[sixties-l] Fwd: The Framing Of Geronimo Pratt

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: 10/23/00

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    >Published Sunday, October 22, 2000
    >Inside an FBI frame-up: story of a Black Panther
    >'Geronimo ji Jaga' Pratt served 27 years for a Santa Monica murder committed
    >while he was in Oakland
    >By Dan Reed
    >MORGAN CITY, La. -- Amid the worn shanties and shops in this humid, buggy
    >bayou town lives a revolutionary and future multimillionaire -- a man once
    >accused of such vile crimes as the Charles Manson-led "Helter Skelter"
    >massacre, of the kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, of conspiring
    >to hijack a school bus and behead the children on board, and of the
    >cold-blooded killing of a woman on a Santa Monica tennis court.
    >His name is Elmer Pratt, now Geronimo ji Jaga. The highly decorated Vietnam
    >veteran spent 27 years -- just over half his life -- in a penitentiary, where
    >he withstood years of abuse.
    >He was a Black Panther, a group labeled "the greatest threat to the internal
    >security of the country," in a memo by J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI
    >when Pratt was arrested.
    >And, he was framed.
    >The story of how Pratt became the victim of a secret government
    >"counterintelligence" campaign is told in a just-published biography, "Last
    >Man Standing: The Tragedy and Triumph of Geronimo Pratt," by the noted writer
    >Jack Olsen.
    >In July, the Los Angeles City Council approved its share of a $4.5 million
    >settlement for his wrongful incarceration in the tennis court case. The rest
    >came from the FBI, which hid evidence as it waged a now-well-documented
    >campaign against players in the civil rights, anti-war and other movements
    >considered politically radical in the late '60s and early '70s. Pratt has yet
    >to see the money, although it will come.
    >Now, three years after winning his release, the former officer in the
    >Oakland-based Black Panther Party is back home in swampy Morgan City, caring
    >for his frail 97-year-old mother, who had prayed daily for his release, and
    >trying to build a social center from the town's old "colored" high school and
    >denouncing injustice as he sees it.
    >These days, he often longs to slip away into the bayous for a calming day of
    >bass fishing, trying to make bad memories fade. But always, he's under
    >pressure as a spokesman, as a symbol of the fight against government
    >"He went into prison a revolutionary and came out a revolutionary," said
    >Olsen, who spent long hours with Pratt while researching his book.
    >Johnnie Cochran, the attorney for O.J. Simpson who represented Pratt for
    >years, said recently it was his most important case ever.
    >If the U.S. Supreme Court had not temporarily suspended capital punishment as
    >unconstitutional in the early 1970s -- the era in which Pratt, originally
    >accused of a death penalty offense for the tennis court killing, was tried --
    >the government likely would have executed an innocent man, said several
    >On this day in Morgan City, Pratt is particularly agitated, fuming into his
    >cell phone about an apparently racially motivated fire bombing in Selma,
    >Ala., the site of the "Bloody Sunday" voting rights march. "It's the same old
    >racism, the same thing as in 1965," he said.
    >Soon, he and his coterie -- like-minded friends in the civil rights movement
    >-- would be on a flight there, talking to locals, trying to buoy their
    >spirits. A few days later, he would be off to Washington, D.C., testifying
    >before the Congressional Black Caucus about the FBI's dirty tricks campaign
    >called Cointelpro -- counterintelligence programs -- to determine whether
    >others are wrongly still behind bars because of it.
    >In Pratt's case, the FBI tried to undermine the Black Panthers by planting
    >letters that convinced the group's already-paranoid leaders -- namely the
    >Huey Newton faction -- that Pratt was against them. So, they refused to
    >testify he was in Oakland -- he was there for a leadership meeting -- the
    >night of the tennis court murder. The FBI wiretapped Panther meetings,
    >documents later released under the federal Freedom of Information Act show,
    >but the logs for that one night are mysteriously missing.
    >Yet Wes Swearington, a former FBI agent interviewed by Olsen, remembers
    >seeing the transcripts, and says they proved Pratt was in Oakland -- not
    >Santa Monica -- the night of the killing.
    >Though Olson refers to him as a "peaceful" revolutionary, Pratt was never
    >much a supporter of the aggressive non-violence of Martin Luther King Jr.
