Hip-Hop Fridays: COINTELPRO - The Untold American Story (Part 2)
When the government can select a person for criminal persecution because of their political activity, when they can fabricate evidence against that person and suppress evidence proving that fabrication, and prosecute a person and put them in prison for any amount of time, let alone for life, then you have a political prisoner.
There are numerous people in American jails who've dedicated their lives to the transformation of their country, who put the benefit of their communities ahead of themselves, who believed that transformation was not only possible but they were willing to die for it. They were willing to die to end brutality, racism, economic discrimination, imperialism, war.
In the case of AIM, this has meant the wholesale jailing of the movement's leadership. Virtually every known AIM leader in the United States has been incarcerated in either state or federal prisons since (or even before) the organization's formal emergence in 1968, some repeatedly. After the 1973 siege of Wounded Knee the FBI caused 542 separate charges to be filed against those it identified as "key AIM leaders." This resulted in 15 convictions, all on such petty or contrived offenses as "interfering with a federal officer in the performance of his duty." Russell Means was faced with 37 felony and three misdemeanor charges, none of which held up in court. Organization members often languished in jail for months as the cumulative bail required to free them outstripped resource capabilities of AIM and supporting groups.
Another example was the "Panther 21" case, which in 1969 was the longest criminal trial in New York history. It took the jury just ninety minutes to reach "not guilty" verdicts in all of the 156 of the charges against the thirteen defendants who ultimately stood trial.
A fair accounting of American political prisoners is beyond the scope of this report, which seeks only to draw attention to the problem of political repression and the tactics used, making note of a few illustrative cases.
U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Gerald Heaney, after reviewing numerous court transcripts and FBI documents, concluded that the United States Government overreacted at Wounded Knee. Instead of carefully considering the legitimate grievances of Native Americans, the response was essentially a military one which culminated in a deadly firefight on June 26, 1975, between Native Americans and FBI agents and U.S. Marshals.
While Judge Heaney believed that the "Native Americans" had some culpability in the firefight that day, he concluded the United States must share the responsibility. It never has. The FBI has never been held accountable or even publicly investigated for what one Federal petit jury and Judge Heaney concluded was complicity in the creation of a climate of fear and terror on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
The resulting firefight near Oglala was preceded by FBI documents internally declaring AIM to be one of the most dangerous organizations in the country and a threat to national security. It followed by two months the issuing of a position paper entitled "FBI Paramilitary Operations in Indian Country," a how-to plan for dealing with AIM in the battlefield. It used such terms as "neutralization," which in the document was defined as "shooting to kill." It included the role of the then-Nixon White House in handling complaints as to such military tactics being utilized domestically.
It followed by one month the build-up of FBI personnel on the Pine Ridge Reservation with mostly SWAT team members from various divisions of the FBI. It followed by three weeks an inspection tour of the reservation by senior FBI officials and the reporting of concern by those officials for the widespread support enjoyed by AIM in the outlying communities on the Pine Ridge Reservation, such as Oglala.
The FBI headquarters document further referred to an area near Oglala which reportedly contained bunkers and would require the use of paramilitary forces to assault. Three weeks later a firefight broke out on the ranch of elders Cecelia and Harry Jumping Bull which lasted for nearly nine hours. FBI documents describe as many as 47 people being involved in the battle with SWAT teams of the FBI, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and State police agencies.
Three young men lost their lives that day, each shot in the head, two FBI agents and one AIM member. Members of the American Indian Movement, before they escaped, sat and prayed for the three men who died that day. The FBI has always only considered that only two men died that day, their own agents.
One of the agents had in his briefcase a map of the reservation. It had the Jumping Bull ranch circled with the word "bunkers" written next to it. The bunkers turned out to be aged and crumbling root cellars.
Leonard Peltier and other AIM members from outside the reservation had come into the Jumping Bull area to join other local AIM members because the climate of violence on the reservation had gotten so intense that people felt the need to gain assistance from the outside, so men and women came in, including Leonard Peltier, and they brought with them their single-shot 22's and their rusted shotguns and a few hunting rifles that they were able to get, and they were in a camp on the Jumping Bull ranch.
The government used the incident to increase its campaign of disruption and destruction of the American Indian Movement. FBI agents, dressed and equipped like combat soldiers, searched homes and questioned Pine Ridge residents at gunpoint. Armored vehicles patrolled the reservation, as did SWAT teams and National Guard helicopters.
This was accompanied by a public disinformation campaign by the FBI, designed to make Oglala residents and their guests appear to be the aggressors and, in fact, terrorists. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights would soon report, "It is patently clear that many of the statements released to the media regarding the incident are either false, unsubstantiated, or directly misleading."
