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Systemic Injustice Against Two Longtime Political Prisoners

By Stephen Lendman

09 May, 2010

Their 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."

Current Efforts to Free Conway

Throughout his imprisonment, Maryland's Parole Board denied him on executive orders to keep "lifers" in prison, except the aged or terminally ill. Meanwhile, a habeas petition was sent to Maryland's Supreme Court to let a Clemency Petition be sent to the governor. The Baltimore NAACP chapter, various church leaders, and some members of Maryland's General Assembly, Baltimore City Council, and the community also voiced support.

More recently a federal habeas petition was filed, requesting a review of state rulings and a new trial, "based on the fact that I did not receive a fair trial in accordance with both the 6th and 14th Amendments."

After 40 years, Conway remains imprisoned, but hopeful and grateful to his supporters. In a recent 2010 letter, he reiterated that he was incarcerated "because of what I believe, not for anything that I have done," then said he delayed writing pending release of his book, "The Greatest Threat."

It "examines the plight of the Black Panther Party Political Prisoners/POWs and the role of the FBI's Counter-Intelligence Program in their imprisonment." In 2011, his next book will be released, titled "Marshall Law: The Life and Times of a Baltimore Black Panther."

His new legal team is also researching new ways to win his release, long overdue for an innocent man after 40 years for a crime he didn't commit.

Romaine "Chip" Fitzgerald

Detailed information on him can be found at www.freechip.org, titled "Free Chip Fitzgerald: 40 Years is Enough" for another innocent man, convicted for crime he didn't commit - now a "political prisoner, (a) prisoner of war" for his activism.

Fitzgerald belonged to the BPP's Southern California Chapter where a fellow member, Bruce Richard, called him tireless:

"in various capacities in the Westside office....To be a Panther was a 24/7 commitment, and every single day seemed like weeks due to the volume of activities during (the) explosive (1969, early 1970s) period. We were totally consumed in the Party's Free Breakfast Program (what Hoover most feared because of the community good will it fostered), the tutorial program, selling Panther papers, political education classes and other projects. Chip was a favorite of many in the communities we served, and the children, especially, loved him, reflected in their smiling little faces when he appeared...."

In September 1969, Fitzgerald was wounded and arrested during a police instigated shoot-out, tried for assault and other related charges, including Barge Miller's murder, a security guard at Vons Shopping Center in Los Angeles at 1:42AM.

Two men were seen fleeing, a witness, James Coleman, later identifying Fitzgerald as one of them, even though he said he couldn't see him clearly. In court, he then admitted he looked different from the man he identified, and during the investigation, he was shown photos, including Fitzgerald's, but didn't recognize him.

Because of his head wound, Fitzgerald wore a hard to miss two-inch bandage for close to a month, removing it several days before his October 9, 1969 arrest. Coleman said nothing about it in describing the man he saw. All the time, Fitzgerald denied being in the vicinity of Vons during the incident's early morning hours.

Nonetheless, at age 19, he was arrested, indicted, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death despite his innocence, and remains a political prisoner.

In California v. Anderson (1972), the California Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional in violation of Eighth Amendment protection against "cruel and unusual punishments" and the state's same constitutional ban. Along with 100 others on death row at the time, his sentence was commuted to life "with" the possibility of parole.

No matter. Unlike most 1972 death row inmates released, Fitzgerald remains incarcerated, still dedicated to black liberation and all oppressed people everywhere - why he's still held, of course. At his July 2008 parole hearing, he was challenged for his political views, past and present, and turned down, the same reason for all his other denials, for his "revolutionary" beliefs for justice he won't renounce after a lifetime of support.

With the help of his new attorney, Keith Wattley, the Committee to Free Chip Fitzgerald filed a habeas petition to challenge the Board's decision. Currently, he's in solitary confinement at Corcoran State Prison, protesting on a hunger strike to be transfered to the general prison population, and threatening to stay on it until death if he's refused. More on that below.

Prison authorities are in violation of the US District Court for the Northern District of California's 2001 order to provide all inmates proper medical care, Judge Thelton E. Henderson saying:

"....it is beyond a reasonable dispute that the State has failed," in transferring authority to a receiver, J. Clark Kelso, at the time. He also stated it's:

"an uncontested fact that, on average, an inmate in one of California's prisons needlessly dies every six to seven days due to constitutional deficiencies in (its) medical delivery system."

