Photo credit: SundiataAcoli.org
By Kofi Taharka-Special to Black Guerrilla Media (BGM)
I woke up at 5:00am on a summer morning July 2019 in Washington, D.C. preparing for a trip which was 25 years in the making. I stepped outside in the dark to cool and refreshing air, especially compared to the heat and humidity I just left in Texas. During the 2 hour drive up to the Allegheny Mountains of western Maryland, many thoughts and considerations raced through my mind. My life- long confidant and driver was the perfect person to share this trip with because throughout our lives we have experienced many important milestones together. About a week earlier I told him, “I need you for some soldier work,” he immediately agreed. Our ride through this beautiful area was filled with discussion, mainly me explaining the importance of the person that I was going see and the overall context of why it was so meaningful. One road sign read “Be aware of Bear and Deer”. Coming from a primarily flat part of Texas, the lush green rolling hills and picturesque valleys were inviting, I even joked to my brother to leave me out there so I could take in what nature had to offer.
After a brief stop for directions, we went down a winding road , nestled in a small valley with mountains jetting up in the rear we had arrived at our destination. I felt strong, confident, and determined. After emptying everything out of my pockets, leaving my belongings in the car I got out taking note of the large fences, razor wire, and the natural environment surrounding this edifice. I walked in the doors of the Federal Correctional Institute in Cumberland, Maryland. Three guards were sitting behind a desk waiting for my arrival. They took my I.D., sent me through a metal detector, and stamped my hand with an invisible fluorescent substance. Then a guard walked me through a corridor outside to the interior of the prison up a sidewalk to another building, seating me in a room with two chairs, a table, and a television monitor. While walking the guard told me the prison was on lockdown because of some problems. Now inside I could see the well-manicured grass, fences, razor wire up close. The room was extremely cold, however my focus on this meeting outweighed anything else in the environment.
After a few minutes, a man walked in by himself in a beige colored khaki prison uniform, no handcuffs or guards, carrying a large postal envelope with a handwritten inscription which read “Legal Correspondence.” I was a little surprised because I didn’t see where he came from, almost like he just appeared out of nowhere. I rose from my seat and grabbed his hand, we bumped shoulders in a brief embrace. I said “Brother Sundiata ”, the fairly small framed 82-year-old returned the greeting. He is Sundiata Acoli, government name Clark Squire a former member of the legendary Black Panther Party (BPP) and Black Liberation Army (BLA) of the 1960’s and 1970’s. We sat down and began to talk. He giggled a little and said, “Well Brother Kofi, it is good to finally meet you person.” He asked about some other anticipated visitors who were unable to make the trip. Going in I didn’t know if he would have any forewarning of my visit or not, but he did have prior notification. Our voices seemed to bounce off the walls as if we were in a soundproof booth. The visit had come to fruition based on a request made to Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee of the 18th Congressional District in Houston, Texas.
During our conversation I asked questions, he then gave extended answers. Sundiata articulated his upbringing in the small towns of Decatur and Vernon, Texas, his family life and experiences, and his educational experience at Prairie View A&M University, graduating in 1956 with a degree in mathematics. He explained working at NASA, on some occasions interacting with astronauts. He told me about going to New York City exploring different activist circles. In 1964 after the murder of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in Neshoba County, Mississippi he said he felt the need to up his commitment to changing society. He stated the news media was reporting that the murders would scare people away from participating in the Freedom Summer and going to Mississippi to register African-Americans to vote. He wasn’t afraid, so he paid for his own travel and went and worked on the project.
While we didn’t discuss any of his work in the BPP or BLA, it is important to understand the context of the era that ultimately placed Sundiata in his current situation as a Political Prisoner. Sundiata increased his commitment to structural change in this society by joining the Black Panther Party Harlem New York Chapter in 1968. He spent 24 months incarcerated from 1969 to 1971 as a co-defendant in the Panther 21 case. All 21 Panthers were acquitted of the charges set against them. Due to intense harassment, surveillance, and provocation by the FBI he was driven underground.
In 1973, Sundiata Acoli, Assata Shakur and Zayd Malik Shakur of the BPP/BLA encountered the New Jersey State police during a traffic stop. A confrontation took place, when the smoke cleared Zayd Malik Shakur was dead, Assata Shakur was shot, a New Jersey State Trooper was dead, another New Jersey State Trooper was wounded and Sundiata Acoli was captured a few days later. In 1974 Sundiata and in 1977 Assata were convicted of the murder of the State Trooper Werner Foerster. In 1979 Assata Shakur was liberated from prison and later received political asylum in Cuba. In the last few years the FBI has placed her on the 10 Most Wanted Terrorist List and a 2-million-dollar bounty is being offered for information leading to her capture. It may be hard for those who did not live through it or are unaware of history to fathom the political environment of repression that took place against Black activist/organizations across a wide spectrum of ideologies critical of the U.S. government treatment of Black, Brown and poor people. Targets of these efforts ranged from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to the Black Panther Party and many others. The government program entitled Counter-Intelligence Program or COINTELPRO for short was designed to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize”… “prevent the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement”. Various methods were used to accomplish the stated goals from assassination to marginalizing of organization leadership. Off-shoots of COINTELPRO such as “New Kill” and “Chesrob” were also initiated.
