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Terrorism, COINTELPRO, and the Black Panther Party

An interview with law professor Angela A. Allen-Bell

Angela A. Allen-Bell

This past July, students from Northwestern University’s Medill Justice Project visited the infamous Louisiana State Prison known as Angola. While there, students landed an impromptu interview with Warden Burl Cain, where they asked him about an inmate at Angola named Kenny ‘Zulu’ Whitmore, who has now been in solitary confinement for 28 consecutive years. This important interview was cited afterwards by Time Magazine in an article examining the impact of solitary confinement on prisoners’ health.

Zulu Whitmore is a member of the Angola Prison chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP) that was first started in the early 1970s by Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox of the Angola 3. In reply to the students’ question about Whitmore, Cain cited his affiliation with the Angola BPP and expressed concern that Whitmore could spread his beliefs in the prison, sparking violence among inmates. “The Black Panther Party advocates violence and racism—I’m not going to let anybody walk around advocating violence and racism,” Cain said. At the time of publication, Whitmore remains in solitary confinement.

Burl Cain’s characterization of the BPP as “advocating violence and racism” is reminiscent of a deposition he gave on October 22, 2008, following Albert Woodfox’s second overturned conviction, where Cain cited Woodfox’s affiliation with the BPP as a primary reason for not removing him from solitary confinement. Asked what gave him “such concern” about Woodfox, Cain stated: “He wants to demonstrate. He wants to organize. He wants to be defiant.” Cain then stated that even if Woodfox were innocent of the murder, he would want to keep him in solitary, because “I still know he has a propensity for violence…he is still trying to practice Black Pantherism, and I still would not want him walking around my prison because he would organize the young new inmates.”

The remarks by Burl Cain in 2008 and 2014 are just the ‘tip of the iceberg’ when it comes to misrepresenting the Black Panther Party. “Until history is accurately told, this type of misinformation will live on and we will all suffer as a result of it,” argues Southern University Law professor Angela A. Allen-Bell in the interview featured below. Her new article, published by the Journal of Law and Social Deviance, entitled “Activism Unshackled & Justice Unchained: A Call to Make a Human Right Out of One of the Most Calamitous Human Wrongs to Have Taken Place on American Soil,” turns the tables on the anti-BPP rhetoric by asking if what the BPP sustained at the hands of government officials is itself akin to domestic terrorism.

In “Activism Unshackled & Justice Unchained,” Prof. Bell concludes that the US government’s multi-faceted response to the BPP, primarily within the framework of the FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO, was indeed the very definition of terrorism. Bell writes that “the magnitude of the unwarranted harm done to the BPP has not yet been explored in an appropriate fashion. Much like a fugitive, it has eluded justice.” As a result, “the FBI’s full-scale assault on the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s remains an open wound for the nation itself. This is more than a national tragedy; this is a human wrong.”

Several pages of Bell’s new article examine the case of the Angola 3 in the context of the broader government repression faced by the Black Panthers. Bell is no stranger to the Angola 3 case. Her 2012 article written for the Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly, entitled “Perception Profiling & Prolonged Solitary Confinement Viewed Through the Lens of the Angola 3 Case: When Prison Officials Become Judges, Judges Become Visually Challenged and Justice Becomes Legally Blind,” used the Angola 3 case as a springboard for examining the broader use of solitary confinement in US prisons.

We interviewed Bell previously, following the release of her 2012 law journal article. Since the Angola 3 News project began in 2009, we have conducted interviews focusing on many different aspects of the Black Panther Party and the organization’s legacy today, including:  Remembering Safiya BukhariCOINTELPRO and the Omaha Two, The Black Panther Party and Revolutionary Art, Dylcia and Cisco on Panthers and Independistas, “We Called Ourselves the Children of Malcolm,” Medical Self Defense and the Black Panther Party, and The Black Panther Party’s Living Legacy.

Angola 3 News: Let’s begin by examining the word ‘terrorist.’ How is this defined?

Angela A. Allen-Bell: For my article, I accept the view that a terrorist commits atrocities in an attempt to influence the behavior of the general population and the government. Their intended victims are not those they kill or harm, but rather are the government and the millions of people they hope to terrorize into some desired change of behavior.

The US government’s definition of terrorism is not uniform and varies among different branches of the police, military, and US government. Some suggest that even the best intentions would result in an unclear definition, given the fact that any number of acts could constitute an act of terrorism, including offenses not yet conceived.

Others suggest the lack of a specific definition is deliberate. In their book, Unchecked and Unbalanced: Presidential Power in a Time of Terror, authors Frederick A. O. Schwarz Jr. and Aziz Z. Huq suggest terrorism to be nothing more than a “political communications strategy” and a “preexisting neoconservative blueprint for a more interventionist American foreign policy, especially in the Middle East.”

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