    >Instead, he took to the teachings of Malcolm X, believing armed struggle may
    >be necessary to rebuff racial oppressors. He has killed, firing in heavy
    >combat in his two tours in Vietnam. He is only now talking about how he put
    >his military training to use back home -- secretly traveling to cities,
    >teaching black groups how to use weapons in case they came under attack.
    >Now, given the perspective of years, the man with skin the color of buffed
    >oak -- African, Indian and white blood -- is nearly at peace. His face is
    >marked by two distinguishing chicken pox scars. At 53, his body is compact
    >and powerfully built. Each morning he jogs five miles.
    >Today, he's wearing a T-shirt and baggy shorts. He fumbles with Wal-mart
    >reading glasses; on the top of one lens is a strip of tape that says,
    >"Everyone keeps borrowing them," said Pratt, chuckling at the explanation. He
    >laughs easily at himself and is astonishingly philosophical about his time in
    >prison, which included eight years in "the hole," a concrete box, as he
    >describes it, about four feet by seven feet. No bunk, no window, no sunshine,
    >no sink. A hole for a toilet.
    >Now, a free man, he stands as a martyr for the wrongly accused and spends
    >many days attempting to make up for time lost.
    >"I've been trying to be there for my mother, who I wasn't there for for 27
    >years ... to give her birthday presents, to take her out to dinner," he said
    >as he sat in the office dedicated to his new cause, the Kuji Foundation. It
    >was created to turn the old Morgan City Colored High School, his alma mater
    >and now a jail, into a social center.
    >"I've asked the (civil rights) movement to please give me a minute with my
    >mother, and everybody says, 'Sure, that's beautiful,' and then they turn
    >around and call me the next day. 'I need you here, I need you there.'"
    >He and his mother, Eunice, share a stately antebellum house in Morgan City,
    >painted yellow with white trim. Columns support a front-and-side deck. It's
    >not so far from where he grew up, a shotgun house in a neighborhood near the
    >Atchafalaya River called Across The Tracks, then the Negro section of town.
    >Even though the Ku Klux Klan had outposts in the region, his upbringing was
    >generally idyllic. Pratt's father was a junkman, who enlisted his boys --
    >Elmer was the baby in a family of seven -- to haul his findings to New
    >Orleans, 99 miles from home.
    >He remembers one frightening encounter with the Klan. On a Halloween night,
    >he, his brother Timothy and a friend, at the time about 10 or 11 years old,
    >were trick-or-treating -- Geronimo, dressed as the pirate Jean Lafitte.
    >Unknown to them, some black kids had jumped some white kids and taken their
    >candy. A Klan family went riding, looking for revenge on the first blacks
    >they could find.
    >"We got to running, and they caught my brother Tim," beating him badly, Pratt
    >He said Tim still suffers epileptic seizures brought on by injuries to his
    >As a boy, Geronimo was a crack shot, and that helped scratch up extra cash.
    >"When I was young," he said, "I'd come back with 75 rabbits, 20 or 30 coons.
    >Man, that's good money. I'd sell them to the markets, and they would take
    >them to New Orleans. Or sell them to people in the community -- two dollars
    >clean, dollar-fifty unclean."
    >A star quarterback in high school, he dreamed of going to Grambling State
    >University. But the community's elders -- senior, respected men who looked
    >out for the black population -- had other ideas for their young men. It was
    >the mid-1960s; the country was in ferment. The elders felt they needed a new
    >generation trained in the ways of war, in case the already bloody civil
    >rights movement took a turn for the worse.
    >"They said it wasn't time to go to college right now," Pratt recalls. "There
    >was a lot of things happening."
    >He didn't expect Vietnam, but he fought there valiantly, earning 18 medals,
    >two of them Purple Hearts. "Those are the ones that hurt," he says, lifting
    >his arm to show where a piece of grenade shrapnel still pushes its way from
    >under his skin.
    >After two tours, Pratt believed he'd get a cushy military job. But the elders
    >said no.
    >"When they killed Martin Luther King, the elders said to get out. Not only to
    >me, but all across the nation, black people were getting out of the army,
    >coming to their communities, arming themselves."
    >On a trip to Los Angeles, he hooked up with fellow Louisianan Alprentice
    >"Bunchy" Carter, founder of the Black Panthers' local chapter. The pair
    >quickly became friends. It was Bunchy who gave him the nickname Geronimo.
