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Geronimo Pratt, RIP

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This is a day where death has dominated the headlines–Jack Kevorkian, the American economy, Marshall Matt Dillon. But I want to say a special word about the recently deceased Geronimo Pratt, the Black Panther who spent 27 years in prison for a murder he likely did not commit.

As the surviving Black Panthers begin dying off, it’s worth revisiting their analysis of the 1960s inner city as a colonized space analogous to colonized Africa. The Panthers are popularly remembered for unnecessary violence (at least this is how most of my students interpret them) even if Malcolm X is a nice symbol we can deploy when we want. But given the conditions of the inner cities–police brutality, no social services, no jobs, no health care, no public transportation, no grocery stores, white flight and strictly segregated suburbs, etc., I am certainly not going to say the Panthers were wrong in their analysis. Given J. Edgar Hoover’s desire to kill them all, I might say they were quite right. One might criticize their methods, but that’s real easy to do in 2011 and I’m not going to attack them for arming themselves against the police. I’d probably think about picking up a gun in the same circumstances.

Even if Pratt did commit the murder, the justice system was so openly racist that it’s impossible to know. Today, we’ve really advanced on this front, having hidden just enough of the open racism and incorporated just enough black people into the machines of capitalism and the state to partially hide the fact that our spatially and racially unequal economic system combines with the courts to push as many African-Americans and other people of color into prison as possible.

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  • jon

    The Panthers wanted to exercise their Second Amendment rights, improve their neighborhoods and secure economic and social advancement for their constituency. So they were systematically set up, hunted down and shot. Among other things. They might have been needlessly confrontational, but they had a point and they were angry, and even if they had been polite and demure, that might not have affected the outcome.

    The behavior of current groups like the Minutemen, militias, private security contractors, or ‘sovereign citizens’ doesn’t seem much different, and certainly no better, than that of the Panthers.

    • Actually, I’d argue that the behavior of groups like the Minutemen is significantly different–the Panthers came from an oppressed position where their neighborhoods were being treated not dissimilar to that of blacks in apartheid-era South Africa. The issue here is not the violence–it’s the reason for the violence. The Minutemen and other white supremacist groups are starting from the position of a privileged group within culture and are determined to use violence in order to preserve that privilege.

      • DrDick

        Agreed. The Minutemen and related groups have far more in common with the Klan than the Panthers. Having come of age during this period (I graduated HS in 1970), I do not blame the Panthers for their confrontational style or their stated willingness to fight back. Others more prominent than I have also observed that the Panthers and similar groups were an essential element in the success of Martin Luther King and NAACP in pushing through Civil Rights legislation and ending American Apartheid.

        • firefall

          American apartheid has ended?

          • DrDick

            Having attended formally segregated schools in my youth, I would say that formal apartheid has ended. Does that mean discrimination, de facto segregation, and differential access to critical resources has also ended? No, not even close. It is a dramatically better world than the one I grew up in, but we still have a very long way to go, as I teach the students in my race and ethnicity class (voted the most depressing class they have ever taken, but very good, by many of my students).

          • Apartheid isn’t just discrimination, or even segregation.

            We used to tear down neighborhoods and build isolated projects – that’s comparable to apartheid. Now, we’re tearing down those projects and deliberately planning for mixed-income, diverse neighborhoods with strong connections to the rest of the city.

            Just as one example.

            • Anonymous

              Where “mixed-income” does not include “poor”. Some progress, yes, but a hell of a long way to go yet.

              • DocAmazing

                Sorry, above was me.

              • No, you’re just making assumptions without knowing what you’re talking about.

                Google “Hope VI.” Mixed-income, meaning “people of all incomes.”

                • You might also try, “Columbia Point.”

                  “Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative.”

                • DocAmazing

                  You got buffaloed on HOPE IV, not that that is surprising. You might want to read up on how it has been administered in San Francisco under our previous mayor (and now lieutenant governor) Gavin Newsom. Not “people of all incomes”, but lots of “market-rate housing”.

                  On second thought, you night not want to read up on it. You’re a bit attached to your worldview.

      • snarkout

        Has any militia movement leader ever been straight-up targeted for assassination the way Fred Hampton was? I literally didn’t believe it the first time I read an account of Hampton’s death.

        • Eric martin

          And the thing is, it wasn’t just Hampton. As Jon mentioned above, there was a coordinated campaign of assassination and trumped up incarceration.

