Remembering Geronimo Pratt: Survivor of Vietnam, COINTELPRO, FBI

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[Speaking Truth To Power]

Geronimo Pratt—who changed his name to Geronimo Ji-Jaga—one of the foremost leaders of America’s Black Liberation Movement, and a prominent target of the FBI died of a heart attack on June 2, in Tanzania.

Geronimo, who was 62, is survived by his children Hiroji and Shona, along with his second wife Asahki.

A major figure in the fight for the human rights of African-Americans during the late 1960’s and into the 1970’s, Mr. Ji-Jaga moved to Tanzania after winning a $4.5 million settlement for his wrongful conviction in the 1972 murder case of Caroline Olsen. At the time of his death, he was working to help others as a human rights activist. It was his dedication toward the empowerment of Black people that put him on a collision course with the forces of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.

Ji-Jaga was born, Elmer Gerald Pratt, in Morgan City, Louisiana on September, 13, 1947 to Eunice and Jack Pratt, who worked in the scrap metal business.  During the turbulent sixties, Mr. Ji-Jaga was highly recruited by many in the Black Liberation Movement. The Black Liberation Movement arose during the Civil Rights Era, from those elements in the Black community who advocated and supported a more militant posture to combat the forces of American racism.

It’s easy to see why Ji-Jaga was so highly thought of. A former high school quarterback, and political science major in college, he was also a highly decorated Vietnam Veteran. Attaining the rank of sergeant, he won two Purple Hearts, two Bronze Stars and a Silver Star. In Vietnam, Mr. Ji-Jaga was a member of the 82nd Airborne from 1965-68 as a long-range reconnaissance expert. During Vietnam, this meant he was a member of an elite group of American soldiers that conducted dangerous scouting and intelligence gathering missions inside enemy territory.

Because of this military prowess, Black Liberation groups, like the Black Panthers sought his expertise. He would, eventually, join the Panthers and rose to the position of Deputy Minister of Defense, in his chapter, at 22, after two Panthers, including Alprentice "Bunchy" Carter were murdered by police. Carter, a fellow Louisianan, convinced Ji-Jaga to join in 1968, in California. Becoming Minister of Defense, Ji-Jaga bypassed the man, who, years later would bear false witness against him: Julius Butler.

As Panther Deputy Minister of Defense, Ji-Jaga butted heads with police. And, by 1970, he was under surveillance by the LAPD, the Los Angeles Attorney’s Office—and the FBI. In fact, the FBI was determined to "neutralize" Ji-Jaga whom they deemed one of the nation’s "key Black extremists." In 1969, Huey P. Newton directed Ji-Jaga to "go underground" for the purpose of building a "revolutionary infrastructure," in the South. Ji-Jaga travelled the South amassing armaments and securing areas for the Panther organization.

Ji-Jaga’s military acumen, and experience, made him a high-level target of J. Edgar Hoover, who was monitoring Ji-Jaga’s movements thru the FBI’s COINTELPRO—Counter Intelligence Program. COINTELPRO was used to track those deemed internal threats to America. In fact, Hoover once called the Panthers “the greatest internal threat to the security of the country.”

Consequently, the FBI employed a number of tactics against the Panthers including: phone tapping, police harassment, creating misinformation to encourage disunity between Panther Party members, and the planting of agent provocateurs. The use of infiltrators was a regular stratagem used to gain information, perpetuate dissention and set-up those targeted by the FBI. During this explosive time, many Panthers were murdered in police shootouts.

Charismatic Chicago Panther Deputy Chairman, Fred Hampton was murdered—while sleeping. In Ji-Jaga’s case, another ploy was used: a murder charge.  In 1968, 27-year-old teacher Caroline Olsen was shot and killed, during a robbery at a Santa Monica tennis court. Initially, in 1970, when Ji-Jaga was charged with the murder, his lawyer, fellow Louisianan, Johnny Cochran assured him the charges would be dropped. After all, Ji-Jaga had been 400 miles away at the time of the murder.

Unfortunately, Cochran later admitted he underestimated how badly the FBI wanted to immobilize Ji-Jaga. The FBI played dirty, allegedly, encouraging perjury by prosecution witnesses, using “moles” to infiltrate defense strategy sessions and bugging Cochran’s phone calls. But the primary prosecution witness against Ji-Jaga was Julius Butler—the man he surpassed in becoming Deputy Minister of Defense.

In the 1972 court case, Butler lied by telling the jury Ji-Jaga had confessed to killing Olsen. What this Judas never admitted to the court was: he was an FBI agent provocateur. Consequently, Mr. Ji-Jaga was convicted and sent to prison.

His first eight years in prison was spent at San Quentin Prison—in solitary confinement. He would later be sent to Folsom Prison.

But, it didn’t take long before the lies against Ji-Jaga started to be exposed. In 1975, a congressional committee revealed its finding about FBI’s COINTELPRO Program, and its relevance to Ji-Jaga, who was explicitly named as a Panther leader that must be “neutralized.” CBS Journalist Harry Reasoner did an insightful story, on 60 Minutes, which created more doubt. Then, in 1980, it was proven Julius Butler had, indeed, lied under oath about working for the FBI.

Finally, in 1997, after 27 years Ji-Jaga was released from prison. Encapsulating the importance of a man like Geronimo Ji-Jaga is difficult,
perhaps, impossible. His sacrifice to the Black freedom struggle is immense.

Some denigrate him as just another violent extremist. America had no problem with Ji-Jaga when he was killing the Viet-Cong for them. They adorned him with medals for his feats. But, when he started to serve Black people, America denounced him. However, we must honor him. For, he sacrificed his life to give us liberty.

"Speaking Truth To Empower."

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