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Systemic Injustice Against Two Longtime Political Prisoners

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Systemic Injustice Against Two Longtime Political Prisoners
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Political PrisonersTheir names - Marshall "Eddie" Conway and Romaine "Chip" Fitzgerald, both activist COINTELPRO-targeted Black Panther members, unjustly imprisoned for four decades for crimes they didn't commit.

They're two of many targeted Panthers, victims of COINTELPRO viciousness, "dirty tricks," after J. Edgar Hoover's orders to infiltrate, disrupt, sabotage, and destroy their activist mission for ethnic justice, racial emancipation, and real economic, social, and political equality across gender and color lines.

In an earlier article, this writer explained that COINTELPRO is the acronym for the FBI's secretive, mostly illegal, counterintelligence program to neutralize political dissidents, including alleged communists; anti-war, human and civil rights activists; the American Indian Movement; Black Panther Party members, and today Muslims for their faith, ethnicity, and activism.

In their book, "Agents of Repression," Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall wrote:

"the term came to signify the whole context of clandestine (often illegal) political repression activities (including) a massive surveillance (program via) wiretaps, surreptitious entries and burglaries, electronic devices, live 'tails' and....bogus mail" to induce paranoia and "foster 'splits' within or between organizations."

Other tactics included:

  • "black propaganda through leaflets or other publications "designed to discredit organizations and foster internal tensions;"
  • "disinformation or 'gray propaganda' " for the same purpose;
  • "bad-jacketing (to) creat(e) suspicion - through the spread of rumors, manufacture of evidence, etc. - that bona fide organizational members (usually leaders) were FBI/police informants," to turn some against others violently;
  • "assassinations (of) selected political leaders," like Fred Hampton and Mark Clark on December 4, 1969 by Chicago police while they slept; and
  • "harassment arrests (on bogus) charges."

In October 1966, Huey P. Newton co-founded the Black Panther Party for Self Defense (BPP), served as minister of defense with chairman Bobby Seale, and developed a non-violent social agenda for full employment, decent housing and education, an end to police brutality, equity and justice, peace, and other progressive ideals. They believed in the rule of law, preached it, and struggled to overcome generations of injustice and discrimination against blacks, other people of color, and disadvantaged people everywhere.

In his 1980 doctoral dissertation titled, "War Against the Panthers: A Study of Repression in America," Newton:

"analyze(d) certain features of the Party," significant incidents in its history and Washington's response, while "tr(ying) to maintain an objectivity consistent with scholarly standards...."

Most significant was "How many people's lives were ruined in countless ways by a government intent on destroying them as representatives of an 'enemy' political organization." All questions asked, he said, won't be answered, but he hoped his "inquiry" would help toward learning "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth."

Each targeted Panther is part of it, including Conway and Fitzgerald. On August 22, 1989, Newton himself was killed on his home city Oakland streets.

Marshall "Eddie" Conway

Detailed information on him can be found at www.freeeddieconway.org, headlined "Partnership for Social Justice (PSJ): Free Marshall "Eddie" Conway & All Political Prisoners!"

After 40 years of injustice, Conway thanked his supporters for trying to free him through "petition drives, rallies, speaking engagements, fundraisers, government resolutions, and theater and arts projects."

A US Postal Service employee, Conway was arrested at work on April 26, 1970, the day after two Baltimore police officers were shot in their patrol car, one killed, the other wounded. An hour later, two BPP members were arrested, an alleged weapon involved in the shooting was recovered at the scene, and another officer said he saw a third man near where the arrests were made.

Eddie Conway was named after issuance of a warrant based on information supplied by an unidentified informant - the commonly used tactic against innocent activists, targeted for challenging federal or local institutionalized power.

The other men, Jackie Powell and Jack Johnson, were tried and convicted. Powell later died in prison. Johnson is still incarcerated.

The charges came at a time of "considerable media attention focused on (BPP's) Baltimore Chapter." Included was front-page coverage of this case, and "a mass arrest of Baltimore Panthers (for another) purported torture/murder of an informant who participated in local chapter activities."

