The recent arrest of
eight former Black Panthers for the 1971 murder of a San Francisco police officer was a news item that
did not pass the smell test.
On January 23, San Francisco
authorities announced that the men, former members of the Black
Liberation Army, an offshoot of the Black Panther Party (BPP),
were involved in the killing of Sgt. John V. Young.
Sensationalistic news stories— depicting menacing Black urban
terrorists who are finally brought to justice— make for eye-catching
headlines. The legacy of government misconduct which brings
us to this story, however, is far more profound and far more disturbing.
Evidence used to arrest these men was obtained
through torture. In
1973, New Orleans police tortured Black Panther members
in order to obtain information and force confessions from them. They
were stripped naked, blindfolded, covered in blankets soaked with
boiling water, and beaten.
And electric probes were placed on their genitals.
In 1974 a court ruled that the San Francisco
and New Orleans police had engaged in torture to obtain
a confession. Based on that ruling, a San Francisco judge in 1975 dismissed charges
against three men. In 2005, a grand jury convened in San
Francisco to reopen the case, but several of the men involved refused
to attend the proceedings on the grounds that they were being wrongly
compelled to testify.
Every first-year law student learns about the
doctrine of "the
fruit of the poisonous tree". Evidence obtained by illegal
means such as torture, in violation of a person's constitutional
rights, cannot be considered by a judge or jury. Such evidence
is not trustworthy. It taints the proceedings with an air
of misconduct and corruption, and a court cannot use it.
And through torture, a person is likely to
say anything in order to end the infliction of pain. Under torture, the most upstanding
citizen will confess to criminal behavior he or she did not commit,
or accuse others of conduct not of their making. And the
innocent will admit to engaging in terrorist acts that were the
handiwork of another, or acts that exist only in the imagination
of the interrogator.
"The case against these men was built on torture and serves
to remind us that the U.S. government, which recently has engaged
in such horrific forms of torture and abuse at places like Bagram,
Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, has a history of torture and abuse in
this country as well, particularly against African Americans," says
Bill Goodman, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Indeed, the recent arrests remind us of decades
earlier, before the "War on Terror," when the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover
waged a war on domestic groups in the 1960s and 1970s. Called
COINTELPO (an acronym for counterintelligence program), among the
goals of the program were to "disrupt and neutralize organizations
which the Bureau characterized as Black Nationalist Hate Groups," and "prevent
the rise of a messiah who could unify and electrify the militant
nationalist movement," according to a 1976 report released
by the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations
with Respect to Intelligence Activities, also known as the "Church
Committee" from the committee's chair Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho).
Some of the targets of the COINTELPRO program included Dr. Martin
Luther King, Jr. and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference
(SCLC), Malcolm X, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
(SNCC), and the Black Panther Party, described by Hoover
as "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country." One
of the Bureau's prime targets was the Panthers' free breakfast
program for children, which, according to the Senate report, "FBI
headquarters feared might be a potentially successful effort by
the BPP to teach children to hate police and to spread 'anti-white
A government-operated domestic spying program
taking place during the height of the civil rights movement,
in an effort to destroy
that movement and its leaders, COINTELPRO remains a contemptible
chapter in American history. "Many of the techniques
used would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of
the targets had been involved in violent activity, but COINTELPRO
went far beyond that," the Church Committee reported. "The
unexpressed major premise of the programs was that a law enforcement
agency has the duty to do whatever is necessary to combat perceived
threats to the existing social and political order."
FBI coordination with the Chicago
police led to the brutal 1969 killing of Fred Hampton, the charismatic
deputy chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the BPP, in his apartment. Characterized
by many as an assassination, it was proven that all but one of
the 99 shots fired in the ambush were fired by police. 5,000
people attended his funeral, and he was eulogized by Jesse Jackson
and Dr. King's successor Ralph Abernathy. And in 1990, the Chicago
city council passed a resolution establishing December 4 as "Fred
So, it is under this troubled history that
these ex-Black Panthers are once again in the spotlight. The
FBI's war against civil rights groups has given way to the war
on terror, and the civil
liberties of American citizens once again are under threat.
"People ask the question, why pick up these men after
they've been around, have not attempted to elude the authorities,
have led productive lives all these years?" says Michael Warren,
attorney for Francisco Torres. "The reason why is simply
this: … John Ashcroft, shortly after he was appointed the Attorney
General, made a vow and a promise that he was going to go after
as many ex-Black Panthers as he possibly could. And that's when
this program was instituted."
Warren adds: "The most recent reason, it relates to retaliation.
These men, after being tortured (in 1971), and after the grand
jury ended in 2006, went on the road with the Center for Constitutional
Rights and talked about their torture…. And that's what this case
"There's a law enforcement
attitude that they hate these people, the Panthers," says San
Francisco attorney Stuart Hanlon, who represents Herman Bell, one
of the arrested men. "Now they're going after old men."
Now, it seems, there are old scores to settle
with the Panthers, as old habits die hard. Sadly, America
has learned little from its disturbing legacy of government abuse.
David A. Love is an attorney and writer based in Philadelphia
who writes for the Progressive
Media Project and McClatchy-Tribune