Noting Leonard Peltier's regular presence and involvement in AIM activities throughout the country, the FBI targeted him for prosecution from the desks of its agents. According to FBI documents, about two and a half weeks after the firefight, the Bureau was going to, in its own words, "develop information to lock Peltier into the case," and it set out to do so.
The FBI eventually charged four AIM members, including Peltier, with the killing of the agents. No one has ever been prosecuted for the killing of AIM member Joe Stuntz that day.
After hearing testimony of numerous eyewitnesses to the violence directed at AIM members by the goon squad and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, two of Leonard Peltier's codefendants were acquitted on self-defense grounds by an all-white jury in the conservative town of Cedar Rapids, Iowa -- truly a remarkable thing, but people who were willing to keep their eyes and their ears open and listen to the truth, and were able, by a judge who had the courage and willingness to learn himself, to allow this evidence to be presented.
However, after those acquittals, the FBI analyzed why these two men, these two long-haired indian militant men could be acquitted by an all-white jury, and decided a new judge was needed. FBI documents show that in a meeting in Washington, D.C. at FBI headquarters, there was a decision made to "put the full prosecutive weight of the Federal Government" against Leonard Peltier.
Evidence shows the government used now admittedly false eyewitness affidavits to extradite Peltier from Canada. This would catch the attention of Amnesty International and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, but only a little bit.
The Court of Appeals would call such conduct "a clear abuse of the investigative process by the FBI" and give credence to the claims of indian people that if the government is willing to fabricate evidence to extradite a person in this country, it is willing to fabricate evidence to convict those branded as the enemy. Well, absolutely true, but Leonard Peltier remains in prison.
At Peltier's trial the government presented evidence and argued to the jury that he personally shot and killed the agents. To do this, the government presented ballistics evidence purportedly connecting a shell casing found near the agents' bodies with a rifle said to be possessed by Peltier on that day, and the coerced and fabricated eyewitness account of a terrified teenager, claiming that the agents followed Peltier in a van, precipitating the firefight in Oglala.
Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that the ballistics evidence was a fraud; that the rifle could not have fired the expended casing found near the body. Further, the FBI had suppressed evidence showing the agents followed a pickup, not a van, into the compound, and thought someone else, not Peltier, was in that vehicle.
Citing the case of Leonard Peltier as an example, Amnesty International has called for an independent inquiry into the use of our criminal justice system for political purposes by the FBI and other intelligence agencies in this country. Amnesty cited similar concerns for other members of AIM and other victims of the COINTELPRO-type operations by the FBI.
Upon disclosure of these documents, a renewed effort in a new trial was sought from the courts. While concluding that the suppressed evidence "casts a strong doubt" on the government's case, the appellate courts denied relief. The U.S. Attorney's office has now admitted in court that it had no credible evidence Leonard Peltier killed the agents, and speciously claimed it never tried to prove it did. Under our system, if there is a reasonable doubt, then Leonard Peltier is not guilty, yet he has been in prison for nearly 25 years for a crime he did not commit.
The FBI still withholds thousands of pages of documents in this case, claiming in many instances that disclosure would compromise the national security. In the absence of such disclosure, no further efforts in a new trial are possible. And Leonard Peltier is not alone in his imprisonment for his political activities.
Mumia Abu Jamal
In the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, neutralization occurred by falsely creating the appearance that he was in commission of a crime he did not commit, to put him in prison. The cost of political activism can include judicial railroading into the electric chair, or the gas chamber or lethal injection.
It is unquestionable that from a very early age, Mumia Abu-Jamal was specifically targeted for neutralization by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Philadelphia Police, and that the pattern of police activity evident in that targeting, was continued, as it was in a number of comparable cases, so long as he maintained political activism, and this creates the basis to believe that he was in fact framed for the crime.
Mumia was deprived a fair trial, in which key witnesses were not allowed to testify, exculpatory evidence was excluded, and a key witness had been arrested numerous times for prostitution, opening the possibility that her testimony was paid or coerced. Although no motive was ever shown for why Mumia would have killed a police officer, there was a certainly a motive to neutralize and frame him.
Geronimo ji Jaga Pratt
Elmer Gerard ("Geronimo" or "G" ji Jaga) Pratt was an active member of the Los Angeles Black Panther Party (LA-BPP) Chapter during the counterintelligence campaign which resulted in the "shooting war" described earlier, between the US organization and the Panthers.
When Bunchy Carter and Ed Huggins were assassinated by US gunmen on January 17, 1969, it was discovered that Carter had prepared an audio tape for such an eventuality, designating Pratt his successor as head of the LA-BPP. Pratt was also named by Carter to succeed himself and Huggins as chapter representative on the national Panther Central Committee. 94 It was at precisely this point that he appears to have been personally targeted for "neutralization" through the application of COINTELPRO techniques.
