Former Political Prisoner Geronimo Pratt Dies – by Stephen Lendman
Reporting his death, AP said:
“Former Black Panther Party leader Elmer ‘Geronimo’ Pratt” died at age 63 in a small (Tanzania village) “where he had lived for at least half a decade, a friend of Pratt’s in Arusha, former Black Panther Pete O’Neal, said.”
He lived a peaceful life in Tanzania, O’Neal explained, adding:
“He’s my hero. He was and will continue to be. Geronimo was a symbol of steadfast resistance against all (he) considered wrong and improper. His whole life was dedicated to standing opposition to oppression and exploitation….He gave all that he had and his life, I believe, struggling, trying to help people lift themselves up.”
His lawyer and longtime friend, Stuart Hanlon, who spent years working for his release, also announced his death, saying:
“What happened to him is the horror story of the United States. This became a microcosm of when the government decides what’s politically right or wrong. The COINTELPRO program was awful. He became a symbol for what they did.”
He had southern, rural roots, and hardworking parents who sent all their kids to college. “He (went) to the military, (fought) and (was awarded two Bronze Stars, a Silver Star, and two Purple Hearts) in Vietnam, (came) home, (and became) a football star in college. That would be an American hero. It was different because he was black and he became a Panther and then the road went the wrong way.”
Calling Pratt one of his closest friends, Hanlon said his case “defined me as a lawyer.”
David Hilliard helped recruit Pratt to provide leadership for the Los Angeles Panther chapter. “He symbolized the best human spirit,” he said. “His spirit of endurance, his strength, his service to his people. He (was) very positive and a real example for young people who want to look into the direction of Che Guevara, Malcolm X and the leader of our party, Huey P. Newton. He (was) one of the true heros of our era. He dedicated his life to (serve) his people. There is nothing more honorable than that.”
On June 3, Los Angeles Times writer Robert Lopez headlined, “Former Black Panther whose murder conviction was overturned dies at 63,” saying:
He became “a symbol of racial injustices during the turbulent 1960s….a cause celebre for a range of supporters, including elected officials, activists, Amnesty International, clergy and celebrities, who believed he was framed by Los Angeles police and the FBI” because he was Black and a Panther member.
In fact, he was under FBI surveillance in Oakland when the murder he was convicted of happened in Santa Monica, hundreds of miles south. Nonetheless, he was unjustly framed and served 27 years until freed.
In 1970, he was arrested and falsely charged with Caroline Olsen’s murder, a Los Angeles teacher. In 1968, she and her husband Kenneth were attacked on a Santa Monica tennis court by two Black men. Three years later, Kenneth said Pratt was one of the assailants, pressured to name him after first identifying three other suspects from LAPD photos. In 1972, he was falsely convicted.
In fact, Pratt was framed, victimized by LAPD authorities working with the FBI’s illegal COINTELPRO counterintelligence program against political dissidents, including communists; anti-war, human and civil rights activists; the American Indian Movement; and Black Panther Party members, among others.
In their book “Agents of Repression,” Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall said:
“(T)he term came to signify the whole context of clandestine (mostly illegal) political repression activities, (including) a massive surveillance (program via) wiretaps, surreptitious entries and burglaries, electronic devices, live ‘tails’ and….bogus mail” (to induce paranoia and) foster ‘splits’ within or between organizations.”
Other tactics included black propaganda, disinformation or gray propaganda, rumor spreading, manufactured evidence, harassment arrests on bogus charges, and assassinations, notably against Fred Hampton and Mark Clark on December 4, 1969 by Chicago police while they slept.
In Pratt’s case, Julius Butler was the prosecution’s main witness, an FBI/LAPD informant, expelled from the Panthers by Pratt for advocating violence. At trial, he falsely claimed Pratt confessed to the killing.
Later, when Butler was outed as an informer, paid to lie, LA authorities denied Pratt a retrial, keeping him imprisoned wrongfully for another 20 years.
Moreover, according to former FBI agent Wesley Swearingen, Los Angeles Panther headquaters wiretap information showed Pratt was in Oakland when it happened, also confirmed by agency surveillance evidence there. Pratt’s defense wasn’t told. In addition, in both cities, tapes and other evidence were destroyed to keep an innocent man wrongfully imprisoned for 27 years, eight in solitary confinement, as well as parole denied 16 times.
Delayed Justice Finally Achieved
On May 29, 1997, Judge Everett W. Dickey (an Orange County Reagan appointee), in a sharply worded opinion, reversed Pratt’s conviction, ruling prosecutors suppressed evidence to unjustly imprison him in ordering a new trial. At the time, he was America’s longest held political prisoner, yet to be fully exonerated.
