One event that received little coverage in 1997 was the release of the former GI, Vietnam veteran and Black Panther, Geronimo ji Jaga (who changed his name from Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt in jail) after 25 years – the first eight years in solitary confinement – as a political prisoner in the USA. It was Geronimo who named the famous Rap singer Tupac Shakur in 1971. His mother Afeni Shakur, who was also a member of the Black Panther’s, was sent to prison despite being pregnant, after being wrongfully accused in a robbery. When the baby was born three months after her release, it was Geronimo ji Jaga, who suggested the name “Tupac” to Afeni . Like so many of the Black Panther leadership, Tupac would be shot dead in disputed circumstances.
Tupac Shakur: Geronimo ji Jaga gave him his name
Geronimo is lucky to be alive today, as he was also targeted for assassination by the FBI as part of their secret COINTELPRO operations against political dissent in the USA. On December 4th 1969, at 4 am in the morning, a 14-strong police team slammed into the home of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and shot him three times – twice in the head and once in the chest. Also murdered was Mark Clark, another Black Panther activist. Another three were wounded in the attack. An FBI informer had supplied a map of the house to the police before the attack, showing where Hampton was sleeping. Four days after the assassination of Hampton and Clark, forty men from a LAPD SWAT squad, and more than a hundred police raided the house where Black Panther leader “Geronimo” Pratt was staying. Like with the Hampton/Clark murders, the FBI used an informer who supplied the FBI with a detailed floor plan of the house where Pratt (who later changed his surname to ji Jaga) was staying. However, unknown to the FBI, Geronimo had decided to sleep on the floor that night, consequently the open burst of gunfire which was supposed to kill him, missed entirely. And thanks to the alertness of other Black Panther activists staying in the house that night, a sufficient number of them were awake when the shooting started to mount an effective resistance. His struggle for justice and equality in the USA would cost him 25 years in jail.
ji Jaga wins $4.5m (£2.8m) for wrongful conviction
In April 2000, ji Jaga, won an estimated $4.5m (£2.8m) in an out-of-court settlement from the FBI and the Los Angeles authorities for “prosecutorial misconduct” in a murder trial which sent him to jail for 25 years. ji Jaga had always maintained that he had been framed for the shooting of a schoolteacher, Caroline Olsen, on a tennis court in Santa Monica, California, in 1968. He was sentenced in 1972, mainly because of the testimony of a police informant, Julius Butler. As is common the USA in such cases, the jury was never told of Butler’s criminal record and his links with the police, but an investigator later found his name on an index of secret informants kept by the same district attorney’s office which prosecuted ji Jaga. He finally won a retrial in 1997 when a superior court judge ruled that if jurors had known the witness’s background they would not have found ji Jaga guilty.
ji Jaga always maintained that on the day of the murder, he had been in Oakland attending a Black Panther meeting. He also claimed that the FBI and police had wiretap recordings proving he was there, but had destroyed the evidence. The FBI has denied the allegations. On April 26th 2000, ji Jaga was reported as saying in the Los Angeles Times that his false imprisonment was part of a FBI scheme to undermine the Black Panthers in the 1960s and 1970s.
Here we present Alan Hougland’s account of the release of Geronimo ji Jaga release in 1997.
The cries of “Free at last!” rang out from the jubilant crowd outside the jail. On June 10th 1997, after over 27 years in California prisons, Geronimo ji Jaga (born Elmer Pratt) was released twelve days after a judge ruled that the main testimony against him had been supplied by an informant for J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI – a fact not revealed to the defense at the time of the original trial. “It’s a great day for justice in America,” said Johnnie Cochran, lead attorney in the successful murder defense of O.J. Simpson in 1995, who has represented ji Jaga for over two decades – a job he has called his “life’s work” and his “Waterloo.” Cochran has said he would feel ready to retire if ji Jaga were freed.
ji Jaga, 49, was a highly decorated Vietnam soldier and head of the Los Angeles branch of the Black Panther Party in the late 1960’s. In 1972, he was convicted of the so-called Tennis Court Murder of school teacher Caroline Olsen in Santa Monica, California on the evening of December 18, 1968. Olsen’s husband was critically wounded but survived.”Everyone knew I didn’t do the murder that I was given all this time on,” said ji Jaga, who was in Philadelphia July 11 for a street rally in his honor and in support of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a journalist and also ex-Panther, now on death row in Pennsylvania. “Johnnie Cochran went to the community, and people whispered in his ear. Johnnie came back and said, ‘But you didn’t do that murder.’ I said, ‘That’s right. You should have believed me.'”