Pratt was designated a "Key Black Extremist" by the L.A. Bureau office and placed in the National Security Index. 95 As a consequence, he was targeted not only for neutralization by the FBI, but, as former Panther infiltrator Louis Tackwood had pointed out, this automatically placed him "on the wall' of the Los Angeles Police Department's (LAPD) Criminal Conspiracy Section (CCS) "glass-house" (headquarters) as an individual to be eliminated by local police action. As the informant explained the CCS operation:
The room is broken up into divisions, see my point? Black, white, chicano and subversives. Everybody's there. And every last one of the walls has pictures of them. This one black, the middle all white, and the chicanos all on this side. Most of the files are on the walls, you see? ... They got everybody. Panthers, SDS, Weathermen. Let me explain to you. They got a national hookup. You see my point? And because of this national power, they are the only organization in the police department that has a liaison man, that works for the FBI, and the FBI has a liaison man who works with the CCS." 96
The inevitable consequence of this was that the new LA-BPP was placed under intensely close surveillance by the FBI 97 and subjected to a series of unfounded but serious arrests by the Bureau's local police affiliates at CCS.
A conspiracy investigation of Pratt was opened with regard to the robbery of a Bank of America facility already known by the Bureau to have been carried out by US members. 98 Pratt was also made the subject of a personalized series of COINTELPRO cartoons designed to make him a target for the attentions of US.
This was followed very closely by a Bureau effort to ensnarl both Pratt and Roger Lewis in a violation of the 1940 Smith Act and plotting of "insurrection." 99
Four days after a similar raid on a Panther apartment in Chicago (the raid which left Mark Clark and Fred Hampton dead), forty men of the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) squad, with more than a hundred regular police as backup, raided the Los Angeles Panther headquarters at 5:30 in the morning ... (No suggestion has been made that the two raids were linked. But it's interesting to note that Fred Hampton had been in Los Angeles one or two days before his death, meeting with Geronimo Pratt, whom Tackwood says was the main target of the second raid.) The Panthers chose to defend themselves, and for four hours they fought off police, refusing to surrender until press and public were on the scene. Six of them were wounded. Thirteen were arrested. Miraculously, none of them were killed. 100
The similarities between the Chicago and Los Angeles raids are undeniable, with a special local police unit closely linked to the FBI involved in both assaults, spurious warrants seeking "illegal weapons" utilized on both occasions, predawn timing of both raids to catch the Panthers asleep and a reliance upon overwhelming police firepower to the exclusion of all other methods. Both raids occurred in the context of an ongoing and highly energetic anti-BPP COINTELPRO, and - as in the Hampton assassination - bullets were fired directly into Pratt's bed. Unlike the Chicago leader, however, Pratt was sleeping on the floor, the result of spinal injuries sustained in Vietnam. 101
Pratt was explicitly singled out for neutralization by the head of the Bureau's LA-COINTELPRO section, Richard Wallace Held - the son of Richard G. Held, who orchestrated the coverup of FBI involvement in the Hampton-Clark assassinations. 102
In both instances, the FBI had managed to place an infiltrator/provocateur very high within the local BPP chapter - O'Neal in Chicago, in Los Angeles it was Melvin "Cotton" Smith, number three man in the LA-BPP, who provided detailed floorplans, including sleeping arrangements of the Panther facility, prior to the raid. 103 And, in both cases, surviving Panthers were immediately arrested for their "assault upon the police." 104
When the resultant case against the L.A. Panthers was finally prosecuted in July, 1971:
... there was a "surprise" development. Melvin "Cotton" Smith turned up as a star witness for the prosecution. According to Deputy District Attorney Ronald H. Carroll, Smith had turned State's evidence to escape prosecution ... [However] on November 22, 1971, Tackwood testified ... he had started working for [CCS Sergeant R.G.] Farwell in the fall of 1969, before the December 8 raid, and had been told by Farwell that [FBI infiltrator] Cotton Smith was to be Tackwood's contact. Since Smith's testimony was crucial to the State's case, Tackwood's exposure of Smith's real role was a devastating blow to the prosecution. 105
One consequence of this revelation was that, after eleven days of deliberation, the jury returned acquittals or failed to reach any verdict whatsoever relative to charges of conspiring to assault and murder police officers brought against all thirteen Panther defendants. Oddly, nine of the defendants, including Pratt, were convicted of the relatively minor and technical charge of conspiring to possess illegal weapons. 106 In addition:
In order for the armed police assault on the Panther headquarters to have been justified, the police contention that the Panthers had fired on them first would have had to have been true, in which case at least some of the Panthers would have been guilty of conspiracy to commit murder and assault charges ... The failure of the jury to return guilty verdicts on these charges represented a total repudiation of the CCS [and FBI] "conspiracy" theory that led to the raids on December 8. 107
On December 18, 1968, two black men robbed and shot a white couple, Caroline and Kenneth Olsen, on a Santa Monica, California tennis court. Caroline Olsen died one week later.
