On October 16, 2016, Iberia Hampton died after a long illness at the age of 94. We can not put into words how much Iberia, known affectionately as Big Mama, meant to us. The foundation of the People’s Law Office was grounded in the life and the December 4, 1969 assassination of Fred Hampton, and our collective struggle to uncover, expose, and teach about the truth of Fred and Mark Clark’s murders at the hands of the Chicago police, the Cook County State’s Attorneys’ Office, and the FBI’s Cointelpro Program. Iberia and Fred’s brother Bill stood with us during our many decade battle, and she was a second mother to Jeff and Flint, who remained devoted comrades and friends with her up and until the time of her death. On October 26, 2016, the Cook County Board of Commissioners passed a unanimous resolution honoring Iberia, Fred, and the Hampton family. Iberia Hampton, like her son Fred, was a true inspiration to all of us and will continue to inspire us in our work.
The lawyers for the Estate of Eugene Ellison and the City of Little Rock today informed the Federal District Court that they have reached an historic settlement in the fatal shooting case of 67 year old Eugene Ellison. The Estate of Mr. Ellison, who was unjustifiably shot by an off duty Little Rock police officer while in this own home on December 9, 2010, will receive well in excess of a million dollars (the exact amount of the settlement with Big Country Chateau is confidential), together with an official apology from the city, a memorial bench at a site to be determined by Mr. Ellison’s family, and a dedication ceremony. Not only is this the largest police brutality settlement in the history of Little Rock, but additionally the apology and memorial are both unprecedented and considered extremely important to Mr. Ellison’s family, which includes Little Rock police lieutenant Troy Ellison and former Little Rock police detective Spencer Ellison.
This originally was published in The Electronic Intifada on April 26, 2016.
My friend and client Muhammad Salah died on Sunday aged 62, after suffering from cancer for several years.
I had the great privilege and honor, along with Erica Thompson, of defending him in federal court in Chicago against charges of terrorism and racketeering.
Muhammad’s trial in 2007 exposed the systematic use of torture by Shin Bet, the Israeli secret police, and the cynical willingness of the US government to use such torture evidence as part of their phony war on terrorism.
Muhammad had been arrested at an Israeli checkpoint in early 1993, while on a mission to bring financial humanitarian aid to the families of Palestinian leaders who had been illegally deported to Lebanon.
He was interrogated and brutally tortured for more than 50 days, while the Israeli government publicly accused him of being a “world commander of Hamas.”
After five years in an Israeli prison he returned to his family in Bridgeview, outside Chicago, only to be targeted by the FBI and, in the wake of 9/11, indicted in Chicago, along with Dr. Abdelhaleem Ashqar, who had been imprisoned for refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating US Palestinian organizations.
Muhammad was not only indicted, but in 1995, he became the first US citizen to be denominated a “Specially Designated Terrorist.”
The designation was made by an executive order of President Bill Clinton with no legal process, no limitation in time and no procedure to challenge it.
As result of this designation, Muhammad could not obtain any services, medical or legal, or purchase any items, buy food or pay his rent, without obtaining a special license from the government.
It wasn’t until 17 years later, and the filing of a civil lawsuit challenging the measure as unconstitutional, that the government agreed to remove the terrorism designation and the restrictions.
During his three-month trial, federal prosecutors brought in Muhammad’s Israeli interrogators, using code names and relying on secret evidence, to a closed US courtroom.
Despite these and other measures, an American jury, which had been educated throughout the case by Palestinian, Israeli and international experts about the occupation and Israeli torture, acquitted both Muhammad Salah and Dr. Ashqar of the most serious charges for which they faced life in prison.
The not guilty verdict, which made banner headlines in The Chicago Tribune, was a tremendous victory not only for the Arab community. It also served as a check on the government’s post-9/11 intentions to bring “terrorism” charges to chill political support for the Palestinian cause.
The victory also helped to dissipate the pervasive fear in the community, encouraging people to speak out and to mobilize support for others who would come under attack.
