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TRB: Geronimo! By: Michael Kelly
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, January 01, 1998


As a reluctant member of the appalling baby-boomer generation, I have always comforted myself with the promise of mortality. In time my fellow boomers and I would lie mouldering, and the world would be a better place. I know now I was a Pollyanna. Recently I spent a weekend in Vermont. Vermont's prospects could hardly please more; the place is stuffed with verdant vistas, mountain views, bosky dells, bubbling brooks and limpid lakes. But then there is man, and he is vile. You cannot swat a black fly in Vermont without disturbing the vacant-eyed rest of a pallid, hairy and purposefully ugly white person. Hippies are everywhere, in every variety and of every age: ancient bedspring-scarred veterans of the summer of love, dreadlocked ingenues still plowing through the mire of their first Chomsky, preschoolers with names like Cypress and Che.

What has happened to Vermont has to a less obvious degree happened all over the country, and it is the reason I was deluded in my fatalistic optimism. When the subject of the left is raised these days, the general liberal response is to assert that the left scarcely exists, consisting only of a fringe element, isolated and ignored, in a few editorial boards and humanities departments. This is wrong. The left is not nowhere, it is, in a bland and vague way, everywhere. As the aging sandalistas have accrued power and raised children, their values have become the values of the age. The result is a corollary to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan's theory of defining deviancy down. Call it defining radicalism in. What was once radical is now normal. What was once left is now establishmentarian center.

This would not matter if the only outcome was the cultural takeover of New England. But consider a front-page story in the Sunday, July 20, edition of The New York Times, the mainstreamer of record. The story, by Don Terry, concerned the recent overturning of the conviction of Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt, a former member of the Black Panthers, after twenty-seven years' imprisonment on charges of murder. It was a piece of work.

Pratt, who was convicted of the 1968 robbery-related murder of a Santa Monica teacher named Caroline Olsen, was presented to Times readers as "a Vietnam War hero" and a man "admired for his charisma and warrior spirit," who was, in his uncontradicted opinion, "framed for the murder by the authorities...because he dared to stand up for his people as the leader of the Black Panther Party in Southern California." Pratt's lawyer, who is of course Johnnie L. Cochran, is presented as a self-admitted naif for even thinking that Pratt would get a fair trial. The Black Panthers are presented as a romantic band who "mixed black nationalism and socialism, shotguns and free breakfast programs for children, medical clinics, free schools, law books and revolutionary rhetoric about power coming from the barrel of a gun." Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti, who is appealing the decision freeing Pratt, is presented as animated by an ambition that is, in the words of one of three anti-Garcetti "experts" quoted, "more political than it is of a legal base."

It is possible that Pratt was innocent of murder. And it is true that the FBI did have an interest in (as an FBI memo in 1970 noted) "neutralizing Pratt as an effective B.P.P. functionary." And the decision by Judge Everett W. Dickey to overturn Pratt's conviction - because the prosecution had failed to inform the jury that a key witness against Pratt was also a government informant - was not unreasonable. And yet there is a great deal more to the Pratt case than this.

Terry mentions a few pieces of the circumstantial evidence against Pratt: he was identified as the killer by the murdered woman's husband, who was also shot in the robbery; and "the getaway car used in the killing had belonged to Mr. Pratt." But he mentions these inconvenient facts only to dismiss them, and he does not mention others: that Pratt's alibi (he claimed he was in a Panther meeting in Oakland at the time) was not supported by fellow Panthers; that a handgun identified by expert prosecution testimony as the murder weapon had, according to a witness, belonged to Pratt; that a witness identified Pratt as one of two men who tried to rob a store shortly before the nearby murder of Caroline Olsen by two men. Nowhere in the paper's lengthy account is any voice given to the prosecution's version of events. Not a single person who believes in Pratt's guilt is quoted.

Neither does the Times mention anywhere that the Black Panthers, during the years of Pratt's high-level involvement, constituted an ongoing criminal enterprise, with both leadership and rank-and-file members actively engaged in crime on a large scale, including extortion and murder, as has been documented by Hugh Pearson in his book The Shadow of the Panther. The true nature of the California Panthers was revealed by former Panther leader Elaine Brown in 1993, in her memoir A Taste of Power. Brown, the lover of Panther founder Huey Newton, writes of presiding over a stomping session inflicted on an errant Panther by four security force thugs: "The floor was rumbling, as though a platoon of pneumatic drills were breaking through its foundation. Blood was everywhere. [His] face disappeared." This aspect of the little group that mixed black nationalism with free breakfasts was not fit for the Times. Nor, apparently, was the murder of Oakland prostitute Kathleen Smith, over which Newton fled the country. Nor was the murder of Panther bookkeeper Betty Van Patter, whose death after questioning accounting irregularities in the books of a Panther enterprise was reported by Kate Coleman two years ago in Heterodoxy.

Back when the New Left was new, not long before Elmer Pratt was indicted for the murder of Caroline Olsen, The New York Times ran two stories reporting, as an uncontroverted fact, that the police had to date killed twenty-eight members of the Black Panther Party. Reporter John Kifner, echoing Panther claims, suggested that anti-Panther rhetoric by the Nixon administration had encouraged "a climate of opinion among local police...that a virtual open season has been declared on the Panthers." Edward J. Epstein investigated the matter for The New Yorker. Epstein examined every one of the twenty-eight deaths. He reported, in February 1971, that only ten of the Panthers had been killed by police (most of the rest had met their violent ends as a result of various forms of internecine warfare), and, as he wrote, "six of the ten Panthers were killed by seriously wounded policemen who clearly had reason to believe that their own lives were in jeopardy." Nearly three decades later, the myth of the Panthers has not been exposed by the Times. It has been institutionalized. Pass the Cherry Garcia.




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