(This is the first in a series of articles examining the plight and problem of political prisoners inside the United States.)
Campaigns to free aging revolutionaries and activists have highlighted the reality that political prisoners exist in the United States.
“The main thing we need to understand is the fact that these soldiers—and they are soldiers—are not in prison because they’re criminals. They’re in prison for daring to stand up to this rotten, no good system that we live under,” said Ramona Africa, minister of information for the MOVE Organization, the Philadelphia-based group founded by John Africa.
Ms. Africa is a former political prisoner, who survived the May 1985 bombing of her family by the Philadelphia police. In 1985, a battle ensued after police tried to arrest MOVE members on charges related to the 1978 death of a police officer. Five children and six adults died in the bombing. Nine members of MOVE were imprisoned. Ramona Africa was jailed for seven years. Debbie Africa died in prison. The remaining members have been in prison for nearly 30 years. MOVE members take the surname “Africa” as part of their beliefs.
Although MOVE members have served the minimum sentence, they are continuously denied parole because they won’t lie and say they’re guilty, Ramona Africa said.
“When (political prisoners) go to parole board hearings, prosecutors aren’t launching legal appeals, but emotional appeals by bringing out police, firemen, family members, all saying he or she should stay in,” said Francisco Torres, a onetime Black Panther. Last year the courts finally dropped accusations that he murdered a police officer in 1971.
But not only have political prisoners done their time, their behavior in prison has been exemplary, say advocates.
Many have quelled prison riots and in some instances, wardens have commended them.
“They’ve gotten certificates and diplomas in prison so when it’s time for them to get out, they’re told they’re being held in there because of their politics basically, their beliefs and their thoughts,” Mr. Torres said.
Veronza Bowers, Jr., who served his entire sentence, was labeled a threat to society and denied release under the George W. Bush-era Patriot Act, which expanded police powers. The former Black Panther Party member was convicted of killing a park ranger on the testimony of two informants and has been incarcerated for 37 years now in Atlanta.
Criminals or prisoners of war?
There’s no debate, said Ramona Africa, about the guilt or innocence of freedom fighters like American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier, who was at Pine Ridge, S.D., when government officials attacked, she said. Two federal agents died in a shootout at the reservation, and Mr. Peltier was labeled a terrorist, said Ms. Africa. He has been imprisoned since 1976 and is serving time in a federal prison in Florida
“This is getting more and more outrageous because we the people have not stood up like we should, uncompromisingly, and refused to accept it,” Ms. Africa charged.
“I mean, my family was bombed! A bomb was dropped on our home. Babies were burned alive and I know a lot of people are outraged. They were and still are but it’s not enough to just have those feelings. We have to act on those feelings,” Ms. Africa said.
Some say it’s hard to keep track of 1960s and 1970s freedom fighters with people facing bleak economic times and struggling day-to-day to survive. “MOVE understands that but all we’re saying is that we have to put a priority on our freedom and our lives. If we don’t do that, how are we going to expect our enemy to do that, have any kind of value for our lives, our freedom, if we don’t?” Ms. Africa said.
The war on Black liberation
Most political prisoners in the United States stem from repressive and oppressive policies largely ushered in during 1960s and 1970s government targeting, surveillance, infiltration, harassment and destruction of Black Liberation and progressive organizations.
The case of late Black Panther leader Geronimo Pratt is a textbook example of political targeting, say advocates. Mr. Pratt, or Geronimo ji-Jaga, served 27 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. The relentless effort of the late attorney Johnnie Cochran and a tenacious campaign to free him succeeded in 1997 when his conviction was vacated.
Attorney James Simmons, of Los Angeles-based Human Rights Advocacy, is also the legal representative for political prisoners Dr. Mutulu Shakur, in California, and Sundiata Acoli in Maryland.
Dr. Shakur, who has been in prison since 1986, and 10 others were charged in 1982 under U.S. conspiracy laws with participating in armored car and bank robberies with a Black paramilitary group. Mr. Acoli was convicted by an all- White jury in 1977 on charges of murdering a police officer.
Mr. Acoli, 79, has served 39 years in prison and is up for parole, his attorney said. Dr. Shakur, 61, has an upcoming parole hearing as well. Dr. Shakur is the stepfather of the late rapper Tupac Shakur and became involved with the Republic of New Afrika and the liberation struggle as a teenager.
Though a congressional committee documented the illegal and repressive acts of the FBI and government agencies and law enforcement’s subversive and constitution-shredding Cointelpro, which aimed to destroy Black and other groups pressing for major changes in the Black Power-era, there is nothing to address “the freedom of our PP’s or POW or that memorializes the history that provides a relief for the victims of the quasi-apartheid system in the U.S.,” observed Mr. Shakur.
“Because of the work he was doing, organizing the community in Atlanta, the district attorney actually said after he was wrongfully convicted of killing an Atlanta sheriff, ‘We finally got him after 24 years.’ Well, when you hear that kind of statement you know this wasn’t really about the murder of a deputy sheriff because that killing did not take place 24 years before,” Ms. Brown said.
“He is being held in the Supermax prison, 1,400 miles away, which makes traveling very costly. It essentially takes a full day to travel there and another day to return home. It’s really been a struggle, and we haven’t been able to visit as often as we’d like. Florence is seen by many as a concentration camp for Muslim inmates. Imam Jamil is handcuffed at the waist behind a glass when we see him in one of the legal rooms,” said his wife Karima El-Amin, in a 2010 media interview. The imam is in a high security federal prison though he was convicted on state charges.
