17 February, 2007

Legacy of Torture & the San Francisco 8

Forcing the men to strip down to their underwear, police placed plastic bags tightly over the men's heads and beat them with an enhanced form of a blackjack known as a slapjack. Electrical cattle prods were used on the men's genitals, anuses, and necks. One of the interviewees can barely hold back tears as he recalls the details of his torture.

Eventually, wanting to end the torture, the three men agreed to confess to the police murders, even though they continue to insist to this day that they were innocent.

An old tale that could come from almost anywhere. Iraq? Afghanistan? Syria or Iran? No: NO (New Orleans, 1973). As America continues its obscene discourse on the acceptable use, suitability, and bounds of torture, a common refrain is how torture goes against the nation's core values (one of our many core beliefs founded on profound amnesia). Alfred McCoy's work documenting the history of the CIA's torture programs, & the protests against the teaching of torture techniques by the US at the School of Americas have received some attention; stories of the domestic practice of torture even less so and they are all too quickly forgotten.

Any hint of a dark side at the core of our society gets swept away to burgeoning trash heaps of 'a few bad apples.' Bad apples have cores too. This nation's moral righteousness that so readily demonizes others when convenient, whether the topic be torture, terror, or aggression, is rooted in and can only be sustained by exceptional denial in the face of factual event, a necessary facade to feel good about ourselves. We generally prefer to imagine ourselves as incapable of brutality and injustice, although tales of police brutality are commonplace and well-known. So, of course it's a given that we don't torture people in America.

American poet Ammiel Alcalay, in the forward to the world's embrace: selected poems by Abdellatif Laâbi (a Morroccan poet who was himself tortured in prison), sketches the past half century of America's cultural landscape, noting that:

. . . [f]rom our present perspective, as the media bombards us with an insidiously violent form of ignorance and misinformation and the United States government continues to reapportion the boundaries of the Middle East, it is almost inconceivable to think about the cultural space occupied from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s by texts sympathetic to and emerging from the cauldron of decolonization . . . [which] were readily available and formed a critical mass of resources related to a contentious political reality that could be neither ignored nor theorized out of existence.

Some of our last stabs at radical internationalism may have been the efforts of the Black Panther Party, following in the footsteps of Malcolm X after his pilgrimage to Mecca, to establish diplomatic and cultural ties with newly independent states in Africa. It is tremendously ironic that, while the FBI's COINTELPRO program worked tirelessly to place an irreconcilable wedge between Jews and black Americans in the United States, the Moroccan Jewish theorist and future political prisoner Abraham Serfaty delivered a "salute to the African-Americans" at the 1969 Pan-African Cultural Festival in Algeria, a festival that Archie Shepp played at along with Tuareg musicians, long before the marketing strategies of World Music. But by this point, American soldiers were fighting amongst themselves almost as fiercely as they fought the enemy in Vietnam. Alliances splintered as the country divided itself bitterly over the ever more pointless last years of the war. Many veterans would return home to the charred ruins of deindustrialized cities and towns, drifting into drugs, drink, and homelessness. United States policy shifted completely toward Israel following the June war of 1967—from that point on, almost everything coming into the United States from the Middle East would be viewed through the filter of the Zionist narrative. Identity politics and nationalisms of all stripes came to dominate North American discourse, eventually settling into a version of autistic multi-culturalism effectively cut off from access to useful forms of democratic power at the national level. The covert wars of the 1980s gave way to the first made for televison, fought at prime time bonanza, the Gulf War. From 1990 until 9/11 and the assault on Afghanistan, Islam was reshaped to fit the mold of a ubiquitous and unyielding enemy. The new crusades were upon us.

. . . we remain incalculably impoverished because of the lingering and deep-seated effects of the Cold War's highly successful recategorization of knowledge arranged according to the priorities of the military-industrial complex and the needs of American exceptionalism.

[A more amplified version of Ammiel's observations can be found within another piece that's been posted on-line, No Return, which is well worth taking the time to read.]

There's little doubt that the Black Panthers were sucessfully marginalized & demonized in the popular imagination. One result is that although we know about some of the brutal and illegal things that were done at the time, as a nation we've buried and never really come to terms with the means by which power is willing to protect and maintain itself. What happened in the past is all too easily imagined to be something we're past, irrelevant to the present.

