From COINTELPRO to the Patriot Act: The long battle for justice and civil liberties

Jailed Black Panther calls for amnesty

BALTIMORE — From his jail cell at the Maryland House of Corrections in Jessup where he is serving a life sentence, Marshall “Eddie” Conway has launched a drive for amnesty for himself and other victims of the FBI’s COINTELPRO dirty tricks program 30 years ago.

At the same time, Conway is calling for freedom for hundreds of innocent people jailed since Sept. 11, 2001, under the infamous USA Patriot Act.

Conway, a leader of the Baltimore Black Panther Party (BPP), has served nearly 35 years on false charges that he murdered two Baltimore police officers the night of April 24, 1970.

Conway has never wavered in proclaiming his innocence. He has alibis proving he was not at the scene of the crime and there is no physical evidence to support the charges against him. He was tried in an atmosphere of Vietnam War hysteria, in the era of Richard Nixon’s “enemies list” and the Watergate conspiracy.

In a recent telephone interview from prison, Conway told the World he sees many parallels between the Nixon administration and the Bush administration in their reliance on repression, intimidation and fear. People angered by the imprisonment of thousands of innocent people under Attorney General John Ashcroft’s Patriot Act, he said, can understand that he, too, is a victim of a racist frame-up.

Conway ticks off a list of other, better known victims of COINTELPRO (“Counter Intelligence Program”): American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier, journalist Mumia Abu Jamal, and the advocates of Puerto Rican independence, all languishing in prison. Some, such as Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt and Richard Moore Diruba, have won their freedom after decades of proclaiming their innocence.



Dirty tricks

“We need a blanket pardon of all the COINTELPRO victims,” Conway said. “There are many who are still incarcerated 35 years after (former FBI Director) J. Edgar Hoover’s secret dirty war. I think it is the grassroots effort that is going to play the major role. This is not really a legal case. It’s a political case. It depends on people understanding the issues.”

Throughout recent American history, he said, the FBI, CIA and other federal agencies have tried to legalize their attempts to suppress groups seeking social change. “There were the Palmer Raids in the 1920s, the FBI infiltration of labor unions, the Socialist and Communist parties during the 1950s. The Patriot Act represents their latest attempt to legalize their repression,“ he said. “People need to stand up against the repression because they don’t want to end up in the same situation I am in.”

Like the FBI’s COINTELPRO, the Patriot Act has given federal law enforcement authorities sweeping new powers to infiltrate legal organizations, to harass and intimidate people, Conway said.

“We’re reading every day about preventive detention of so-called ‘material witnesses,’ warrantless wiretaps, the FBI going into people’s personal records. People’s personal property is searched and seized. They declare people ‘enemy combatants,’ and deny them their rights of due process. These are the powers that Bush, Cheney and Ashcroft claim for themselves, the power to investigate anybody without accountability or judicial oversight.”



Bush extends repression worldwide

The Bush administration has extended these policies of mass repression worldwide, Conway said. He cited the detention of so-called enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, since Sept. 11, 2001. Thousands more are languishing in Pentagon and CIA operated prisons around the world, including the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the Bagram detention facility in Afghanistan, where inmates have been tortured and even murdered.

There are also people accused as enemy combatants here in the U.S., such as Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen held in a military stockade at Camp LeJeune, S.C. Several sensational cases, including an attempt to frame Portland, Ore., attorney Brandon Mayfield, and four Muslim men in Detroit, have collapsed for lack of evidence.

Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down two rulings rejecting Bush’s claim of powers to throw people in jail indefinitely without criminal charges or the right of due process. The high court upheld the legal rights of detainees both at Guantanamo and within the U.S.

“The multinational corporations, those who control the wealth, have always repressed movements that threaten their privileges,” said Conway. “Some people call these policies a ‘mistake’ but they were not mistakes. It’s part of their operating procedure to maintain control of society. It cuts into their profits when workers are unionized or people join together to fight for justice so they use methods of repression to suppress or destroy these movements.”

With the help of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the Partnership for Social Justice, the National Lawyers Guild and other progressive organizations, Conway is circulating a draft resolution calling on the 108th Congress to reopen the famous 1976 Senate Church Committee hearings that first laid bare the criminal abuses of COINTELPRO. The resolution would extend that congressional probe to “the impact of the more recently enacted USA Patriot act on organizations and individuals” and would clear the way for “legal redress for victims of both of these intrusive operations.”

Councilman Kwame Abayomi, who pushed through the Baltimore City Council resolutions opposing the war on Iraq and the Patriot Act, has introduced Conway’s resolution before the council.



Free Conway and reopen hearings

Stevenson had a very positive meeting with Rep. Barbara Lee, said Dominique Stevenson, director of AFSC’s Baltimore Programs, referring to the African American congresswoman from Berkeley, Calif. “We are seeking meetings with members of both the Congressional Black Caucus and the Progressive Caucus to urge them to introduce the resolution in the U.S. Congress.”

Stevenson said AFSC has launched a simultaneous campaign to win freedom for Conway with a rally set for Nov. 6, from noon to 4 p.m., at the University of Baltimore on the theme, “35 Years is Too Much: A Rally to Free Marshall ‘Eddie’ Conway.”

