Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Omaha Two story

by Michael Richardson

Omaha Two story: An explanation

The Omaha Two are Edward Poindexter and Mondo we Langa (formerly David Rice). Both men are imprisoned at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln where they are serving life sentences for the August 17, 1970 bombing murder of an Omaha police officer.

Both Ed Poindexter and Mondo we Langa deny any involvement in the death of patrolman Larry Minard, Sr. Minard, a 29 year-old father of five young children, was killed instantly when he handled a booby-trapped suitcase in a vacant house.

Minard had been lured with seven other officers to the vacant house on Ohio Street in Omaha by a false 911 emergency call reporting a woman screaming at the residence. Police immediately suspected the local Black Panther chapter, called the National Committee to Combat Fascism, of the crime and focused their attention on the Panthers.

Poindexter was Chairman of the chapter and Mondo was the Minister of Information. Both men had been targets of COINTELPRO, an illegal counter-intelligence operation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation under J. Edgar Hoover.

Hoover had been personally monitoring the COINTELPRO actions against Black Panther chapters across the United States. In December 1969 Hoover chastised the Special Agent-in-Charge of the Omaha office, Paul Young, for not getting the Panther leadership off the streets.

When the report of Minard’s death came in to the FBI office, Young sprang into action and proposed making a case against the Panther leaders offering to deal with the incriminating 911 tape. A recording of the killer’s voice was sent to the FBI crime laboratory for analysis with the instruction to make no report on the findings other than a phone call to the local FBI office.

When Ivan Willard Conrad, the FBI lab director, got the COINTELRO memo he called Hoover to verify he was to not issue a report on the identity of Minard’s killer. Hoover told Conrad to proceed as directed and the lab boss noted Hoover’s directive on the memo, initialing and dating he entry.

The jury that convicted the Omaha Two in April 1971 never heard the 911 tape nor were told of COINTELPRO and Hoover’s role in the case. Despite the later revelation of the withheld report and subsequent police conflicting testimony, plus new scientific analysis of the 911 tape, the two men have been repeatedly denied new trials.

EXAMINER is going to go back in time and relive the turbulent era in Omaha four decades ago in a continuing series of reports culminating in a day-by-day recap of the trial.

The series will begin in 1919 with a lynching in downtown Omaha to set the scene and then advance to March 1968 when George Wallace sparked a small riot in Omaha during a campaign appearance. From there the story will advance as events of the time occurred.

Omaha Two story: Sept. 28, 1919

The Omaha Two, Ed Poindexter and Mondo we Langa (formerly David Rice), were both born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska. Both men had personal experiences with Omaha’s racist climate and joined the Black Panthers to address problems they witnessed.

Fifty years before the Black Panthers formed in Omaha, a race riot in downtown Omaha had to be put down by the United States Army. Before the Army was able to restore order, a white mob of thousands sacked and burned the Douglas County Courthouse to seize a prisoner, Will Brown, accused of sexual assault.

Will Brown, 40, was accused of rape by a 19 year-old woman from South Omaha. The Omaha Bee newspaper published inflammatory articles about the case and three days after the alleged crime a frenzied, alcohol-fueled mob from South Omaha descended on the downtown and demanded Brown be released from his cell for a street lynching.

When officials refused to release Brown the mob began attacking the courthouse to gain entry to the jail on the top floor. The mob broke into the courthouse and stormed a police line in the building. While the sheriff and his men were barricading the fourth floor of the courthouse the mob raided a gas station and doused the lower floors of the building with gasoline.

After the fire started the mob armed itself with guns stolen from looted hardware stores and pawnshops. A thousand guns were reported stolen that terrible night in Omaha.

Omaha Mayor Ed Smith tried to stop the mob but he was hauled to a streetlight on Harney Street near the courthouse where a noose was placed around his neck and he was hoisted in the air. Swift intervention by a state policeman who cut down Smith saved the mayor’s life.

Sheriff Michael Clark led the 121 prisoners to the roof of the building as the fire burned upward. Ladders where placed against the courthouse as the mob sought access to the roof. Within minutes shots rang out and the crowd seized Brown. The unfortunate mob victim was immediately beaten and his clothing ripped from his body. Brown may have already been dead by the time he was lynched at the corner of 18th and Harney.

After the crowd used the corpse for target practice the bloody body was taken down and towed behind a car four blocks to 17th and Dodge Street where oil was poured on Brown’s body and it was set on fire.

Rioting continued until 3 a.m. when federal troops from Fort Omaha arrived with machine guns. It took 1,600 soldiers to bring order to the city.

Despite photographs that allowed authorities to identify several hundred of the lynch mob including the chief agitators, no one was ever prosecuted for the crimes committed that fearful night.

Actor Henry Fonda lived in Omaha at the time and his father ran a business across from the courthouse. Fonda would later describe the horror:

“It was the most horrendous sight I’d ever seen…We locked the plant, went downstairs, and drove home in silence. My hands were wet and there were tears
in my eyes. All I could think of was that young black man dangling at the end of a rope.”

Within years of the riot Omaha would see the growth of the Ku Klux Klan in the city. Omaha was a segregated city with the black population largely confined to the Near North Side.

The Near North Side was the home of both Ed Poindexter and Mondo we Langa and also the neighborhood where patrolman Larry Minard. Sr. would lose his life on August 17, 1970 in an ambush bombing.