Pratt was accused of "the tennis court murder" in a letter dated August 10, 1969, addressed to LAPD Sergeant Duwayne Rice by an "underworld informant" and marked "Do Not Open Except In Case of My Death." Although the informant had not died, Rice opened and read the accusation, and turned it over to CCS detective Ray Callahan for presentation to a grand jury which secretly indicted Pratt.
The informant would later testify at trial that Pratt, in direct personal conversation with him, had "bragged" of the crime. He further testified that a .45 calibre Colt automatic seized by the LAPD, belonging to Pratt but not ballistically matching the tennis court murder weapon, was actually the gun in question, Pratt having "changed the barrel" in order to alter its ballistic pattern. A second informant, who did not testify, corroborated this testimony. 108
The supposed informant corroboration testimony, it was later revealed, was obtained from Cotton Smith, already unmasked as an infiltrator/provocateur during the 1971 shootout trial and thus unable to credibly take the stand in the Olsen murder case. In 1985, Smith totally recanted his allegations against Pratt, stating unequivocally that the former Panther leader had been "framed," but by "the FBI rather than local police"; he specifically named LA FBI COINTELPRO operative George Aiken as having been instrumental in the affair. 109
Kenneth Olsen, the surviving victim, identified Pratt as the murderer in open court, as did Barbara Reed, a shopkeeper who had seen the gunmen prior to the shooting. Mitchell Lachman, who had been near the tennis court on the evening of the murder, testified the gunmen fled in a vehicle matching the description of Pratt's white over red GTO convertible.
However, both Olsen and the District Attorney omitted mention of the fact that he had positively identified another man - Ronald Perkins - in a police lineup very shortly after the fact, on December 24, 1968; they had similarly neglected to mention that LAPD personnel had "worked with" Olsen from photo spreads for some months prior to the trial, with an eye toward obtaining the necessary ID of Pratt. 110 Again, both the prosecutors and Mrs. Reed, the other witness who offered a positive ID on Pratt, "forgot" comparable police coaching, and all parties to the State's case somehow managed to overlook the fact that both Olsen and Reed had repeatedly described both gunmen as "clean shaven," while Pratt was known to have worn a mustache and goatee for the entirety of his adult life. 111 This leaves Lachman's testimony that the assailants fled the scene in a white-over-red convertible "like" (but not necessarily) Pratt's; even if it were the same car, it was well established - and never contested by the State - that virtually the whole LA-BPP had use of the vehicle during the period in question. 112
Pratt's defense was that he was in Oakland, some 400 miles north of Santa Monica, attending a BPP national leadership meeting on the evening in question. Presentation of this alibi was, however, severely hampered by the refusal of many of those also in attendance - such as David, June, and Pat Hilliard, Bobby and John Seale, Nathan Hare, Rosemary Gross and Brenda Presley (all of the Newton faction) - to testify on his behalf. 113 Kathleen Cleaver, also in attendance at the meeting, did testify that Pratt was in Oakland from December 13-25, 1968, but even her efforts to do so had been hampered by COINTELPRO letters to her husband "explaining" that it was "too dangerous" for her to return to the United States during the trial. 114 With the weight of testimony heavily on the side of the prosecution, Pratt was convicted of first degree murder on July 28, 1972 and sentenced to seven years to life. 115
There were other problems with the case which went beyond Pratt's inability to assemble defense witnesses. For instance, it did occur to the defense that if the FBI were tapping the phones of the BPP national offices in Oakland during December of 1968 - as seems likely - the Bureau itself might well be able to substantiate Pratt's whereabouts on the crucial night. The FBI, however, submitted at trial that no such taps or bugs existed, an assertion which was later shown to be untrue. 116
The Bureau then refused to release its logs from the wiretaps, on "national security" grounds, until forced to do so by an FOIA suit brought by attorneys Jonathan Lubell, Mary O'Melveny and William H. O'Brien. 117 At that point (1981), the transcripts were delivered, minus precisely the records covering the period of time which might serve to establish Pratt's innocence; "The FBI has indicated that the transcripts of the conversations recorded by these telephone taps have been lost or destroyed," wrote the frustrated judge. 118
The State's star witness, who first accused Pratt of the tennis court murder in his letter to Rice, testified to Pratt's "confession" of the crime (i.e., "bragging") and finally reconciled the prosecution's ballistics difficulties, was none other than the infiltrator/provocateur, expelled from the BPP by Pratt, Julius C. (aka Julio) Butler. At the trial, the prosecution went considerably out of its way to bolster Butler's credibility before the jury by "establishing" that the witness was not a paid FBI informant:
Q: And when you were working for the Black Panther Party, were you also working for law enforcement at the same time?
