One of the highlights of 2016 was the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party (BPP), which alumni marked with celebrations and gatherings around the country. But a painful side of the 50-year mark is how many former Panthers and affiliates are still languishing in America’s prisons. The context in which members of the BPP and its underground offshoot, the Black Liberation Army (BLA), were charged, tried, convicted and sentenced supports some of their claims of political repression.
The Black Panther Party promoted armed self-defense against rampant police brutality and anti-capitalist revolution. Their militarized stance, along with “survival programs” such as free sickle cell anemia testing, attracted the intense ire of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and President Richard Nixon.
Hoover’s FBI had been infiltrating, spying on and disrupting various political groups through the convert counterintelligence program COINTELPRO since its inception in 1956. The Communist Party was the first target, but by the mid-1960s, leaders and organizations classified as Black nationalist were priorities. In one revealing office memo, Hoover described the BPP’s free breakfast program—not its guns—as “the greatest threat to internal security of the country.” The Panthers were also on Nixon’s infamous political enemies list.
By portraying the BPP as a major threat, Nixon and the FBI gave local authorities permission and incentives to help infiltrate, surveil, lie to, raid, frame, injure, murder and incarcerate dozens of BPP members and affiliates. In this climate, BPP and affiliates often faced manufactured or excessive criminal charges. Some were convicted due to false, inconclusive or non-existent evidence. Some were tortured into confessing to crimes they did not commit. Witnesses were frequently coerced into lying on the stand or not called at all. Prosecutors concealed evidence and relied on the testimony of paid informants. Judges were blatant about their racial bias.
The majority of BPP and BLA prisoners have appealed their convictions, a slow process that doesn’t tend to allow for challenging evidence presented in an original trial. Their appeals focus on introducing new evidence and proving a lack of due process. Because most of these cases involve the death of a police officer, BPP and BLA prisoners up for parole are frequently stymied by pressure from victims’ families and police unions. Many have been held in solitary confinement, some for decades.
ColorLines.com has crafted a list of BPP and BLA participants still behind bars and the amount of time served. Based on court documents associated with their appeals and news reports, they also present the broad strokes of controversy surrounding their cases.
This piece was originally published by Colorlines on December 31, 2016.