A System of Criminal Injustice

Against the Current, No. 92, May/June 2001

Ahmad Rahman

A JANUARY 5, 2001, Associated Press article detailed the release of Peter Limone after thirty-three years in prison. Boston Superior Court Judge Margaret Hinkle vacated the conviction of the 66-year old man, stating that the FBI had been “tarnished” by its actions in the case.

For thirty-three years the FBI had withheld information that Limone was innocent. Limone’s co-defendant, also innocent, had died in prison. At a time when the mass media focused on former president Clinton’s pardoning the allegedly guilty, they directed virtually no attention to the horror and hardships faced by Limone, his co-defendant, and their families during thirty-three years spent in prison for a crime for which the government knew they were innocent.

Limone had been fingered by a lying FBI informant who was himself a multiple murderer for the mob. This case of innocent persons languishing, dying in prison when the government withholds exculpating evidence bears striking similarities to the cases of several political prisoners.

Some persons here this evening who have not had contact with the criminal justice system might ask, “How could this be? Don’t we have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Do you mean the government would violate the Constitution to deprive innocent citizens of their liberty because of their political beliefs?”

The Limone case illustrates that in criminal cases this is true. What little media coverage this case received sought to reduce the significance of this crime against Limone as isolated episodes of corruption within the Boston FBI.

How routine this kind of behavior is in the realm of criminal law I cannot say. That this has been common for persons with left-wing politics and who take strong stances against capitalism and racism, I can affirm unequivocally. Yet for many people in this country, charges that the government inflicts criminal charges and extra-long sentences as a form of political repression is either unknown or the cause of skepticism.

Before understanding what we must do to counter the power of the U.S. criminal justice system as an instrument of political repression, we need to first understand why it works the way it does. Without expounding a long political treatise to answer this question, allow me to utilize the familiar American cultural metaphor of the cattle drive.

The Old West as Symbol

As depicted in old westerns on TV and in the movies, the cattle drive and the cowboy are the metaphors for the narrative of American economic progress and civil order: The moving cattle represent economic progress and capitalist profit, if they are delivered to Kansas healthy and on time.

The herd symbolizes order itself. The cowboys are maintaining the progress of the economic system. The cowboy’s job is to maintain order during the movement of the economy toward profits for those who own the herds and the meatpacking companies.

If we see the majority of America’s working people as this herd and the criminal justice system (police, courts, etc.) as the cowboys, we understand why maintaining civil order is the cowboy’s purpose.

Why extralegal means are viewed as necessary and acceptable to maintain law and order is also visible in the cattle drive. Recall the drives in which external threats posed a danger to the orderly movement of the cattle toward the marketplace. Frequently those depicted as threatening the system were “Injuns.”

These people of color — dislocated, invaded, aggrieved, starved — were depicted as the aggressors against a morally superior civilization and its racially superior protectors. Native Americans, Mexicans, and outlaw whites (usually depicted as working class “poor white trash”) who in some way challenge the system were unworthy of anything but “frontier justice.”

In the Old West of these media myths, cattle rustlers and horse thieves and persons who caused stampedes were either hanged or gunned down. So absorbed were we in the dramas that few of us ever stopped to think, “hey, there are thousands of cattle in that herd. Those rustlers only took a few cows. For this they get the death penalty?”

Nor did we question the depictions of Native Americans as unreasonable, even though they challenged the trespass on their lands of the cattle belonging to cowboys who had killed off their buffalo. Native Americans being situated outside the system, as neither cowboy nor cattle, removed them from our sympathies.

Our disbelief in racial and economic injustice had already been suspended by skillful manipulation of evocative symbols and archetypes of Americana. Especially for American men, strength, courage and masculinity were made synonymous with uncritical acceptance and emulation of the rough justice and rugged individualism of the cowboy.

Those persons presently and in the past who take stances against the status quo have stepped outside the herd. By doing so, the government forces charged to maintain the herd views them as not only outlaws, but as persons subject to “justice” outside the law.

Hence the continuing confinement of Leonard Peltier, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Eddie Conway, Albert Nuh Washington, and of fifty other political prisoners. For a complete list, see the website: www.TheJerichoMovement.com.

The Shadow World

My direct experience indelibly imbedded in my mind the reality of a shadow world where political activists and government agents perform a serious game of predator and prey outside the vision of nonparticipants. I understand how Peter Limone could wind up in prison for decades and be innocent, even though the government produced an eyewitness who pointed him out as the triggerman in a murder.