“It is reasonably probable that ji Jaga could have obtained a different result in the entire absence of the informant’s testimony,” wrote Orange County Superior Court Judge Everett Dickey in his May 29 ruling. The judge added that the prosecution had wrongly suppressed information about the informant that could have “put the whole case in a different light,” and that its suppression “undermines confidence in the verdict.”
Until prosecutors appeal Dickey’s ruling, ji Jaga will remain free on $25,000 bail. If their appeal is denied, they will then have the option of retrying ji Jaga for the murder – but say they have not yet decided whether they would.
The main testimony against ji Jaga at his trial was provided by Julius “Julio” Butler, now 64, a former L.A. Deputy Sheriff who infiltrated the Black Panthers. Butler stated that ji Jaga had confessed to him of the killing. Butler also testified that he had seen ji Jaga replace the barrel of a gun – thus overcoming defense evidence that the bullets from the murder scene could not be matched to the gun police said was used in the crime.
Butler denied on the stand ever having been a paid informant for law enforcement. But FBI records made public in 1979 indicated the Bureau – as well as the Los Angeles Police Department and District Attorney’s Office – had been paying Butler for information on the Panthers for over two years before ji Jaga’s trial. Johnnie Cochran called Butler a “conniving snake” and a “pathological liar.”
While serving his seven-year-to-life sentence, ji Jaga spent more time in solitary confinement – over eight years – than any other U.S. prisoner. “They even put me on death row in 1974,” said ji Jaga, “when they said that I was involved in the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst and with the SLA. Now, back then we didn’t have radios or TV’s in prison, and you sure didn’t get any news in the hole – so I didn’t even know who Patricia Hearst was. I stayed on death row for 18 months – and death row ain’t no joke.” His parole was denied 16 times over the years, with an L.A. District Attorney stating in 1987 that ji Jaga should not be released because he is “still a revolutionary man.” “They offered me a million dollars and free passage to Algiers if I would give them Tom Haden,” said ji Jaga, noting he turned down this and other offers made with promises of early parole:
“You know, someone told them that I was up on Tom Haden and his wife, Jane Fonda.”
ji Jaga has always maintained his innocence, claiming that on the night of the murder he was some 400 miles away, attending a Black Panther Party national leadership meeting in Oakland. At ji Jaga’s trial, FBI agents testified that the meeting had not been monitored. But later, when confronted by proof uncovered by ji Jaga’s defense team, the Bureau admitted to the electronic surveillance – yet claimed to have lost the logs, which could establish definitively whether ji Jaga was present or not.
In the 1990’s, two private investigators have stated that they saw the “missing” logs while working on another case and that the documents clearly showed that ji Jaga was at the Oakland meeting at the time of the murder. At the time of his arrest, ji Jaga was listed in the FBI’s National Security Index and his picture was displayed in their Black Nationalist Photo Album, featuring persons the Bureau considered prime targets for what they termed “neutralisation.” ji Jaga’s defense team have obtained his FBI files, numbering over 100,000 pages and showing he was a principal target of Cointelpro, the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Programme (CONITELPRO), which aimed to undermine the Black Panthers during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.
Appearing robust and healthy, ji Jaga said he was able to hold up under harsh prison conditions for 27 years because of his commitment to black nationalist struggle, and the embrace he says he always felt from people all over the world. And he said he was never disrespected by gang members he encountered behind bars, which gave him encouragement. “And the knowledge that someday we will be free if we continue to struggle,” he said:
“Our lives are not important – the liberation of our people is. It’s not the personality, it’s the principle. So whatever might happen to us individually as soldiers, it was understood. Because we were fighting the kind of enemy who would kill us, put us in prison, cause us to go underground and into exile. We were pretty much prepared for that.”
ji Jaga said it is still too early for him to judge how the outside world has changed in 27 years. “I need to listen to my elders. I need to listen to all the brothers and sisters I see, and get advice, so they can help de-alienate me from these 27 years of alienation. I’m a student right now. I’m very ignorant about a lot of things. My mind after 27 years is still pretty much hung up in a lot of bullshit behind those walls. I’m not ready, I think.”
