The Death of Geronimo Pratt

by Joe Courter

When Geronimo Pratt spoke in Gainesville in 1998, I asked him if it would be okay if I taped and transcribed his talk for the Gainesville Iguana. He smiled, and with a twinkle in his eye, said, “Of course, we’re all revolutionaries.” It is a cherished moment in my life, and I was really sorry to read of his passing.

To mark Pratt’s passing we’re excerpting two pieces here: Stephen Lendman’s “Former Political Prisoner Geronimo Pratt Dies,” and a part of his 1998 talk at UF, which we published in the Iguana (“27-year political prisoner invites students to join struggle”).

Former Political Prisoner Geronimo Pratt Dies

by Stephen Lendman

Reporting his death, the AP said:

“Former Black Panther Party leader Elmer ‘Geronimo’ Pratt” died at age 63 in a small (Tanzania village) “where he had lived for at least half a decade, a friend of Pratt’s in Arusha, former Black Panther Pete O’Neal, said.”

He lived a peaceful life in Tanzania, O’Neal explained, adding: “He’s my hero. He was and will continue to be. Geronimo was a symbol of steadfast resistance against all (he) considered wrong and improper. His whole life was dedicated to standing opposition to oppression and exploitation….He gave all that he had and his life, I believe, struggling, trying to help people lift themselves up.”

His lawyer and longtime friend, Stuart Hanlon, who spent years working for his release, also announced his death, saying:

“What happened to him is the horror story of the United States. This became a microcosm of when the government decides what’s politically right or wrong. The COINTELPRO program was awful. He became a symbol for what they did.”

He had southern, rural roots, and hardworking parents who sent all their kids to college. “He (went) to the military, (fought) and (was awarded two Bronze Stars, a Silver Star, and two Purple Hearts) in Vietnam, (came) home, (and became) a football star in college. That would be an American hero. It was different because he was black and he became a Panther and then the road went the wrong way.” Calling Pratt one of his closest friends, Hanlon said his case “defined me as a lawyer.”

David Hilliard helped recruit Pratt to provide leadership for the Los Angeles Panther chapter. “He symbolized the best human spirit,” he said. “His spirit of endurance, his strength, his service to his people. He (was) very positive and a real example for young people who want to look into the direction of Che Guevara, Malcolm X and the leader of our party, Huey P. Newton. He (was) one of the true heros of our era. He dedicated his life to (serve) his people. There is nothing more honorable than that.”

On June 3, Los Angeles Times writer Robert Lopez headlined, “Former Black Panther whose murder conviction was overturned dies at 63,” saying:

“[He became] a symbol of racial injustices during the turbulent 1960s….a cause célèbre for a range of supporters, including elected officials, activists, Amnesty International, clergy and celebrities, who believed he was framed by Los Angeles police and the FBI” because he was Black and a Panther member.

In fact, he was under FBI surveillance in Oakland when the murder he was convicted of happened in Santa Monica, hundreds of miles south. Nonetheless, he was unjustly framed and served 27 years until freed.

In 1970, he was arrested and falsely charged with Caroline Olsen’s murder, a Los Angeles teacher. In 1968, she and her husband Kenneth were attacked on a Santa Monica tennis court by two Black men. Three years later, Kenneth said Pratt was one of the assailants, pressured to name him after first identifying three other suspects from LAPD photos. In 1972, he was falsely convicted.

In fact, Pratt was framed, victimized by LAPD authorities working with the FBI’s illegal COINTELPRO counterintelligence program against political dissidents, including communists; anti-war, human and civil rights activists; the American Indian Movement; and Black Panther Party members, among others.…

In Pratt’s case, Julius Butler was the prosecution’s main witness, an FBI/LAPD informant, expelled from the Panthers by Pratt for advocating violence. At trial, he falsely claimed Pratt confessed to the killing.

Later, when Butler was outed as an informer, paid to lie, LA authorities denied Pratt a retrial, keeping him imprisoned wrongfully for another 20 years.

Moreover, according to former FBI agent Wesley Swearingen, Los Angeles Panther headquarters wiretap information showed Pratt was in Oakland when it happened, also confirmed by agency surveillance evidence there. Pratt’s defense wasn’t told. In addition, in both cities, tapes and other evidence were destroyed to keep an innocent man wrongfully imprisoned for 27 years, eight in solitary confinement, as well as parole denied 16 times.

On May 29, 1997, Judge Everett W. Dickey (an Orange County Reagan appointee), in a sharply worded opinion, reversed Pratt’s conviction, ruling prosecutors suppressed evidence to unjustly imprison him in ordering a new trial. At the time, he was America’s longest held political prisoner, yet to be fully exonerated.

Over 30 years later in February 1999, it came in a four paragraph Los Angeles County District Attorney, Gil Garcetti, statement, saying:

“We accept the decision of the court of appeals. The murder at issue in this case occurred over 30 years ago. Most of the witnesses to the case are deceased. It would be virtually impossible to retry this case. In our professional judgment, there would be no reasonable likelihood of conviction.”

Omitted was any admission of FBI, LAPD, or prosecutorial wrongdoing. In fact, Hanlon at the time said Garcetti fought him and fellow Pratt attorney Johnnie Cochran, Jr. “every step of the way,” trying to keep him wrongfully imprisoned.

In May 2000, in a civil rights lawsuit, a federal judge awarded Pratt $4.5 million for false imprisonment, but couldn’t return his 27 lost years, or undo the toll it took even on someone with his inner strength.…

Pratt to UF students: ‘bust them books open and to get at us with some new knowledge’

On February 23, 1998, a year after being released from prison for a murder he did not commit, Geronimo Pratt spoke to an audience of about 300 at the University of Florida. The event was organized by the Black History Month committee. The longer transcript of his talk,  was printed in the March 1998 Iguana.

“It’s a shame that you’ve got these young brothers and sisters coming in these prisons for nothing. And you’re sitting out here looking for jobs at these new prisons they’re building cause they’ve got fat paychecks. That’s a shame. They’re killing the brothers in there… Brothers come in, well this brother’s got 25 years to life, he got 40 years–for one little error, for one little mistake. Then I’ve got my white partners over there doing 4-5 years, got busted with the powder…

With all these new prisons they’ve got now, you’ve got to watch out for it being a breeding ground for COINTELPRO stooges, because the new maximum security prisons, it’s weird, the way they’re manipulating young minds and have them so fearful of the powers that be, the next thing you know, they’re snitching.…

We advocated armed struggle. And we saw the need to pick up the gun, and we did that, in protective ways. We had to do it within the confines of legality. So we had another straitjacket on us. So our war college was one of the sharpest in existence, because we had to prepare our people, train our soldiers to do this, do that, and yet be held in check by this force, and then further be held in check by another force, because you had to operate within the realm of legality… But what you see in the history books, with the Panthers marching, when we went into Sacramento with guns, all that was legal. It was all within the confines of their domestic law.

But [FBI head] J. Edgar Hoover was playing by a different set of rules. We didn’t know it, we were young and naive, but we suspected it. So he unleashed what you now know as COINTELPRO, a psychological warfare strategy that proved to be pretty effective. Not totally. And it’s worthy of study. It’s worthy because these new prisons, like I mentioned to you earlier, are being used to turn our young brothers and sisters into zombies, straight zombies, to come out and do the bidding of ol’ massa. You’ve got to watch them. You’ve got to watch your enemy within. I’m not trying to get nobody to be paranoid. But you’ve got to watch because you’ve got people “in power,” who like to play games with people’s lives. All working people know that.”

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