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Prelude to a Murder | The Nation

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Prelude to a Murder

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Eldridge Cleaver, whose best-selling Soul on Ice has made him the party's most widely known member, is in exile. About to be returned to jail on a charge of probation violation, Cleaver vowed he would never go back behind bars and disappeared from sight. He is reported to be living in Cuba.

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Seale himself is under federal indictment on charges growing out of the Democratic National Convention disturbances in Chicago last summer. Those close to that extraordinary chapter in American malfeasance know that Seale played only a marginal role in the clashes. Indeed, Jay Miller, director of the Illinois chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, while searching for a motive for the Seale indictment, was told by a high-ranking official in the Justice Department that "the Panthers are a bunch of hoodlums and we have to get this guy." It is, then, entirely reasonable to come to the conclusion that it is only a matter of time before Seale joins Newton, Hutton and Cleaver in America's peculiar and chilling version of Siberia.

With these formidable national leaders out of action, it appears that many local and fed-eral officials are almost paranoid in their determination that the Panthers shall not con-tinue to ride herd on what they call the "oppressive capitalistic system."

As Donald Freed, assistant to the provost of the California Institute of the Arts, put it: "If what is being perpetrated against the Black Panther Party was being done to any white group, including the Nazi Party, the liberal establishment--from the ACLU to the New York Times --would absolutely refuse to tolerate it further. Since the party began its hot breakfast for children project (now feeding 5,000 a day, which is, in the words of California's Jesse Unruh, 'more than the government feeds'), Panther arrests with charges later dropped, and bail in the millions, constitute an unprecedented national scandal which beggars the fifties." Freed sees official action against the Panthers as "a growing conspiracy which would have the most awful climax this ominous summer."

What has been happening to the Panthers in Chicago provides as good a spectacle as any for Americans who may want to make a serious examination of Bobby Seale's charge that a national campaign is in full swing against the group which calls itself the "vanguard party" of the revolution. The experiences of the Illinois Panthers vary little, if any, from those of the group that founded the party in California and from those of the others that now seek to carry out its aims across the country.

After a few months of underground organizing, the Illinois Black Panther Party emerged in December 1968. Many of its members had attended college and labored in the non-violent civil rights movement. At that time, few members had criminal records of any consequence. Now the charges against them run into three figures, including one of stealing a garbage can.

Only two convictions stand against the record of the Illinois Black Panthers. Signifi-cantly, they are both against the party's top two leaders. Bobby Rush, deputy minster of defense, was convicted in a Champaign (Ill.) circuit court of illegal possession of a weapon, following a visit of Panthers to the University of Illinois. Rush--a husband, fa-ther of two and an army veteran--has appealed the conviction. Fred Hampton, the Illinois party's deputy chairman, was convicted of robbing an ice-cream truck driver of $71 worth of ice cream and is serving two to five years in the Menard Penitentiary. Hampton is an ex-Roosevelt University student and former head of the Maywood (Ill.) NAACP Youth Council.

Hampton's conviction came despite his testimony that he was not on the Maywood school playground last April when the ice cream was stolen. In an out-of-court state-ment, Hampton told reporters: "I may be a pretty big mother, but I can't eat no 710 ice-cream bars." However, the words which attracted the attention of Panther watchers were those of the judge who refused to set an appeal bond for Hampton, dooming him to immediate incarceration: "This defendant admits to me that he advocates armed revolution," said circuit court Judge Sidney A. Jones, a Chicago Negro. "I cannot take the responsibility of allowing him to remain at large."

Aside from the fact that advocacy of armed revolution is scarcely relevant to a charge of stealing ice cream, the US Supreme Court on June 9 outlawed Ohio's syndicalism law. This statute, passed by several states during the "Red scare" after World War I, makes it unlawful "to advocate or teach the duty, necessity, or propriety of crime, sabo-tage, violence or unlawful methods of terrorism as a means of accomplishing industrial or political reform."

The Supreme Court ruling made it clear that convictions cannot be upheld against per-sons who simply advocate the necessity of overthrowing the government. Under the High Court decision, it is imperative that the advocate actually intends lawless action that would produce violence. If such a judicial opinion holds on a conviction, it would seem that it would be equally applicable to the granting of an appeal bond.

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