[Ppnews] Remembering Geronimo Pratt
Political Prisoner News
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue Jun 7 17:51:57 EDT 2011
Remembering Geronimo Pratt
<http://newsone.com/author/jothomas/>Johan Thomas on June 7, 2011 2:31 pm
By Bakari Kitwana
Political activists around the country are still
absorbing the news of Geronimo ji Jagas death.
For those of us who came of age in the 80s and
90s, the struggles of the late 1960s and early
1970s were in many ways a gateway for our
examination of the history of Black political
resistance in the US. Geronimo ji Jaga (formerly
Geronimo Pratt) and his personal struggle, as
well as his contributions to the fight for social
justice were impossible to ignore. His
commitment, humility, clear thinking as well as
his sense of both the longevity and continuity of
the Black Freedom Movement in the US all stood out to those who knew him.
I interviewed him for The Source magazine in
early September 1997 about three months after he
was released from prison, having served 27 years
of a life sentence for a murder he didnt commit.
Three things stood out from the interview, all of
which have been missed by recent commentary celebrating his life and impact.
First that famed attorney Johnnie Cochran was not
only his lawyer when ji Jaga gained his freedom,
but also represented him in his original trial.
They were from the same hometown and, according
to ji Jaga, Cochrans conscious over the years
was dogged by the injustice of the US criminal
system that resulted in the 1970 sentence.
Second, according to ji Jaga, he never formally
joined the Black Panther Party. As he remembered
it, he worked with several Black activist
organizations and was captured by the police
while working with the Black Panther Party for
Self-Defense. And finally, his analysis of the
UCLA 1969 shoot-out between Black Panthers and US
Organization members that led to the death of his
best friend Bunchy Carter and John Huggins is not
a simple tale of Black in-fighting. Now is a good time to revisit all three.
Misinformation is so much part of our current
political moment, particularly as the 24-hour
news cycle converges with the ascendance of Fox
News. In this climate, the conservative analysis
of race has been normalized in mainstream
discourse. This understanding of racial politics,
along with the election of Barack Obama and a
first term marked by little for Blacks to
celebrate, makes it a particularly challenging
time to be politically Black in the United
States. Ask Jeremiah Wright, Shirley Sherrod, and
Van Jonesall three serious advocates for the
rights and humanity of everyday people whose
critiques of politics and race made them far too
easily demonized as anti-American.
If we have entered the era where the range of
Black political thought beyond the mainstream
liberal-conservative purview is delegitimized,
Geronimo ji Jagas life and death is a reminder of our need to resist it.
EXCERPTS FROM THE 1997 INTERVIEW:
How did you get involved with the Black Panther Party?
Technically I never joined the Black Panther
Party. After Martin Luther Kings death, an elder
of mine who was related to Bunchy Carters elder
and Johnnie Cochrans elder requested that those
of us in the South that had military training
render some sort of discipline to brothers in
urban areas who were running amuck getting shot
right and left, running down the street shooting
guns with bullets half filled which they were
buying at the local hardware store. When I
arrived at UCLA, Bunchy was just getting out of
prison and needed college to help with his
parole. We stayed together in the dorm room on
campus. But we were mainly working to build the infrastructure of the Party.
You ended up as the Deputy Minister of Defense. How did that come about?
They did not have a Ministry of Defense when I
came on the scene. There was one office in
Oakland and a half an office in San Francisco. I
helped build the San Francisco branch and all of
the chapters throughout the SouthNew Orleans,
Dallas, Atlanta, Memphis, Winston-Salem, North
Carolina and other places. We did it under the
banner of the Panthers because thats what was
feasible at the time. Because of shoot-outs and
all that stuff, the work I did with the Panthers,
overshadowed the stuff that I did with the
Republic of New Afrika, the Mau Mau, the Black
Liberation Army, the Brown Berets, the Black
Berets, even the Fruit of Islambut I saw my work
with the Panthers as temporary. When Bunchy was
killed, the Panthers wanted me to fill his
position [as leader of the Southern California
chapter]. I didnt want to do it because I was
already overloaded with other stuff. But it was
just so hard to find someone who could handle LA
given the problems with the police. So I ended up
doing it, reluctantly. And this is how I ended up
on the central committee of the Black Panther
Party. I never took an oath and never joined the Party.
What was your role as Deputy Minister of Defense?
The Ministry of Defense was largely based on
infrastructure: cell systems in the cities;
creating an underground for situations when you
need to get individuals out of the city or
country. When you get shot by the police, you
cant be taken to no hospital. You gotta have
medical underground as well. Thats where the
preachers, bible school teachers and a lot of
others behind the scenes got involved. When Huey
got out of prison in 1970, this stuff blew his mind.
What were the strengths and weaknesses of the Party?
