08 June 2016

On the life and afterlife of Elmer ‘Geronimo’ Pratt

Geronimo Pratt, aka Geronimo Ji-Jaga, died in Tanzania 5 years ago.  I met Geronimo twice, once in Ithaca, NY and once at a conference on political prisoners in Vermont.  Soft voice, clear eyes and a warm and firm handshake. Maybe it was all 'birthed' during the 27 years he spent as a political prisoner in the USA.  Maybe it was all there, always. What matters is that was who he was.  This is something I wrote for the Daily News just after he died.

Stevie Wonder wrote his biggest hit, ‘I just called to say I love you’, for the comedy ‘The Woman in Red’ in 1984. He won an Oscar for that effort and duly accepted it in the name of Nelson Mandela.  Mandela, at the time was in prison. The then Government of South Africa promptly imposed a ban on Wonder’s music.  I remember Stevie Wonder interjecting the name ‘Nelson Mandela’ when he sang this son, either at the Oscars or at some other event around the same time: ‘Nelson Manela, we just called to say we love you!’ 

Mandela was everybody’s favourite political prisoner back then.  Mandela’s hero-rating grew in the United States of America when people became more aware of how things were in South Africa. The media (kept for the most part, especially when it came to critical issues of national interest) joined the cheering squad when it became obvious that Apartheid was on its last legs. 

In October or November, 1987, I attended a rally at Carlton College, Minnesota, calling that university to divest from South Africa on account of Apartheid.  All the speakers, including the inimitable Paul Wellstone, a professor then and later a two-term senator (Minnesota), spoke about Nelson Mandela.  It was almost as though they knew more about the rest of the world than they did about their own country. 

At the time I hadn’t heard of Leonard Peltier or Mumia Abu-Jamal.  Neither had I heard of hundreds of other political prisoners languishing in US jails consequent to processes that made a mockery of justice.  Even today, when people talk about US double-standards and ill-treatment, torture and cold-blooded murder of prisoners, it’s all ‘off-shore’, i.e. in Guantanamo Bay, in Abu Ghraib and Afghanistan.  I knew enough of world history to know that Uncle Sam’s Version of World History was a load of rubbish.  What I didn’t know was what was actually happening within the United States of America. 

There are things people don’t tell you, especially not governments and their lackeys if the dissemination of such information compromises their interests.  I didn’t know much about political prisoners in that country until I met a man called Elmer ‘Geronimo’ Pratt.  I met him twice, in fact, once when he came to Cornell University on the invitation of Ujjamma, a residential facility for African American students, and at a conference on political prisoners in Vasser College. 

Geronimo Pratt was a political prisoner; one of hundreds, most of whom are black.  He was a former Black Panther and was wrongly imprisoned for 27 long years on a murder conviction.   

The entire process was choreographed by COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program), whose activities include a wide range of covert and often illegal projects conducted by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)aimed at ‘surveilling’, infiltrating, discrediting, and disrupting domestic political organizations.  FBI reports indicate that COINTELPRO tactics included discrediting targets through psychological warfare, planting false reports in the media, smearing through forged letters, harassment, wrongful imprisonment, extralegal violence and assassination. COINTELPRO targeted communists; anti-war, human and civil rights activists; the American Indian Movement; Black Panther Party; Puerto Rican nationalists; the Chicano Movement; environmentalists, and others challenging state authority or "threats" to "domestic tranquility" for supporting equity and justice, the rule of law, and right over wrong. Back then the catch-all convenience, ‘terrorist’, did not exist.

Geronimo was one such target.

Here’s Geronimo’s bio, according to Stuart Hanlon, his lawyer and longtime friend: “He had southern, rural roots, and hardworking parents who sent all their kids to college. “He (went) to the military, (fought) and (was awarded two Bronze Stars, a Silver Star, and two Purple Hearts) in Vietnam, (came) home, (and became) a football star in college. That would be an American hero. It was different because he was black and he became a Panther and then the road went the wrong way.”

In 1970, he was arrested and falsely charged with Caroline Olsen’s murder, a Los Angeles teacher. In 1968, she and her husband Kenneth were attacked on a Santa Monica tennis court by two Black men. Three years later, Kenneth said Pratt was one of the assailants, pressured to name him after first identifying three other suspects from LAPD photos. In 1972, he was falsely convicted.

The United States of America robbed 27 years of this remarkable man’s life.  For 8 years he was kept in solitary confinement.  We don’t need to talk about other abuses, given the long history of prisoner-abuse that is in fact a part of that country’s military-political history.

Geronimo had said, in a 1999 interview, ‘I don’t think bitterness has a place; I am more about understanding’.  He betrayed no regrets, no hatred or anger and was in word and demeanor absolutely without bitterness.  He had a strong, firm and warm grip when he gave his hand.  And a soft voice: ‘Our elders taught us why we needed to fight and we fought; we must always be strong, brother, we must never give up’.  Those words were soft then and powerful, and today, as I write after learning that Geronimo had died in a village in Tanzania where he lived with his wife and child, they are softer still and even more potent. 

Today, as I write, there are thousands in US prisons, being held on trumped up charges simply because their politics rubbed the establishment the wrong way.  They include Anarchists, animal rights activists, anti-war activists, those agitating for Black/New Afrikan liberation, activists associated with the organization ‘Move’, environmentalists and Native Americans. 


‘There are political prisoners here in the USA who have been in prison longer than Mandela, but you won’t hear the media talk about them,’ Geronimo said.  He didn’t talk about prison conditions that he lived in. He spoke history and politics. He talked about the yesterday that demands a tomorrow for which a particular today is necessary. 


I read just now that spirituality and love of music had helped him through that period of incarceration.  His mantra had been the blues, he had once said.  It occurred to me that it is indeed rare that lives can be seen as music. 


There was a death in Tanzania a couple of days ago, we are told.  All I know is that there is music playing somewhere and that Elmer Geronimo Pratt is marching, as he always did, at the forefront of a change that must be lived. 


All I can say is that there are times when one feels privileged to be alive and times when privilege confers responsibility.  Geronimo Pratt taught me this.   


Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com