Throughout this ordeal, Muhammad, with the heroic support of his wife Maryam, and his community – scores of people would line up every morning to bear witness in the courtroom – maintained his gentle demeanor and confidence in a positive outcome.During the long trial, which at times was quite tense and heated, Muhammad remained calm, and always expressed concern for others – his family and his community, here and in Palestine.
He would often ask me how I was feeling and what he could do to help me. The love and support we felt from him and Maryam were critical in sustaining our energy over the long trial.
When it came time for his sentence on a minor charge, 600 people wrote personal letters to the judge relating their love for this extraordinary man and his 30 years of service to his community. He served his 11-month sentence with his customary calm and dignity and then returned home to Bridgeview to resume his life.
While we will dearly miss him, we can best pay homage to the life of Muhammad Salah by continuing to work for justice for the Palestinian people.
On March 30, 2016, a federal jury found in favor of Paul Washington on his malicious prosecution and intentional infliction of emotional distress claims after six days of trial in a police shooting case.
In October of 2009, Mr. Washington was shot at 16 times by two Chicago Police Officers with the now disbanded Tactical Response Unit. Mr. Washington was hit four times, twice in the left leg, once across his lower back and once in his upper right shoulder.
The officers falsely claimed Mr. Washington had a gun, was pointing it at his neighbors, and repeatedly attempted to shoot at the Officers. The Officers claimed to have recovered a gun at the scene.
Mr. Washington was arrested and prosecuted for first degree attempted murder of a peace officer, aggravated discharge of a firearm and unlawful use of weapon by a felon. After serving two years and eight months, he was found not guilty of all charges at his criminal trial.
Washington was represented by PLO attorneys Joey Mogul and Janine Hoft with the assistance of PLO investigator and paralegal Brad Thomson. With only one other civilian witness other than Mr. Washington, and in spite of difficult impeaching evidence, Hoft and Mogul were able to prove that Paul Washington should have never been charged and prosecuted by the defendant police officers. Because of their efforts, Washington was finally able to obtain some measure of justice.
Good news from CTJM!
Today the City of Chicago began the process of disbursing financial reparations in the Burge torture cases. 57 living survivors of police torture perpetuated by those working at the behest of disgraced former Commander Jon Burge were recipients. The payment fulfills a critical component of the historic reparations ordinance passed by the Chicago City Council last May. As members of Chicago Torture Justice Memorials (CTJM), we herald these reparations payments as part of a decades-long struggle for justice in the Chicago police torture cases, and honor the 57 survivors who deserve so much more.
In the midst of a major political crisis in our city, we must understand this development in the context of our times.
Most importantly, the reparations package was the product of decades of organizing, litigation, and investigative journalism, and was, inspired by the dedication of the survivors themselves, the culmination of a campaign in the winter and spring by CTJM, Amnesty International USA, Project NIA and We Charge Genocide. The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement nationally was the critical context for our success. City leaders faced extraordinary local, national and international pressure to support the reparations ordinance: forty-six organizations endorsed the ordinance; the U.N. Committee Against Torture specifically called on the U.S. Government to support the passage of the first-of-its-kind legislation; many hundreds of Chicagoans attended demonstrations, rallies, sing-ins and citywide teach-ins; and tens of thousands signed petitions to urge the mayor and City Council to support the ordinance.
While the Reparations Ordinance was drafted to provide redress to the approximately 125 Black people tortured by Burge and his subordinates from 1972 through 1991, and was inspired by the extraordinary groundwork done by Attorney Stan Willis and Black People Against Police Torture, it also spoke to a national crisis. “This holistic model should serve as a blueprint for how cities around the country, from Ferguson to Baltimore, can respond to systemic racist police brutality,” said Joey Mogul, a co-founder of Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, partner at the People’s Law Office and drafter of the original reparations ordinance.
Since passage of the ordinance, we have seen a steady stream of protests, vigils, disruptions, and occupations—fueled largely by social media and cell phone videos—targeting racist police violence locally and nationally. In Chicago the police killing of Laquan McDonald, which some have referred to as an “execution,” sparked sustained protests, leading to the firing of the police superintendent and head of IPRA (Independent Police Review Authority) and the opening of an investigation of Chicago police practices by the U. S. Department of Justice. Even more recently, the police killings of Bettie Jones and Quintonio Legrier have created a renewed crisis in the city and an intensification of struggle.
