Still in Attica after 40 years

April 3, 2014

Jalil Muntaqim, a former member of the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army, has spent more than 40 years behind bars after receiving a sentence of 25 years to life in 1971. Mara Ahmed, an activist, artist, documentary filmmaker and blogger based in Rochester, N.Y., recently visited Muntaqim at the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York.

ON FEBRUARY 18, I went to Attica, along with other activists, to visit Jalil Muntaqim (prisoner no. 77A4283, whose birth name was Anthony L. Bottom). This was my first time at a maximum-security prison. With its impossibly high walls and multiple turrets, it looked like a castle, albeit an ugly gray one, and I half expected to be intercepted by a moat.

The inside of the prison is coldly institutional, regulated, bland. The visiting room is large, furnished with tables and chairs, and there's an entire wall of vending machines. The walls are painted with dolphins and miscellaneous underwater scenes. I soon understood why. Many families visit with young children in tow, and soon, their noisy chatter began to reverberate throughout the carefully reinforced and supervised space we were in.

Jalil joined us after 15 or 20 minutes. Tall, affable, with a warm smile on his face and a taqiyah (Muslim skullcap) on his head, it was easy to fall into conversation with him. Jalil is interested in everything. He asked Diane about her work as a Rochester city high school teacher and discussed my films with me, including issues related to Islam and feminism and the Partition of India.

Jalil Muntaqim
Jalil Muntaqim

His charm and lively intelligence make it hard to imagine that he's spent more than 40 years of his life in prison. He was a young Black Panther when he was arrested in 1971. Since COINTELPRO--a secret FBI program aimed at sabotaging dissent and disrupting movements for self-determination within the U.S. from the 1950s to the 1970s--has now been exposed for its illegal activities, it's incredible that political prisoners like Jalil continue to be locked up.

Here is a summary of the case against Jalil in the words of Danish activist and writer Kit Aastrup:

[Muntaqim] was only 19 years old and a member of the Black Panther Party when he was sent to prison in 1971 on conspiracy charges following the killing of a police officer, allegedly in retaliation for the murder of Black political prisoner George Jackson.

Muntaqim was targeted by COINTELPRO, an unconstitutional and clandestine FBI operation that was set up to destroy political organizations, especially those from the oppressed communities. In 1975, Muntaqim was wrongly convicted of killing two police officers in New York City, although there was no physical evidence against him and two juries failed to convict him before the State found one that did.

Muntaqim, who received a sentence of 25 years to life, has always maintained his innocence...In 2007 Muntaqim was charged in a cold case from 1971 known as the San Francisco 8 (SF8) case, and he was transferred from Auburn Correctional Facility in New York to San Francisco County Jail. This case was originally dropped in 1975 because it was based on confessions extracted by torture. At the end of July, two of the SF8, Herman Bell and Muntaqim, were sentenced to probation and time served, after Bell agreed to plead to voluntary manslaughter and Muntaqim reluctantly pleaded no contest to conspiracy to voluntary manslaughter.

Charges have been dropped against most of the SF8 on the basis of insufficient evidence. However, Herman Bell and Jalil Muntaqim remain in prison.

JALIL IS no run-of-the-mill human being. He acquired a college education while incarcerated; in 1976, he initiated the National Prisoners Campaign to Petition the United Nations to recognize the existence of political prisoners in the U.S.; in 1997, he launched the Jericho Movement to demand amnesty for American political prisoners on the basis of international law; he has written books and maintains a blog; and he's quelled prison riots.

He's also involved in literacy programs and has wonderful ideas about vocational training in prison running parallel to community programs outside so that released prisoners can transition effortlessly into them and chances of relapse are minimized. For all these efforts at organizing, Jalil is transferred relentlessly from one correctional facility to another.

Jalil understands that we have reached a racial crossroads in America. Black kids are being murdered for the clothes they wear or the music they listen to, stop-and-frisk and racial profiling have become institutionalized, books like Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow explain how a caste system rooted in mass incarceration has replaced segregation and slavery, anti-Vietnam War protesters and activists have revealed how they stole COINTELPRO files, and books like Betty Medsger's The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI delineate the disturbing history, machinations and criminality of the FBI.

Jalil's concern is that this "spark" might ignite people's anger rather than become the impetus for constructive organizing. He hopes for liberal movements to unite and coalesce as they did during the civil rights era. He wants to hearken back to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Poor People's Campaign and forge links between the struggles against racism and economic inequity, between Trayvon Martin and Occupy Wall Street.

He envisions an alternative, internal judicial system capable of resolving disputes and interdicting where necessary, based on African American needs and realities. It would work in unison with the American judicial system, the way Jewish, Christian or Amish religious laws do right now.

This reminded me of something August Wilson said in an interview with Bill Moyers in 1988. He talked about African Americans being a "visible" minority and the offensive idea that they must integrate into white, European (in other words, mainstream) society and distance themselves from their own values, aesthetics and worldview in order to be successful.

He gave the example of Asian Americans, whose culture is not only accepted but admired. He mentioned Passover and how it reminds Jews of their history of slavery. There is a need for a Black Passover and for a celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation. By revisiting and keeping alive their common past, African Americans can build a common future.

JALIL HAS been up for parole countless times. He is always refused. He is no threat to society. On the contrary, he would be a valuable leader and mentor for the community at large. He believes in parole reform and is campaigning to focus on "risk to society" rather than "nature of crime" (which is a static and therefore useless consideration). The composition of the parole board needs to change as well. It should represent a spectrum of communities in which prisoners have their roots, not just law enforcement.

Jalil believes in rehabilitation and redemption, not retribution and punishment. He describes himself as a hopeless optimist, and in the presence of this charismatic man, one of the longest held political prisoners in the world, it's impossible to be otherwise.

His parole hearing is coming up again in June 2014. It's time to end this horrendous injustice and free Jalil Muntaqim. It's heartening that ex-Black Panther Marshall "Eddie" Conway was released from prison this month, after almost 44 years behind bars. He too was accused of killing a police officer under COINTELPRO. It's imperative to keep the pressure on and free all American political prisoners.

For more information about Jalil, including his blog, got to

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