“The first lesson a revolutionary must learn is that he is a doomed man.”
For as long as I can remember, Baltimore has had the reputation as a corrupt and tough town. City Hall is known as a cashbox for the thieves that run it. The cops are no-nonsense and care little about the Bill of Rights, especially when dealing with the city’s poor and non-white residents. Neighborhoods are closed societies that one is hesitant to walk through unless he is a resident. The demarcations between the wealthy and poorer neighborhoods are enforced, often quite forcefully, by the police. When I worked at an IHOP in the mid-1970s about twenty miles outside of Baltimore I would occasionally end up in a certain after hours club in one of the city’s rougher sections. I was often the only white male in the room, although there were often several white women. The guys I was hanging with made sure that nobody screwed with me, but my safety (or anyone else’s) was never guaranteed. There was a fellow I drank with there who I used to talk politics with. He claimed to be a former member of the Baltimore Black Panthers and talked a lot about Panther member Marshall Eddie Conway, who had been in prison since 1970 on a very questionable conviction.
It was with this memory in mind that I recently read Marshall Law: The Life and Times of a Baltimore Black Panther. This memoir describes Conway’s early life in Baltimore, his introduction to the Black Panthers, his eventual arrest and conviction for murder, and his life in prison since then. The details of the case, like so many cases against Black Panthers, are sketchy and based on the testimony of an informant who was only brought in when the prosecutor saw how weak the case against Conway was. In fact, Conway’s arrest was the result of a tip from an informant who was never identified and whose existence has never been verified. At the time of his arrest Conway was working at the US Post Office. The Baltimore chapter of the Panthers had already been the target of intense law enforcement surveillance and infiltration under the aegis of the COINTELPRO program. A show trial based on the indictments drawn up from this surveillance resulted in no convictions and the dismissal of the charges. During Conway’s trial for murder, no physical evidence was ever presented that linked him to the crime scene. Police officers at the scene could not positively identify Conway and he was denied representation by a lawyer of his choice. The prosecution relied primarily on a supposed jailhouse confession that Conway claims did not occur. He maintains his innocence to this day.
There is another aspect to this story. It is Conway’s commitment to revolutionary struggle, self improvement and the betterment of others whose lives and circumstances have brought them to prison. Unlike so many Americans, Conway has always opposed drugs, in large part because they destroy communities and lives. His politics have enabled him to stay free of drugs and the associated business. This story of a young black man railroaded into prison because of his race and politics does not end with that sentence. The reader is presented with Conway’s life inside the Maryland prison system. Lockdowns, fires, riots and the daily grind of so much of one’s physical activity being controlled by others. While reading Marshall Law I was constantly reminded of Bob Dylan’s lines from the ballad “George Jackson”: “Sometimes I think that this world/Is one big prison yard./Some of us are prisoners and some of us are guards.” As Conway learned and explains through his tale, freedom is not only a physical concept but also an existential state.
In prose both concise and personal, Eddie Conway’s memoir is essentially a story about hope. Here is a man who has been in prison for forty years for a crime many people are convinced he did not commit, yet he maintains a realistic optimism in his situation and that of the world. The hope he maintains is not one based on some pie-in-the-sky scheme. Instead, it is based on a practical understanding of the merits and rewards of political organizing. As Conway tells the reader, those merits are not only seen in the programs and other results brought to life by political organizing, they are also seen in the personal meaning they give to those doing the organizing. From the Black Panthers community breakfast programs he was involved in to the various programs he helped organize in the Maryland prison system, Conway proves the values of organizing again and again.
Marshall Eddie Conway remains in prison. His case is one of many that is supported by a number of prisoner support organizations including the Jericho Movement. Many of the prisoners involved are considered political prisoners since the circumstances of their arrests and convictions are the result of their political activities. Indeed, some are clearly the result of frameups by law enforcement. Most of these prisoners have spent considerably more time in prison than other men and women serving time for similar crimes but not known for their political convictions. It is clear from reading Marshall Law: The Life and Times of a Baltimore Black Panther that should he achieve his freedom, he will not compromise his beliefs to do so. This may be why he remains locked up.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His new novel is The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org