I recently reviewed a DVD about a group of Black Panthers who were tortured in 1973 by New Orleans police during interrogations regarding the murder of a San Francisco police officer in 1971. The DVD, titled Legacy of Torture, highlights the stories of some of these men and their experience at the hands of the police interrogators while law enforcement officials from other local and federal agencies stood by. A federal court ruled in 1974 that both San Francisco and New Orleans police had engaged in torture to extract a confession, and a San Francisco judge dismissed charges against three men in 1975 based on that ruling. The case was reopened in 2003 by the US Department of Justice using funds set aside for the Department of Homeland Security. Several grand juries were convened as part of the reinvestigation, with some of the men involved in the 1973 torture being called before the panel more than once.
Not long after that review was published, eight former Black Panthers were arrested for their alleged involvement in the 1971 murder in a series of sweeps. Law enforcement is still looking for one other man. Richard Brown, Richard O’Neal, Ray Boudreaux, and Hank Jones were arrested in California. Francisco Torres was arrested in Queens, New York. Harold Taylor was arrested in Florida. Two of the men charged have been in prison for over 30 years Herman Bell and Jalil Muntaqim. As of this writing, the six who were arrested at their homes and places of work in late January are in prison with bail amounts running between three and five million dollars each. No pretrial date has been set although, according to Claude Marks of the Eight’s defense committee, there will be a pretrial hearing because "the government doesn’t seem to be backing down." Meanwhile, the committee and the men’s legal team are working to get the bail reduced to a more reasonable figure.
According to police records, the men charged were members of the Black Liberation Army (BLA). The BLA was the result of a split in the Black Panther Party and believed the time was ripe for armed struggle in the United States. Other Panthers took a different route which place more community organizing, community programs, and municipal electoral politics foremost among their strategies for self-defense of the community and black liberation. The split itself was the product of genuine ideological differences in the party, but was intentionally exacerbated by the FBI, local police Red Squads, military intelligence, state undercover police agencies and other elements of the US counterinsurgency apparatus. These agencies worked under the aegis of the COINTELPRO program–a series of FBI counterintelligence programs designed to neutralize political dissidents, primarily of the left and anarchist temperaments. Methods used in this campaign ranged from the spreading of rumors regarding individuals personal lives, putting snitch jackets on activists, publishing and planting false stories about groups and individuals involved in antiwar and antiracist activities, police raids and harassment of activists, false arrests and charges, and murder. The Black Panther Party was the target of all of the aforementioned methods, including murder. In 1971, many of its leaders were either in prison, facing prison time, in exile, or murdered by police. The FBI claimed to have ended its COINTELPRO activities in 1971, but evidence presented to the Church Senate committee investigating the excesses of the program in 1974 proved otherwise. Indeed, all that really occurred was that the program was renamed. The dissident neutralization program continues to this day under other names.
The California State’s Attorney’s office, which is working with a Federal task force on the case, told the media that no new scientific evidence has been unearthed in the case. Instead, it appears that the prosecutors have reexamined the evidence they extracted under torture and constructed a scenario that involves all of the men charged in the 1971 murder. None the less, the attorney general’s office is, in their words, " committed to seeing it through.” What this means, in essence, is that the men will be prosecuted using evidence declared inadmissible by the courts in 1975 because it was obtained via torture.
What do I mean by torture? Could it really have been that bad? Before I quote the descriptions of the men’s ordeal, let me ask you, the reader, to put yourself in the position these men found themselves in 1973. As the cursory history of the COINTELPRO program above makes clear, these men had lots to fear. They were black men held in a jail run by a police department known for its racist history; they were being charged with killing a cop; they were believed to be members of a militant armed organization composed of black men and women in the United States at a time when the government feared armed revolution and the movement feared genuine fascism. With that in mind, here is what the men endured (from the San Francisco Chronicle, surely no leftwing rag): "a court found that when the two San Francisco police investigators who came to Louisiana to interview the three men were out of the room, New Orleans officers stripped the men, blindfolded them, beat them and covered them in blankets soaked in boiling water. They also used electric prods on their genitals, court records show. "
Today, hundreds of prisoners and disappeared exist in US prisons around the globe. Torture occurs at these prisons on a regular basis. After more than three years of avoidance, the US Congress addressed the issue of torture in US-run prisons and cam up with the Military Commissions Act. This act effectively ended habeas corpus for these prisoners, does little to end torture in these prisons and excuses the torture that occurred before its enactment. In the sham courtrooms that the prisoners in these prisons will face trial, evidence extracted by torture will be admissible. Besides the torture in this corner of Washington’s gulag, torture is also part of the law enforcement repertoire that includes the beating and isolation of prisoners in the modern supermax prison complexes like Pelican Bay in California to the so called rectal interrogation techniques known to be occasionally employed by the New York City Police Department. The Chicago police department was the subject of several investigations regarding years of systematic torture of primarily black men in at least one of its station houses. It is but a small leap to see that the prosecutors of the men arrested for the 1971 shooting in San Francisco will also attempt to introduce evidence obtained via torture and already considered inadmissible, no matter how flimsy. If the judge in this trial does allow this to happen, it not only flies in the face of accepted legal understanding, it is another step on the road to a totalitarian state–a road some in the United States are intent on leading their fellow countrymen and women down.
Despite their incarceration, members of the defense committee told me that the men’s spirits are high., "I saw two of the bros this weekend." said Claude Marks. They are strong and ready to fight back. Their lawyers are very clear, strong and united….They’re calling themselves the San Francisco 8…. They resisted the grand juries of 2005 and will fight now." Several speaking engagements by members of the committee are scheduled and money is being raised. For more information please go to the Defense Committee’s website.
UPDATE: The Eight’s arraignment and a bail reduction hearing was carried over until February 14 at 9:00 a.m. The Superior Court is at 850 Bryant Street in SF. Please attend if you can.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is forthcoming from Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: email@example.com