Newly released data from the Citizens Police Data Project shows that 99% of tens of thousands of complaints against CPD officers from 2011-2015 led to no punishment or sanction. This culture of impunity, racism and violence clearly goes beyond a “few bad apples,” and suggests the multigenerational span of this crisis of police violence in Chicago. Jason Van Dyke, indicted for murdering Laquan McDonald,had 18 civilian complaints filed against him, including allegations of using excessive force and racial slurs. He, like Jon Burge before him, was encouraged rather than punished.
Moreover, the trauma for survivors continues. As Burge torture survivor, Anthony Holmes stated in his court testimony in 2011: “I can’t ever shake it. I still have nightmares, not as bad as they were, but I still have them. I wake up in a cold sweat. I still fear that I am going to go back to jail for this again. I see myself falling in a deep hole and no one helping me to get out.” Each time a new video surfaces of CPD murdering Black Chicagoans, the cycle of trauma is sustained.
In response to the very important question of whether torture reparations alone can bring healing to a city beset with a torrent of recent revelations of police, prosecutorial and judicial misconduct Alice Kim, activist and a CTJM leader said: “This is forty four years after the first known instance of Burge torture. The criminal justice system failed those who were tortured by Burge and for too long Burge torture was denied and covered up. No amount of financial compensation can make up for what the survivors suffered but we sought tangible redress that could make a meaningful difference in their lives.”
Flint Taylor, a founding member of the People’s Law Office and who, with his law partner and CTJM co-founder Joey Mogul have acted as lawyers for CTJM said: “Reparations, although an historic accomplishment that recognizes that racist violence by the police is not a recent phenomenon, but rather spans many decades, cannot heal the City without fundamental systemic changes within the Chicago police department, the Cook County State’s Attorneys’ Office and the Cook County Criminal Justice system.”
Darrell Cannon, a Burge torture survivor and one of the main spokespersons for the Reparations campaign said: “Reparations is only the first step to healing the City. We still have a long way to go. No one should forget that torture under Jon Burge took place with the knowledge and complicity of former Mayor Daley and former States Attorney Devine.”
The Reparations Ordinance provides a package of services, education and resources, and CTJM is working with appropriate partners to implement these important measures. Torture survivors and other victims of police violence have the right to financial compensation and other forms of redress to repair the harm done to them and their communities. But it is also clear that multi-million dollar settlements have not led the City of Chicago to halt the long reign of police abuse; significant changes in police practices are long overdue. It is truly unconscionable that 40% of the city budget is allocated to the Chicago Police Department, while schools and mental health clinics are closed.
Hence, CTJM joins other organizations and leaders in calling for a transformation of governance in this city and a re-thinking of the best way to achieve public safety.
People’s Law Office is accepting applications for our 2016 summer internship and educational program, which focuses on civil rights litigation rooted in social justice and radical legal work.
Interns will participate in a wide range of litigation-related work and will be exposed to a progressive law office that has been committed to being “people’s lawyers” since 1969. Our attorneys and legal workers have successfully fought for the civil and human rights of people who have been wrongfully convicted, falsely arrested and subjected to excessive force and torture at the hands of law enforcement officials and prosecutors. The office has also steadfastly represented political activists and individuals who have been targeted by governmental officials because of their political views or organizing work.
The program is open to law students. Candidates should demonstrate experience in and/or commitment to social justice, organizing and/or social movements. To apply please send a resume, cover letter and writing sample to email@example.com. Applications will be accepted until February 13, 2016 and will be reviewed on a rolling basis.
People of color, women, people of all gender identities and gender expressions, and persons with disabilities are encouraged to apply.
Oscar López Rivera has served 34 years in US prisons for seditious conspiracy – in other words, for his commitment to the independence of Puerto Rico – though he wasn’t convicted of hurting or killing anyone. Since 1898, when the US militarily invaded and occupied Puerto Rico, there hasn’t been a single decade in which there hasn’t been anindependentista imprisoned. But it is unusual that López Rivera has served so many years – longer by far than any other Puerto Ricanindependentista in history, longer than his codefendants, longer than offenders convicted of violence and longer than the 27 years served by the world’s most renowned political prisoner, Nelson Mandela.