The subsequent rendering from any relation to the body politic of those "last stabs at radical internationalism" has largely prevented an articulated awareness of the connections between war & repression abroad and the "wars" on poverty, drugs, crime, and illegal immigration at home. Martin Luther King's surety shortly before his death "that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes" seems woefully unsupported almost 40 years later. Most, it would appear, rest quite content indeed.

Ron Jacobs:

In today's world, the US government's use of torture and complicity in its clients' use of it is part of the headlines on a regular basis. Yet very few US citizens believe that methods like waterboarding, beating, and electrical shocks could be—and have been—used on US citizens. Indeed, revelations concerning US agents' treatment of Jose Padilla as a so-called enemy combatant barely made the news.

Legacy of Torture, recently released on DVD by the Freedom Archives of Oakland, California, should shake Americans out of complacency. The film vividly describes government criminality and three men who refuse to give in. It is a brief report on the case of three of the fifteen Black Panther Party members who were arrested in an FBI dragnet in 1973: John Bowman, Ruben Scott, and Harold Taylor in New Orleans. The arrests were supposedly in connection with the shooting deaths of two San Francisco police officers in 1971. Two officers flown in from the San Francisco Police Department, Frank McCoy and Ed Erdelatz who were working with the FBI, would ask Bowman, Scott, and Taylor intimidating questions, hoping to get confessions. When the three men refused to go along, McCoy and Erdelatz would leave the room. The men were then tortured by New Orleans officers. This went on for days.
In 1975, only after a federal court found in 1974 that both San Francisco and New Orleans police had engaged in torture to extract a "coerced" confession, a San Francisco judge dismissed the charges against the three men.

Jacobs again:
It's a little hard to believe, but in 2003 the two SFPD investigators in the original case, McCoy and Erdelatz, were deputized by the federal government and began investigating the 1971 killings along with the FBI. They were also investigating the Panthers' linkages with the Weather Underground. This time around, they were working as part of a grand jury investigation. When that grand jury ran its course, the State of California opened another one. Five former Panthers were called before the panel. All five refused to testify. Consequently, they were sent to jail until the grand jury investigation ended. They were released on October 31, 2005. This film is an introduction to their story and a call to support these men and other activists currently being investigated in what can only be described as fishing expeditions. FBIWitchHunt.com, set up to provide information and garner support for the folks who have become the victims of the expeditions, lists four ongoing grand juries focusing on issues related to animal liberation, medical marijuana, protests against the G8 in San Francisco, and the so-called Green Scare investigations having to do with alleged Earth Liberation Front activities.
On January 23, 2007, 8 men were arrested for the 1971 cop slaying, prompting the Center for Constitutional Rights to issue this press release:

Authorities in San Francisco announced the arrests and indictments of former Black Panthers in the 1971 killing of police officer Sgt. John V. Young despite the use of torture to obtain confessions. Attorneys with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) compared the documented torture by law enforcement of Black Panthers arrested in New Orleans in 1973 to the documented torture the U.S. government has practiced recently at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo.

CCR Legal Director Bill Goodman said, "The case against these men was built on torture and serves to remind us that the U.S. government, which recently has engaged in such horrific forms of torture and abuse at places like Bagram, Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, has a history of torture and abuse in this country as well, particularly against African Americans."

CCR Attorney Kamau Franklin said, "These indictments are an attempt to rewrite history – the history of the Black Panthers, the history of COINTELPRO, and the history of the Civil Rights Movement."

In 1973, New Orleans police employed torture over the course of several days to obtain information from members of the Black Panthers who were stripped naked, beaten, blindfolded, covered in blankets soaked with boiling water, and had electric probes placed on their genitals, among other methods.
In 2005 it was revealed that in Illinois:

. . . for nearly two decades beginning in 1971, [what was known as "Area 2"] was the epicenter for what has been described as the systematic torture of dozens of African-American males by Chicago police officers. In total, more than 135 people say they were subjected to abuse including having guns forced into their mouths, bags places over their heads, and electric shocks inflicted to their genitals. Four men have been released from death row after government investigators concluded torture led to their wrongful convictions.
. . .

. . . over 60 cases of torture, and when I say “torture,” I mean electric shock, I mean suffocation with bags, I mean mock executions, I mean racial attacks, that kind of thing. And they were all coming out of the same station, and they were all headed up by this man, Jon Burge, who came out of Vietnam, started out as a detective and quickly rose in the ranks through sergeant, lieutenant and commander. This went on -- the actual documentation now shows that this went on for over 20 years, from 1972 to 1992, when in fact Burge was finally, after community outrage, suspended and fired from his job.

