On Tuesday June 10, 1997, surrounded by members of his family, former comrades in the
Black Panther Party for Self Defense, a crush of "suddenly interested" media
personnel, and hundreds of cheering, hugging, and crying supporters, Geronimo ji-Jaga
(Pratt) walked out of an Orange County jail, a free man for the first time in 27 years.
Geronimo is now out on bail pending Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti’s
appeal of judge Everett Dickey’s decision to grant him a new trial in the infamous
"tennis court murder" case.
Geronimo was one of America’s longest-held New Afrikan (Black) Prisoners of War.
He had been locked down for nearly three decades, convicted of a murder that mounting
evidence tends to show he did not commit. He, like many other New Afrikan, Puerto Rican,
Native American, Chicano(a)-Mexicano(a), Asian, Caribbean, and Caucasian freedom fighters,
is a victim of former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s secret plan to "disrupt,
discredit, and neutralize" political dissent in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s.
Hoover’s COINTELPRO program focused on Geronimo after he became the leader of the
Los Angeles chapter of the Black Panthers. He was elevated from his position as Minister
of Defense after the still unsolved murders of erstwhile leaders Alprentice
"Bunchy" Carter and John Huggins. Both were shot dead on the UCLA campus in a
dispute after a heated Black Student Union (BSU) meeting. At issue was whether the
Panthers or the rival US organization would lead the BSU in the late 1960s. Though
the killings were ostensibly the result of an ongoing feud between the two groups, Freedom
of Information Act files reveal a relentless effort by the FBI to foment acrimony between
them. These "dirty tricks" included the sending of false threats against US
members on Panther letterhead, the publishing and distribution of FBI-created cartoons
denigrating Panther leaders and touting US leader Ron Karenga, and the placing of
agent provocateurs in both groups who egged on the conflict. Perhaps feeling his end was
near, Carter had previously recorded a tape naming Geronimo as his successor in the event
of his death. When "G," as he is affectionately called by his friends, stepped
forward to accept this new responsibility, he became the leader of an organization in the
eye of a storm.
This was a time when political activists struggling against racism, capitalism, U.S.
imperialism, and the war in Vietnam were being followed, surveiled, harassed, framed,
arrested, locked up, beaten down, and killed with impunity by FBI agents, local police,
and extra-legal informants and provocateurs. Particular attention was focused on the
Panthers, whom Hoover labeled "the greatest threat to the internal security of the
"Shootouts" between Panthers and cops became regular occurrences in every
city where there was a Panther chapter. Members were forced to carry weapons to protect
themselves. Without warning, Panther homes and offices could become free fire zones.
The escalation of state terror pushed many activists out of normal life. Some decided
either to join the clandestine forces of Black struggle or leave the United States,
continuing to work in the comparative safety of countries in Afrika or the Caribbean.
Others, pushed beyond their spiritual and psychological limits, became part of Black Power
Movement’s "army of walking wounded." These were men and women whose
political allegiances and activities in the Black Power Movement brought them into direct
confrontation with the government. The actions of COINTELPRO cost them their jobs,
reputations, freedom, and for some their sanity. Many suffer from post traumatic stress
disorder or drug addiction that is directly related to these violations of their human
Most of those who didn’t go crazy, quit the struggle, or leave town realized the
importance of learning how to effectively defend themselves from governmental terrorism.
It was in this area that Geronimo gave his greatest service. During a welcome home rally
on the night of his release, an amazingly strong and healthy looking Pratt told an SRO
crowd that it was his responsibility as minister of defense of the Black Panther Party to
teach the military skills he had learned as a highly decorated member of the U.S.
army to members of the BPP and other Black organizations, such as the Afrikan
People’s Party and the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Afrika.
The value of this training had been proved four days after the Chicago raid. On
December 8, 1969 the Los Angeles Police Department’s newly initiated Special Weapons
and Tactics unit (SWAT) led an assault on the LA Panther office on Central Avenue. Due to
ji-Jaga’s military instruction and his direction of the building’s
fortification, the 15 Panthers inside (and an FBI informant named William
"Cotton" Smith who did not get out before the raid) were able to hold off over
300 police for more than 4 hours. They suffered minor wounds. All charges against them
were later dropped.
When news of this reached the local office of the FBI, a special "Get Geronimo
Pratt" task force was developed led by infamous FBI official, Richard Held Jr. From
this nerve center, Held seems to have directed a coordinated effort between his agency,
the LAPD’s Criminal Conspiracy Section, and the LA District Attorney’s Special
Investigations Unit to "neutralize" Geronimo. It was also most probably in this
place that the tangled web of lies, perjured testimony, prosecutorial misconduct, and FBI
pathology that became the case against Geronimo was born. This plot would result in his
conviction for the robbery and murder of Caroline Olsen on a Santa Monica tennis court.
This murder case hinged on three primary contingencies: (1) The ability of main
prosecution witness and triple connected (LAPD, DA, FBI) informant, Julius Carl Butler, to
convince a jury that Geronimo had confessed committing the crime to him, and that he had
"never been in all the world a snitch;" (2) The ability of then prosecutor (and
now superior court judge) Richard Kalustian to violate rules of discovery by concealing
the following facts from the defense: survivor of the attack, Kenneth Olsen, had
identified someone else as his estranged wife’s killer in a lineup, that Butler was
listed with the Special Investigations Unit of the DA’s office as a "racial
informant," and that the DA’s office had arranged for Butler to get $200 to buy
a gun "for his protection" even though he was a convicted felon at the time; (3)
The ability of the FBI to suppress any evidence in its possession that would corroborate
ji-Jaga’s alibi that he was attending Panther Leadership meetings in Oakland,
California at the time the crime was committed (the wiretap logs on that Oakland phone for
the time period in question mysteriously disappeared), and to monitor the preparation of
Pratt’s defense by placing an informant on the defense team. With the help of a judge
who refused to accept a hung jury, Geronimo went to jail for the same amount of time that
was served by Nelson Mandela in South Africa.
Now, finally, the state’s case against him has done what Geronimo’s attorneys
always said it would—rapidly fall apart under scrutiny by an honest person who knew
all of the facts. Ironically, that honest person turned out to be a Reagan-appointed judge
in ultraconservative Orange County. In his strongly worded opinion, Judge Everett Dickey
wrote that Butler gave "false testimony" in the original trial, and that
knowledge of his secret relationship with the LAPD, FBI, and the DA’s office should
have been provided to the defense and the jury.
Not to be dissuaded by this truth, LA District Attorney Gil Garcetti has filed an
appeal, arguing that nothing in Dickey’s opinion changes his mind about Pratt’s
Now that his legal troubles appear to be over, what is on the horizon for Geronimo
ji-Jaga? He gave some indication on the day of his release at the welcome home rally.
After thanking his supporters, he said that despite 27 years of unjust imprisonment, he
remains committed to the Black Liberation Movement in general, and the New Afrikan
Independence Movement (NAM) in particular.
He talked about how he had drawn strength from memories of fallen comrades and the
relationships he developed with other incarcerated freedom fighters. He is committed to
seeing that the other political prisoners and prisoners of war in U.S. jails will once
again be free.
The Pratt case is an example of the type of campaign that must be waged to free these
courageous men and women. It is a clear victory for those of us who believe, as Huey P.
Newton once said, that "the spirit of the people is greater than the man’s
technology." It is also a sign that despite our oppressor’s best efforts, this
spirit will never be fully crushed or conquered.
Kamal Hassan is an educator, community organizer, Christian Minister, and Local
Coordinator of the Los Angeles Chapter of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement.