By Stephen Millies
They couldn’t break Geronimo ji Jaga. The FBI and Los Angeles district attorney framed the Black Panther Party leader for murder and jailed him for 27 years. Geronimo spent eight of those years in solitary confinement, with a hole in the floor of his tiny cell serving as a toilet. He was finally released in 1999 after being exonerated of all charges.
Geronimo ji Jaga died on June 2 in Tanzania. He was born on Sept. 13, 1947, in Morgan City, La., 70 miles southwest of New Orleans.
The future revolutionary grew up with the name Elmer Pratt. He lived with six brothers and sisters in a segregated small town. His father had a small scrap metal business.
Elmer Pratt was quarterback of the Morgan City Colored High School’s football team. He joined the U.S. Army and fought in Vietnam, becoming a sergeant in the 82nd Airborne. Pratt came home wounded with two purple hearts and other medals.
The Pentagon waged a dirty, racist war against the Vietnamese people. At least 3 million Vietnamese were killed. With communist leadership, Vietnam defeated Wall Street’s mighty war machine.
The incredible courage and perseverance of the Vietnamese people influenced Asian, Black, Latino and Native GIs. They weren’t coming home to take the same old crap.
After Vietnam, Elmer Pratt enrolled in the University of California, Los Angeles under the GI bill. He changed his name in 1968 to Geronimo in honor of the great Native American leader. Ji Jaga refers to an African people who lived in Congo.
Black revolutionaries were inspired by Native people, who never ceased fighting to be free despite centuries of genocide. Leaders of the American Indian Movement said they were inspired by the Black Panther Party.
Framed for being a revolutionary
African Americans rebelled in 200 cities after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. That same year Geronimo ji Jaga was recruited by Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter to the Black Panther Party.
Carter and John Huggins, leaders of the Panthers’ Southern California chapter, were fatally shot in a feud with the US (United Slaves) organization, led by Ron Karenga, the originator of Kwanza. Many people believe this feud was provoked by the FBI’s Cointelpro campaign against Black activists.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover attacked Dr. King. But his biggest FBI target was the Black Panther Party. Hoover hated the Panthers for spreading revolutionary consciousness while organizing the Breakfast for Children program.
At least 28 members of the Black Panther Party were killed by police. Some Panthers are still in jail today, including Marshall “Eddie” Conway in Maryland, Ed Poindexter and Mondo we Langa in Nebraska, and Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace in Louisiana.
A few days after Chicago Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were shot to death in a hail of bullets by cops on Dec. 4, 1969, Los Angeles police attacked the local Panther headquarters.
Moving up to the second floor, Geronimo — by now the chapter’s acting Minister of Defense — and the other Panthers defended themselves against police gunfire for six hours.
This was enough time for people to come into the streets to prevent the cops from killing the Panthers.
Within a month the Los Angeles FBI office crafted a Cointelpro plot “designed to challenge the legitimacy of the authority exercised” by Geronimo ji Jaga among Black Panther Party members. Another FBI memo discussed methods to destroy Geronimo “as an effective [Panther] functionary.” (Los Angeles Times, May 24, 1994)
To take Geronimo ji Jaga off the streets they framed him for the December 1968 killing of Caroline Olsen. She and her partner Kenneth were robbed and shot on a Santa Monica tennis court. Kenneth Olsen survived.
This crime resulted in lurid headlines about a white couple allegedly killed by Black perpetrators. In 1970 Geronimo was arrested for murder, despite being 350 miles away in Oakland attending Panther meetings at the time of the crime.
According to former FBI agent Wesley Swearingen, the FBI had wiretap evidence proving Geronimo ji Jaga was in the San Francisco Bay area. These wiretap logs were destroyed so Geronimo could be unjustly convicted.
The star witness against Geronimo was Julius Butler, who claimed Geronimo ji Jaga confessed to him about killing Olsen. Butler was a former Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy and FBI informer who had wormed his way into the local Panther chapter. Butler lied when he denied being an informer.
Another influential witness was Kenneth Olsen, who identified Geronimo ji Jaga as one of the shooters. But before that Olsen had identified another Black man as the culprit.
This key fact — which would have hurt Kenneth Olsen’s credibility — was withheld from jurors. One of the jurors, Jeanne Hamilton, later said, “I think that alone would have changed our mind.” (Los Angeles Times, May 24, 1994)
It still took the jury 10 days before agreeing to convict Geronimo, who was then sentenced to life imprisonment.
Worldwide defense effort freed him
Geronimo never gave up despite being beaten by prison guards. He used yoga and “cellisthenics,” a physical fitness program he developed, to keep healthy.
His defense lawyer, Johnnie Cochran Jr., never gave up either, calling Geronimo’s case the most important in his career.
A worldwide defense effort finally flushed out the truth about the frame-up. Geronimo ji Jaga was released on June 10, 1997. Los Angeles County and the U.S. Department of Justice agreed to pay him $4.5 million in reparations.
Geronimo spoke at the March 28, 1998, Jericho Movement demonstration in Washington, D.C., to free all political prisoners. He spoke at the Feb. 26, 1999, New York City rally at Town Hall to free Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Whenever you hear the U.S. government complain of “human rights” violations in China, remember that Geronimo ji Jaga spent as many years in jail as Nelson Mandela did in apartheid South Africa.
Long live the memories of Geronimo and Geronimo ji Jaga.
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