activist defense

on the intersection of activism and legal systems

Tag: black panther party

judith clark’s request for clemency denied

Judith Clark has been incarcerated since her participation in the 1981 Brink’s armored-car robbery in Rockland County, New York, in which two police officers and an armored-car guard were killed. Yesterday her request for clemency was denied. According to a January 12, 2012 New York Times Magazine article,

At trial, Clark and two other defendants — David Gilbert, a Weather Underground member, and Kuwasi Balagoon, a former Black Panther — boycotted the courtroom, listening to the piped-in testimony from their basement cells. … After the judge sentenced Clark along with Gilbert and Balagoon to spend their lives in prison, [Kathy] Boudin pleaded guilty and received 20 years to life; she was paroled in 2003 and reunited with her 23-year-old son, who was 14 months old at the time of the crime.

Clark, who does not identify as a political prisoner, also had an infant at the time of the incident. Gilbert, like Clark, is still in prison. Balagoon died while serving his sentence.

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herman bell, member of the san francisco eight, denied parole for the sixth time

Former Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army member Herman Bell went before a New York parole board for the sixth time last week. After four decades behind bars, he was seeking an end to a sentence of 25 years to life. According to Sunday’s KQED article about Bell and Jalil Muntaqim (formerly Anthony Bottom),

Bell and Anthony Bottom were both convicted of murder in 1975 for shooting New York police Patrolmen Waverly Jones and Joseph Piagentini to death. In addition, Bell took a plea deal of manslaughter in 2009 for the 1971 killing of San Francisco police Sgt. John Young. … Bell and Bottom recently admitted to ambushing the New York patrolmen, Jones and Piagentini, as they responded to a fake 911 call.

Even though Bell has an exemplary record in prison, having earned a master’s degree and started a program to teach urban and rural communities to grow organic produce, the parole board denied his request again yesterday. At the behest of the police, the parole board is effectively turning Bell’s sentence into life without parole. This is contrary to the wishes of Jones’s son, Waverly Jones Jr., who wrote a letter to the parole board in 2009 saying that releasing Bell and Muntaqim would “bring some peace” to Jones’s family.

newly released interview transcript helps show that omaha two are innocent of murder

On August 17, 1970, Omaha Police Department officers arrived at a vacant house in response to an anonymous 911 caller who reported a woman screaming for help. To get into the house, the officers had to step over a suitcase near the doorway. As the officers searched the house, the suitcase exploded, injuring officer John Tess and instantly killing officer Larry Minard Sr.

The suitcase, which contained dynamite, was constructed to explode when moved. A 15-year old, Duane Peak, was charged with first degree murder related to the incident. In an attempt to reduce his sentence, Peak said two members of the Black Panther Party, Edward Poindexter and Mondo we Langa (formerly David Rice), were involved. Poindexter and we Langa were convicted in April 1971 and are now serving life sentences at the maximum-security Nebraska State Penitentiary for their alleged participation in the murder. They continue to deny any involvement.

After his conviction, we Langa filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the U.S. District Court for Nebraska, seeking to be released. In 1974, Judge Warren Urbom concluded that suspicious dynamite particles admitted into evidence at trial should have been suppressed, as they were discovered during an illegal search:

Since it is clear that the introduction of the evidence seized in the illegal search and the dynamite particles substantially contributed to the petitioner’s conviction, that introduction was not harmless error. Therefore, the petitioner must either be released from custody or granted a new trial free from the tainted evidence.

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Judge Urbom’s ruling in 1975, but due to a subsequent U.S. Supreme Court opinion (concluding that the state court system already provided an opportunity for “full and fair litigation” of the illegal search claim), we Langa was never released or granted a new trial. Poindexter challenged his conviction, too, arguing that his right to a fair trial was violated because, among other reasons, newspaper articles advocating the overthrow of the government were erroneously introduced at trial. In November 1975, Judge Urbom disagreed, concluding that any errors that occurred did not amount to a denial of due process.

Two days ago, the transcript of an interview with an Omaha police lieutenant, James Perry, was released. Perry was a commanding officer in the investigation regarding Minard’s murder. When asked by a private detective, Tom Gorgen, whether the dynamite supposedly found in we Langa’s basement could have been planted there, Perry claimed he didn’t even know what a stick of dynamite looked like or how to deal with it.