The agenda of African America is one topic about which ji Jaga is ready to offer concrete proposals:
“The brothers in prison want me to get the Congress of the United States to hold hearings into the FBI’s psychological war program known as Cointelpro, as it relates to our comrades who are still in prison. If it could have been done while I was in there – we would have been out of prison years ago. Because the government cannot stand that test of what Cointelpro did. They played dirty. We didn’t cry, but we learned from our mistakes. And we know they cannot stand that test. A Congressional hearing would be very similar to what they did for Ruby Ridge, for Waco. That’s all we are asking.”
ji Jaga believes some things have not changed during his incarceration: “A lot of brothers and sisters out here have not taken the time that they know there supposed to, to get with these youngsters,” he said. “These youngsters are being sunk by some of the forces that we were faced with back in the sixties, and we have to share that knowledge with those youngsters. They want to hear it. We have to be patient with them and take time. And I want to ask these youngsters to respect our African queens, to respect all women. I would add on to that to respect the elders.”
ji Jaga called for a plebiscite supervised by the United Nations, in which the United States would only participate as observers, to decide whether African America should have independent nationhood. “We are the second largest group of Africans in the world,” he said. “Nigeria is number one. We are the second largest African nation in this world. Yet we do not govern ourselves. And we have the largest economy of any African nation. We have the wherewithal, we have the doctors, we have the scientists, we have the engineers – we have everything that a nation requires, yet we still call Clinton our leader. I don’t understand that.”
According to ji Jaga, the treasury of the new nation would have the machinery necessary to collect the money he feels is owed to African Americans by the United States in reparation for slavery:
“If they somehow don’t come forward with the reparations, then we would initiate another phase of armed struggle – which is legitimate and is our duty. All these 400 years of slave labour is what made this country the richest country in the world. With the reparations owed to us, our ancestors – who died, and toiled, and bled and were raped – would directly be supporting the foundation of our new nation.”
ji Jaga said he came to Philadelphia especially to show his support for the release of Mumia Abu-Jamal from death row.
“Of course Mumia is the first on my list, because he is not just a name to me – I always called him my little brother. I remember when we brought him out to the Panthers’ national headquarters in Oakland back in the sixties. Mumia stood out so much that he was like a prodigy. We were all so proud of him. I remember the Panthers’ Minister of Culture, Henry Douglas, just loved to work with him on the newspaper, which Mumia always excelled in, as a young revolutionary fighting for his people. “Years later, when I heard that Mumia was arrested, I couldn’t believe it – because I know Mumia, I saw he’s a beautiful brother, comes from a very strong family, he’s a soldier. And we did a full investigation, and we found out (just as I already suspected) that Mumia did not do that murder. “The truth came out about the frame-up of me, and the truth will come out about the frame-up of our beautifully great brother Mumia Abu-Jamal.”
Born Elmer Pratt, ji Jaga changed his name at age 20. “My name ‘Pratt’ was never my name,” he said, “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. I’ve declared my own reality, and I encourage everyone to do so. “We have to get back in touch with our true historical selves. We’re still walking around with the names of slave masters. We’re giving our children the name of a slave master who possibly raped their great-great-great grandmother. By taking back our African names, we can reconnect with our historical personality. We have to deal with everything from an Afro-centric standpoint.”
ji Jaga said he urges all black Americans to struggle to maintain their national dignity. “We have to conquer that fear of freedom that has troubled our people since the so-called Emancipation Proclamation, when newly freed slaves went and said, ‘Damn, Master, you done freed me – now what am I gonna do?’ People still have the fear that they can’t function without the United States. “We don’t want to enter the next millennium as second-hand, Chicken-George-type mealy welfare recipients. It’s a shame: We’ve got all this beauty, all this royalty and talent, and it’s being usurped and exploited by our own former slave masters and their descendants.” As for the immediate future, ji Jaga to continue making appearances across the country in support of causes he considers vital to the survival and prosperity of the African-American community.