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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Losing Geronimo Ji Jaga Pratt the week after the loss of Gil Scott-Heron felt like a body blow. As of this writing, no indication has been offered as to what led to Geronimo's death.

For most of us who came of age politically in the late 1960s/early 1970s, Geronimo held a special place. His role in the Black Panther Party, his survival of the split in the Panthers with his integrity intact, and his ability to sustain himself and his commitment over the 27 years of fraudulent imprisonment all spoke to his remarkable character.

It was in reading various obituaries that I found myself thinking and rethinking the circumstances of Geronimo's imprisonment. It was not just the facts of the case but rather the context. This all returns me to the film I reviewed for BC a few weeks ago about COINTELPRO.

For those who missed my column or are too young to remember COINTELPRO, that was the FBI's operation aimed at disrupting domestic political organizations that it judged to be threats to national security. During the 1960s, COINTELPRO focused on various social movements, including but not limited to the African American movement. Within the African American movement, the Black Panther Party was an important target for the FBI.

The death of Geronimo needs to be a moment to not only mourn a courageous fighter but to instruct those who have or have had such strong illusions about the nature of democracy in the USA about one of the means through which dissent is and has been handled. Through the false testimony of a reported FBI informant, Geronimo was convicted and could have been given the death penalty. As it was, he lost 27 years of his life, all because of COINTELPRO.

At the height of the Panther's influence and note, it was quite common for those who warned of the danger of police/government infiltration of the Black Freedom Movement to be condemned as paranoid and chicken-littles. Yet the murder of Chicago Panther leader, Fred Hampton, and the imprisonment of Geronimo Pratt, to name only two victims of COINTELPRO, turned out to be startling evidence of relentless and uncontrolled use of the mechanisms of repression that the State was prepared to go to in the name of national security, but in fact as a means to crush dissent.

In the aftermath of Geronimo's death there will be many tributes, and so there should be. But what is more than likely going to be left unsaid - unless YOU say something - is any recognition of the numbers of political prisoners who remain rotting in the jails of the USA, so many of them victims of COINTELPRO or COINTELPRO-like operations. When many such individuals were first imprisoned, their names were emblazoned on the covers of left-wing and other newspapers and magazines. In some cases there were defense committees established to win their freedom. But as year after year passed, and as the 70s became the 80s and the 80s became the 90s… too many of these political activists - now political prisoners - sat forgotten.

Geronimo, through the shrewd legal work of the late Johnny Cochran and the countless individuals who never gave up on him, won his freedom. But he was only one.

As we remember Geronimo, let us regain our memory of those others who also put their lives on the line for freedom, often to be set up by the State as a way of getting them off the scene. That may be the best way to honor Geronimo. Editorial Board member, Bill Fletcher, Jr., is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfricaForum and co-author of Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice (University of California Press), which examines the crisis of organized labor in the USA. Click here to contact Mr. Fletcher.

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