In that trial, jurors found prosecution witnesses "contradictory and not credible...." Although a mass arrest was made, one defendant was acquitted. None of the others were tried, and all those held were released.

Prior to both incidents, FBI agents had targeted Conway, later discovered through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Various letters and other documents identified him as a BPP member through efforts of a "highly sensitive source who is of continuous value to the Bureau" - aka an informant. The same memo confirmed that from November 1969, the Baltimore Police coordinated BPP surveillance activities with the FBI.

Conway's Trial

No physical or other evidence linked him to the officer's killing, and Conway to this day maintains his innocence. Yet at trial, he was denied his choice of counsel and right to defend himself, was forced to use a prosecution appointed attorney, and unwisely chose a political, not a criminal defense that might have acquitted him. In addition, the lawyer spent only 45 minutes with him prior to trial, and during proceedings "often appeared to be intoxicated. (Apparent from the transcript itself is the lawyer's inadequate and inappropriate demeanor in the afternoons, following lunch recess.)"

The prosecution relied mainly on an informant's testimony, Charles Reynolds, "placed....in Conway's cell under suspicious circumstances and against (his) written protests to the guards." He was convicted for assault, and contrary to Conway's claim, said he confessed.

Another officer responding to the shooting provided the only other evidence, saying he "followed a man who seemed to be acting suspiciously" near where the suspects were arrested.

He identified Conway only after being shown photos, at first recognizing no one. When given new ones with only Conway's repeated, he picked him. A more reliable lineup was never used.

Charles Reynolds had been imprisoned in Maryland, but at the time was in Michigan on forgery charges. He had four previous convictions, served earlier as a police informant, and wrote to Baltimore police from Detroit offering his testimony again in return for help with Michigan's Parole Board.

Important also was Conway's trial demeanor - a big man with a "huge Afro" in shackles, using raised-fist salutes to supporters in court, and refusing to sit at the trial table. In addition, inflammatory pre-trial media coverage biased sentiment, at the same time BPP members were getting hostile national coverage.

Documents showed COINTELPRO incitement was behind it as part of the Bureau's scheme to destroy the Panthers. In Baltimore alone, prior to and during trial, malicious stories were planted in daily newspapers. Jurors weren't sequestered, so easily could have seen them and perhaps discuss them with others, regardless of court imposed restrictions.

Incarceration after Conviction

Conway's been imprisoned since April 1970. Though classified as a medium security prisoner, he's being held at the Jessup Correctional Institution, formerly known as the Maryland House of Correction Annex, a maximum security prison, where at times he's been treated harshly.

In 1974, guards severely beat him, broke his shoulder and jaw requiring surgery and three months hospitalization. Although he subsequently filed a civil rights suit, an all-white jury denied him, and the US Court of Appeals refused to hear his case while acknowledging that "The severity of the injuries presents a closer question of whether excessive force was used, amounting to a constitutional deprivation."

Throughout his imprisonment, Conway's conduct and accomplishments have been exemplary. He earned a BS degree in Social Science from Coppin State College, developed computer expertise, and earned an Associate of Arts degree in computer science and business studies from Essex Community College.

He was also Penitentiary Library Inmate Coordinator, and won a $350,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant, then used to produce 50 videotaped "To Say Their Own Words" discussion sessions with 100 prisoners and various authors, recorded over a one year period.

In addition, he provided inspirational leadership to his fellow inmates by:

  • forming the 500 member Maryland Penitentiary United Prisoner's Labor Union, with labor community support;
  • counseling youths at risk for imprisonment in 10 week prisoner administered sessions;
  • chairing the ACLU-affiliated Prison Committee to Correct Prison Conditions on issues including overcrowding, brutality, and health at the Maryland House of Corrections;
  • forming the Maryland Lifers Association, with chapters in three state prisons;
  • establishing a holiday celebration for black prisoners program with their families;
  • beginning another program to teach prisoners computer usage;
  • forming the first ever prison-based Touchstone Project, involved in weekly classical literature discussions; and
  • most recently starting a Friend of A Friend mentoring project, training prisoners to serve other inmates; and
  • working with a local Baltimore WombWork Productions play for the public titled, "The Birth of Peace.



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