In a united voice, Puerto Rican society has called on President Obama to release López Rivera. This call has come from the current governor of Puerto Rico, who made a historic diplomatic visit to see him, from former governors, from the legislature, from the Puerto Rican Bar Association, from the archbishop and the entire ecumenical community, and from universities and artists and poets. Editorials from the island’s main daily newspaper have channeled this support into consistent, strong expression, calling López Rivera’s ongoing imprisonment “the symbol of a flagrant dishonor for his jailers and an affront to democracy that fails to respect human rights.”
Members of the Puerto Rican diaspora and others in the US have also joined this campaign for his release: The AFL-CIO, AFSCME, SEIU, Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, Congressional Hispanic Caucus, American Civil Liberties Union, National Hispanic Bar Association and the National Lawyers Guild have all condemned the violation of his human rights. The international community has likewise embraced the call for his release, including the United Nations Decolonization Committee, the Non-Aligned Movement, the American Association of Jurists, the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, Nobel Peace Prize laureates, regional Latin American organizations such as the Permanent Conference of Political Parties of Latin America and the Caribbean, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America and the Latin American Council of Churches, as well as the presidents of several nations such as Uruguay, Nicaragua and Venezuela.
As part of this growing support for his release, New York attorneys Juan Cartagena and Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan accompanied me on a legal visit in November with López Rivera.
Cartagena, president and general counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF (the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund), is no newcomer to understanding the violations of the rights of Puerto Ricans in the United States. His long legal career is distinguished by his work on the political representation of poor and marginalized communities – especially Puerto Rican and Latino communities. Bannan, a staff attorney at LatinoJustice PRLDEF, recently became the president of the National Lawyers Guild, the most progressive bar association in the United States, which was formed in 1937 as the first racially integrated bar association to advocate for the protection of constitutional, human and civil rights.
Although these two attorneys were already involved in the growing campaign for López Rivera’s release from prison, they wanted to meet this man whose resistance and integrity have become legendary. They were not disappointed.
“You do this work for so long, and then there are the momentous occasions,” Cartagena said. “I was in Vieques, [Puerto Rico,] when the Navy left. I don’t think I’ve ever been so proud of being Puerto Rican. Meeting Oscar was like that.”
Although López is 72 years old, and passed more than 12 of his 34 years in solitary confinement at Marion and at ADX Florence, “he was gracious, smart, current on issues of the day,” Cartagena said. “His mind [was] fresh with things that happened to him as a kid. I can’t believe that someone who served 12 years in solitary has any kind of mind.”
Bannan remarked on “his knowledge and deep understanding of the world, of human nature, of events, or the interrelatedness and intersectionality of our lives and events, and what he intends to do with the rest of his life.” She added, “These 34 years aren’t what define him. His life and vision is so much bigger than those walls that hold him. That’s what he wanted to talk about.”
Two particular expressions uttered by López Rivera impacted them. For Cartagena, it was “tengo mucha esperanza, pero tengo una mochila llena de preocupaciones,” or “I have a lot of hope, but I also have a backpack full of preoccupations.” For Bannan, it was “la lucha sin amor se muere,” or “without love, the struggle dies.”
Bannan added that López Rivera’s book, Between Torture and Resistance, comes from this same deep place of love. She was moved when he recounted a story about learning how to treat farm animals as a child: He was taught that “our actions are a reflection of who we are, how we move through the world, how we treat each other, the most vulnerable among us.” She added, “His story is to try to sensitize us to our humanity.”
The attorneys’ last image of the political prisoner made a deep impression. Cartagena said that upon seeing López Rivera wave as he headed to exit the visiting room, he felt “the overwhelming sense of injustice … of my ability to leave and his inability to follow us. Of how he can describe the torture he went through in such a way that can only reflect his resiliency of surviving the torture and 34 years of resilience … In many ways he personifies resistance in so many levels.”