In 1971, when the government charged me with the crime for which I would spend twenty-one years in prison, the prosecutor sent a lawyer to me with a message. If I would testify against the leader of the Detroit Black Panther Party, identifying him as the person their other witnesses said I was, then they would let me go.

I knew, as did they, that Malik had nothing to do with the case. But he was a bigger fish than I was. I would later be told about a diagram of the hierarchy of the Detroit Panthers hanging on the wall of police headquarters. This diagram assigned Malik and me the rank of number one and number three respectively.

I turned down the deal and spent decades in prison as a result. I often wondered afterward how many defendants refused these offers. How many persons are in prison now because they were falsely accused by defendants who exchanged false testimony for their freedom?

Go to prison for years, or lie on another person and send him to prison in your place: How many people chose prison? This is why the Limone case struck me so viscerally.

The judge accused the FBI of knowing for thirty-three years that an innocent man had been wrongfully convicted. This is what we have been saying about some political prisoners. Their innocence, or their having been setup, entrapped, framed or otherwise railroaded, is known to only the prisoners, their supporters, and the government.

Had not some internal FBI documents become available, Limone would have likely died in prison as did his co-defendant. Without this same kind of revelation, or without their freedom campaigns becoming successful, many political prisoners are likely to die in prison.

For the government to belatedly admit wrongdoing in framing and falsely imprisoning a man for thirty-three years has narrow implications in a criminal case. To admit doing the same to people because they stepped outside the herd and attempted to free other persons from the herd, is to admit that America locks up people for their political beliefs and activism.

The broad international implications of such an admission are weighty. Foremost, America, this propaganda beacon of democracy and human rights, would be exposed for talking one talk but walking two walks. Its position of moral superiority, recurrently asserted in the media, over China, Iraq and Cuba, for example, would immediately evaporate.

Most troublesome for the possessors of state power, the public could become aware that America practices dual sets of behavior based on a duality of philosophies. This duality has been visible for those who wish to see it from the inception of this country.

Manifest Destiny

Back then the vaunted “Founding Fathers” established a republic through the initial Lebensraum program known as Manifest Destiny. Like the Nazi Lebensraum, Manifest Destiny was the agenda of extermination, forced labor, and conquest used by a self-appointed “master race” to usurp an entire continent belonging to a people whom they had designated inferior.

ther “inferiors” they enslaved to build the foundations of America’s wealth. Yet, in Washington D.C. there are mammoth monuments to the “heroism” of the committers of these crimes against humanity; nowhere does the country acknowledge officially that its wealth and prosperity is founded upon a heinous legacy of blood.

Toward the end of his life Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. repeatedly stated that there was a sickness in America’s soul. I’m convinced that this hypocritical dualism in America’s self-image is the root cause of this sickness.

This dualism permeates the media’s portrayal of America’s origins versus the underlying realities. Hence the action-packed distortions of history like “Mississippi Burning.” Police state propaganda shows proliferate on TV: LAPD, NYPD Blue, America’s Most Wanted, Law and Order, a series purporting to portray the “real FBI,” and other programs now too numerous to mention.

Although one or two episodes might tangentially touch on police corruption, the recurring and most dramatically powerful message is that the cowboys are necessary to get the herd to the market. There’s still “Injuns” (remember the cop movie, “Fort Apache the Bronx”?) and “poor (working class) white trash” out there not playing by the cattleman’s rules and in need of frontier justice.

In the realm of political “crimes,” healing this schizoid dualism in America’s soul requires strong doses of truth. The truth can indeed set people free. We activists enhance the meaning of our lives when we dedicate ourselves to spreading the truth.

Too few Americans know that their government supported the various so-called “dirty wars” in Central and South America. These anti-communist crusades involved the systematic, usage of kidnapping (the “Disappeared”) rape, torture and murder to stifle social movements for freedom, justice and economic equality for workers and peasants.

Many perpetrators of these crimes, soldiers aligned with the financial elites, received counterinsurgency training at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. I recall that the U.S. representative to the United Nations during the Reagan administration declared that authoritarianism — bloody fascist dictatorships — was preferable to so-called totalitarianism, i.e. Cuba under Castro and Chile under Allende.

While supporting these dirty wars, the U.S. government engaged in its own extrajudicial witchhunts against domestic proponents of peace, economic equality and racial justice. This brings me to the shadow world of activists today. As the police tactics to stop opponents of laissez faire capitalist globalization have illustrated for a new generation of activists, we activists dance in the dark with the secret police.