Q: You had severed any ties you had with law enforcement?
A: That's correct.
Q: Have you at any time since leaving the Sheriffs Department worked for the FBI or the CIA?
Q: Are you now working for the FBI or CIA?
This testimony was entered despite the fact that Los Angeles FBI Field Office informant reports concerning one Julius Carl Butler show he performed exactly this function, at least during the period beginning in August of 1969 (the time when he ostensibly made his initial accusation against Pratt) until January 20, 1970 (after Pratt was jailed without bond on the Olsen murder charge). During the whole of 1970, he filed monthly reports with the Bureau, he was "evaluated" by the FBI as an informant during that year, and his informant file was not closed until May of 1972 - immediately prior to his going on the witness stand. 119
Louis Tackwood has consistently contended that Butler was an FBI infiltrator of the BPP from the day he joined the Party in early 1968 and that he actively worked with CCS detectives Ray Callahan and Daniel P. Mahoney to eliminate Pratt. 120
At the trial, the Bureau also submitted that Pratt was not the target of COINTELPRO activity; several hundred documents subsequently released under the FOIA demonstrate this to have been categorically untrue. Further:
On 18 December 1979, eight years after Pratt's trial, the California Attorney-General's office filed a declaration in court that his defense camp had been infiltrated by one FBI informant. The Deputy Attorney-General wrote to the court and defense counsel on 28 July 1980, enclosing a copy of a letter of the same date from the Executive Assistant Director of the FBI. This letter revealed that two had been in a position to obtain information about Elmer Pratt's defense strategy. 121
One reason for the seemingly blanket recalcitrance of the authorities - federal, state and local - in extending even the most elementary pretense of justice in the Pratt case may revolve around his quiet refusal to abandon the political principles which caused him to become a COINTELPRO target in the first place. Whatever the particulars of official motivation in the handling of the Pratt case, it must be assessed within the overall COINTELPRO-BPP context, especially a counterintelligence-related instructional memo, dated October 24, 1968, and sent by Bureau headquarters to all field offices. It reads in part:
Successful prosecution is the best deterrent to such unlawful activities [as dissident political organizing]. Intensive investigations of key activists ... are logically expected to result in prosecutions under substantive violation within the Bureau's jurisdiction. 122
To this, the Church Committee's rejoinder in its investigation of the Bureau's COINTELPRO illegalities still seems quite appropriate: "While the FBI considered Federal prosecution a 'logical' result, it should be noted that key activists were chosen not because they were suspected of having committed or planning [sic] to commit any specific Federal crime." 123 After 27 years in prison and five habeus corpus motions, the conviction for the tennis court murder was finally vacated and Geronimo ji Jaga was released.
Dhoruba Bin Wahad
In 1966, the New York City Police Department commenced its own investigation of the Black Panther Party. Detective Ralph White of the New York City Police Department was directed to infiltrate the Black Panther Party and submit daily reports on the Party and its members. The NYPD regularly communicated with police departments throughout the country, sharing information on the BPP, its members and activities.
The NYPD was also working with the FBI on a daily basis. On August 29, 1968 FBI Special Agent Henry Naehle reported on his meeting with a member of an NYPD "Special Unit" investigating the BPP. SA Naehle acknowledged that the FBI’s New York Field Office (NYO) "has been working closely with BSS in exchanging information of mutual interest and to our mutual advantage."
An FBI "Inspector’s Review" for the first quarter of 1969 shows that the NYPD, in conjunction with the FBI, had an "interview" and "arrest" program as part of their campaign to neutralize and disrupt the BPP. The NYPD advised the FBI that
these programs have severely hampered and disrupted the BPP, particularly in Brooklyn, New York, where, for a while, BPP operations were at a complete standstill and in fact have never recovered sufficiently to operate effectively.
A series of FBI documents reveal a joint FBI/NYPD plan to gather information on BPP members and their supporters in late 1968. During an unprovoked attack by off-duty members of the NYPD on BPP members attending a court appearance in Brooklyn, the briefcase of BPP leader David Brothers was stolen by the NYPD and its contents photocopied and given to the FBI. Rather than seeking to prosecute the police officers for this theft, the FBI ordered "a review of these names and telephone numbers [so that] appropriate action will be taken."