Yet in a 2002 interview, the transcript of which was just released, Perry admitted he stored his own cache of dynamite beginning in July 1970, the month before Minard was killed. Perry, who was confident he knew exactly who murdered Minard, could therefore have placed the dynamite in we Langa’s basement in an attempt to guarantee a conviction. As Perry is now deceased, there may never be conclusive proof.

release of russell maroon shoatz from solitary confinement delayed

Russell Maroon Shoatz, who has been locked in solitary confinement for 28 of the past 30 years, filed a lawsuit in May demanding an end to the torturous conditions of his confinement. Studies have shown that prisoners placed in extreme isolation can suffer profound psychological and physiological harm. According to a letter to the editor published by the New York Times on July 18,

If you have any doubts about the effectiveness of solitary confinement, lock yourself in your bathroom for two days without a phone, computer, television or radio. See what that does to your thinking. That is how our prison system works, and that is why we all pay for the system’s inability to deal with people it confines and punishes.

Shoatz’s supporters were cautiously optimistic that following his completion of a prison-initiated “step down program,” which he completed successfully, prison officials at State Correctional Institution Frackville would release him into the general population. Yet 10 days ago, officials informed Shoatz that they intended to transfer him to another prison instead. The prison to which he is transferred could then consider him for release into its general population.

assata shakur day: thirty-four years since the black liberation army broke her out of prison

Assata Shakur joined the Black Panther Party (BPP) as a college student. Like many East Coast members of the BPP, she later went underground to build the Black Liberation Army (BLA). According to Shakur’s autobiography,

It was clear that the Black Liberation Army was not a centralized, organized group with a common leadership and chain of command. … Many members of the various groups had been forced into hiding as a result of the extreme police repression that took place during the late sixties and early seventies. Some had serious cases, some had minor ones, and others, like me, were just wanted for “questioning.”

On May 2, 1973, state troopers stopped Shakur, Zayd Shakur, and Sundiata Acoli on the New Jersey Turnpike, claiming their white Pontiac had a defective tail light. A shootout erupted, leaving Zayd Shakur and state trooper Werner Foerster dead. State trooper James Harper sustained a minor injury, Acoli escaped but was captured a day or so later, and Assata Shakur was critically wounded and arrested at the scene.

Several charges brought against Shakur while she was in hiding (e.g., bank robbery) were dismissed, resulted in acquittals, or were dropped for lack of evidence. As to the May 1973 shootout, the absence of gun residue on Shakur’s fingers meant she had not shot a weapon. Yet in 1977 she was convicted on flimsy evidence of four charges related to that incident: being an accomplice to Foerster’s murder, assaulting Harper with the intent to kill, possessing weapons, and attempting to kill Harper.

Shakur was sentenced to life plus 33 years. On November 2, 1979, a BLA unit broke Shakur out of prison without firing any shots or hurting anyone. She surfaced in 1984 in Cuba, where she was granted asylum.

This past May, Shakur was added to the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists List. She is the first woman and the second U.S. citizen to appear on the list. In response to Shakur being labeled a terrorist, the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms, Project SALAM, and the Jericho Movement declared today to be “Assata Shakur Day.”

fred hampton jr. and three other activists sue oakland and emeryville over police misconduct

Fred Hampton Jr. is a resident of Chicago, where his father was killed execution-style by police on December 4, 1969. Chicago police also killed Mark Clark, another Black Panther Party leader, during the same December 1969 raid. Hampton Jr.’s mother, Deborah Johnson, was present and eight and a half months pregnant with him when the raid occurred.

On January 21 of this year, Hampton Jr. was visiting Oakland to speak out and participate in protests against killings by the Oakland Police Department. Emeryville police officers followed the vehicle in which he was riding with three other activists. Emeryville officers then stopped the four in the parking lot of a Target store, ordered them out of the vehicle at gunpoint, and handcuffed them.

As they exited the vehicle, an officer slammed one of the activists against a squad car while twisting her arm, causing a torn ligament in her elbow. An ambulance transported her to a nearby hospital for treatment. In addition, prior to asking for his name or checking his identification, an officer asked Hampton whether he was still at the “same address” in Chicago.

