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Redwood Summer and the Fate of the Panthers | The Nation

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Redwood Summer and the Fate of the Panthers

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This Beat the Devil column was originally published in the July 2, 1990, issue of The Nation.

Chico Mendes in the First World

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Alexander Cockburn
Alexander Cockburn, The Nation's "Beat the Devil" columnist and one of America's best-known radical...

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Rejoicing at the Tuesday morning news that Ireland held England to a draw in the World Cup, I felt benign enough to give a lift to a couple of young persons heading north up Route 1 from Monterey. They were aiming for Samoa. The Samoa they had in mind was the little port town just west of Eureka, in Humboldt County. Here, scheduled for June 20, will be the first major action in the campaign known as Mississippi Summer in the CaliforniRa edwoods, or, as it is more succinctly termed, Redwood Summer.

From Samoa, Louisiana Pacific ships out rough-cut wood stripped from private and public lands. This summer the timber giants plan to cut at an even more insanely rapacious rate than ever, but this summer they will also face a campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience. A couple of weeks ago California honored thee merging oppositional politics of the1990s. The honor came in a traditionally American fashion. Someone tried to assassinate Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney.

Bari is one of the Earth First! activists who dreamed up Redwood Summer. She, like others, has seen that one of the crucial coaIitions to be built in the coming decade is between environmentalists and labor. Unlike many others, she has matched action to analysis. She talked to workers in the lumber mills, sought to make common cause with loggers who have families to feed but who know well enough that over-cutting will soon put them out of work.

In the case of Chico Mendes, assassins tried to annul the equation he made between the concerns of Brazilian labor and the environment by the simple expedient of ambushing him by his back door andb lowing a hole in his chest. In the case of Bari and her fellow Earth Firster Darryl Cherney, the would-be killer put a pipe bomb in her car, which exploded as they drove through Oakland. The blast broke her pelvis. Just a tiny shift in the blast of the bomb anwdo uslhde have been as dead as Mendes.

In the days after the murder of Mendes the First World press was derisive about Brazilian police and Brazilian justice. Mendes had identified those plotting his murder to Romeu rima, the federal police chief, who did nothing. Only now, a year and a half after thek illing, does it look as though the assassins will eventually come to trial. In the days after the attempted murder of Bari and Cherney most of thper ess did not deride the Oaklapnodl ice, who arrested the victims, Bari and Cherney, as prime suspects.

Pose a political threat to Business As Usual and sooner or later, mostly sooner, someone will try to kill you. Twenty years after, it usually turns out that the cops knew who the “someone” was, followed the conspiracy, stood by as bomb was planted or rifle cocked, failed to alert the victim, let the perpetrator slip free. I told my hitchhiker friends heading up to Redwood Summer to watch out for undercover cops and provocateurs being drafted into the Redwood Empire on the usual missions of surveillance and entrapment. There’s mounting evidence that local police departments and the FBI have decided to get much rougher with environmental activists, who can look forward to traditional all-American enforcement procedures as endured by the Central American solidarity movement in the 1980s, and by antiwar groups, student organizations, black and labor militants, socialist groups and Native Americans in the relevant seasons of their struggle.

Wear the badge of environmental radicalism and you’re a citizen automatically under suspicion. On June 10 the San Francisco Examiner’s environmental writer, Jane Kay, reviewed some recent cases of harsh tactics by enforcement agencies. In Mobile, Arizona, three Greenpeace organizers were among dozens dragged from a May 7 hearing on a toxic waste incinerator. Deputies stunned five with electric guns and then held them in handcuffs at an airfield until the hearing was over. Eighteen people face misdemeanor and felony charges. Also in Arizona, Earth First! founder Dave Foreman and four others await trial in Phoenix in September on charges of planning to disable a pumping station. Centrtal to the case is an FBI undercover agent who, on a tape unearthed by the defense from the FBI’s own files, discusses a plan to “pop” Foreman, to “send a message.”

Of some major environmental groups reached on June 14, a Sierra Club spokesperson said that the club didn’t “have a position on the Earth First! bombing” and, as regards Redwood Summer, proclaimed that “we have always deplored and denounced violence and call upon California law enforcement to act vigorously and impartially to maintain peace,” and said it would not participate in illegal events “including civil disobedience.” Take that. Mahatma. Neither the Environmental Defense Fund nor World Wildlife Fund had any reaction to the bombing or to Redwood Summer, and the word from the National Wildlife Federation was that “I don’t think we’ve issued a statement on the bombing and nor do we endorse Redwood Summer.” In refreshing contrast to this spineless pack is Greenpeace, which issued a vigorous statement denouncing the charges against Bari and Cherney and said that it was “assisting in every way we can” with Redwood Summer.

The Fate of the Panthers


Before I left them off on the outskirts of Santa Cruz, I reminder the hitchhikers, who were young enough not to know the history in anything but the haziest if outlines, of what happened to the Black Panthers. These days people lament the the despairing drug culture of the ghetto without adding the all-important corollary that the promise of vigorous political leadership there was literally exterminated by the police a generation ago. Armed black leftists were unacceptable to the system.

By 1967 J. Edgar Hoover had concluded that the Black Panther Party had replaced the Communist Party as the gravest threat to national security. In an August 25 memorandum to the FBI's Albany office, the director confided his counter-intelligence program (Cointelpro), whose purpose was to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist, hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spoken, membership and supporters."

