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Obama Must Pardon the Black Panthers in Prison or in Exile

Photo by Alex Barth | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Alex Barth | CC BY 2.0

On 20 December, President Obama offered pardons and commutations to 231 individuals within the penal system of the United States.  This brings the total number to 1,176 which include 395 life sentences. Still, Obama has time for more pardons and commutations before he leaves office on January, as there are murmurs that Mumia Abu-Jamal, Assata Shakur, Edward Snowden, and Chelsea Manning are contenders for this ceremonial nod.

While the list of people who should be pardoned stretches far beyond these four individuals, the first two are noteworthy given what they represent in terms of America’s historical erasure of black activism as both Abu-Jamal and Shakur being form Black Panther Party members.   And their sentencing is not coincidental to their political activism.

Anyone a stranger to journalist and activist Abu-Jamal’s plight need only refer to the media coverage by Democracy Now! which has kept up with his story, from living under a death order since the 1990s to his release from solitary confinement to his more recent hospitalisation as a result of diabetes and the state’s refusal to give him hepatitis C treatments.  One also need be aware of the travesty of the US justice system to which Abu-Jamal was subjected which included, but is not limited to: unreliable prosecution witnesses, unreliable evidence tampering,  and the denial of a trial de novo into which new evidence would be submitted.

Shakur’s story is fascinating in that there is now evidence to suggest that she and other Panthers were targeted by the FBI’s COINTELPRO which sought to frame black political activists, focussing on several Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army members.  Hoover notoriously marked the Black Panther Party as the “greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”  During and even after the Civil Rights Movement, there was an all out war against the black liberation movement which has been well-documented over the past thirty years.  Notwithstanding, Shakur,  today resides in Cuba having escaped from prison in 1979, later receiving political asylum in Cuba in 1984 where she has lived since.

Angela Davis, commenting on Shakur’s case, points out what is little known by most Americans even today:

It’s horrendous, the extent to which the repression associated with the era of the late 1960s and 1970s continues to this day. And we might also mention the fact that vast numbers of people are still behind bars from that era, members of the Black Panther Party—Mondo we Langa, Ed Rice. My co-defendant, Ruchell Magee, has been in prison for over 50 years. So I think that when we put all of these things together, they create a kind of invitation for increased radical activism for trying to resolve these issues that have been decades in the making.

In the aftermath of the US election with many liberals in shock over the Trump victory, what has shocked me in recent weeks in discussions with my fellow Americans is how uninformed most are as to the complicity that both parties have had in the imprisonment of black Americans. While Mondo we Langa (formerly David Rice) died after 44 years behind bars, his co-defendant, Edward Poindexter, along with many others like the recently released Eddie Conway (2014) and Albert Woodfox (2015) are some of the longest incarcerated political prisoners in US history.

While it is no secret the problems of forensic evidence within the courts, the abuses within the justice system which have historically demonstrated disfavour towards people of colour, and the practices of former FBI Director, J.Edgar Hoover (1924-1972), who set out to silence minorities as he held unchecked authority for his almost fifty years in power, the state’s unjust war against former Black Panther Party members demonstrates that these individuals were often framed or put into prison with insufficient evidence. For decades.

Sekou Odinga, a former Panther who spent fifteen years incarcerated, lists the Black Panthers still in prison today:

  • • Romaine “Chip” Fitzgerald
  • • Ed Poindexter
  • • Joseph Bowen
  • • Jalil Muntaqim
  • • Herman Bell
  • • Russell Shoats
  • • Sundiata Acoli
  • • Veronza Bowers
  • • Robert Seth Hayes
  • • Zulu Whitmore
  • • Maliki Shakur
  • • Mutulu Shakur
  • • Imam Jamil Al-Amim
  • • Kamau Sadiki
  • • Mumia Abu-Jamal

Those in exile include Assata Shakur and Pete O’Neal.

While the concern over Donald Trump’s policies towards immigrants and people of colour is reason for caution, this concern should pale in comparison to the political entelechy at hand— the suspended animation of the legal cases of these former Black Panther members still behind bars or in self-imposed exile.  After a string of Republican and Democrat presidents, the reality is that these injustices could have been exonerated long ago by former presidents from both parties.  The fact of these political prisoners and exiles evidences the perniciousness and longevity of structural racism within the United States, racism that casts a long shadow upon the US justice system.

I ask that President Obama please pardon all the Black Panthers behind bars and in exile!

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Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com

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