The main strength was the discipline which
allowed for a brother or sister to feed children
early in the morning, go to school and P.E.
classes during the day, go to work and selling
papers in the afternoon, and patrol the police at
night. The weak points were our naiveté, our
youth, and the lack of experience. But even at
that I really salute the resistance of the
generation! I have a problem saying it was just
the Panthers `cause thats not right. When you do
that you x-out so much. There was more collective
work going on than the popular written history of
the period suggests. And when you talk about SNCC
you are talking about a whole broader light than
the Panther struggle. So you have to talk about
that separatethats a bigger thing. They gave
rise to the intelligence of a whole bunch of Panthers.
What was Bunchy Carter like?
He was a giant, a shining prince. He had been the
head of the Slausons gang. He was transforming
the gangbangers in Los Angeles into that
revolutionary arm. He was my mentor. Such a warm
and lovable, brainy brother. At the same time he
was such a fierce brother. He was very dynamiche
was an ex-boxer, and he was even on The Little
Rascals probably back in the fifties. His main
claim to fame was what he did with the gangs in
the city. And that was a monumental thing. All
that was before Bunchy became a Panther.
Because of the death of Bunchy Carter as a result
of the Panthers clash with Maulana Karengas US
organization, even today rumors persists that Dr.
Karenga was an informant. . .
Not true. Definitely not true.
What was the Panther clash with US all about?
We considered Karengas US organization to be a
cultural-nationalist organization. We were
considered revolutionary nationalist. So, we have
a common denominator. We both are nationalist. We
never had antagonistic contradictions, just
ideological contradictions. The pig manipulated
those contradictions to the extent that warfare
jumped off. Truth is the first casualty in war.
It began to be said that Karenga was rat, but
that wasnt true. The death of Bunchy and John
Huggins on UCLA campus was caused by an agent
creating a disturbance which caused a Panther to
pull out a gun and which subsequently caused US
members to pull out their guns to defend
themselves. In the ensuing gun battle Bunchy Carter and John Huggins lay dead.
Whats your worst memory of the 27 years you spent in prison?
I accepted the fact that when I joined the
movement I was gonna be killed. When we were sent
off to these urban areas we were actually told,
Look, youre either gonna get killed, put in
prison, or if youre lucky we can get you out the
country before they do that. Those are the three
options. To survive is only a dream. So when I
was captured, I began to disconnect. So its hard
to say good or bad moments because this is a
whole different reality that had a life of its own.
Many people would say that during those
twenty-seven years that you lost something. How would you describe it?
I considered myself chopped off the game plan
when I was arrested. But it was incumbent upon me
to free myself and continue to struggle again.
You cant look back twenty-seven years and say it
was a lost. Im still living. I run about five
miles every morning, and I can still bench press
300 pounds ten times. I can give you ten reps
(laughter). Also I hope Im a little more
intelligent and Im not crazy. Its a hell of a gain that I survived.
What music most influenced you during that time?
In 1975 I heard some music on a prison radio. I
hadnt seen a television in six years until about
1976, and it was at the end of the tier. I
couldnt see it unless I stood up sideways
against the bars. When I really got to see a
television again was in 1977. So, I was basically
without music and television for the first eight
years when I was in the hole. When I was able to
get on the main line and listen to music and see
T.V., of course the things I wanted to hear were
the things I heard when I was on the street. But
by then those songs had to be at least nine years
old. So, I would listen to oldies. And the new
music it was hard to get into, but I slowly began
to get into that. But when hip-hop began to come
around, it caught on like wildfire. It reminds me
how the Panthers and other groups started to
catch on like wildfire. It reminded me of Gil
Scott-Heron. He would spit that knowledge so
clearly and that was the first thing that came to
mind when I heard Grandmaster Flash, KRS-One,
Paris, Public Enemy and Sista Soldierthe militancy.
What type of books were you reading?
We maintained study groups throughout when I was
on main line. Much of the focus was on Cheik Anta
DiopHe was considered by us to be the last
Pharaoh. We also read the works compiled by Ivan
Van Sertima. Of course, there were others.
In terms of a spiritual center, what helped you to get through?
Well the ancestors guided me back to the oldest
religion known to manMaat. We also studied those
meditations that were developed by all of our
ancestorsthe Natives, the Hispanics, the
Irishnot just the ones that were strictly African.
The youngest of seven children, Ji Jaga was born
Elmer Pratt, in Morgan City, a port city in
southwestern Louisiana, two hours south of New
Orleans, on September 13 1947. 120 years earlier
marked the death of Jean Lafitte, the so-called
gentlemans pirate of French ancestry who
settled in Haiti in the early 1800s until he was
run out with most other Europeans during the
Haitian revolution. Lafittes claim to fame was
smuggling enslaved Africans from the Caribbean to
Louisiana during the Spanish embargo of the late
17th & early 18th centuries, often taking refuge
in the same bayous that were Pratts childhood
home. Pratt was dubbed Geronimo by Bunchy Carter
and assumed the name ji Jaga in 1968. The Jaga
were a West African clan of Angolan warriors who
Geronimo says he descends from. Many of the Jaga
came to Brazil with the Portuguese as free men
and women and some were later found among maroon
societies in Brazil. How Jaga descendants could
have ended up in Louisiana is open to historical
interpretation, as most Angolans who ended up in
Louisiana and Mississippi and neighboring states
entered the US via South Carolina. Some Jaga were
possibly among the maroon communities in the
Louisiana swamplands as well. According to the
Pratt, the Jaga refused to accept slaveryhence
his strong identification with the name.