Meanwhile, activists say far too many men and women are still incarcerated, such as Hugo Dahariki Pinell and Russell Maroon Shoatz, both locked in solitary confinement for 35-40 years now.
On May 5, artists, farmers, and New York-based organizers will launch a campaign to free Mr. Shoatz, now 70. Campaign organizers want him immediately released from solitary confinement, as well as other prisoners in solitary who have been in prison for 25 years, and who are 50-plus years old.
“Humanity’s in question here and it’s about what are we going to do. Are we going to help them?” said Jihad Abdulmumit, co-chair of the Jericho Movement, which works on behalf of political prisoners.
“Somebody is being snatched up right now. Just like that! You or I could be charged for something we don’t know anything about with no opportunity to gain access to information,” he added. Mr. Abdulmumit was talking about changes in civil liberties laws, court rules, use of secret evidence and other erosion of personal and legal rights connected with the war on terror.
“It’s very oppressive and going on among the Black Panthers, the Native American Movement, Puerto Rican nationalists, White comrades, Students for the Democratic Society,” all on the front lines dealing with White racism, he said.
From the more popularly-known, such as journalist Mumia Abu Jamal and Mr. Peltier, to many lesser known-known political prisoners, such as Wopashitwe Mondo Eyen We Langa or Mondo, formerly known as David Rice and Ed Poindexter, known as the Omaha Two, the fight is also for better medical care, support for their families and money to survive.
The first focus is always legal, finding out who is due for state or federal pardons or clemency, and the second is to educate communities on the reality of political prisoners. The government and media have convinced people U.S. political prisoners don’t exist, Mr. Abdulmumit said.
“If somebody was able to capture people’s attention without distraction for 15 minutes, I think there’ll be millions of people demanding these people’s release,” Mr. Abdulmumit said.
Mr. King served 31 years in Angola State Prison in Louisiana and was freed in 2001 after an overturned conviction. Amnesty International recently delivered a 65,000-signature petition to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal for the release of Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace. They have been jailed 40 years in solitary confinement at Angola Prison on charges they and Mr. King, known as the Angola 3, murdered a prison guard.
Human rights groups say truth is the men were targeted because they dared form a Black Panther Party chapter to organize Black men within the notorious prison. When a guard died in a prison riot, the three men were falsely tied to the crime, say supporters.
Solitary confinement and other pressures
Solitary confinement must be abolished and its impact on prisoners can be physically and psychologically devastating, said advocates. “It was legal to own slaves. It wasn’t until people saw it as reprehensible that slavery ended,” observed Mr. King.
“We want to raise the bar for everyone. Herman and Albert are not just victims of being held in solitary confinement unjustly for that period of time ... They’re in prison unjustly,” Mr. King continued.
He expects that at a May 29 federal hearing, the judge will reverse Mr. Woodfox’ conviction and grant bond as has been done before, but State Attorney General James “Buddy” Caldwell will try to intercede again, but will be unsuccessful.
Mr. King also feels since the Angola 3 cases are being viewed as one, Mr. Wallace’s may be reversed as well. That means the men may not just be released from solitary confinement, but released from prison altogether.
“Political prisoners should be released from prison altogether because they’re there unjustly ... ending solitary confinement is just one step,” said Mr. King.
Victory for the San Francisco 8 came August 18, 2011, when a judge dismissed the last charges against Mr. Torres. In January 2007, Mr. Torres, and fellow Black Panther Party members were arrested on murder charges for killing a police officer in 1971.
The men, who beat the charge in the 1970s, were targeted under new anti-terror laws and with promises of new evidence from prosecutors. The men were rounded up from across the country, some living as respected solid citizens and others working as community activists.
The case initially had been thrown out because nothing connected any of the SF8 to the killing except confessions derived from torturing three of them and testimony from a Panther who they suspected was a government informant.
“Police tortured people in the most horrific fashion, comparable to tortures inflicted at Abu Ghraib and other places,” said Attorney Simmons. In the 1970s, these men were water boarded, had scouring water poured over towels placed on their bodies, were suffocated, beaten, and had cattle prods poked into their genitals, necks and under arms, among other things, he continued.
The torture back then implicated not just the New Orleans Police Department, which held the men, but the interrogation was overseen by the Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York Police Departments and the FBI, he added.
But when the case was brought back 36 years later, no new evidence ever surfaced, according to Atty. Simmons. There was little publicity when the final charges were dropped, though there had been a barrage of news coverage when the case was brought back.
“We knew they were not going to grant us complete victory in the courtroom because they didn’t want us to cheer,” said Mr. Torres, who learned about the decision in a phone call from his lawyer. “There were highs and lows in the case and when you deal with these people, you never know the end until you can really see the end because they’re always coming back at you in some other way and form,” Mr. Torres told The Final Call.
He is working now to get other comrades out of prison, particularly because the majority have satisfied requirements for parole and jumped through all the legal hoops.
Cointelpro 2009: FBI up to old dirty tricks? (FCN, 04-18-2009)
Nation of Islam Targeted by Homeland Security (FCN, 12-24-2009)