The Omaha Two are serving life sentences in the Nebraska State Penitentiary for the murder of Minard but continue to deny any role in the crime 40 years later. The two men say they were victims of J. Edgar Hoover’s illegal COINTELPRO operation that targeted the Black Panthers with a lethal ferocity.

Omaha never really recovered from the 1919 riot and its ugly legacy led to a community now divided over the conviction of the Omaha Two.

Omaha Two story: March 4, 1968

Third-party presidential candidate George Wallace, the former-governor of Alabama, was in Omaha to qualify his American Party in Nebraska. Wallace had arrived in Omaha on Sunday, the day before, and held an angry news conference to provoke a large turnout at his rally. The event was technically a convention and Wallace needed to collect 750 signatures to appear on the ballot.

Wallace said riots were “caused by militants, activists, Communists and revolutionaries.” Further, “Leaders and sympathizers of militant civil rights organizations are Communists.”

A crowd of 1,500 supporters greeted Wallace on his arrival at the airport. Excited news reports of the visit put Wallace’s critics on notice and numerous protestors dogged him on Monday as he campaigned in the city. Police guards had to hold off demonstrators blocking Wallace from getting into his car after speaking at Omaha University.

Mayor A. V. Sorenson assigned four uniformed police officers to protect Wallace by the city and off-duty policemen were also hired for crowd control at the rally. George Wallace also traveled with his own security detail.

One of the protestors at the Omaha Auditorium Arena where the American Party convention was held was Mondo we Langa, then known as David Rice. Mondo was a reporter for two local underground newspapers, Buffalo Chip and Asterisk, and often played guitar at Holy Family Church.

On the floor were 1,000 Wallace supporters sitting on metal folding chairs. The balconies were full with several thousand more supporters. Mondo and about 50 other protestors, mostly black, gained entry to the main floor and marched right in front of the podium charging up the crowd as shouts rang out.

Wallace delayed his entrance for nearly an hour while tempers flared from the front rows where some of Wallace’s most fervent supporters were seated. After Wallace came out to a thunderous ovation the protestors got busy and jeered nearly every word.

Soon some of the protestors began tearing up their signs and throwing the bits of paper and stick at Wallace. Mondo attempted to stop the group from pelting Wallace but was sprayed in the face with mace by an undercover policeman. Two of the other demonstrators helped Mondo outside through a side door.

Police moved in to clear the aisles and suddenly the floor erupted in violence as Wallace supporters began hitting the trapped protestors with the metal chairs. The bloody battling continued outside the Arena where $1,200 worth of windows were broken. Before the night was over the Near North Side was in riot.

Thirteen people went to the hospital with injuries and a 16 year-old was shot to death by police attempting to break in to a pawn shop. Horace Mann Jr. High had 50 windows broken out.

On Tuesday two dozen black community leaders descended on the mayor’s office complaining about police conduct during the disturbances. That night more rioting continued with firebombs being thrown at businesses.

Police arrested two Catholic priests for their role in the protest at the Auditorium. One of the priests arrested was Father John McCaslin, head of the Catholic Social Action Office and pastor at Holy Family.

Seven youth were arrested Tuesday night including Central High School basketball star player Dwayne Dillard who was scheduled to play in the state tournament which had to be moved to Lincoln because of rioting.

Mayor Sorenson defended the police conduct saying the protestors were handled “properly and superbly.” Governor Norbert Tiemann monitored the situation ready to order in the National Guard.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation was also watching. The FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had ordered a secret counter-intelligence operation against “Black Nationalist” groups, code-named COINTELPRO, into effect in 27 selected cities on August 25, 1967.

Hoover’s secret COINTELPRO operation was established at a time when Hoover was taking criticism for the lack of action by the FBI on racial disturbances sweeping the nation and had been told his intelligence was not good. To blunt criticism from the White House daily briefings were sent culled out of reports sent to FBI headquarters from the field offices.

The “Confidential” FBI report to President Lyndon Johnson told of events in Omaha: “Omaha, Nebraska, Police Department, advised yesterday that as an aftermath of the appearance of former Alabama Governor George C. Wallace at a political rally on the night of March 4, 1968, several incidents of violence by Negroes took place in Omaha.”

“Among these were the vandalizing of a pawnshop early yesterday morning and the subsequent fatal shooting of a 16-year-old Negro boy by an off-duty police officer during an attempt by the young Negro to loot the pawnshop. Several assaults by Negroes against white persons also occurred after the former Governor Wallace rally and two of the white persons reportedly were seriously injured,” stated the FBI report.

The confidential memo concluded, “Public buses were stoned by Negroes as they passed through Omaha’s north side and yesterday morning Negro students of several Omaha high schools broke windows in business establishments while on their way to school. The students later caused minor damage in the schools by setting fires in wastebaskets in the restrooms and by throwing rocks through the windows of the schools.”

On March 4, 1968, the day of the Wallace rally, Hoover sent out a new COINTELPRO directive expanding the program to 42 cities, including Omaha, Nebraska. Hoover’s order would soon be put into action by Paul Young, the Special Agent-in-Charge of the Omaha FBI office.

When Mondo we Langa was maced at the Omaha Auditorium he did not know that same day, far away in the nation’s capital, the director of the FBI had issued an order that would lead to a lifetime of imprisonment.

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