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human & civil rights | prisons & prisoners

Torture - Legacy of Cointelpro

This is an interview with a community organizer, who was one of those targeted by the US government for his involvement in the Black Panther Party. Richard Brown is one of several former Panthers, still being targeted by the US government. The incident he refers to in this interview is detailed in the film "Legacy of Torture" which will be shown this Sunday, Febuary 18th at 3pm - at the New Born Tribe Cultural Center - 3525 NE MLK. Speakers include former members of the Portland Panther Party and one of the film's producers. We will talk about the men currently being held on murder charges from 1973! and talk about how our community can support them will exposing the ongoing injustice of police brutality and government impunity.
Interview with Richard Brown

Wanda Sabir: When did you start traveling around the country on speaking tours about what happened?

Richard Brown: "We started talking about this when people didn't believe the government was capable of doing something like this and, because it was primarily happening to Black people at that time, it was overlooked and not believed. We feel if the American public is educated, they will demand it stop.

"I would like those guilty of torture brought up on charges. They said it was illegal way back in 1973 at the Church Commission when they found they'd violated the Panthers' civil rights over 300 times: They were guilty of unconstitutional acts, guilty of torture, guilty of coercion, guilty of lying and passing false information to get people to lie on different folks, and manufacturing evidence, even to the point of assassination and murder. It happened to Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, Bunchy Carter.

"It was all a part of that Cointelpro program they had to annihilate the Black Panther Party. We feel education is the best way to bring this to an end."

WS: "Legacy of Torture" director Claude Marks said you hadn't really talked about what happened to you prior to making this film. Given what you said, it was understandable, since no one believed your stories anyway.

RB: "Actually, when they broke us up, they literally broke the Party up. Many of us went to different parts of the country. I stayed in touch with most of them over the phone. Someone like John Bowman, who was a part of the family, he and I saw each other over the years, but we rarely spoke of the torture.

"We went on with our lives and continued to serve the people the best that we could. I went off into community-based organizations to do as much as I could for my community and for my people. I just continued with the teachings and the principles that brought us to the Party. We honestly didn't actually talk to each other before they came back for us in 2005 this crap all over again. We thought they'd finished back in the '80s.

"They just swooped on us all over the country one day and arrested us and tried to make us go before a grand jury and testify, and we decided independently of one another that we were not going to do that. We were all held in contempt of court and arrested, actually locked up. They took us away from family and spirited us around the country, and no one was able to communicate with us.

"I was locked up for quite some time: six weeks. My attorney didn't know where I was. They kept moving me around."

WS: The right to a telephone call is not true?

RB: "They didn't give me a phone call. People have to be approved beforehand to receive calls. My attorney wasn't able to get through. What you have to do is contact them beforehand, pay a fee to get them on a so-called system. What you'd have to do is write them to contact the phone company and pay a fee so they could receive calls from the jailhouse. Not being able to get a letter out, I wasn't able to tell them.

"It was part of a technique to put more pressure on me."

Brown has been a community activist his entire life. He worked for the Ella Hill Hutch Community Center in the Fillmore, the same area of San Francisco he grew up in. He worked at Ella Hill Hutch for almost 20 years in housing and employment, in criminal justice and as an advocate for the people in the community. He was able to continue "for Black people in the Fillmore what I was doing in the BPP serving the people."

He said of his friend Bowman: "John grew up in this area, also on McAllister Street. He touched a lot of people's lives - an organizer, a warmhearted person everyone could relate to. He could educate and motivate. He was a great man."

WS: Seems like all of you are great men - to be able to live through that. The reenactment in the film of the torture scenes, while not literal, is enough to make one imagine the horror and pain. It's one thing to imagine it; it's another thing to go through it. Sometimes it's not physical but psychological. People have been going through psychological and physical torture ever since slavery.

When that was happening to you, did you think you'd live though it?

RB: "I didn't actually get tortured there in New Orleans at that time. Three of us were tortured: John Bowman, Ruben Scott and Harold Taylor. They arrested me and I was about to be taken to New Orleans, but (the case) was thrown out of court when the evidence acquired through torture was found inadmissible.

"I was fortunate that time. The greatest torture is psychological torture. But I've been beaten while handcuffed. That's so common for Black folks I don't even call that torture. It's the MO for police to deal with Black people in that manner. When they focus on you and try to break you, that's a torture tactic. Police jumping on you while you are handcuffed and outnumbered was ordinary, even typical behavior."

