a 72 year old, independence leader. However, the assassination of Ojeda, far from intimidating activists in Puerto Rico, has lead to calls for the FBI to leave the island from statehooders and independentistas alike. Puerto Ricans have transformed outrage over the FBI’s actions into organizing.

The possibility that other grand juries will be convened continues. For example, on October 6, 2005, Maroon Shoats, former Black Panther, was visited by two New York City police detectives investigating the deaths of two police officers in 1972. Maroon Shoats is a 61 year old grandfather who has been serving two life sentences for the past 33 years, 27 of them in a lock-down sensory deprivation unit. Why is the NYPD now asking him about an unsolved case from three decades ago?

Recently, FBI agents have been harassing the Puerto Rican community in Chicago. Agents visited former political prisoner Alberto Rodriguez and the bakery where the director of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center (and brother of political prisoner Oscar Lopez) works as well as other community institutions created by independentistas in Chicago, such as the Vida/SIDA health clinic. The agents are apparently looking for Luis Rosado Ayala, an independentista who didn’t show up for his last court date back in March 1981. Today, his whereabouts are unknown. But what is clear, is that Puerto Ricans in Chicago, familiar with the political uses of grand juries and investigations, are refusing to cooperate with the FBI.

We should all be familiar with the history of our movements’ resistance to political repression, including grand juries. When liberation movements surged in the 1960s and 70s, members of the Black Panther Party, the American Indian Movement, the Puerto Rican independence movement, and other advocates of self-determination for oppressed peoples within the U.S. were targeted by the FBI’s counter intelligence program (“COINTELPRO”). COINTELPRO aimed “to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” liberation movements. When it was pushed to investigate, the Senate found that COINTELPRO was “a sophisticated vigilante operation…fraught with illegality.” Former assistant FBI Director William C. Sullivan told the Senate’s commission: “This is a rough, tough, dirty business…No holds were barred.” This “dirty business” included unauthorized wiretapping, warrantless break-ins and even, in the case of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, assassination.

Only two government officials were ever convicted of COINTELPRO crimes. And one of the first things Ronald Reagan did upon assuming power in 1981 was to pardon them. Justifying the pardons, President Reagan explained that “they acted not with criminal intent, but in the belief that they had grants of authority reaching to the highest levels of government.” Meanwhile, there has been no pardon for the majority of the victims of COINTELPRO. Activists like American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier, a 61 year old grandfather, remain in prison after a quarter of a century.

The victims of COINTELPRO continue to be convenient targets. For example, immediately after September 11th, 2001, many political activists imprisoned for their political beliefs, affiliations and actions, including targets of COINTELPRO, were among the first federal prisoners to be moved into isolation units and refused permission to contact their lawyers. For example, seventy-seven-year-old peace activist Father Philip Berrigan, held in the federal prison in Elkton, Ohio, was locked down on September 11, 2001. Prison officials later explained that Father Berrigan was not allowed to contact his family or lawyer “for his protection.” Black Panther Sundiata Acoli, Puerto Rican independentistas Antonio Comacho Negron, Carlos Torres, and anti-imperialist activists Marilyn Buck and Richard Williams, were all placed in isolation units, along with many Muslim prisoners. Why were these prisoners, who clearly had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, locked down after Sept. 11th? On December 7, 2005, Richard Williams died in prison of health problems exacerbated by his 15 months in isolation. We can not allow any more of our comrades to die in prison.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government continues to target veteran activists. On July 27, 2004, Gary Freeman, a Canadian librarian was arrested at gunpoint outside the Toronto Reference Library. Freeman is charged with attempted murder and aggravated battery stemming from the March 7, 1969 shooting of Chicago police cadet Terrence Knox. U.S. Attorneys now claim the shooting was linked to the Black Panther Party following the murders of Illinois Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, and although nothing has yet been presented in court to definitively link Freeman to the Panthers, media reports refer to him as a “former Panther.” A Canadian judge finally ordered Gary Freeman (formerly known as Joseph Pannell), who has been locked up since July 2004, extradicted to the U.S. on November 25, 2005. Why is the U.S. government targeting a librarian who has lived in Canada for 13 years with his wife and children, with no criminal record? Is this part of the “war on terror” or an attempt to intimidate those likely to dissent? It is certainly part of a pattern.

