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News :: Organizing
2/11: Resisting Repression- Black Panthers and animal defenders unite to counter attacks
15 Feb 2006
Modified: 08:01:00 PM
Last Saturday, February 11, a coalition of Boston organizations including the Boston chapter of the Jericho movement, the Boston Animal Defense League and Boston Anarchist Black Cross held a community meeting with guests from around the country. The panel of Black Panther veterans, animal liberation activists and Puerto Rican independentistas spoke about the recent attacks by government and private interests against what they perceive to be a threat from an increasingly cohesive movement for social justice and true democracy.
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Last Saturday, February 11, at a community gathering in Roxbury Community College’s cafeteria, John Bowman relived the darkest events of his life. Over a period of several days in 1973, in the custody of New Orleans police interrogators, Bowman and two other Black Panther Party members suspected in a 1971 San Francisco police shooting were subjected to severe torture, the kind of torture we are trained to associate with dictatorships or drug mafias.

In separate rooms, and supervised by inspectors Ed Erdelatz and Frank McCoy of the San Francisco police department, the police stripped them and alternately beat them with batons, applied electric cattle prods to their genitals and other sensitive areas, sodomized them with the cattle prods, slammed them into walls while blindfolded, stuck needles into their bodies, threatened execution with guns to their heads, and smothered them with wool blankets soaked in boiling water. This went on for days until the police got the ‘confession’ they wanted.

The case against them was dropped some years later when the extent of the abuse became clear, and the government’s ‘evidence’ of confessions extracted under torture was voided. Nothing was ever done to hold the police accountable, and Bowman and the others were left to cope with the permanent physical and psychological post-traumatic scars.

Until the day in 2003 when the same two San Francisco detectives showed up at Bowman’s home in Oklahoma, smiling, “Do you remember us?” “How could I ever forget them?” Bowman asked the silent audience. They had come out of retirement to be deputized as federal marshals, and had reopened the same case the prosecution was forced to drop 30 years back.

This time the tactics were different; the government relied on grand juries to intimidate four Panther veterans into implicating each other, but they resisted and refused to cooperate, and they were all imprisoned indefinitely. However, they were finally released without indictments when the grand jury expired in November 2005, exposing the flimsiness of the government’s case. They have been touring the country since then with the help of lawyers like Soffiyah Elijah at Harvard University and community groups like the coalition which hosted them in Roxbury, in an effort to raise awareness among political activists of the tactics being used by the government to throttle popular dissent.

Their new organization, the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights, is aimed at “drawing attention to the human rights abuses perpetrated by the government of the United States and law enforcement authorities, which were carried out in an attempt to destroy progressive organizations and individuals.” They have been busy building solidarity among many community groups across the country by sharing their experiences and addressing the growing climate of fear in the country. As part of their presentation last weekend, the men assisted Bowman in demonstrating his torture with electric cattle prods and a blanket soaked in boiling water. The crowd seemed stunned, especially to find out it was only his second time speaking about this in public. “This is very difficult for me to discuss in public.”

Ray Boudreaux, one of the Panthers in town for the event, is a Vietnam veteran and electrician in Los Angeles. He remembered how the Panthers were stigmatized in a coordinated FBI campaign aimed at destroying community support for the nascent movement. “Once upon a time, they called me a terrorist too,” said Boudreaux. This label allowed the government a much freer hand to use outrageous and frequently illegal tactics in its notorious COINTELPRO campaign against popular movements in the 1960s and 1970s. ( )

In fact, the main goal of the Jericho movement, whose Boston chapter was the primary sponsor of Saturday’s event ( ), is to expose the deceit and illegal tactics used to incarcerate many Panthers and other community activists over the years, and to win their long-overdue freedom. The recent revelations about illegal surveillance by the Bush administration are a throwback to the carefree spying that various government agencies conducted in the era of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and red-baiting Senator Frank McCarthy. In addition, there are ominous signs that the tactics which so damaged the FBI in public opinion are being resurrected today.

