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Have We "Put It All Behind Us"? Wages of COINTELPRO Still Evident in Omaha Black Panther Case

In 1975, an investigating committee headed by Senator Frank Church found that COINTELPRO had, from start to finish, been no more than "a sophisticated vigilante operation...fraught with illegality."
Ward Churchill

Issue #71, December 2004

In 1980, former FBI Director L. Patrick Grey and Edward S. Miller, one-time head of Squad 47, the domestic counterintelligence unit in the FBI's New York Field Office, were convicted of having "conspired to injure and oppress the citizens of the United States." The context of their crimes was COINTELPRO, a secret, nationwide campaign conducted by the Bureau from 1956-71 for purposes of destroying "politically objectionable" organizations and individuals through any and every means available to it. In 1975, an investigating committee headed by Senator Frank Church found that COINTELPRO had, from start to finish, been no more than "a sophisticated vigilante operation...fraught with illegality."

Keystone KopsNeither Grey nor Miller ever spent a day in jail as a result of their convictions. In April 1981, President Ronald Reagan interrupted their appeals to announce that he was bestowing pardons on both men. The reason stated was that their misdeeds had occurred during an especially turbulent period in U.S. history, one in which the country had very nearly come apart at the seams. The moment had arrived in which it was necessary to "put all this behind us," Reagan said, and "to forgive those who engaged in excesses" during the political conflicts of the 1960s and 1970s.

At the time, it was pointed out that if this were to be Reagan's policy, it would be at least as appropriate for him to pardon the numerous victims of COINTELPRO as to forgive its perpetrators. We noted how the Church Committee had discovered that a COINTELPRO technique had been use of the courts to "neutralize" targeted activists by obtaining false convictions against them, that the FBI had typically involved local police in such endeavors, and that of all the groups targeted in this manner the Black Panther Party (BPP) had by a substantial margin been hit hardest and most extensively.

No action was taken by the Reagan administration in this connection, however, and a number of former Panthers continued to serve time, many of them in cases showing clear signs of manipulation by the FBI's COINTELPRO operatives. It would be another decade before the first such prisoner, a once prominent New York BPP leader named Dhoruba bin Wahad (Richard Moore), was finally released after spending 21 years behind bars on a wrongful conviction. His case is illuminating.

In 1989, it was conclusively established that the prosecution, with the active collaboration of agents assigned to Miller's Squad 47, had withheld exculpatory ballistics reports during the 1973 trial in which bin Wahad was found guilty of attempting to murder two police officers. It was also shown that members of Squad 47, working in combination with detectives from the NYPD Red Squad, had suborned perjury from the state's star witness. The FBI had denied the existence of documents confirming these facts for a dozen years (1975-87), thereby thwarting bin Wahad's right to appeal. The conviction was finally overturned in 1990.

Similar circumstances attend the case of Geronimo ji Jaga Pratt, former head of the Panthers' Los Angeles chapter. Charged in 1970 with a 1968 murder in Santa Monica, Pratt always maintained that he was 350 miles away at the time, attending a BPP meeting in Oakland. At trial, he argued that, since the FBI had bugged the meeting, its electronic surveillance logs would establish his whereabouts at the time of the murder, and thus his innocence. An FBI official then took the stand and denied that any such surveillance had occurred. Years later, after the Church Committee confirmed that surveillance had in fact been conducted, the FBI rather implausibly claimed to have "lost" the relevant logs. Nonetheless, the conviction was not overturned until the summer of 1997, when it was proven that Julio C. Butler, the state's main witness — and, unknown to the jury, a paid FBI informant — had perjured himself on key points of testimony. By then, Pratt had served 27 years.

This case is especially instructive in that a career FBI agent, M. Wesley Swearingen, has testified that Pratt was deliberately framed by the FBI as part of its campaign to destroy the Panthers. Swearingen's testimony corroborates to a significant extent an earlier account provided by Louis Tackwood, at one time an informant paid by the LAPD Red Squad to infiltrate the Los Angeles BPP chapter. According to Tackwood, Red Squad detectives and FBI COINTELPRO personnel simply sat down one afternoon with a stack of unsolved case files, looking for the murder with which Pratt might be most feasibly charged. They then fabricated appropriate "evidence" and had him prosecuted.

Currently, attention is shifting to still another case involving former Black Panthers and bearing the indelible imprint of COINTELPRO. From its inception, the allegation that former Omaha BPP leaders Mondo we Langa (David Rice) and Ed Poindexter were involved in the 1970 murder of Police Officer Larry Minard has been strained. Duane Peak, the only person known for certain to have participated in the bombing which killed Minard, mentioned neither man in his original confession. Nor did he in his second, more detailed statement to the police. Indeed, he testified at a preliminary hearing that Rice and Poindexter were not involved. Peak named six other men, none of them active BPP members, and none of them ever charged. His story changed only after prosecutors offered a deal in which he could plead as a juvenile — thereby serving only two years — in exchange for his "cooperation."

Rice and Poindexter were convicted in April 1971, mainly on the basis of Peak's testimony. There is ample indication that he perjured himself. As to physical evidence supporting Peak's account, a federal court ruled in 1974 that the search in which it was allegedly found was illegal (a matter admitting to the possibility that, as was done in both the Pratt and bin Wahad cases, the evidence was either planted or manufactured after the fact by police). A new trial was ordered at that time, but was prevented by a jurisdictional technicality applied post hoc by the Supreme Court in 1976.