That "appropriate action" included an effort to label Brothers and two other BPP leaders, Jorge Aponte and Robert Collier, as police informants. On December 12, 1968, the FBI’s New York Office proposed circulating flyers warning the community of the "DANGER" posed by Brothers, Collier and Aponte. The NYO proposed that the flyers "be left in restaurants where Negroes are known to frequent (Chock Full of Nuts, etc.)" BSS later told the FBI that its proposal was successful in that David Brothers had come under suspicion by the BPP. An FBI memorandum dated December 2, 1968 captioned "Counterintelligence Program" lists several operations during the previous two-week period. It closes by stating that "every effort is being made in the NYO to misdirect the operations of the BPP on a daily basis."
In August 1968, Dhoruba Bin Wahad, then known as Richard Dhoruba Moore, joined the BPP, and within a few months was promoted to a position of leadership. He was soon identified by the Bureau and by the NYPD as a "key agitator" and placed in the FBI's "Security Index", "Agitator Index," and "Black Nationalist Photograph Album." FBI supervisors instructed the NYO to "develop better liaison and closer working relationship with the NYCPD" in their investigation of Dhoruba Bin Wahad.
On April 2, 1969 Bin Wahad and 20 other members of the Black Panther Party were indicted on charges of conspiracy in the so-called "Panther 21" case. A NYPD memorandum notes that the Panther 21 arrests were considered a "summation" of the overt and covert investigation commenced in 1966. In a bi-weekly report to FBI Headquarters listing several counterintelligence operations the FBI reported that
To date, the NYO has conducted over 500 interviews with BPP members and sympathizers. Additionally, arrests of BPP members have been made by Bureau Agents and the NYCPD. These interviews and arrests have helped disrupt and cripple the activities of the BPP in the NYC area. Every effort will be made to continue pressure on the BPP...
In July 1969, the NYPD sent officers to Oakland, California to monitor the Black Panther Party’s nationwide conference calling for community control of police departments. An NYPD memorandum candidly acknowledged that community control of the police, "may not be in the interests of the department."
Through its warrantless wiretaps of BPP telephones, the FBI learned that the BPP was trying to raise the $100,000 bail that had been set for Bin Wahad, whose release was considered by the BPP to be a priority over the other 20 defendants, due to his leadership role in the organization. Fundraising efforts were impeded by FBI/NYPD counterintelligence operations. For example, following a fund raiser at the home of conductor Leonard Bernstein, the FBI sent falsified letters to those in attendance in order to "thwart the aims and efforts of the BPP in their attempt to solicit money from socially prominent groups..." Unable to raise bail, Dhoruba Bin Wahad spent the next year incarcerated.
The FBI continued to target BPP community programs. For example, the FBI pressured several churches not to institute the BPP’s Free Breakfast for Children Program at their parishes. In September, 1969, an NYPD BSS representative told the FBI that the BPP was disintegrating in New York.
By March of 1970, the BPP had raised enough money to post bail for the most articulate leaders and chose Mr. Bin Wahad for release. The FBI ordered that he be immediately and continuously surveilled and that donors of bail money be identified. Director Hoover reminded his New York Office that the activities of Panther 21 defendants were of "vital interest" to the "Seat of Government".
Through their warrantless wiretaps of BPP offices and residences, the FBI became aware in May 1970 of dissatisfaction among New York BPP members, including Bin Wahad, with West Coast BPP members. A COINTELPRO operation prepared by the New Haven Field Office and submitted to the FBI’s New York Office consisted of an FBI-fabricated note wherein Bin Wahad accused BPP leader Robert Bay of being an informant.
This successful operation resulted in Dhoruba Bin Wahad's demotion within the BPP. Aware of his disillusionment, the FBI disseminated information regarding BPP strife to the media and participated in a plan to either recruit Bin Wahad as an informant or have BPP members believe he was an agent for the FBI.
In August 1970, BPP leader Huey P. Newton was released from prison. A plethora of counterintelligence actions followed which sought to make Newton suspicious of fellow BPP members, particularly those, like the Bin Wahad, who were on the East Coast.
By early 1971, the plan bore fruit. On January 28, 1971, FBI Director Hoover reported that Newton had become increasingly paranoid and had expelled several loyal BPP members:
Newton responds violently...The Bureau feels that this near hysterical reaction by the egotistical Newton is triggered by any criticism of his activities, policies or leadership qualities and some of this criticism undoubtedly is result of our counterintelligence projects now in operation.
This operation was enormously successful, resulting in a split within the BPP with violent repercussions. In early January 1971, Fred Bennett, a BPP member affiliated with the New York chapter, was shot and killed, allegedly by Newton supporters. Newton came to believe that Bin Wahad was plotting to kill him. Bin Wahad, in turn, was told by Connie Matthews, Newton’s secretary, that Newton was planning to have Bin Wahad and Panther 21 co-defendants Edward Joseph and Michael Tabor killed during Newton’s upcoming East Coast speaking tour. As a result of the split and fearing for his life, Bin Wahad, along with Tabor and Joseph, were forced to flee during the Panther 21 trial.