What were some of your earliest early childhood memories?
Well, joyous times mostly. Morgan City was a very
rural setting and very nationalistic,
self-reliant, and self-determining. It was a very
close-knit community. Until I was a ripe old age,
I thought that I belonged to a nation that was
run by Blacks. And across the street was another
nation, a white nation. Segregation across the
tracks. We had our own national anthem, Lift
Every Voice and Sing, our own police, and
everything. We didnt call on the man across the
street for nothing and it was very good that I
grew up that way. The worst memories were those
of when the Klan would ride. During one of those
rides, I lost a close friend at an early age
named Clayborne Brown who was hit in the head by
the Klan and drowned. They found his body three
days later in the Chaparral River. And, we all
went to the River and saw them pull him in.
Clayborne was real dark-skinned and when they
pulled him out of the river, his body was like
translucent blue. Then a few years later, one
Halloween night, the Klan jumped on my brother.
So there are bad memories like that.
Does your mother still live there?
Shes gone off into senility, but shes still
living94 years old this year. [She died in 2003
at 98 years-old] And every time Ive left home,
when I come back the first person I go to see is
my mama. So, thats what I did when I got out of
prison. Mama has always stood by me. And, I
understood why. She was a very brainy person. Our
foreparents, her mother was the first to bring
education into that part of the swampland and set
up the first school. When I was growing up, Mama
used to rock us in her chair on the front porch.
We grew up in a shack and we were all born in
that house, about what you would call a block
from the Chaparral River. She would recite
Shakespeare and Longfellow to us. All kind of
stuff like that at an early age we were hearing
from Mamathis Gumbo Creole woman (laughs). And
she was very beautiful. Kept us in church,
instilled all kinds of interests in us, morals
and respect for the elders, respect for the young.
What about your father?
My father was very hard working. He wouldnt work
for no white man so he was what you could call a
junk man. On the way home from school in Daddys
old pick-up truck we would have to go to the dump
and get all the metal that we could find as well
as rope, rags, anything. When we got home, we
unloaded the truck and separated the brass,
copper, the aluminum, so we could sell it
separate. Thats how he raised an entire family
of seven and he did a damn good job. But he
worked himself to death. He died from a stroke in 1956.
With an upbringing so nationalistic, what made you join the US military?
I considered myself a hell of an athlete. We had
just started a Black football league. A few years
earlier, Grambling came through and checked one
of the guys out. So initially my ambition was to
go to Grambling or Southern University and play
ball. Because of the way the community was
organized, the elders called the shots over a lot
of the youngsters. They had a network that went
all the way back to Marcus Garvey and the days
when the United Negro Improvement Association
(U.N.I.A.) was organizing throughout the South in
the 1920s. My uncle was a member of the
legionnaires, the military arm of the U.N.I.A. Of
the seventeen people in my graduating class, six
of us were selected by the elders to go into the
armed forces, the United States Air Force. The
older generation was getting older and was
concerned about who would protect the community.
Many of the brothers that went to Vietnam have
never gotten past it. You seemed to have made a
progressive transition. How have you done that?
Ive never suffered the illusion that I was
aligned to anything other than my elders. And my
going to Vietnam was out on a sense of duty to
them. When I learned how to deal with explosives,
Im listening at that training in terms of
defending my community. Most of the brothers that
I ran into in the service really bought into
being Americans and pow when they were hit with
the reality of all the racism and disrespect, they just couldnt handle it.
What was it like to be a Black soldier in the US military in 1965?
This was my first experience with integration.
But I was never was a victim of any racial attack
or anything. During the whole first time I was in
Vietnamthroughout 1966I never heard the N
word. And all of my officers were white. When I
went back in 1968 thats when you would see more
manifestations of racial hatred, especially
racial skirmishes between the soldiers. But first
off there were so many battles and we were
getting ambushed so much. Partners were dying. We
were getting over run. I mean it was just
madness. If you were shooting in the same direction, cool.
You were very successful in the military. Why did you get out?
On April 4, 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. was
killed. I was due to terminate my service a month
later. I wasnt gonna do it. I was gonna re-up
cause I had made Sergeant at a very early age,
in two tours of combat, so I could have been
sitting pretty for the rest of my life in the
military. I was loyal and patriotic to the
African nation I grew up in who sent me into the
service. And after Martin Luther King was killed,
my elders ordered me to come on out of the
service. King was the eldest Messiah. Malcolm was
our generations Messiah. And now that their King
was dead, it was like theres no hope. So they
actually unleashed us to do what we did. This is
why when Newsweek took their survey in 1969, it
was over 92% of the Black people in this country
supported the Black Panther Party as their
legitimate political arm. It blew the United States mind.
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San Francisco, CA 94110
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