- BBC News World
For nearly half a century, he has lived behind bars in a New Jersey prison. Now, at 85 years old, he will breathe freedom again.
The Supreme Court of that state announced this week that it decided to release Sundiata Acolithe oldest remaining incarcerated former member of the Black Panthers, the controversial left-wing group that advocated for black minority rights in the late 1960s.
Acoli had been eligible for parole for 29 years, but every time his lawyers asked for it, he was denied.
He was systematically considered a “public threat”, despite the fact that his health, the years and various medical and psychiatric reports suggested otherwise.
He had been sentenced to life in prison in 1974, following a bizarre incident a year earlier in which a policeman ended up dead.
Acoli was traveling with Assata and Malik Shakurtwo other members of the Black Panthers, when two officers stopped the car for a routine inspection on the New Jersey Turnpike: they had a broken light.
What followed next has never been made clear: there was a shootout, Malik and a police officer were killed, Acoli and another officer were injured.
Acoli and Assata fled but were arrested a few days later and sentenced to spend the rest of their lives behind bars.
In one of the most memorable escapes from US prisons, Assata managed to escape and took refuge years later in Cuba, where he is believed to still be living (he is still on the FBI’s most wanted list).
Acoli has since spent his life in prison, but he is not the only one.
At least 12 members of the movement are still in prison, with sentences approaching or exceeding 50 years in prison.
His sentences are still the testimony of a controversial era of struggles for civil rights in the United States and a sample of the racial and social gaps of the society in which it was generated.
But what was this group and why does it continue to generate controversy more than half a century later?
Black berets and black leather jackets, fists clenched and guns in hand… the Black Panthers created their own fashion that was, at the same time, their symbol.
They advocated armed self-defense, especially against the police, and defined themselves as a “socialist party” at a time when communism was seen as America’s greatest enemy.
The party was created in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, who had become known a few years earlier for protesting at a rally in California that ignored the black legacy in the colonization of the American West.
Since then they had been involved in political activism but there were two events that led them to take a step further.
In February 1965, civil rights leader Malcolm X was assassinated, and a year later, an unarmed black teenager, Matthew Johnson, was shot dead by San Francisco police.
It was then that they decided to create the “Black Panther Party for Self Defense“, whose main goals initially were to monitor police activities against black communities in Oakland and other cities.
Their activism and charisma soon multiplied the group’s popularity: from monitoring they went on to create social programs, including free breakfasts for children or people with anemia, while also becoming involved in political activities.
In a couple of years, the group’s subsidiaries had multiplied in more than 30 states.
in his book Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther PartyJoshua Bloom, and Waldo E. Martin estimate that by 1969 it had more than 5,000 members, and its ideas were popular in both small communities and large cities, from Los Angeles and Chicago to New York and Philadelphia.
Unlike other African-American civil rights groups, the Black Panthers carried guns and defended the right to self-defense with them.
Bloom and Martin point out in their book that it was an active response to the police violence experienced by the black population and that it sought to “empower the black community in the face of a racist system.”
However, their defiance of the authorities and their use of weapons was seen as defiance and they were sometimes described as gangs or violent groups, something that their leaders denied.
The Black Panthers were part of an even larger group, the so-called BlackPowerwhich advocated black pride and unity for the rights of racial minorities.
However, Newton and Seale did not conform to the ideology of that organization and based themselves on Marxism.
They fervently believed in “class struggle” and thought that the organization represented “the battle of the proletarian vanguard against capitalism.”
It was these ideas on which they based their political platform, which they called Ten Point Program, in which they called for, among other things, an immediate end to police brutality; jobs for African Americans and increased access to land, housing and justice for all.
Their closeness to Marxism, the black nationalist approach and a series of violent acts they committed then put them in the crosshairs of the authorities, especially Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
The FBI, in fact, created a secret counterintelligence program, COINTELPRO, just to keep a close eye on members of the Black Panthers.
By 1969, the FBI declared them a “communist organization” and “enemy of the government,” and Hoover even called them “one of the greatest threats to the nation’s internal security.”
rivalries with the police
Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin’s book recounts how increasing persecution by the authorities led to a rapid radicalization of the group.
Clashes with the police became frequent and several officers were killed in shootouts involving the Black Panthers. The group, however, always assured that they only used weapons as a method of self-defense and that they only responded to the police if they were attacked.
The organization also became a focus of police violence.
In one of the most high-profile cases, in 1969, Chicago police fired more than 100 shots at two party members sleeping in their apartment.
The authorities claimed that a fierce exchange of fire had taken place, but it was later shown that only one bullet came from the gun of one of the group’s members.
In the book The Black Panther Party [Reconsidered]the historian Charles E. Jones assures that the persecution to which the members of the group were subjected was so great that a kind of collective paranoia also began to manifest itself among its members… and to divide them.
This led not only to numerous discussions and fears, but also to reports that some “Black Panthers” killed or beat up others in the same group they believed to be police informants.
Certain parts of the movement were also associated with criminal activities, and an internal split between its main leaders and organizers soon weakened them as a political force.
By the mid-1970s, the Black Panthers continued to lose followers and popularity, though they made efforts to survive the demise, including creating an armed branch, the Black Liberation Army.
In the following decades, the group’s name became a subject for academic research and history books, while some of its main activists died, escaped to other countries or spent their lives in prison.
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