    >Pratt adopted the name ji Jaga while he was in prison.
    >After Carter was fatally shot in a fight with a competing group -- documents
    >suggest the fissure might have been fostered by the FBI's Cointelpro --
    >Panther leaders found a tape Carter left. It instructed them to turn over to
    >Pratt his role as deputy minister of defense, making Pratt one of the key
    >people in the chapter.
    >It was 1968, King and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated, riots erupted at
    >the Democratic convention in Chicago, and Hoover stepped up his campaign
    >against so-called subversive groups. In one agency memo, dated Nov. 25 of
    >that year, Hoover ordered his agents to submit "imaginative and hardhitting
    >measures aimed at crippling the BPP," according to Hoover biographer Curt
    >Gentry. Such dirty tricks included anonymous mailings, paid informants,
    >burglaries, surveillances, taps, bugs and mail openings, Gentry wrote.
    >And as soon as Los Angeles authorities realized Pratt's flashy,
    >red-over-white GTO belonged to a Panther, Pratt said, the harassment started.
    >He was one of about two dozen members arrested in a predawn police raid on a
    >Panther home that sparked a long shootout. When Charles Manson's "family"
    >slaughtered seven people, Pratt was picked up for the grisly killings, he
    >"They locked me in a cell and told me I was being investigated for a series
    >of murders," he said. "They did this a lot to get me out of commission --
    >until the lawyers showed up."
    >He figured his arrest in the 1968 tennis court slaying, a woman shot during a
    >robbery, was another setup that would quickly go away.
    >It didn't. It went to trial. And the deck was stacked.
    >Cochran was the young Los Angeles lawyer appointed to defend Pratt in 1971.
    >This year, he finally finished the job, settling Pratt's civil suit against
    >the government. He proved that authorities withheld information from the
    >defense, including that the key prosecution witness was a government
    >informant. Pratt insisted a conspiracy existed to convict him, but Cochran
    >didn't believe, then, the government would stoop to such dirty play.
    >"He was right, I was wrong," Cochran says now. "There's no question about it.
    >I had no idea they were following him, wiretapping phones."
    >The harassment continued even after he was imprisoned, he says -- beatings,
    >the hole.
    >At one point, word was passed that he'd orchestrated from the hole a plan to
    >hijack a bus carrying the children of prison guards -- beheading one a day
    >until demands were met. No such hijacking ever occurred.
    >Even though prison authorities later admitted Pratt had no role in the plan,
    >the accusation stayed in his prison folder for years, making him a target of
    >guards' wrath. Another time, as Cochran stood by, FBI agents offered him
    >$500,000 and free passage to Algiers, where Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver
    >was living in self-exile, if Pratt would tell them where his people had
    >stashed kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst.
    >"What about the lady I supposedly killed on the tennis courts?" Pratt asked,
    >according to Olsen's book. "Oh, everybody knows you're clean," one of the
    >agents replied.
    >A radical young law student named Stuart Hanlon -- unencumbered by Cochran's
    >faith in the system -- then took up the case, sticking with it and working
    >with Cochran off and on all these years. A breakthrough came from the 1976
    >Church Committee Senate hearings in Washington, which revealed the FBI's
    >Cointelpro program of dirty tricks.
    >"I believed the FBI was framing people before Cointelpro ever happened," said
    >Hanlon, a Bay Area lawyer. "The Church Committee report came out and it all
    >started to make sense."
    >Still, even as evidence pointing toward a frame-up mounted, the government
    >fought hard at every court hearing. To Hanlon and the army of volunteers
    >behind the swelling "Free Geronimo Pratt" campaign, it was clear: Pratt was a
    >political prisoner. "He was prosecuted and framed because he was a Panther,"
    >Hanlon says.
    >Given the radical politics, it was perhaps ironic that it finally took a
    >conservative judge from Orange County to order his conviction "reversed and
    >remanded for further proceedings." Los Angeles District Attorney Gil
    >Garcetti, much to the disgust of Pratt and his attorneys, dithered for months
    >before deciding to not pursue the case further. Garcetti did not answer a
    >phone message for comment. Neither did the FBI's San Francisco office.
    >Freedom? "It was like surreal, whooooooooo! It was like, this is not real,
    >I'm going to be back in in a minute," Pratt recently remembered, laughing

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