She added, “At this point I’m hopeful we can build a campaign on several levels to win his release, both legal and political. We hope that by reopening the Church Committee inquiry on COINTELPRO it will shine a spotlight on all the victims of political repression in jail, including those imprisoned under the Patriot Act. About two dozen Black Panther Party members are still incarcerated, most of them in New York and Georgia in both state and federal prisons.”



Slander, harassment and assassinations

The draft resolution states, “COINTELPRO was an illegal, extra-judicial program designed to disrupt and destroy opposition groups and movements such as the Black Panther Party, American Indian Movement, and other organizations that were targeted by the FBI.”

Tactics included “slander and harassment of members, the framing of leaders like Geronimo Pratt, and ultimately the assassination of high ranking members like Fred Hampton,” the resolution continues. Hampton was the founder of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party murdered by Chicago police as he was sleeping in his bed Dec. 4, 1969.

COINTELPRO, initiated in the early years of the Cold War, targeted the Communist Party USA by employing an army of spies to infiltrate and disrupt the party’s legal, peaceful activities. J. Edgar Hoover authorized “Operation Hoodwink” in which FBI agents forged letters on fake CPUSA letterhead addressed to New York underworld gangsters denouncing their criminal activities. It was an attempt to incite violence against party leaders and members.

Later, COINTELPRO was vastly expanded, targeting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and thousands of other peace and justice advocates.

Said Conway, “The aim was to neutralize the movement, to disrupt legal activities. Dozens were murdered or assassinated. Hundreds were forced into exile. The result was that effective movements for social change were disrupted and in some cases destroyed.”

Conway was a postal worker at Baltimore’s main post office in the late 1960s when he joined the BPP. “There are FBI files proving that the FBI followed me around, contacted my employer to get me fired. They were harassing me prior to my being incarcerated.”

He believes the FBI targeted him for frame-up in revenge for his role in ferreting out a National Security Agency spy named Warren Hart planted in the Baltimore chapter of the BPP in 1969. Hart had been attending BPP Central Committee meetings at a time when the FBI and local police departments across the nation were waging open, violent warfare against the BPP.

During his decades in prison, Conway has struggled to improve conditions for himself and his fellow inmates. He organized a family literacy program so that prisoners could read books together with their children when they visit. He organized the first library at Jessup, which now has thousands of books.

Through Conway’s efforts, computers were acquired by the library to teach the inmates computer literacy. He has recruited outside speakers to come to address the prisoners on issues vital to their interests. He earned a college degree at Baltimore’s Coppin State College and is seeking his doctorate through an extension program at the University of California.



Fightback by Arabs, Muslims

Arab Americans and Muslim organizations have angrily denounced the Bush administration for its frontal assault on civil liberties. “What does it mean for Muslim Americans if President Bush is re-elected?” asked Mukit Hossain, president of the Muslim American Political Action Committee. “It means more constricting laws and policies to curtail the civil liberties of Muslim Americans and harsher foreign policies toward Muslim countries in the name of combating terrorism,” he said. “It also means a continuing and menacing rise of anti-Muslim sentiment in America, covertly nurtured by the neoconservatives and openly fanned by government officials like Lt. General William Boykin and Attorney General John Ashcroft.”

Hossain added, “Since Senator Kerry is not controlled by religious and political ideologues, the possibility of an open and productive dialog with the Kerry administration for the Muslim Americans remains alive.”

A recent Zogby poll showed that Arab Americans and Muslim Americans are tilting 9-to-1 for Kerry, a sharp reverse of the 2000 election when many were fooled by Bush promises to restart the stalled Middle East peace process.

Abed Hammoud, president of the Arab American Political Action Committee (AAPAC) representing 3 million Arab Americans, charged that “under George Bush, hate crimes against Americans of Middle Eastern descent increased by 1,600 percent.” He accused the Bush administration of “collecting secret evidence” and ordering the FBI “to monitor personal records and break into homes and offices without probable cause.”



Not a single terrorist prosecuted

A series of articles in the New York Times Oct. 24-25 exposed a clique of extremist neoconservatives headed by Vice President Dick Cheney as the authors of the plan for mass incarceration of 560 mostly Muslim and Arab men at Guantanamo and other Pentagon prisons. They were to be denied rights guaranteed under the Geneva Conventions and other international laws. The plan was considered so sensitive that senior White House officials “kept its details secret from the president’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.” The article quotes Cheney saying the brutal system “guarantees that we’ll have the kind of treatment of these individuals that we believe they deserve.”

The Times adds, “But three years later, not a single terrorist has been prosecuted.” The article reports that lawyers in the Pentagon’s Judge Adjutant General’s office were ignored when they warned against the global dragnet. A worldwide outcry has forced the Pentagon to release hundreds of the detainees.

Osama Siblani, a former AAPAC president who endorsed Bush in 2000, charged, “George Bush has shaken the very foundations of this country with his assault on civil rights.”



Tim Wheeler, national political correspondent for the People’s Weekly World, can be reached at greenerpastures21212@yahoo.com.