Oakland and Emeryville officers held the four in the parking lot for almost three hours, apparently in retaliation for their well-known activism. In response, they sued Oakland and Emeryville last week in federal court. They are represented by Oakland attorney Dan Siegel, who wrote the following in an October 2012 CounterPunch article:

Some of us have been involved in struggles for justice for the victims of police abuse since 1973, when 14-year-old Tyrone Guyton died after he was shot in the back by three Emeryville police detectives. Little has changed in the last 40 years. Young men of color die at the hands of the police. In a minority of cases their families recover monetary damages. Individual officers are rarely held accountable.

russell maroon shoatz files lawsuit demanding an end to solitary confinement

Human rights advocate Russell Maroon Shoatz has been locked in solitary confinement for 28 of the past 30 years. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in 1972. Although he escaped in 1977 and 1980, resulting in a stint in solitary confinement, he was released to the general population in 1982.

After his release to the general population, Shoatz became involved with the Pennsylvania Association of Lifers (PAL). He wanted life-sentenced prisoners to work with their non-incarcerated family members and other supporters to repeal life without parole sentences. This idea resonated with other prisoners, increasing PAL membership from roughly a dozen people to more than 100.

When Shoatz was appointed interim President of PAL in early 1983, however, he was placed back in solitary confinement. Besides a 19-month period from November 1989 to June 1991, prison officials have refused to release him from solitary confinement ever since, despite his impeccable disciplinary record during that period and for the past 23 years. This week he filed a lawsuit demanding an end to the torturous conditions of isolation in a 7-by-12 foot cell, always illuminated by lights, for 23-24 hours per day.

federal judge partially revives prisoner’s lawsuit regarding black panther party ten-point program

In a case decided two weeks ago, Judge Richard Posner partially revived Wisconsin inmate Toni Toston’s lawsuit against prison officials regarding harsh punishment he endured for possessing the Black Panthers’ Ten-Point Program. With respect to Toston’s free speech claim, Judge Posner affirmed the district judge’s grant of summary judgment in favor of prison officials. Posner revived, however, Toston’s due process claim that the prison deprived him of liberty without sufficient notice about what conduct could result in such punishment.

For copying the Ten-Point Program and putting it in the footlocker in his cell, Toston was found guilty in a prison disciplinary proceeding of possession of gang literature. The punishment was 90 days of confinement in segregation. Strangely, the prison previously permitted him to buy a copy of To Die for the People: The Writings of Huey P. Newton (1972), in which the Ten-Point Program appeared, and the prison library allowed inmates to borrow two other books that included the Ten-Point Program.

Yet Posner wrote in his decision that “the Ten-Point Program could be thought by prison officials an incitement to violence by black prisoners.” In this specific case, officials apparently suspected that Toston’s motive in copying the Ten-Point Program was gang-related:

The connection between the plaintiff’s copying the Ten-Point Program … and gang activity may seem tenuous, but the defendants argue that the likeliest reason the plaintiff copied the Ten-Point Program was to show it to inmates whom he hoped to enlist in a prison gang, a local cell as it were of the Black Panthers; the Ten-Point Program would be the gang’s charter.

With respect to Toston’s punishment of segregated confinement, however, Posner decided the prison may have deprived Toston of liberty “without fair notice of the acts that would give rise to such deprivation.” As the district judge “made no findings” regarding whether Toston’s period of segregated confinement was protracted or the conditions in segregation were unusually harsh, Posner sent Toston’s due process claim back to that judge for further action consistent with Posner’s opinion.

thirty years since unfair trial of journalist and author mumia abu-jamal

Thirty years ago this month, Mumia Abu-Jamal went to trial in Philadelphia for the murder of police officer Daniel Faulkner. Abu-Jamal was closely involved with MOVE, a multiracial community that protested injustices ranging from police brutality to animal exploitation in zoos. He was also a former member of the Black Panther Party.

As a result of Abu-Jamal’s political activity, he was under surveillance by the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), a secret war on dissent with which the Philadelphia police cooperated. His 1982 trial and conviction provoked criticisms that, combined with revelations about COINTELPRO false prosecutions and his claims of innocence, have cast doubt on the guilty verdict. Last December prosecutors finally halted Pennsylvania’s effort to execute him, but said he will spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Cases like Abu-Jamal’s remind us to agitate unceasingly against political repression. In the words of attorney Lennox Hinds,

we threaten our own interests and rights when we condone by our silence the government’s use of surveillance, attacks on the legitimacy of political activists, and the use of the criminal law to suppress and punish political dissent.