Further appeals were blocked by yet another technicality: the statutory time limit for filing in Nebraska courts expired while Rice and Poindexter awaited an outcome in the federal process. One result has been severe constraints on their ability to reopen the case in light of FBI documents released in 1978. These reveal that police detectives collaborated with Bureau personnel to suppress exculpatory evidence during the 1970 trial. Such subversion of the judicial process is consistent with the COINTELPRO techniques employed against bin Wahad and Pratt, as well as the fact that the Omaha BPP chapter — especially Rice and Poindexter — were targeted for COINTELPRO neutralization in late 1968.

The motive underlying police performance in the Rice/Poindexter case was spelled out by Jack Swanson, the Omaha detective who headed up the 1970 bombing investigation, in an interview conducted during the early 90s. "I think we did the right thing at the time," Swanson observed, "because the Black Panther Party...completely disappeared from Omaha [after] we got the two main players." Plainly, fulfilling Swanson's stated objective of destroying a political organization had — and has — nothing at all to do with seeing justice done in a murder prosecution, yet the official expression of such sentiments is all too common in cases involving former Panthers. Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Diane Visani opposed Pratt's parole bid in 1987, for instance, because he remained in her estimation a "revolutionary man" who, if released, would be likely to "resume the activities leading to his imprisonment in the first place." It is striking that Visani failed even to mention the murder Pratt had supposedly committed. Other such examples are legion.

The Rice/Poindexter case appears to fit the mould in this respect. Even former Nebraska Governor Frank Morrison has observed that the pair "were convicted for their rhetoric, not for any crime they committed." Amnesty International, the NAACP, Jericho and the Congressional Black Caucus have all taken up the case at various points and, since 1993, the Nebraska Parole Board has voted unanimously and repeatedly to commute both men's sentences to time served. Yet, to date, the Nebraska Board of Pardons has refused to schedule a hearing on the matter. One Board member has gone on record asserting that there are "no circumstances" under which he would so much as consider commutation.

Simple justice demands a reversal of this position. Surely, even if one believes Rice and Poindexter were actually involved in Minard's death, it must be conceded that 34 years of incarceration is sufficient punishment. After all, Nebraska's Board of Pardons commuted the sentence even of the notorious Charil Ann Fugate — an admitted participant in eleven murders — after less than twenty years. The fact that Rice and Poindexter were denied the due process rights to which all citizens are and must be entitled, moreover, raises a quite reasonable concern that they, unlike Fugate, are actually innocent of the offense for which they have been imprisoned for more than a third of a century. Contrary to the sentiment expressed by the Board member quoted above, there are no circumstances in which prolonging such a situation might be seen as an acceptable option.

Ultimately, and perhaps ironically, Ronald Reagan had it right. By 1981, it was indeed time to forgive those whose offenses, real or perceived, accrued from the sociopolitical vortex of the Vietnam Era. Can there be serious doubt the principle is as applicable to former Black Panthers as to former FBI officials? Anything else would be a travesty of justice, and we have already witnessed far too many of these. What is done cannot be undone, but the future can be changed. Mondo we Langa and Ed Poindexter deserve at this late date not merely to be heard but to be free men, reintegrated with and contributing their undeniable talents to their community, participating fully in the ongoing process of healing and reconciliation about which Reagan spoke so glowingly twenty-three years ago.

Further Reading:

Churchill, Ward, "To Disrupt, Discredit and Destroy': The FBI's Secret War Against the Black Panther Party," in Kathleen Cleaver and George Katsiaficas, eds., Liberation, Imagination, and the Black Panther Party: A New Look at the Panthers and Their Legacy (New York: Routledge, 2001) 78-117.

_________, and Jim Vander Wall, The COINTELPRO Papers: Documents from the FBI's Secret Wars Against Dissent in the United States (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, [Classics Ed.] 2002).

Grady-Willis, Winston A., "The Black Panther Party: State Repression and Political Prisoners," in Charles E. Jones, ed., The Black Panther Party Reconsidered (Baltimore: Black Classics Press, 1998) 363-90.

Newton, Huey P., War Against the Panthers: A Study of Repression in America (New York: Harlem River Press, 1996).

Olsen, Jack, Last Man Standing: The Tragedy and Triumph of Geronimo Pratt (New York: Doubleday, 2000).

Umoja, Akinyele Omowale, "Set Our Warriors Free: The Legacy of the Black Panther Party and Political Prisoners," in Charles E. Jones, ed., The Black Panther Party Reconsidered (Baltimore: Black Classics Press, 1998) 417-42.

U.S. Senate, Select Committee to Study Government Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, Hearings on Intelligence Activities, Vol. 6: The Federal Bureau of Investigation (Washington, D.C.: 94th Cong., 1st Sess., 1995).

_________, Final Report: Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans, Book II (Washington, D.C.: 94th Cong., 2d Sess., 1975).

_________, Supplementary Detailed Staff Reports on Intelligence Operations and the Rights of Americans, Book III (Washington, D.C.: 94th Cong., 2d Sess., 1976).

Those desiring further information on the Rice/Poindexter case and/or wishing to support Mondo and Ed's petitions for commutation of sentence, should contact:

Tekla Johnson
Lincoln Justice Committee
P.O. Box 4756
Lincoln, NE 68504

Ward Churchill (Keetowah Band Cherokee) is Professor of American Indian Studies and Chair of the Department of Ethnic Studies at Colorado University. He is a member of the leadership council of The American Indian Movement of Colorado, a former national spokesperson for the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, a former delegate to the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations, and a Judge Advocate of the 1994 International Peoples' Tribunal on the Rights of Indigenous Hawaiians. Some titles from his more than 20 books include:  A Little Matter of Genocide (1997), Acts of Rebellion: The Ward Churchill Reader (2003), Perversions of Justice (2003), and On the Justice of Roosting Chickens (2003).

Copyright © 2004 by Ward Churchill. Mack Sennett Studios' Keystone Kops circa 1920. All rights reserved.