Saturday, June 11, 2011

Poster of the Week

Free Geronimo Now!
United Friends of Geronimo (Pratt) Ji Jaga
Silkscreen, 1993
Los Angeles, California

Free Geronimo poster used in a demonstration from the 1990s. Photo by Carol Cheetham for LA Times. Shona Pratt, Geronimo Pratt’s daughter is on the right.

Donated to the Center for the Study of Political Graphics by Ellie and Jerry Schnitzer, long time activists and friends. Ellie carried this poster in many demonstrations. It was featured in “Los Angeles: At the Center & On the Edge—4 Decades of Poster from and About L.A.” that opened at Track 16 Gallery, Bergamot Station. When Geromino Pratt was released the week the exhibition opened, the poster changed from an activist organizing tool to a primary historical document telling a story of injustice that might otherwise be marginalized or forgotten.

CSPG’s Poster-of-the-Week commemorates “Geronimo” ji Jaga Pratt (1947-2011), highly decorated Viet Nam War veteran, Black Panther Party Minister of Defense, and U.S. political political prisoner for nearly 30 years. He died last week at age 63.

Pratt wasn’t drafted into the Viet Nam War, but voluntarily enlisted into the army as a teenager, was assigned to the 82nd Airborne. He made 55 combat jumps, earning one Silver Star, two Purple Hearts and two Bronze Stars. After hearing about the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Pratt became disillusioned about the country he had been fighting for, and left the service during his second tour of duty. He soon enrolled in UCLA where he was recruited into the Black Panthers by Bunchy Carter, and became Deputy Minister of Defense.

Pratt became head of the Los Angeles Black Panther Party chapter following the January 17, 1969 assassination on the UCLA campus of Carter and John Huggins, by members of US, a black nationalist group. Thanks to his extensive military background, Pratt trained the Panthers to prepare for an eventual attack by the LAPD, by fortifying their headquarters at 41st and Central and compiling an arsenal. The attack came on December 8, 1969. It was the debut operation of SWAT—a previously untested paramilitary unit of the LAPD Metro Squad, championed by then inspector and future LAPD chief Daryl Gates.

After three hours of shooting, more than 5,000 rounds of ammunition had been exchanged. Despite this massive scale, only four Panthers were shot, four SWAT officers seriously injured, and no one died. [see Matthew Fleicher article below for recent detailed description of the shoot-out.] Following Pratt’s successful defense against the attack, the FBI targeted him for neutralization through COINTELPRO.

Domestic Counter Intelligence Programs (COINTELPROs) were covert operations designed to infiltrate, destabilize, and destroy organizations that law enforcement and government officials deemed as threats to national security. In the 1940s and 1950s, COINTELPROs were directed almost exclusively at the Socialist Workers Party and the Communist Party, USA. During the late 1960s the vast majority of COINTELPRO operations were directed against African American organizations, for the purpose of causing internal dissent and conflicts with other black organizations. The special COINTELPRO division labeled “Black Propaganda” included fabricated publications designed to give organizations a bad public image, fabricated cartoons and letters to foster tensions between groups, infiltration by informers, false rumors, fabricated evidence, and police assaults. [see sample FBI image] In August 1967, the FBI launched a COINTELPRO operation against the Panthers which contributed to the Panther's siege mentality.

COINTELPROs were responsible for the death of Fred Hampton, head of the Chicago Panthers (December 4, 1969), and they exacerbated the conflict between the Panthers and the black nationalist US organization. US was a Los Angeles-based cultural nationalist organization founded and led by Ron Karenga.. The organization had frequent confrontations with the Black Panther Party due to differing ideologies: members of US were cultural nationalists, focusing on racial oppression, while the Panthers described themselves as revolutionary internationalists, focusing on class oppression and struggle. Tensions between the two groups escalated in late 1968, as they struggled for control of two important positions on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The tension culminated in a shootout on the UCLA campus January 17, 1969, in which US members murdered Panthers John Huggins and Bunchy Carter. Three US members were convicted in 1971 for the killings, however, the actual gunmen still remain at large.

In 1970, Pratt became one of many Panthers expelled from the party by Huey Newton, in the Newton-Cleaver split. In December 1970, Pratt was arrested and charged with the 1968 robbery and murder of a Santa Monica woman. Convincing evidence existed that Pratt was 341 miles away, attending meetings of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, and was nowhere near the scene of the crime. But Newton-faction Panthers who could have testified that Pratt was in Oakland at the time of the murder never came forward. The FBI withheld 7,000 pages of documents pertaining to his case, and the key witness placing him at the scene of the crime was a paid FBI informant. Since the trial, a number of witnesses, including former F.B.I agent M. Wesley Swearingen, have stated that Pratt was in Oakland the day of the shooting. In 1981, Amnesty International acknowledged that Geronimo was a victim of official government repression. In 1988, Amnesty International asked the Governor of California, George Deukmejian, to order an inquiry into his case. The Governor declined. Pratt was denied parole for the 13th time in August 1994. In May 1997, Judge Everett W. Dickey of Orange County Superior Court, appointed by Ronald Reagan, threw out the conviction on the grounds that the key government witness was a police informant. In 1999, Los Angeles County district attorney's office said they would not seek a retrial. Pratt had spent 27 years in prison, including eight years in solitary confinement.

Pratt settled a false imprisonment and civil rights lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles and the FBI for $4.5 million. He split his time between Morgan City, La., his home town, and east Africa. He used part of his settlement to support projects for young people in Morgan City and a community founded by former Panthers in Tanzania. Pratt continued to work on behalf of men and women who are believed to be wrongfully incarcerated, including supporting Mumia Abu-Jamal whom he had met when both were active as Black Panthers.

This is one of the cartoons produced by the FBI’s COINTELPRO operation in 1969. Black Panther Party co-founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, and their supporters within the party, rejected cultural nationalists as narrow and bourgeois "pork-chop nationalism". The FBI memo plays on this.

An FBI memo dated 2-27-1969 gives the following instructions:

“AC, San Diego From: Director, FBI Counterintelligence Program Black Nationalist - Hate Groups Racial Intelligence (Black Panther Party) Reurairtel 2/20/69 You are authorized to reproduce enclosed cartoons for anonymous distribution to Black Panther Party (BPP) members in Los Angeles, New York, Sacramento, San Diego and San Francisco. The cartoons should be mailed anonymously one at a time commencing with cartoon number one which portrays the caricature of Ron Karenga. The mailings should be spaced at least one week apart and all mailings should be postmarked at San Diego. You should reproduce cartoons in sufficient numbers to send several cartoons each to known BPP offices in the field divisions listed about as well as to Panther officials whose resident addresses can be obtained from the BPP newspaper. Insure the mailings are made under secure conditions in commercially purchased envelopes which cannot be traced to the source. If you deem it practical, the Bureau has no objection if you use envelopes produced by New Left or college organizations which would logically have and interest in the organizations ridiculed in your cartoons. In no event should you use Bureau informants to assist in the distribution of the cartoons.”

CSPG thanks Roz Payne of Newsreel Films for sending us copies of the COINTELPRO papers regarding the Panthers, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

References: (synopsis of Pratt’s biography, LAST MAN STANDING: The Tragedy and Triumph of Geronimo written by former Time Magazine Bureau chief, Jack Olsen.

For an account of the LAPD/SWAT attack on the Los Angeles Panther Headquarters: Matthew Fleicher, “Policing Revolution”, LA Times Magazine, April 2011

1997 Interview by Bakari Kitwana of Geronimo Pratt, 3 months after his release from prison.

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