WS: Obviously it didn't stop you from doing the work. How does one, given the legacy of torture and the potential for it to reoccur, continue to serve the people? It seems like you'd be terrified of the harassment, knowing that if you continued they could come after you. Anytime you could get assaulted or killed.

RB: "During the time the Black Panther Party was started and we saw the oppression of our people coming down on us, nearly everyone decided we were in it for the long run. None of us expected to live. That's an unfortunate thing to say, yet, given the time, none of us saw an actual future. Once you make up your mind that you are going to go forward regardless - you do. No matter what they did to us, we were determined not to stop.

"I wasn't actually doing anything except serving the people."

WS: How old were you when you joined the BPP?

RB: "I was a little older, at 22. The average age was 17 or 18. They were very young people, some as young as 15 to 16. I found out about it on the news coverage of Oakland.

"I was doing things in San Francisco - not to the extent of the BPP, but I love Black people, I love my community and I continue to care about people. My level of consciousness was pretty high, so when the Panther Party came along with the kind of spirit I had, the kind of nature I had, it was a perfect vehicle. So we started the Black Panther Party in San Francisco."

WS: You started it?

RB: "Actually, I was there. Dexter and some other people started it."

WS: I grew up in San Francisco a member of the Nation of Islam. The mosque was on Fillmore and Geary.

RB: "We had several offices on Fillmore Street, on Ellis and Eddy. We'd see a bigger space and move. We were all over Fillmore."

WS: Did the Panther Party and Nation do any organizing around any issues?

RB: "Not politically. There was an overlap. We supported each other."

WS: I found that out at the 40th anniversary. A lot of people I knew in the Nation were former Panthers. You said you loved Black people. I presume you were raised in a home that was African centered?

RB: "Yeah, to a certain extent. I was raised by a single mother, as my father was killed when I was 4 years old. I had a lot of help from the community. I had uncles who took the place of my father. Back then, there was a community. The village looked out for all of us and helped raise all of us.

"Because of that, because I grew up in an environment where people cared about one another, I grew up to care about people also. Growing up in a Black community, it was natural I'd grow up caring about Black people. That's the way I see it: unity and love for Black people.

"I grew up in a different time. I know who we truly are, what we are capable of and what we have accomplished. To see what's going on nowadays kind of hurts me. The violence that's going on, particularly with the youth, that's really disturbing. I do all I can to try to put an end to that, to let them know that that is not who we are or where we should be headed."

WS: Do you think the violence is a symptom of something larger?

RB: "Of course. It's a symptom of racism and slavery. We've been conditioned to not unite, to not love one another. They took our culture, our language, our religions, everything. Employment, the lack of employment, the educational system the young people have to put up with, the bombardment with media violence: the movies that they watch, the music that they listen to it's all a part of the problems that youth grow up with.

"It will turn around and go forward again."

WS: What are the lessons that have come out of the prolonged harassment with the government? What are the lessons you'd like to share with someone doing political organizing work for African or Black liberation?

RB: "We all get tired. You get exhausted, yet you can't give up. You will be successful. If I die tomorrow, as far as I'm concerned I have been very successful serving my people with my comrades over the years."

WS: When you look at the legacy of Cointelpro, which now is called Homeland Security, and the laws have been codified under the USA Patriot Act I and II, how, with Cointelpro, the letters, the tapped phone calls, the infiltration creating an environment where people couldn't trust each other and black folks were already having trouble trusting each other -

RB: "Conditioned not to trust each other."

WS: Yes, exactly right - coming over on those slave ships. My question is how do you establish trust, maintain trust, in light of a situation where we know this government does not want African people to come together. What can you do to establish trust, or do you just do your good work and don't worry about it?

RB: "Do your good work and don't worry about it. The Black Panther Party started out with just a few people. San Francisco was a small operation. Sometimes you have to just start with yourself and people see what you are doing, and once they trust you, you build from there.

"It's very hard to get Black people to do anything together and to stay together for a long time, but it can be done. The Panther Party proved that it can be done. Other organizations have proven that. You don't have to be my blood brother; you can be my extended family.

"We have the foundation to be able to overcome the barrier of not being able to trust each other. Somehow over the years Black people have somehow overcome, worked together and made progress. In our time, we have to pull it together and go forward in order to not die here."