        • witless chum

          I’d guess they’d say Randy Weaver was?

      • jon

        The contrast I made characterized expression, not origin of the resentment. Rather a different thing. The way it is expressed, however, shows surprising similarities.

  • somethingblue

    Even if Pratt did commit the murder, the justice system was so openly racist that it’s impossible to know.

    Although I think I know what you’re saying here, I’m not sure this sentence is its own best advocate.

  • Barry Freed

    Sure the gun toting made for great pix but I think they should be remembered for initiatives like the Free Breakfast for School Children Program.

  • Colonization continues. That most of the LAPD live in far away suburban areas & come to the inner city to patrol & enforce is a pretty clear indication.

    As far as “guilt” goes:

    The late lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. called getting Pratt out of jail the most important case of his career. Pratt long maintained that the FBI knew he was innocent because the agency had him under surveillance in Oakland when the slaying was committed in Santa Monica, says the L.A. Times.

    Pratt’s possibly last interview is here.

  • ptl

    The Panthers are popularly remembered for unnecessary violence (at least this is how most of my students interpret them) even if Malcolm X is a nice symbol we can deploy when we want.

    Malcolm X was not a Black Panther, not only in the obvious technical sense (his murder predates the Panthers’ founding) but more generally. That is, the Malcolm X I heard speak, here in Britain, was not.

    (I do though agree, re the Panthers, with jon and dr.dick.)

    • Yes, of course Malcolm was not a Panther, but that’s precisely my point about memory and that movement.

      • ptl

        Oh I see — I’m sorry. I suppose I misread you so badly because Malcolm X, too, is subject to negative selective memory.

  • Andrew

    It’s depressing that we even have to point out that the Black Panthers–whatever their excesses may have been–were an understandable response to intolerable living conditions and police repression while the milita-types are just a bunch of over-privileged assholes that have to invent fantasies of persecution about NWO blue helmets invading their homes and seizing their guns.

    And read about the 1985 MOVE bombing if you haven’t already:

    On May 13, 1985, allegedly responding to months of complaints by neighbors that MOVE members broadcast political messages by bullhorn at all hours and also about the health hazards posed by the piles of compost, the police department claimed that they attempted to clear the building.[8] The police lobbed tear gas canisters at the building and the fire department battered the roof of the house with two water cannons. The police fired 10,000 rounds at the house in two hours. A police helicopter then dropped a four-pound bomb made of C-4 plastic explosive and Tovex, a dynamite substitute, onto the roof of the house without any prior warning.

    The resulting explosion caused the house to catch fire, igniting a massive blaze which eventually destroyed 65 houses.[2][9][10] Eleven people, including John Africa, five other adults and five children, died in the resulting fire.[11] The firefighters were stopped from putting out the fire based on allegations that firefighters were being shot at, a claim that was contested by the lone adult survivor Ramona Africa, who says that the firefighters had earlier battered the house with two deluge pumps when there was no fire.[9] Ramona Africa and one child, Birdie Africa, were the only survivors.

    • Anonymous

      But remember, if someone says “Free Mumia” then you can ignore anything s/he says, the ludicrous hippie.

      • Joe

        No, but I’m tired of how much attention is given to one single person on death row while so many others get much less attention.

    • Malaclypse

      And read about the 1985 MOVE bombing if you haven’t already:

      People forget that, prior to September 11, the only successful airstrike against the American mainland was that one, called in by its own mayor. And nobody, other than the victims, ever went to jail.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        Don’t forget the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.

        • Malaclypse

          I never knew that involved aircraft until now. Tulsa, on the cutting edge of awfulness.

          • herr doktor bimler

            Hard to read that without venturing into Godwin territory.

  • Joe

    given the conditions of the inner cities–police brutality, no social services, no jobs, no health care, no public transportation, no grocery stores, white flight and strictly segregated suburbs, etc., I am certainly not going to say the Panthers were wrong in their analysis. Given J. Edgar Hoover’s desire to kill them all,

    I realize the basic truth here but it’s phrased in such a hyperbolic way, that it’s a bit annoying. For instance, unless NYC has no inner cities, “no” public transportation is fictional. You might want to take a trip on the IRT.

    • And you might want to read Self’s American Babylon.

      • Joe

        I might, but it won’t refute my point. Things are bad enough without dramatic license.

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