The visit gave them a sense of action and a sense of urgency. “What I got to live today brought me so much more committed to his release,” Bannan said. “I need to communicate that, so that he’s not just a worshiped figure. The reality of his confinement, waving to us as he went back in – the urgency of it somehow gets lost.”
Cartagena added, “In some ways we have to figure out a way that more people can see and hear what we just saw and heard. Only if we can get some media in there to broadcast the sound of his voice, his mannerisms. Everything about him, his humanity. Meeting a man like that, you can’t help wanting to do more.”
To learn more, read Dahr Jamail’s Truthout piece, “Oscar López Rivera: Will Obama Pardon This Political Prisoner?“
This op-ed, written by PLO attorney Jan Susler, was originally published in Truthout on Monday, December 07, 2015.
Starting with a premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, Stanley Nelson, Laurens Grant, Aljernon Tunsil, and Firelight Media’s made-for-PBS documentary on the history of the Black Panther Party has been touring the country. The feature length film—named, not without a touch of irony, The Black Panthers, Vanguard of the Revolution—has attracted large audiences, much acclaim, and some criticism, most notably from former Black Panther leader Elaine Brown, who called it “a two-dimensional palliative for white people and Negroes who are comfortable in America’s oppressive status quo.”
Nelson, Grant and Tunsil are African-American documentary filmmakers of note, having to their collective credit documentaries on Emmet Till, Freedom Summer, Jesse Owens and the Freedom Riders. In his director’s statement, Nelson describes his mission in making the film:
Seven years ago, I set out to tell the story of the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party, a little known history that hadn’t been told in its entirety. In particular, I wanted to offer a unique and engaging opportunity to examine a very complex moment in time that challenges the cold, oversimplified narrative of a Panther who is prone to violence and consumed with anger. Thoroughly examining the history of the Black Panther Party allowed me to sift through the fragmented perceptions and find the core driver of the movement: the Black Panther Party emerged out of a love for their people and a devotion to empowering them. This powerful display of the human spirit, rooted in heart, is what compelled me to communicate this story accurately.
Several powerful documentaries paved the way for Firelight’s film. In 1969, radical filmmakers Mike Gray and Howard Alk made a black-and-white 16 millimeter film called American Revolution II, which chronicled the Chicago Black Panther Party’s efforts in forging a Rainbow Coalition among white, Puerto Rican and African-American organizations.
During their filming, Gray and Alk were inspired by a 21-year-old messianic Black Panther Party leader, Chairman Fred Hampton, and set out making a sequel to American Revolution II. They shot some remarkable footage of Hampton and the Chicago Panthers, but before they had finished the film, Hampton was murdered in his bed, the victim of a conspiracy hatched as part of the FBI’s then-secret COINTELPRO program and executed by the Chicago police and the State’s Attorney of Cook County, Edward V. Hanrahan.
Summoned to the apartment to film the murder scene, Gray and Alk then transformed their film into The Murder of Fred Hampton, which powerfully proved Hanrahan’s claim that the Panthers shot it out with the police to be a bold-faced lie, and that the raid was in fact a pre-planned police murder. The movie premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, but was not widely viewed in this country. It was, however, seen in New York City by a young man named of Stanley Nelson.
In 1987, African-American film producer Henry Hampton’s series Eyes on the Prize aired on PBS. The six-part series documented the early civil rights struggle, and three years later, PBS aired Eyes on the Prize II. This eight-part sequel chronicled the evolution of the civil rights struggle during the last half of the 1960s and through the 1970s as it moved north, became radicalized while also entering the realm of electoral politics.
One episode, entitled “Power” and narrated by Julian Bond, described the rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland California and featured interviews with former national BPP leaders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. A few weeks later, Henry Hampton, his director, Terry Rockefeller, and their film company, Blackside, presented an episode called “A Nation of Laws?” In this episode, the filmmakers, armed with evidence unearthed by Fred Hampton’s lawyers over a decade of litigation, and the investigation conducted by Senator Frank Church’s Intelligence Committee, made out a compelling case that Fred Hampton was a charismatic young leader of a dynamic revolutionary organization who was the victim of a nationwide FBI conspiracy to destroy the Black Panther Party, a conspiracy that was part and parcel of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO.