. . . the torture has never been resolved. No one has ever owned up to the torture. So we have hundreds of individuals who have psychologically been warped, been destroyed. There's never been any clinical resolution to the torture. No one has owned up to it. Democracy Now!

Not one person has ever been prosecuted for these acts committed in the Homeland. The San Francisco cops who were involved are not only still on the job, they're still on the case!

Would prosecutors ever try to bring charges based on a coerced confession?

FBI agents ultimately obtained confessions from Bimenyimana, Karake and Nyaminani, who were brought to the United States and indicted in 2003.

The men, who initially denied killing the Americans, later claimed they were tortured by Rwandan officials until they confessed. Last year, U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle listened to five weeks of testimony before deciding in August to throw out the confessions because they were obtained by torture.

Prosecutors at first appealed but then reversed course. news link, here's the opinion
Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! spoke with the attorney (who "also worked for 25 years on the case of Black Panther leader Geronimo Pratt") for one of the men, Herman Bell, arrested last month in the SF shooting:
Stuart Hanlon, I wanted to ask you about court papers filed in the case that were released Thursday, indicating a fingerprint on a cigarette lighter, shotgun shells, an informant helped to lead to the arrests this week. An affidavit filed with the court said in 2004 an FBI investigator matched five of the fifteen shotgun cells recovered from the crime scene to spent shells recovered from a shotgun found at Herman Bell’s New Orleans home in ’73. But police are now saying they have since lost the shotgun allegedly found at Bell's house. Your response?

STUART HANLON: It’s fabricated evidence. What they're really saying is, “We found a gun in Herman Bell's house, and we took it to New Orleans, and we test fired it, and we sent the shells to San Francisco 30 years ago, and all of a sudden we found out they match. But you can't test it -- you can't test the truth of our allegations, because we lost the gun, we lost the paperwork, we lost the proof of where we got it, we lost everything but the result. And just trust us that we're not biased, that we're fair, that we're going to produce real evidence in court. Trust us.” And it's a joke. It really was for the media and the public, and not for court, because --

AMY GOODMAN: The San Francisco Chronicle is reporting that ex-Black Panther, Ruben Scott, is expected to testify against the arrested men. He was arrested with Harold Taylor and John Bowman in ’73 in New Orleans. In the mid-’70s, Scott said he only agreed to speak to the police after he was repeatedly tortured. Can you talk more about Scott and his expected testimony?

STUART HANLON: Yeah. Ruben Scott was tortured in the same way Bowman and Taylor were. They tortured him and broke him. He wouldn't testify at first, and then they went and got him again and threatened him on a case in New York. And he agreed finally, as a broken man and a tortured soul, who had been the victim of torture, to testify. We have statements from him that media took and he gave to lawyers, where he contradicted everything he was going to say in court, where he said he said it because he was tortured. And in the document you talked about, they admit he was tortured, so I don't think we're ready in San Francisco to convict somebody or a group of people, where there are political motivations for the case on a witness who’s been the victim of torture . . .
Democracy Now! also played an excerpt of the documentary Ron Jacobs mentioned above, Legacy of Torture: The War Against the Black Liberation Movement:
AMY GOODMAN: The documentary includes interviews with Harold Taylor and John Bowman, about being tortured by police in New Orleans, as well as dramatized scenes depicting the abuse they suffered. Taylor was arrested Tuesday for the killing of the San Francisco police officer. Police allege the late Bowman was also involved in the killing. He died in December. This excerpt begins with Harold Taylor.

HAROLD TAYLOR: I was in there for maybe five minutes, when the door opened. Three police officers of New Orleans came in, dragging me out by my heels, took me to a chair, where they handcuffed me to the chair and handcuffed my ankles, my feet, to the bottom part of the chair. Without asking any questions, they commenced beating me. They beat me, they punched me, they kicked me, they spit on me. They called me a lot of vile names. And then they told me that they was going to kill me if I didn't cooperate with them.

JOHN BOWMAN: The New Orleans Police Department would come into the room. A hot blanket would be taken from the bucket, dripping, hot and wet, placed over my head, held there for -- I can't say whether it was minutes or seconds. It felt like forever.

HAROLD TAYLOR: They came out with a plastic bag, put it over my head, and they started beating me with the bag over my head. About the time I was about to lose consciousness, about to pass out, they would snatch the bag off, and while I’m trying to catch my breath, they would start beating me again. So I asked them, I said, “Well, what do you want?” You know, they just continued to go on whipping. They didn't ask me any more questions. They didn’t ask any questions, really.