While political activist, organizers of the period were aware of government surveillance of their activities, it is generally accepted that most were not fully apprised of the depth of the actions being taken against them. It would be later that more information would be revealed about government efforts to silence its critics. The BPP was identified by the FBI as a major threat. Subsequently, the organization across the country was attacked by local police forces in conjunction with federal agencies. This 1960’s early 1970’s era is often presented as a 1 second MLK sound bite of “I have a dream.” In fact, its scope produced much more than a few single charismatic leaders. Put plainly the government of the United States sought to destroy any dissenting organization and its leadership by any means necessary. These facts are not up for debate, the records from the agencies themselves document the intent. I suggest we all study them to get a fuller understanding of what is happening in 2019. See the Church Committee Report 1975 for additional information on government intelligence programs against dissent. We can see potentially a COINTELPRO 2.0 version taking place with the FBI designation “Black Identity Extremist” label placed on some formations.
Back to my visit with Sundiata, he explained his multiple frustrations with the parole process over the years. His hopes having been dashed several times over these plus four decades. At 82 years old, with a good record over several decades no other reason could explain his denial of parole other than his political beliefs. With no clock in the room, we had to estimate whether we were closing in our allotted time for the visit. After two and a half hours of non-stop talking, we summarized our visit, I assured him I would continue to write and bring his greetings to those on the outside. We embraced shoulder to shoulder as we had in the beginning, he gave me that kinda half grin laugh as he walked away. The guard stationed outside of the visitation room walked me back through the process in reverse to exit. The place was as quiet as a church mouse. I stepped back outside in the parking lot area and waited for my ride to pick me up. During that forty-five-minute wait, I was standing out in the middle of nowhere, watching prison staff exit and enter. While I am no stranger to visiting prisons, this set up seemed a little different from my experiences. It appears that the prison was dropped down in the mountain depending on the angle which you are looking at it from. So, on the one hand it is beautiful scenery on the other hand it is a prison. My ride came, I felt like I had fulfilled a major unspoken life commitment to meet Sundiata in person. His profile walking away back into confinement was forever etched in my mind.
In the early 1990’s being a part of the National Black United Front (NBUF), I became better educated on the existence of political prisoners (PP) and prisoners of war (POW’s). Our chapter began to support efforts such as letter writing campaigns sponsored by groups whose sole purpose was freeing PP and POW’s. We made a special connection and commitment to stay in contact with Sundiata Acoli. I remember once being at a national meeting and in the room were representatives from various diverse movement formations were present. These people represented in total hundreds of years of dedication to liberation work and close to a hundred years of incarceration based on their political beliefs. As a young observer I thought “Damn, this is not a book, not a movie, not a documentary, these are real people, this is not a game or something to be romanticized, they really believe in the cause of liberation for African people.” In twenty – five years of correspondence with Sundiata we have developed a friendship, a bond. Through the ups and downs of my life, I’ve done my best to honor our commitment of support to him. Often when faced with challenges I use him for comparative inspiration to help me push through. He has been a source of wise counsel on a host of situations. Even though I just met him in person, I’ve known him for a long time.
It is our obligation not to allow a historical disconnect to widen between younger generations and our political prisoners and prisoners of war. There are other PP’s and POW’s that need support. You can find them through organizations such as the Jericho Movement (www.thejerichomovement.com), the Malcolm X Commemoration Committee (mxcc519.org) and the Black August Organizing Committee. By looking into these groups, we can learn about the most up-to-date information. The groups can also give direction on how to best help PP’s, POW’s and their families. Organizations must make it a part of their program to teach on this most important area of our movement. The hour is late in this arena sisters and brothers. A friend of mine told me in discussing the 1960’s and 1970’s “It is almost a by-gone era brother.” Over these 25 plus years I have the good fortune to see a few of our Political Prisoners and Prisoners of War released from prison. I went from seeing them on posters or websites to meeting them in person. Conversely, several of them have joined the realm of the ancestors while still locked down. Many are reaching their latter years; I am not aware of any successful movement that leaves its soldiers on the battlefield. This is an actionable item in the push for social justice and resurgence of the demand for reparations.
(Kofi Taharka has the privilege, honor and responsibility of being the National Chairman of the National Black United Front (NBUF). You can follow him and NBUF on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter @Kofitaharka or contact him at 832-422-7806 or firstname.lastname@example.org)