This episode featured the only known interview with FBI informant-provocateur William O’Neal, who drew the floorplan that the police used in their murderous raid, and who received a $300 bonus for his integral role in the conspiracy. “A Nation of Laws?” also made an early link between police repression and the issue of mass incarceration through Angela Y. Davis, who provided a bridge from the Hampton assassination to the second half of the episode which documented the 1971 Attica prison rebellion and its bloody suppression, on orders from Governor Nelson Rockefeller, by the New York State Police.
Nearly two decades passed before another documentary treated the BPP, Fred Hampton and the FBI’s program to destroy the Party. This time it was BET, oddly enough, in its series called American Gangster. In an hour-long episode that aired in 2008, BET crowned J. Edgar Hoover as an all-powerful law enforcement gangster and traced his decades-long war against all manner of black organizations and leaders. Honing in on COINTELPRO and its attempt to destroy Martin Luther King, the show condemned Hoover and the FBI as virulent racists who, after King’s assassination, joined hands with the newly elected Richard Nixon to continue its war on the black liberation movement, cloaked as a war on crime. The show climaxed by documenting in detail how the murder of Fred Hampton was COINTELRPO’s racist end game in the FBI’s plot to destroy the Black Panther Party.
So it was with this historical backdrop that Nelson and Grant set out to recount the short but complicated history of the Black Panther Party, starting in California in 1966 with the Party’s founding and its bursting on the national scene with its dramatic march into the California state legislature, legally holding guns while Governor Ronald Reagan was holding a press conference on the Capitol’s steps. Using remarkable black-and-white archival footage, the current voices of more than twenty former Panthers, a former FBI agent, several retired police officers, a number of Panther lawyers and community activists, and a collection of historians (rather than a narrator), and accompanied by some soul stirring period music , the fast-paced movie opens with the Chi-Lites belting out “Give More Power to the People” and takes the viewer through the police slaying of little Bobby Hutton, Huey Newton’s shootout with the Oakland police and the world-wide movement to “Free Huey.”
It shines a light on the many BPP community programs, from serving breakfast to thousands of children to publishing a weekly paper best known for its dissemination of the BPP’s 10-Point program and the art of Emory Douglas, which most often displayed his almost limitless capacity to depict police as all manner of pigs. It also shows the vital importance that young women played in the day-to-day operations of the Party—several of the Party’s female leaders, most notably Erica Huggins, Kathleen Cleaver, Elaine Brown and Phyllis Jackson have important roles in narrating the Party’s history.
Vanguard of the Revolution also takes a serious look at the developing division within the party between the imprisoned Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, who had risen to prominence in Newton’s absence and had later fled to Algeria and opened up an international section of the Party. The film also shows how the FBI took glee in attempting to foment and further exacerbate that conflict and other political differences that arose between the Panthers and other organizations. But the heart of the film is the recounting of a number of events that reflect the government’s unremitting repression of the party and how the Party attempted to resist, yet ultimately succumbed, to this onslaught.
One such method was the arrest and prosecution of Panther leadership. Beyond the arrest and prosecution of Huey Newton, the film also deals at length with the jailing of the New York Panther leadership, in a case that became known as the Panther 21. Through the voice on Jamal Joseph, who, at the age of 16 was rounded up as one of the 21, and one of his lawyers, the viewer is familiarized with their trumped-up and politically motivated arrest, prosecution and, in one of the few joyous moments in the film, their acquittal and victory celebration. The film also documents the targeting of Bobby Seale as one of the alleged co-conspirators in the notorious Conspiracy 8 trial in Chicago in 1969, and his being viciously bound and gagged by Judge Julius Hoffman when Seale attempted to represent himself.
The second form of repression, which we now know was coordinated and orchestrated nationally by the FBI, was police violence—most commonly in the form of raids on Panther offices and homes that lead to injury, death and the mass arrests of Panthers who defended themselves against these attacks like the police assassination of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark on December 4, 1969. While Vanguard of the Revolution does not plow ground not covered in prior films, it does accurately portray Hampton as the remarkable young leader that he was, showing numerous clips from The Murder of Fred Hampton, beginning with Hampton’s stirring speech at the Federal Courthouse (after Seale was gagged and jailed) in which he proclaimed that “you can jail a revolutionary, but you can’t jail a revolution.”