On May 13, 1971, the Panther 21, including Dhoruba Bin Wahad, were acquitted of all charges in the less than one hour of jury deliberations, following what was at that time the longest trial in New York City history. BSS Detective Edwin Cooper begrudgingly reported to defendant Michael Codd that the case "was not proven to the jury’s satisfaction." Alarmed and embarrassed by the acquittal, Director Hoover ordered an "intensification" of the investigations of acquitted Panther 21 members with special emphasis on those, like Bin Wahad, who were fugitives.
On May 19, 1971, NYPD Officers Thomas Curry and Nicholas Binetti were shot on Riverside Drive in Manhattan. Two nights later, two other officers, Waverly Jones and Joseph Piagentini, were shot and killed in Harlem. In separate communiques delivered to the media, the Black Liberation Army claimed responsibility for both attacks.
Immediately after these shootings, the FBI made the investigation of these incidents, called "Newkill," a part of their long-standing program against the BPP. Before any evidence had been collected, BPP members, in particular those acquitted in the Panther 21 case, were targeted as suspects. Hoover instructed the New York Office to
consider [the] possibility that both attacks may be result of revenge taken against NYC police by the Black Panther Party (BPP) as a result of its arrest of BPP members in April, 1969 [i.e. the Panther 21 case].
On May 26, 1971, J. Edgar Hoover met with then President Richard Nixon who told Hoover that he wanted to make sure that the FBI did not "pull any punches in going all out in gathering information...on the situation in New York." Hoover informed his subordinates that Nixon's interest and the FBI's involvement were to be kept strictly confidential.
"Newkill" was a joint FBI/NYPD operation involving total cooperation and sharing of information. The FBI made all its facilities and resources, including its laboratory, available to the NYPD. In turn, NYPD Chief of Detectives Albert Seedman, who coordinated the NYPD's investigation, ordered his subordinates to give the FBI "all available information developed to date, as well as in future investigations."
On June 5, 1971, Bin Wahad was arrested during a robbery of a Bronx after hours "social club", a hangout for local drug merchants. Seized from inside the social club was a .45 caliber machine gun. Although the initial ballistics test on the weapon failed to link it with the Curry-Binetti shooting, the NYPD publicly declared they had seized the weapon used in May 19. The NYPD now had in custody a well-known and vocal Black Panther leader and the alleged weapon linked to a police shooting. His prosecution and conviction would both neutralize an effective leader and justify the failed Panther 21 case. But there was no direct evidence linking Bin Wahad to the shooting.
Pauline Joseph, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, became the prosecution’s star witness. Ms. Joseph first surfaced when she made a phone call to the NYPD on June 12, 1971, supplying her name and address and stating that Bin Wahad and Edward Joseph (a Panther 21 defendant who jumped bail with Bin Wahad) were innocent of the Curry-Binetti shooting. She told the police that Bin Wahad "did not do it, either the Riverside Drive [Curry-Binetti] shooting or the 32nd precinct [Piagentini-Jones] shooting..."
The first person to arrive at Ms. Joseph’s apartment was NYPD Lieutenant Kenneth Sauer, the head of the 24th precinct detective squad. Contrary to her testimony at trial, Ms. Joseph continued to maintain that Bin Wahad was innocent of the Curry-Binetti shooting. Later that day she was interviewed by BSS Detective Edwin Cooper. Joseph repeated that Bin Wahad was innocent.
Ms. Joseph was arrested, and committed as a material witness. For nearly two years she remained in the exclusive custody of the New York County District Attorney’s Office. She was repeatedly interviewed by state and federal authorities.
Ms. Joseph, while in the custody of the District Attorney, was recruited as a "racial informant" for the FBI. She was paid for her services and housed first in a hotel and then in a furnished apartment, paid for by the District Attorney. Pauline Joseph, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, became the prosecution’s star witness in the case.
Dhoruba Bin Wahad was indicted for the attempted murder of Officers Curry and Binetti on July 30, 1971. Although the NYPD and FBI continuously interviewed Ms. Joseph, and prepared written memoranda of those interviews, the Assistant District Attorney represented that, except for a one paragraph statement made on the night of her commitment and her grand jury testimony, there were no prior statements. The text of Ms. Joseph’s initial phone call was withheld by the prosecution through two trials. No notes of memoranda of the initial, exculpatory interviews by Lieutenant Sauer and Detective Cooper were ever provided to Bin Wahad. Neither were reports of subsequent interiews during the two years she was in custody. After three trials, Dhoruba Bin Wahad was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced by Justice Martinisto to the maximum penalty, 25 years to life.