On April 28, 2005, the U.S. Attorney General authorized the federal bounty on Assata Shakur, the former Black Panther who has lived in exile in Cuba for the past twenty years, to be increased to $1,000,000. This is a threat to Assata’s life, designed to induce international bounty hunters and opportunists to capture her.

In 2003, another former Panther, Kamau Sadiki, was charged with the murder of a police officer which took place in Atlanta in 1971. Federal agents questioned Kamau, who is the father of Assata’s daughter, about helping them capture Assata. He refused and was convicted on the thirty year old murder charges.

On March 27, 2003, a 49-year-old homeless man, Arlo Looking Cloud, was arrested in Denver on a warrant issued by federal authorities in South Dakota for the 1975 murder of American Indian Movement (AIM) activist Anna Mae Pictou Aquash. Looking Cloud, a Lakota Indian, was also a member of AIM in the 1970s. “The majority of the testimony presented [at his trial] had nothing whatsoever to do with Arlo Looking Cloud,” according to Leonard Peltier’s Attorney Barry Bachrach. Instead it focused on discrediting AIM and its leaders, including Peltier. Looking Cloud was convicted in February 2004. Leonard Peltier comes up for parole in 2008. Peltier’s bid for clemency was successfully blocked by the FBI as President Clinton left office in 2001. After twenty-five years of inaction, why is the FBI investigating Anna Mae Pictou Aquash’s murder now? And what about the murders of the many traditional Lakota and AIM activists which have never been investigated?

The U.S. government may be trying to replicate its success in prosecuting several people accused of being members of the long disbanded Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). The FBI declared the SLA vanquished two years after a May 17, 1974 shootout between the SLA and 400 LAPD, FBI, and California Highway Patrol in Los Angeles, California. Six SLA members were killed and the house they were in was burned to the ground. After twenty-four years, in June 1999, Sara Jane Olson was arrested in St. Paul, Minnesota, and when her trial was scheduled for October 2001, pled guilty to a failed plan to bomb two LAPD patrol cars 25 years earlier, rather than face a post-9/11 jury. Olson originally received a five-year, four-month sentence and was scheduled for a July 2005 release. Then the prison board turned to a seldom-used section of California law, allowing it to recalculate Olson’s sentence in light of new, tougher sentencing guidelines, and increased her sentence to 14 years. In early 2003, Olson had another six years added to her sentence, when she, along with William Harris, Emily Montague (Harris), and Michael Bortin were convicted of a 1975 SLA bank robbery in which a bystander was killed. Another former SLA member, James Kilgore, was extradited from South Africa and sentenced to 54 months in prison for explosives and passport fraud charges. Before her arrest, Sara Jane Olson had spent over two decades as a peace and social justice activist in St. Paul. The SLA cases showed how the government can use decades old crimes, particularly after 9/11, to discredit today’s movements.

Another government victory was the conviction of Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, a Muslim cleric and community activist in Atlanta in 2000. Al-Amin, formerly known as H. Rap Brown, is a veteran activist who was a leader of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and participated in its direct action campaigns to organize Black people in the south. He later joined the Black Panthers, advocating anti-imperialism, Black Power and the right of the oppressed to defend themselves and win liberation “by any means necessary.” In April 1968, after over one hundred rebellions broke out in Black communities across the U.S. following the assassination of Dr. MLK, Congress passed the notorious “Rap Brown Amendment” which made it illegal to cross state lines to “incite” rebellions. In 2000, Al-Amin was convicted of killing one sheriff’s deputy and wounding another while they were trying to serve him with a traffic warrant. Al-Amin was arrested by the FBI in Alabama days after the shooting occurred in Atlanta. The FBI agent who arrested Al-Amin openly bragged in court that he kicked and spit on Al-Amin, saying, “This is what we do to cop killers.” Al-Amin is now serving a life sentence. During his trial documents revealed that the FBI had been targeting Al-Amin and his community organizing in Atlanta’s Westend since at least 1995.

In 1993 Imam Jamil Al-Amin published “Revolution: By The Book”, in which he wrote, “The struggle is an ongoing process…When the first slave rebelled against being a slave, he gave an alternative to slavery that has been built upon until now. That’s struggle; and there have been many movements in the struggle – the abolitionist movement, the antislavery movement, the civil rights movement…but, the struggle still goes on.”

Defending our political prisoners is part of that struggle. And as the state continues to use its legal system to criminalize the struggle, we must respond by organizing to defend our movements.

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