Former political prisoner and Black Panther Geronimo Pratt died last week aged 63. He is believed to have died of natural causes in Tanzania where he had settled and worked as a human rights activist.
Geronimo enjoyed just 14 years of freedom after spending 27 years in a US prison fighting to clear his name over a murder he did not commit.
He grew up in the deep south, in Morgan City, Louisiana. Geronimo joined the army and did two tours of duty in Vietnam. He then used the GI Education Bill to study political science at the University of California, Los Angeles. He joined the revolutionary Black Panther Party and soon became a leading member in Los Angeles.
Born Elmer Pratt, Geronimo said, ''Pratt' was never my name, it was the name of a slavemaster in Louisiana. And I did a check, and he was a dirty dog. So in 1968 I changed my name to Geronimo ji Jaga.”
The Black Panther Party had emerged in 1966 in Oakland California. It called on black people to get militantly active and organise the revolutionary overthrow of the racist, imperialist US government. The party grew rapidly across US city ghettoes and colleges. The FBI saw it as a serious threat and used all methods at its disposal to undermine it, as part of its Cointelpro counterinsurgency programme.
The FBI encouraged and often actually started internal disagreements. The atmosphere inside the Panthers was made tenser by the party’s constant fight against the police violence that had killed many of its leading members.
By the beginning of the 1970s the Panthers were wracked with sometimes violent feuds.
According to its own internal memos the Los Angeles FBI set up an operation 'designed to challenge the legitimacy of the authority exercised' by Geronimo in the Los Angeles Panthers. Another memo said the bureau was working on counterintelligence measures designed to neutralise Geronimo 'as an effective BPP functionary.'
He was arrested in 1970 and charged with the 1968 murder of white teacher Caroline Olsen. A jury found him guilty. Two witnesses were crucial to his conviction. First was Olsen's husband who had been shot and wounded in the attack that killed her. But most damning was the testimony of fellow Panther Julius Butler, who contradicted Geronimo's alibi that he had been at a BPP meeting more than 300 miles away at the time of the murder and claimed Geronimo had privately confessed to him that he was guilty.
Geronimo was held in solitary confinement for the first eight years of his sentence.
As the years dragged by information gradually emerged that before the trial Olsen had already identified three other black men as the murderer under police pressure.
More importantly, revelations about the FBI's Cointelpro program became public in the late 1970s—confirming that Butler had been a police spy when he testified against Geronimo. FBI wiretap evidence of the meeting Geronimo said he had attended mysteriously vanished from the archive. The Los Angeles authorities continued to oppose a retrial for Geronimo.
He had to fight on for another 20 years to win his release. His conviction was finally quashed in 1997. In 2000, Geronimo received $4.5 million out of court for wrongful imprisonment.
It is shocking that other Panthers are still fighting to get out of prison for the best part of 40 years—including Mumia Abu-Jamal and two of the Angola Three.