In 1998, Fitzgerald suffered a stroke, caused by bleeding in his brain. He became partly paralyzed, required an intense physical therapy regimen, and given the absence of treatment, likely spinal and cervical surgery will be needed.

In confinement, his condition continues to worsen. Without treatment, he risks another stroke, permanent paralysis or death. He reportedly also suffers from depression. As a result, by refusing food, and apparently water, he's very much in jeopardy, another victim of America's war against activism, people of color, and justice.

In his own words, he vows to "remain a revolutionary," at the same time calling the prison system:

"a complex, dysfunctional resource-wasting parasite of social control, political repression and revenge! Human beings are warehoused in these concrete and steel bunkers that destroy human sensibilities and the human spirit. (They're) desensitized, (and become) frustrated, angry and bitter, unprepared to become productive members of society. (It's) why California's recidivism rate is above 75%."

On May 4, the Committee to Free Chip Fitzgerald reported that he ended his hunger strike after prison officials agreed to free him from solitary confinement and transfer him to Kern State Valley Prison's general population where conditions may be better, including access to medical care. Based on past experience, he wrote: "we'll see."

The system is designed to perpetuate itself, to remove political activists from society, cage them like animals, the result of "corruption, criminal mismanagement, thievery, (and) brutality" to deny freedoms and sustain injustice. Fitzgerald and Conway are two of its victims. Many others are in prison hell with them, America's gulag, the shame of the nation.

A Final Word

On December 10, 2008, this writer examined "The Persecution of Syed Fahad Hashmi," saying:

"It's a familiar story. A Muslim American is accused of terrorism for supporting Al Qaeda and conspiracy to provide support for a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO)....Once again, an innocent man is arrested, charged, indicted and convicted with no substantiating evidence," bogus charges, much of it classified and withheld from the defense.

Witnesses are enlisted to cooperate. Proceedings are orchestrated, and juries intimidated to convict at the wrong time to be Muslim in America when we're all equally vulnerable.

See the complete article at: http://sjlendman.blogspot.com/2008/12/persecution-of-syed-fahad-hashmi.html.

Held in solitary confinement for three years, facing 70 years imprisonment if convicted, Hashmi coped a plea for a lesser 15 year sentence, even though he committed no crimes. Like dozens of others, he was targeted for their activism, prominence, faith, race, and ethnicity.

Since first arrested in the UK in June 2006, he been brutally treated, the past three years in merciless solitary confinement at New York's Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC), the effects of which harmed his health, emotional well-being, and spirit enough to accept 15 years in federal prison despite his innocence.

On April 30, Faisal Hashmi said this about his brother:

"Earlier this week our beloved son and brother Fahad pleaded guilty to a single charge of material support for terrorism. He took the plea after spending four years in prison, three of them in complete isolation. Fahad's lawyer, David Ruhnke, said (he) "made the best deal that was available under the circumstances....the government wanted to lock him up for the rest of his life. They were not successful in that goal."

Though he may be free by age 40, "we are extremely troubled by the process that has brought us to this point. We are troubled not only for our family but by the message a case like Fahad's sends to our community. It disturbs us greatly that a young man known as a pillar of his Queens community, who worked and studied hard and who, in the tumult of growing up Muslim in America, choose a path of religious and political activism, (yet) came to be demonized as an extreme danger to the country he called home."

They bogusly called him a terrorist, tortured him in solitary confinement, and left him no choice than a one count lesser sentence, given his prospect of "going before an anonymous jury based in part on the prosecution's ugly assertion that his friends and family were as dangerous as they alleged he was."

What does this say about a nation that reigns terror on its own?

Given the barbarous treatment of innocent people, charging them with crimes they didn't commit, locking them in federal gulags for political advantage, and denying some of our most dedicated no chance for justice, America is no longer fit place to live in. For blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, the poor and disadvantaged, and today Muslims it never was nor will be as long as wealth and power trump equity, democratic freedoms, and principles that have been desecrated from the beginning.

Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at [email protected]. Also visit his blog site at sjlendman.blogspot.com and listen to cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on the Progressive Radio News Hour on the Progressive Radio Network Thursdays at 10AM US Central time and Saturdays and Sundays at noon. All programs are archived for easy listening.