The film also gives appropriate prominence to Hampton’s assassination in the history of the Black Panther Party. Using much of Mike Gray’s footage, as well as portions of informant O’Neal’s interview from Eyes on the Prize II, this segment also relies on the voices, then and now, of raid survivor Akua Njeri (Deborah Johnson), several former Chicago Panthers, two of Hampton’s lawyers and an African-American police officer to retell the chilling tale. Notably absent is the voice of longtime U.S. Congressman Bobby Rush, who was the very prominent Minister of Defense of the Chicago Chapter who miraculously avoided a fate similar to Hampton’s on December 4. But Mike Gray is an important voice in the re-telling and gives a unique perspective as a filmmaker who chronicled the events in real time.
Bookended with the Hampton assassination in the film is the police raid on the Los Angeles Black Panther offices only four days later. Unlike the pre-dawn raid on Hampton’s apartment, this raid was met with armed Panther resistance. Through the eyes of three of the men who were present—Wayne Pharr, Roland Freeman and Gil Parker—we experience firsthand the gun battle that took place for many hours and the Panthers’ ultimate surrender. In one of the film’s most powerful moments, when Pharr, who has since died, was asked how he felt as he fired back at the police, he responded, “I felt free, I felt absolutely free.”
As the film heads to its conclusion, we see the results of the repression on the Panthers and the divisions within the Party as the Oakland Chapter turns to electoral politics and Bobby Seale runs for Mayor of Oakland. What we do not see is the emergence of an underground iteration of the Panthers known as the Black Liberation Army, which dedicated itself to armed actions and armed struggle and which engaged in some high-profile confrontations with police that left several police officers dead and numerous BLA members, including Assata Shakur and Sundiata Acoli, charged with capital crimes.
The film is not a complete history. The narration favors Kathleen Cleaver and her view of the history over that of Elaine Brown; George Jackson’s role in the Party’s evolving ideology is omitted, as is Angela Davis, Geronimo Pratt and the BLA; and Bobby Seale has withheld his very important current voice from the film. It could also be said that it glosses over the very real issue of male chauvinism in the Party, although Elaine Brown does briefly acknowledge that it was a problem. The documentary concludes on a down note, depicting Huey in his post-prison years as a violent, dope-addled, underworld kingpin—one former Panther called him a “fucking maniac”—while noting that Eldridge Cleaver went on to be a born-again Christian and political supporter of Ronald Reagan.
With Gil Scott Heron’s mournful “Winter in America” as the backdrop, those blows are softened somewhat by the film’s final act: the separate reading of each of the points in the Panther’s 10 Point Program by several of those former Panthers whose voices have become familiar during the movie, and by Jamal Joseph’s proclamation that, for all its youthful mistakes and over-exuberance, the Black Panther Party was motivated, at bottom, by an “undying love for the people.”
As one of the lawyers who fought to transform the narrative about the Black Panther Party and the assassination of Fred Hampton both through courtroom litigation and by working with various committed filmmakers over the years—including those at Blackside and Firelight—these omissions and criticisms, in my view, pale in comparison to what Firelight has succeeded in telling, primarily through the voices of those now-greying Black Panthers who lived through it. In their youth, these and many more Panthers courageously made people’s history. That history is somewhat imperfectly, but most powerfully, narrated in this film, and the lessons to those engaged in today’s struggles against racism and for justice are there for all to see. Can we ask for more from a documentary filmmaker?
This article was written by People’s Law Office attorney Flint Taylor. This was originally published in In These Times on October 29, 2015.
Special Prosecutor Drops Charges In Wrongful Conviction Case of Burge-Era Torture Victim After Almost 25 Years in Prison
46 year-old Mr. Whirl was the first person granted a new trial after a referral by the Illinois Torture Inquiry & Relief Commission, which was established in 2009 to provide an avenue of relief for torture victims of the Chicago Police Department. Mr. Whirl’s case was among the first cases to be referred by the Commission to the courts.