It would be interesting to get the reaction of Eastern European dissidents, now in positions of power and lauding the American Way, to what happened after Hoover announced those plans. Mark Albert, in his fine book, The Sixties Papers, explains how "FBI special agents sought to divide the Panther organization by spreading false rumors and misinformation. They composed letters to Party members implicating Panther leaders in stealing from the Party treasury, taking money from the police, maintaining secret Swiss bank accounts and having liaisons with white women. Local police forces were encouraged to launch raids against panther headquarters." One of the most dissolute efforts to divide the black community involved the FBI's manipulation of a feud between the Black panthers and Ron Karenga's US Organization, which advocated cultural nationalism as against the Panthers' revolutionary internationalism. The FBI printed and distributed cartoons and caricatures purporting to be from US to the Panthers or vice versa. After US members killed Sylvester Bell, a Panther, in San Diego in 1967, an FBI memo stated, "In view of the recent killing of BPP member Sylvester Bell, a new cartoon is being considered in hopes that it will assist in the continuance of the rift between the BPP and US." Among the crude depictions the cartoons showed US members congratulating themselves over the corpses of John  Huggins and Bunchy Crater (two Panthers killed in LA un 1969 by US militants), and Panthers referring to US members as "pork chop niggers." in 1971, according to Kenneth O'Reilly in his book Racial Matters, Karenga wrote of the FBI's strategems, " We knew it wasn't going to be a tea party, but we didn't anticipate how violent the US government would get."

Standard Cointelpro techniques included telephone interception, monitoring shipments of The Black Panther and close surveillance of meetings, rallies, headquarters and individuals. During 1969 alone the FBI and police conducted thirty-one raids in Panther offices in eleven states. They also arranged assassinations. According to Frank Donner in The Age of Surveillance, twenty-eight Panthers were killed during an eight-teen period in the late 1960s, "some direct victims of aggressive intelligence action and others traceable to Bureau-assisted feuds." The most notorious liquidation was the death squad killing of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, two Chicago Panther leaders. In a predawn raid on December 4, 1969, directed by the Illinois State State’s Attorney’s office but instigated by the FBI, Chicago police fired multiple rounds of ammunition into the apartment of Fred Hampton, killing him and Clark in their sleep and wounding four others. John Kifner, then in the Chicago bureau of The New York Times, was the first reporter on the scene. He examined the bullet holes and soon determined that what had been described as a fierce exchange of fire had in fact been a unilateral police barrage, with just one shot attributable to a Panther inside.

Most of the police gunfire went to the inside corners of the apartment, where the beds were located. Hampton’s personal personal bodyguard, William O’Neal, was an F.B.I. infiltrator and had given his contact, Roy Mitchell, a floor plan of the apartment. Mitchell passed the floor plant o theS tate’s Attorney’s office before the attack. From the autopsy it was disclosed years later that O’Neal had also given Hampton a sleeping drug the night before the raid. For his services, the FBI paid O’Neal more than $10,000 from January 1969 through July 1970.

In its attempt to crush the Black Panthers the FBI engineered frequent arrests on the flimsiest of pretexts. Recall the case of Elmer (Geronimo) Pratt. Pratt, a Vietnam War hero, joined the Panthers aftehri s discharge. In 1970 he was indicted by an LA County grand jury for murder, assault and robbery. He was convicted of murder and robbery, primarily on the evidence of an FBI informant named Julius Butler. Pratt, who drew a life sentence, said he’d been framed. Gradually revelations surfaced supporting him: that the FBI had sent Cointelpro agents to infiltratthee defense; that the bureau had “lost” a wiretap log that could have confirmed Pratt’s alibi. Nevertheless, Pratt is still incarcerated. Amnesty International studied the Pratt case and concluded that justice demands a new trial. Noam Chomsky summed up the entire history well in his introduction to Nelson Blackstock’s COINTELPRO:

A top secret Special Report for the president in June 1970 gives some insight into the motivation for the actions undertaken by the government to destroy the Black Panther party. The report describes the party as “the most active and dangerous black extremist group m the United States.” Its “hard-core members’’ were estimated at about 800, but “a recent poll indicates that approximately 25 per cent of the black population has a great respect for the BPP, lncluding 43 per cent of blacks under 21 years of age.” On the basis of such estimates of the potential of the party, the repressive agencies of the state proceeded against it to ensure that it did not succeed in organizing as a substantial soclal or polltical force. We may add that in this case, government repression proved quite successful.

Julia Cade of the ACLU National Prison Project tells my colleague Peter Rothberg, who has been delving into the history of the extermination of the Black Panthers and who prepared this column, that at least fifteen former party members are still in prison. She is emphatic that these are political prisoners, often serving life terms. Perhaps President Havel might care to mention them and victims of the FBI’s war against the American Indian Movement the next time he addresses Congress and receives dutiful praise from E.L. Doctorow for his “morally beautiful” sentiments about the virtues of the American political system. Meanwhile, Judi Bari, nearly killed at the onset of Redwood Summer, lies in her hospital bed as an advertisement of just how quickly this system gets nasty when the chips are down. (For information about ongoing events of Redwood Summer, call 707-468-1660.)

 

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