In today’s world where torture and complicity in torture by various agents of the US government is part of the headlines on a regular basis, it seems that very few US citizens believe that methods like waterboarding, beating, electrical shocks and other methods would be used on US citizens. Indeed, the revelations by Jose Padilla concerning his treatment by US agents as a so-called enemy combatant barely made the news. Of course, there are those in this country who see nothing wrong with torturing (or even killing) supposed enemies and wrongdoers if such methods extract information.
This is true even though intelligence experts state repeatedly that information extracted through torture is usually unreliable, if not just plain false. What is more shocking, though, are the large numbers of US citizens who are in some way upset that their government is torturing people in their name, yet do nothing to stop said torture either out of a greater fear or some level of apathy or impotence.
A recent DVD release by the Freedom Archives of Oakland, California should upset such people even more. This film is a vivid description of government criminality and four men who refuse to give in.
The DVD, titled Legacy of Torture, is a brief report on the case of several Black Panther Party members who were arrested in New Orleans in 1973, specifically John Bowman, Ruben Scott and Harold Taylor. As soon as the men were arrested, officers from the San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles police departments were flown in and, with FBI agents and New Orleans police officers present, were interrogated for several days. The arrests were supposedly in connection with the shooting deaths of two San Francisco police officers in 1971.
The way it worked was like this: the tow SFPD officers, Frank McCoy and Ed Erdelatz, would ask intimidating questions hoping to get confessions. When Taylor and Brown refused to go along, McCoy and Erdelatz would leave the room. The the men were tortured by the New Orleans officers. This went on for days.
To put it mildly, listening to two of the men describe the torture over thirty years later is the most difficult part of viewing this otherwise straightforward documentary. After forcing the men to strip down to their underwear, police placed plastic bags tightly over the men’s heads while simultaneously beating them with an enhanced form of a blackjack known as a slapjack. Electrical cattle prods were used on the men’s genitals, anus, and necks. Two of the four men in the film describe the particulars of the torture they received, at least one of them barely holding back tears as he recalls the events. This process lasted several days. Eventually, wanting to end the torture, the two men agreed to confess to the police murders, even though they continue to insist to this day that they were not involved. In 1975, a federal court in San Francisco threw out all of the evidence extracted during the New Orleans torture sessions, effectively setting the men free.
So, why this film now? It’s a little hard to believe, but in 2003 the two SFPD investigators in the original case, McCoy and Erdelatz, were deputized by the federal government and began investigating the 1971 killings along with the FBI. They were also investigating the Panthers linkages with the Weather Underground. This time around they were working as part of a grand jury investigations. When that grand jury ran its course, the State of California opened another one, making it one of several politically charged grand juries that were opened in 2005 (the others were primarily concerned with various Earth Liberation Front activities). Five former Panthers were called before the panel and all five refused to testify. Consequently, they were sent to jail until the grand jury investigation ended. They were released on October 31, 2005. This film is an introduction to their story and a call to support these men and other activists currently being investigated in what can only be described as fishing expeditions. A quick look at a website set up to provide information and garner support for those folks caught up in the various nets tossed out by the grand juries lists four ongoing grand juries focusing on issues related to animal liberation, medical marijuana, protests against the G8 in San Francisco, and the so-called Green Scare investigations having to do with alleged Earth Liberation Front activities. The Black Panther investigation is not terminated, merely on hold.
As John Bowman says in the film: “The same people who tried to kill me in 1973 are here today, 2005, trying to destroy me”.
Richard Brown adds his own comments, remarking, “I will never cooperate with these people…. They are the criminals for what they did in New Orleans.”
Ray Boudreaux puts this in a larger perspective by noting that “The climate in the country is much like it was in the ’70s. It’s designed to squash any form of dissent. If you’re not going along with the program you’re a problem….we’re not going to cave in to this.”
Returning to the first paragraph of this review, it is not enough to be upset about this kind of criminality going on in our name. One must do something.
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