In December 1975, after learning of Congressional hearings which disclosed the FBI's covert operations against the BPP, Dhoruba Bin Wahad filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court, charging that he had been the victim of numerous illegal and unconstitutional actions designed to "neutralize" him, including the frame-up in the Curry-Binetti case.
In 1980, the FBI and NYPD were ordered by the Court to produce their massive files on Mr. Bin Wahad and the BPP, that they had claimed did not exist. The FBI and NYPD documents revealed that Mr. Bin Wahad was indeed a target of FBI/NYPD covert operations and, for the first time, depicted the FBI's intimate involvement in the Curry-Binetti investigation. The "Newkill" file, which was finally produced in unredacted form in 1987, after 12 years of litigation, contains numerous reports which should have been provided to Dhoruba Bin Wahad during his trial.
In a decision announced December 20, 1992, Justice Bruce Allen of the New York State Supreme Court ordered a new trial. The court exhaustively analyzed the prosecution’s circumstantial case, particularly the testimony of Pauline Joseph. The court found that the inconsistencies and omissions in the prior statements contradicted testimony "crucial to establishing the People’s theory of the case". The inconsistencies, said the Court "went beyond mere details" and involve "what one would expect to have been the most memorable aspects of [the night of the shooting]". On January 19, 1995, the District Attorney moved to dismiss the indictment, acknowledging that they could not prove their case. The indictment was dismissed. After more than 20 years in prison, Mr. Bin Wahad is at liberty today, residing in Accra, Ghana.
The COINTELPRO off-shoot "Newkill" and later "Chesrob" (an FBI acronym named after Assata Shakur, aka Joanne Chesimard) had other targets as well. Members of the Black Panther Party forced underground by Cointelpro-instigated violence were hunted down by local and federal law enforcement officials. In the three years after the 1971 BPP split, BPP members, Harold Russsel, Woody Green, Twyman Meyers and Zayd Shakur were killed during confrontations with law enforcement. Others were captured and charged with crimes. All were tried at a time when the public (and juries) knew nothing of COINTELPRO. During these trials, as in the trials of Dhoruba Bin Wahad and Geronimo Pratt, exculpatory evidence was withheld and other violations of the United States Constitution were committed. However, post-conviction motions on behalf of these former BPP members were unsuccessful and they remain in prison today. They include Anthony Jalil Bottom, Herman Bell, Robert Seth Hayes, Sundiata Acoli, Abdul Majid and Bashir Hameed. Two of these former BPP members died while in prison: Albert Nuh Washington in 2000 and Teddy Jah Heath in 2001. Both spent over 25 years in prison but were denied compassionate release even in their last days.
Marshall Eddie Conway
In 1970, Marshall Eddie Conway was Minister of Defense of the Baltimore chapter of the Black Panther Party. He was also employed by the United States Postal Service. Unbeknownst to Conway, some of the founding members of the Baltimore chapter were undercover officers with the Baltimore Police Department, who reported daily on his activities in the chapter. At the same time, the Federal Bureau of Investigation began its own investigation of Conway, recording his whereabouts, contacting his employers at the Post Office and maintaining "liaison" with the Baltimore Police Department.
On April 23, 1970, a Baltimore Police officer was shot and killed. Later that night, another officer named Nolan was fired upon by an unapprehended Black male. Two men arrested at the scene of the first shooting were allegedly associates of members of the Baltimore BPP chapter. Because of this, the police attributed both incidents to the BPP. Not surprisingly, Nolan then claimed that a picture of Conway, a well-known BPP member, resembled the unapprehended shooter. The next day, Conway was arrested while working at the Post office. He was charged with both the homicide and the attempted homicide of Nolan. Conway was held without bail.
Conway petitioned the court to have either Charles Garry or William Kunstler, two attorneys who consistently represented party members, represent him at his trial. Although both offered their services free of charge, the court denied Conway’s request. Instead, a lawyer was appointed who performed no pre-trial investigation and never met with Conway. Deprived of his rights, Conway chose to absent himself from much of his January, 1971 trial.
But the state’s case, relying solely upon Nolan’s equivocal and highly suspect photo identification, was shaky. To buttress their case, the state called one Charles Reynolds, a known jailhouse informant. He ultimately testified that while he shared a cell with Conway pre-trial, Conway made admissions to him. In fact, as was verified by the court transcript, Conway loudly objected when Reynolds was placed in his cell because everyone knew he was an informant. Reynolds, who was a fugitive from Michigan, was promised release if he testified. When the trial was over, he got his wish.
Represented by inadequate counsel and tried at a time when the existence of COINTELPRO was not known, Conway was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. All appeals have been denied and he has been denied parole, as are all "lifers" in the State if Maryland. He has now been incarcerated for over 31 years and is probably the longest held political prisoner in the United States, if not the world.
Friday, May 31, 2002
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