Hank Jones, a grandfatherly Panther veteran from California who also spoke at the RCC event made particular mention of the PATRIOT Act, saying it is just a grownup version of COINTELPRO. “The same violations of our human and constitutional rights, totally unjust, done in secret and quietly,” he said in an interview last December. “It’s not just confined to us, and its other activist organizations as well.”

Danae Kelley, Andy Stepanian and Anthony Nocella can certainly agree. These animal rights defenders are part of the environmental movement facing the brunt of FBI attention these days ( , ). They were on hand Saturday to describe the nature of the nationwide sweeps engulfing the animal rights and earth defense community in what appears to be a well-coordinated campaign over the last several months. The Boston Animal Defense League ( ) and Boston Anarchist Black Cross ( ), which sponsored their visit, have seen ample evidence of COINTELPRO-style tactics being used in this sweep, as well as in related cases such as that of the SHAC 7, in which Stepanian is a defendant.

In particular, the demonization of animal and earth defenders in mainstream media has struck a chord. There are few mainstream outlets which challenge the business and government’s portrayal of them as ‘eco-terrorists,’ echoing the experience of the Panthers decades ago. In addition, grand juries again are the vehicle of choice for prosecutors trying to intimidate activists. Kelley spent 74 days in jail in San Diego for refusing to cooperate with a grand jury investigating animal liberation actions.

Lurid details from court documents have read like a page from the COINTELPRO playbook. There has been well-documented evidence of infiltration, and some of the people charged with offenses- including arson against a genetically-engineered tree farm, a wild horse corral, a luxury ski resort expansion, and a police station- have broken ranks to cooperate with the prosecutors against their co-defendants. One informant named ‘Anna’ has been shown to have been paid over $75,000 in exchange for her assistance in infiltrating various anarchist circles and gatherings around the country, wearing a wire, inciting activists to take on dangerous projects, and snitching to the FBI.

The arrested and subpoenaed people have been accused of carrying out these actions as members of the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front, radical environmental movements which have targeted what they allege are illegal and destructive corporate and governmental projects, in actions which have caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage but never hurt a person or animal. "The No. 1 domestic terrorism threat is the eco-terrorism, animal-rights movement," says the Bush administration, to much scorn from people tracking violent white supremacists and corporate criminals.

However, most of these defendants have publicly denied membership in these movements and have professed their innocence. Speculation is rife that the government has been so frustrated by its inability to break this network of autonomous cells that it is now using grand juries and threats of decades in prison to get individuals to cooperate in destroying the movement. Grand juries do not allow for the same legal rights as other court proceedings, and defendants appearing before them cannot remain silent without risking contempt of court.

The FBI officially dismantled the COINTELPRO apparatus in 1971 after activists broke into an FBI office in Pennsylvania and stole documents proving the existence of the ‘dirty tricks’ campaign ( ). But many have suspected this dismantlement was in name only and that COINTELPRO continued under different names. After the smear campaigns, assaults, frame-ups and assassinations of Panthers, some of the same agents prominent in COINTELPRO activities have been involved in equally reprehensible attacks against the American Indian Movement, the Puerto Rican Independence movement, and the environmental movement ('s_Secret_Police.html ).

It is encouraging to see the many victims of the government’s attacks uniting to fight the repression despite differences in political and strategic goals, agreed the participants in the conference. The Panthers in particular are adamant about speaking out, vowing not to make the same mistake they did in remaining silent after their monstrous abuse in the 1970s. Marta Rodriguez, a Boston resident and activist with the New England Committee to Defend Palestine, spoke about the history of grand juries being used to break the solidarity of accused political activists, and said resisting the increasing pressure from the government means working with all people who are persecuted, including the Muslim detainees who are facing some of the worst attacks these days. This time, the government isn’t throwing out confessions tainted with torture.

In order to resist the government’s constant attempts to prop up the corrupt capitalist interests running the country and exercising unprecedented power in the rest of the world, we will need to work together. When these agents of repression focus their attention on destroying one group or movement, it is the responsibility of all who believe in justice and freedom to cooperate in countering these attacks. And education of a disturbingly ignorant and compliant public is essential in any work aimed at realizing a vision of true freedom, as was apparent last Saturday in Roxbury.

The struggle continues! Venceremos!
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