Over 30 years later in February 1999, it came in a four paragraph Los Angeles County District Attorney, Gil Garcetti, statement, saying:
“We accept the decision of the court of appeals. The murder at issue in this case occurred over 30 years ago. Most of the witnesses to the case are deceased. It would be virtually impossible to retry this case. In our professional judgment, there would be no reasonable likelihood of conviction.”
Omitted was any admission of FBI, LAPD, or prosecutorial wrongdoing. In fact, Hanlon at the time said Garcetti fought him and fellow Pratt attorney Johnnie Cochran, Jr. “every step of the way,” trying to keep him wrongfully imprisoned.
In May 2000, in a civil rights lawsuit, a federal judge awarded Pratt $4.5 million for false imprisonment, but couldn’t return his 27 lost years, or undo the toll it took even on someone with his inner strength.
Journalist and author Jack Olsen wrote about Pratt’s ordeal in his book titled, “Last Man Standing: The Tragedy and Triumph of Geronimo Pratt,” recounting his southern roots, loving parents, self-reliance and dedication to right over wrong.
At UCLA, in fact, his awareness of police brutality and racial injustice inspired him to join the Panthers at a time FBI and local police harassed the organization nationally to undermine its solidarity by neutralizing its leaders. As a result, Pratt became a prime target, culminating in his arrest and wrongful conviction, nearly keeping him imprisoned for life.
While there, Olsen explained, he spent years in solitary confinement, his only toilet a hole in the floor that routinely backed up. In addition, he got only three hours of daylight a week, and was routinely harassed, beaten, drugged, moved from one “dungeon” to another, targeted for assassination at times, and falsely accused of other offenses, including attempted murder of guards, inciting riots, planning mass escapes, and masterminding Patty Hearst’s kidnapping.
Only his inner strength saved him, using meditation, chanting, astral projection and yoga, along with studying law and other self-help practices to survive despite everything prison authorities threw at him to destroy him. They couldn’t, but at age 63 he passed, a major loss to those who loved him, but not his spirit inspiring others to fight the good fight against injustice affecting anyone.
A Final Comment
In October 1966, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. It was progressive, activist, militantly for ethnic justice, racial emancipation, and real economic, social, and political equality across gender and color lines. Radical ideas then and now, the party’s ten-point program stood for:
(1) freedom and “power to determine the destiny of our black community;”
(2) full employment for Black people and everyone;
(3) “an end to the robbery by the capitalists of our Black community;”
(4) decent housing;
(5) education to expose “the true nature of this decadent American society (and teach) us our true history and our role in the present-day society;”
(6) for “all Black men to be exempt from military service” at a time they were drafted for foreign wars;
(7) “an immediate end to police brutality and murder of Black people;”
(8) “freedom for all Black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails;”
(9) for Black people in court “to be tried….by a jury of their peer group or people from their Black communities;” and
(10) “land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.”
They also added words from the Declaration of Independence, saying:
— “all men are created equal”;
— “to secure (their) rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed;”
— “that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and institute a new government;”
— “to throw off (despotism), and to provide new guards for (peoples’) future security.”
They believed in rule of law principles, published a newspaper with 250,000 readers, and articulated fundamental wants and needs. They also practiced what they preached with:
— nutritious breakfasts for poor children;
— food for needy families;
— free clinics for medical care;
— a free ambulance service;
— help for the homeless;
— free legal aids and bussing to prisons;
— after-school and summer classes teaching Black history; and
— Black voter registration drives.
They helped elect Oakland’s first Black mayor, Lionel Wilson, in the city where the Panthers were founded.
They were young and idealistic, willing to put their lives on the line for their beliefs and activism. Their goal – to make the world a better place for Black people and everyone.
They were revolutionaries for justice, hostile to repression. In Huey Newton’s words, they were “never a group of angry young militants full of fury toward the ‘white establishment.’ ”
The Party, in fact, advocated love for Black people, not hate for Whites. They fought for change from over 30 branches throughout the country with over 2,000 members at their peak.
They wanted redress of longstanding grievances, including slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, discrimination, neglect and abuse. Practicing what Jefferson preached, they were targeted viciously and illegally for destruction, an agenda still ongoing against other activists and dissident groups to make America safe for wealth and power at the expense of beneficial social change, what heroic Panthers and others like them fought and died for and still do. What better reason to do it for than that.
Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at email@example.com. Also visit his blog site at sjlendman.blogspot.com and listen to cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on the Progressive Radio News Hour on the Progressive Radio Network Thursdays at 10AM US Central time and Saturdays and Sundays at noon. All programs are archived for easy listening.