I was on Pennsylvania Avenue when the limousine carrying president-select Bush sped by on Inauguration Day. Crowding the sidewalk, we opponents of his right wing coup far outnumbered the cowboy hat and mink coat crowd that celebrated him in the bleachers.

Suddenly a squad that resembled a SWAT team in full riot gear, clad in black facemasks, ran toward us and lined up facing us. They pounded their batons in their hands or against shields a few times. Then as abruptly as they had come, they about-faced and marched in single file back to a truck across the street.

As Bush’s limo neared our spot, a contingent of Marines deployed in front of us. They formed the third line of offense that we faced. First were two rows of the D.C. police and officers from the Virginia and Maryland state troopers.

As we watched the presidential limo approach, we saw in front of it two flatbed trucks. Both were filled with a dozen men standing up all clicking cameras at us. Why was the secret police taking our pictures? We were simply exercising our First Amendment rights.

We had stepped outside the herd and were chanting, “racist, sexist, you must be from Texas!” “f–k Bush!” “Selected, not elected!” and “Coup, Coup, Coup d’etat!” Unlike the well-dressed Republicans in the bleachers next to us, our faces had to be recorded and stored forever in the files of the political police. Some of us had taken our first steps into the shadow world.

Fear of the Shadow

I contend that it is fear of entering this shadow world that stops preachers and politicians from speaking out about political prisoners.

A couple weeks before the inauguration over 500 FBI agents marched in front of the White House to pressure then-President Clinton not to release Leonard Peltier. Some persons in the media stated that Clinton would have released Peltier had he not feared that the FBI would hound him for the rest of his life.

These pundits declined to take this to the next level and say, “Wow, the FBI can intimidate a man as powerful as the president into not delivering justice to a political prisoner. Could they also be intimidating judges, prosecutors, lawyers, activists, politicians, reporters, witnesses, et al.? Are they, employees of the misnamed Department of Justice, continuing the government’s Dirty War by assuring that its imprisoned victims never see freedom?”

We activists for freedom and justice need to come to grips with why the issue of political prisoners is seldom if ever on the lips of the likes of not only civil rights leaders like Jessie Jackson and Julian Bond, but also intellectuals like Noam Chomsky, and Barbara Ehrenreich. These are people who have lived outside the herd for decades.

A more pressing question arises from cases like Mumia Abu-Jamal (twenty years in Pennsylvania prisons) and Marshal Eddie Conway (thirty years in Maryland). They were convicted for shooting policemen. Might those who cannot bring themselves to support their freedom have unconsciously internalized the old slave code law, which stated, “A slave shall not resist the correction of his master”?

Resistance As Cure

No matter how wrong or brutal was the punishment, the law stated that a slave could not resist. After receiving the punishment, if some white person thought that the master had been overly cruel to his property, in a few jurisdictions this person could file a civil complaint.

The complainant would have to assert that the master was guilty of cruelty to living property, like cruelty to a cow or horse. Those rare court decisions against the master resulted in fines that were a pittance.

In one incident in Virginia in 1831, the master forced a recalcitrant slave into a wooden barrel. Nails were then hammered into the barrel, which the punishers then rolled down a hill. At no point could the slave legally resist this horrific death.

Under the modern interpretation of this law, no Black person may resist the correction of the police. Many activists on the left are much more enthusiastic about protesting the death of the murdered Amadou Diallo than they are about advocating the freedom of Mumia.

A Black man who died during police “correction” we can accept; a Black man who survived with the policeman dead instead, arouses less enthusiasm. It’s as if we share in America’s schizoid sickness from a “left” perspective: Die a victim of the cowboys and we’ll celebrate you, come out on top in a battle with them and we’ll ignore you.

Even activists seem not to be able to ask whether there is anything legal that a person can do when the police come to “correct” or kill her/him illegally? “Fleeing and eluding the police” is a felony, as is all resistance. All that one can do that is legal is die. One’s survivors can then sue, which, of course, does not raise the dead.

With racial profiling so prevalent, these life and death issues unfortunately arise quite often. The cowboy state’s denial of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to “Injuns,” rebellious white workers and intellectuals, and others outside the herd has always been a political act. Those persons who have periodically arisen to resist this murderous power, survived, and been slammed into the cowboys’ quarantine for infected cattle (prison) are unquestionably political prisoners.

For us on the left suffering from the schizoid dualism about political prisoners, Frantz Fanon was correct when he prescribed resistance as the best psychotherapy. The best resistance would be to support the freedom campaigns of our fellow activists who languish in prison for resisting the correction of their would-be masters.

ATC 92, May-June 2001