The Next Battle of the Social War: Nine Black Panthers and state repression
January 23, 2007 should be a day that lives in infamy within the movements for social justice in North America. On that date, the nearly four decades long war on the Black Panthers was shown to still exist. Nine individuals, most identified as being members of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army, were charged with murder or murder related crimes by officials in California. The incident in question involved the killing of a police officer inside the police station in which he worked in 1971. Over 35 years later, the struggle that the killing of the officer symbolizes is alive and strong.
By 1971, the resistance movements of the late 1960's had started to go underground. A large scale low intensity war was being fought by armed clandestine militants against the mechanisms of state and capitalist power. One of those groups was the Black Liberation Army.
The Black Liberation Army was formed by former members of the Black Panther Party that had left the Party due to a variety of reasons. The members of the BLA saw the Party being torn apart from infiltration, state sponsored chemical warfare (the purposeful influx of drugs by the government to black communities), infighting caused by CoIntelPro, and power struggles amongst the leadership of the Panthers.
The BLA came to represent some of the most committed of the Black Panther Party, with members including Sundiata Acoli, Assata Shakur, Dr. Mutulu Shakur, and Ashanti Alston. The BLA existed to continue the fight the Party had started.
A feeling pervaded amongst the membership of the BLA that they had to go underground even to survive. With pressure coming from sectarians active within the Black Panthers on one side, and the government on the other, the BLA went underground in 1970.
On August 29, 1971, according to police reports, several men crowded into the Ingleside Police Station in California and fired a shotgun through a hole in the counter glass. A civilian file clerk was wounded, while Sgt. John V. Young was killed.
Later in 1973, among thirteen black militants arrested for the crime, Black Panthers John Bowman, Ruben Scott, and Harold Taylor would all be targeted as being the men that had killed Sgt. Young. In New Orleans, the three would be arrested. San Francisco police officers that were working with the FBI to solve the killing, Frank McCoy and Ed Erdelatz, were flown to New Orleans to aid in the questioning of Bowman, Scott, and Taylor.
The three Panthers refused to cooperate with the investigation. They then faced days of torture at the hands of New Orleans police officers, including physical abuse and mental and emotional manipulation. In 1975, when the matter finally went to court, a federal judge threw out the charges citing that all the evidence against them had been extracted through the use of torture.
In 2003, the case was reopened with the use of a grand jury. The two SFPD police officers that had been responsible for the torture of the three Black Panthers were put back in charge of the investigation. They were deputized by the federal government and started to work side by side with the FBI on the investigation.
When the original grand jury had ended with no indictments, the State of California opened another one in 2005, bringing five former Black Panthers to be questioned. Hank Jones, Ray Boudreaux, John Bowman, Harold Taylor, and Richard Brown all resisted the grand jury and were eventually jailed and released.
Now, in late January of 2007, all of those that appeared before the jury, save John Bowman who died of liver cancer on December 23, 2006, are among the nine militants now being charged with the killing of Sgt. Young. The others being charged in the case are Herman Bell and Jalil Muntaqim (both currently imprisoned political prisoners on charges of killing a different police officer in New York), Francisco Torres, Richard O'Neal, and Ronald Bridgeforth. Bridgeforth is currently the only suspect not in custody and his whereabouts are unknown to the government.
Just as in December of 2005 when over a dozen environmental resistance movement members were arrested and indicted on charges related to "Operation Backfire", the movements of social justice are under attack. We must view these new arrests in the historical context in which they were conducted.
In the 1960's and 1970's the U.S. government waged an open war on the resistance movements that had grown against White Supremacy, the war in Vietnam, Patriarchy, and the entire capitalist system. Using many tactics, the government was able to destroy and subdue most of the organizations and factions involved within these movements.
Fast forward three decades later to 2007, where a rising tide of anti-capitalist momentum in the form of organizing and movement building is flooding the world. From Oaxaca to Olympia, organized social movements are again gaining strength and taking the state and global capitalism head on. As public opinion shifts strongly against the "War on Terrorism", and new forms of social resistance are starting to rise, we've seen an increased attack on members of resistance movements in the U.S.
The U.S. government would not have reopened this case if it did not intend on sending a message to all those who resist. As we've seen with Operation Backfire, the arrests in Auburn, California, FBI harassment of members of the Great Plains Anarchist Network in 2004, and in many operations in the last ten years, the government is trying to send a clear message. "Don't dare stand up."
As cases like that of Eric McDavid and Brendan Walsh illustrate, we have not handled ourselves well as a movement under this type of attack. The former has been languishing in a prison cell for over a year awaiting trial, and the latter is a young anti-war militant who has been imprisoned and nearly forgotten for the last three years.
Add to these incidents the sudden news that all of the remaining captured defendants of Operation Backfire have pleaded guilty, and we start to see that we need to come up with better ideas of how to support members of our movements when they are attacked by the state.
For years, prison struggle and prisoner issues have been on a back burner within the larger anarchist milieu. Small groups of anarchists have done what little they knew how to support political prisoners and those reeling from repression. We cannot afford to ignore these issues as a larger movement any longer. We are under attack. If we don't defend ourselves now, with innovate new methods, then we will falter and we'll just watch as nine more comrades are imprisoned.
Our movement has to go beyond signing petitions, raising legal funds, and calling prison administrators and government officials. We have to create a movement based on real revolutionary solidarity. When the government attacks, we need to be offering support to families of those they have attacked. We need to be organizing with community leaders in those communities that are targeted to link our mutual struggles. We need to be ready to "turn up the heat" and intensify what may already be intense local efforts.
For a movement short on answers, I don't have many either. This has been an issue I've been grappling with for years, trying to figure out what more I can do to help those that are imprisoned or are facing prison. One thing has been blindingly clear, however: our current models don't work. Pressure on economic and political interests that comes from a community social movement will always work better than trying to fight our battles through petitions and courtrooms. So what the hell does that mean exactly?
The answers seem so much easier when you are reading a book about social movements in the 1970's that hijacked helicopters or broke into prisons to free their captured comrades. Now in 2007, those options seem so far removed from the reality of our movement that is still healing after going into near extinction following September 11th.
One thing is certain in this era of unanswered questions: we must place the struggle to free these Panthers, Eric McDavid, Brendan Walsh, and all other political prisoners at the forefront of our work. We must learn how to connect the new and old generations of political prisoners with the work we're doing in the streets. We need to make sure that every damn person in our cities knows who these people are. We need to ensure that when we are organizing against the war, we are also organizing to free those that resisted war. We need to ensure that when we're working to save the earth, we are working to free those that have been imprisoned fighting for it.
We have to be able to view our movements in the context of a history of social movements in the U.S. that dates back to at least 1492. We need to ensure that we do not leave people like Eric McDavid to sit in a jail cell for a year without massive actions demanding his release. We need to ensure that we don't allow them to imprison these Panthers.
We need to ensure that we don't act like we always have, and forget. We as a movement have forgotten those that fill the prison cells and those that face them. Let's remember. And never forget. Let's never leave those facing imprisonment hanging ever again. When they face those cells, let them face them with a strong movement beside them.
Freedom for the Panther 9! Freedom for all political prisoners! For the abolition of all cages!
Kansas Mutual Aid
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