When Whirl’s attorneys notified him of his release he said: “How do I feel? Relieved, but also nervous because this feels surreal. I just want to be able to start from somewhere to continue to correct this wrong. I’ve been in a think tank here in prison – I’ve utilized my incarceration to better myself. In order to be upset, you have to have room for anger. And I just don’t have room for that.”
Attorney Flint Taylor of the People’s Law Office, who represented Mr Whirl together with his law partner Ben Elson and Tara Thompson of the University of Chicago Exoneration Project, and has been representing police torture victims for nearly 30 years, said: “This is another important victory, not only for Shawn, but also for the entire movement that has steadfastly fought for justice in the torture cases for many years. That it follows on the heels of the passage of the historic reparations ordinance makes it particularly significant.”
Because of this torture, Mr. Whirl ultimately signed a false confession in this case. He pled guilty and was sentenced to 60 years in prison. In 2012, the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission referred Whirl’s case back to the Circuit Court of Cook County for an evidentiary hearing on his torture claim. The courts initially denied him relief, but on of this year, an Illinois Appellate Court panel vacated Whirl’s conviction. In a unanimous ruling, the panel condemned the torture of Mr. Whirl, recognized that it was part of a pattern and practice of torture under Burge, and determined that Mr. Whirl should receive a new suppression hearing and, if necessary, a new trial. That opinion explained that ”it is impossible to conceive of how the State could prevail at a new suppression hearing with the officer alleged to have coerced a suspect’s confession invoking his privilege against self-incrimination.” The case then returned to the circuit court, where today the Office of the Special State’s Attorney, exercising its mandate to do justice in cases involving torture, moved to dismiss all charges, citing Detective Pienta’s continuing intention to exercise his Fifth Amendment rights, and conceding that they had no case without the tortured confession.
Mr. Whirl was represented by Flint Taylor, Ben Elson, and Sarah Gelsomino of the People’s Law Office and Tara Thompson of the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School. University of Chicago Law School students also participated in Mr. Whirl’s representation.
A Special Message on El Grito de Lares from Oscar López-Rivera
For the past thirty-four years, Oscar López-Rivera, the longest held political prisoner in Puerto Rican history, has commemorated El Grito de Lares from within a U.S. prison. From his cell in the Marion Federal Penitentiary, he wrote a brief reflection on the significance of El Grito.
It’s very important to celebrate the Grito de Lares, especially to learn more about that glorious event and to have a good appreciation about the courageous men and women who dared to sow the seed of struggle for the independence and sovereignty of our beloved homeland. We can raise the question, why was the abolition of slavery so important to the heroic women and men who took up arms against Spanish colonialism? Would the Spaniards have abolished slavery without their uprising? Would the colonizers have continued taking Puerto Ricans for granted? Would the anti-colonial struggle have had the continuity it has been able to have without this event? If the Grito de Lares had not happened, could so many generations of Puerto Rican freedom fighters have given continuity to the anti-colonial struggle?
The best leaders, who have succeeded them and emulated their example, have looked at the Grito de Lares as the most important symbol of the Puerto Rican anti-colonial struggle. They have used it as a platform not only to raise consciousness, but also as one that will not allow Puerto Ricans to forget that we have the potential of becoming an independent and sovereign nation as long as we dare to struggle for it.
For us, El Grito de Lares is as important as the Grito de Dolores is to Mexicans and the Grito de Yara is to our Cuban brothers and sisters. The Grito de Lares was only the beginning of a revolutionary process. Its celebration in the Puerto Rican diaspora and in Puerto Rico confirms that our struggle to end colonialism continues, and that generation after generation has carried in its heart our national boricua identity. Indeed, the seed sown by the heroic women and men in the Grito de Lares—that 23 of September, 1868—has become a perennial one. Our struggle continues and victory will be ours because we dare to struggle and to win.
EN RESISTENCIA Y LUCHA,
For more on Oscar López-Rivera and our work supporting the Puerto Rican Independence movement, visit the Puerto Rico page on this site.