Then, they came out with this cattle prod. I knew what it was, because being off of a farm when I was a kid. My family used to go to Louisiana every year to work on the family farm, and my uncles, they had a couple -- we had some cows, and they used cattle prods to move those cows up chutes and stuff like that. So I’d seen that, and I knew what it was.

JOHN BOWMAN: The cattle prod was placed on my genitals, placed in my [expletive]hole, placed under my feet, placed under my arms.

HAROLD TAYLOR: Down on my private parts, under my neck, behind my ears, down my back. I think I passed out one time, and they woke me back up, and they had taken me to another room. Two detectives had me by one arm -- by each arm, and a detective came out of nowhere and he just cold-cocked me and knocked -- I mean, he knocked me straight out. I was unconscious.

JOHN BOWMAN: Another instrument that was used during the questioning was a ledger law book, and this ledger law book was used to hit me upside my head at times when I was not giving the right answers that was script for me.

HAROLD TAYLOR: They took me to a holding cell. They threw water on me. I was soaking wet. It was cold. Pulled me out of there, maybe by 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning, and told me they had somebody they wanted me to talk to and I better cooperate, and if I didn’t, I was going to get more of the same. So they put me in there. There was two detectives from San Francisco. I later found out it was McCoy and Erdelatz. They started asking me questions. They told me they had a script. I’m sure I saw a recorder there, too. And they was reading to me about what they said took place in San Francisco. I told them I had no knowledge of it.

It was back again with the plastic bag. This time they had a blanket. I don't know what they soaked it in, but it was really, really hot, and they just covered me with that blanket and put that plastic bag over my head. And I couldn't scream, I couldn't holler. I couldn’t get my hands up to poke a hole in the bag, because I was handcuffed to the chair and my legs were tied to the chair. And they kicked the chair over and let me just suffocate. I was just about to pass out. They would snatch it off, spit in my face, and they left me sitting there for a little while.

McCoy and Erdelatz, they started asking me questions. I had no knowledge of the things they were asking me, so I couldn't answer them, you know. So they said, “Well, we’ll” -- they turned off the recorder or whatever they had and said, “We'll tell you what happened. And then after we tell you, this is what we want you to say.”

JOHN BOWMAN: So I did make statements. I did waive my rights to an attorney, which means I waived my Miranda rights. I did all of this because of the physical aggression and the brutality that was being put upon my body.

HAROLD TAYLOR: One got behind me, and he took his hands and he slapped them like that over my ears. I couldn't hear nothing. My ears were just ringing so bad. I could feel fluid running down the side of my face. And they were talking to me, but I couldn’t hear them. All I could hear was the ringing. Whenever they stood me up to make me walk, I couldn't walk. They had to just kind of just carry me back into the other room. And when they’d get me back in there, they would start again. And they beat, and they beat, and they beat. Then Erdelatz and McCoy would come back in, and they would kind of grin and laugh. They were all laughing. They thought it was a lot of fun. I was a big joke. They started asking me questions, so I started talking to them, telling them just like they -- I followed their whole script. Everything they told me to say, I said it just like -- whatever Ruben told them, I repeated what Ruben said.
Watch Legacy of Torture on an Internet stream in RealMedia format from DishTV

Upcoming screenings of Legacy of Torture, including:
Free Speech (satellite) TV, Tuesday February 20
(times are PST) 3:29 a.m. 6:29 a.m. 10:29 a.m. 5:29 p.m. 10:29 p.m. Additional dates to be announced. Daily schedule for February 20.

Berkeley, CA, Sunday February 25
6:00 PM - 10:00 p.m. at The Long Haul, 3124 Shattuck Ave, (at Woolsey St.), $5-up sliding scale (no one turned away). A screening of Legacy of Torture will be followed by the classic Battle of Algiers. People will be on hand to answer questions on the SF 8, as well as offer an update Eric McDavid. All proceeds will be split between the SF 8 & Eric McDavid.

Santa Barbara, February -date and time to be announced.

Monterey March 13 evening (to be confirmed)
The Monterey Peace & Justice Center will show the film at the California State University Monterey Bay as part of their New Directions Film Series. Mel Mason, former member of the Black Panther Party, will speak.
Info on how to support the SF 8 at the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights

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