“I lost all hope that Black people could fight without resorting to self-defense.” – Jalil Muntaqim
By Breno Altman
Attica Correctional Facility became famous for a bloody rebellion in September 1971.
The inmates took over the prison located in northwestern New York and took 42 staff members hostage. The state police, under the command of Governor Nelson Rockefeller, broke into the prison, acting ruthlessly.
When the battle ended, the dead bodies of 33 prisoners and 10 guards, as well as countless injured prisoners, littered the courtyards and the cells.
The uprising was caused by the murder of Black activist George Jackson, imprisoned in San Quentin, California, two weeks earlier. A trail of penitentiary uprisings served as a response to this prison guard brutality.
Attica also continued to be, over time, one of the main destinations for activists linked to the Black Panthers and other revolutionary organizations.
Nowadays it houses only one of these militants: Anthony Bottom, renamed Jalil Muntaqim when he converted to Islam in the early 1970s.
Announcing his name, in the identification counter, provokes tense, though soundless, laughter among the attendants. The guard that leads the reporter into the prison, however, can’t keep it to himself. “Did you come to interview the cop killer?” he gently pokes. “Be careful, the guy seems to be nice, but he’s very dangerous.”
The rest of the walk up to a wide visitors salon was covered in silence, broken only by the instructions on how the interview would work and some comments on how the prison is organized.
Muntaqim would appear two hours later. The meeting was delayed, as would be expected, due to a brief rebellion in the wing where he is serving his time.
He was dressed in a white polo shirt and a white cap, moss-green trousers. Not even the grizzly beard reveals his 64 years of age, masked by permanent physical exercise and a broad smile that pushes away the idea of suffering.
But the records are merciless: he has been incarcerated since he was 19 years old, almost half a century ago, by far longer than Mandela and other legendary sentenced leaders. The only one who beats his time in jail is Romaine “Chip” Fitzgerald, who has been living in prison since September 1969.
“When I was arrested, my girlfriend was three months pregnant and today I’m a great-grandfather,” he recalls in a cheerful way, more like an achievement than a regret.
He went through all the maximum-security state prisons, in addition to spending a few years in jail in California.
His most serious charge was the killing of two New York police officers during a shooting in May, 1971 along with Albert Washington, now deceased, and Herman Bell, also imprisoned since then.
He was sentenced to life, but with the right to request parole after 25 years.
He ended up having to wait more than 30 more years for the opportunity to this benefit, having been transferred to San Francisco due to a process that ended after nearly five years, in a deal with no time to serve.
He could have been out since 2002 but his parole application was denied eight times. Whenever a hearing for his criminal progression is scheduled, the police officers’ association mobilizes itself against it, recruiting the victims’ families and calling for support from the more conservative press, adding to the prosecution and the direction of the penitentiary system.
“The state is vindictive,” says Muntaqim. “The goal is to demonstrate that any act of rebellion in the United States will be crushed and never forgotten.”
The prosecution’s main witness, a Black Panther militant named Ruben Scott, incriminated Muntaqim and his companions after intense torture. After the first trial, that fact was revealed. Still, his testimony was revalidated and the request for a new trial was denied.
Statements of other three people, according to the defense of the accused, would also have been extracted under pressure.
A FBI ballistics report determined that the weapon with which Muntaqim was arrested in San Francisco was not the one that had was allegedly used in the killings of which he was accused. It was substituted by another report, from the NYPD, which offered an opposite conclusion, and disappeared from the court process during the appeal.
Behind the Scenes
Records currently belonging to the archives of the Richard Nixon Library, who was the U.S. president from 1968 to 1974, reveal a little bit of the backstages of that moment.
Among the audiotapes, there is a record of a meeting in the White House, five days after the murders in New York, in which the case is nicknamed NEWKILL. Amid the attendees were the director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, and the U.S. president, accompanied by national security advisers.
The president orders the federal police to solve the crime, despite its local character. Many suspect that the guidance given was to take advantage of the episode, as others in the same period, to strike the Black Panthers and lead its members to jail.
Thus began Jalil Muntaqim’s prison saga.
Born in Oakland, California, he came from a middle class family. His father was a computer programmer. His mother, a secretary, participated in the civil rights movement and had Martin Luther King Jr’s pacifism as her compass.
“My parents were followers of non-violence and criticized the more radical groups,” he recalls with humor. “The elderly were part of the Black nationalist bourgeoisie.”
This social condition allowed him to have a good education. He completed his elementary education as a grade A student, earning a scholarship to a high school very well known for its math and science curriculum.
One of his mentors was John Carlos, the 200-meter champion at the Olympic Games in Mexico City in 1968, whose picture with his fist raised, alongside his colleague Tommy Smith, would become a legendary image for the anti-racist resistance.
At eighteen, already engaged in the struggle for civil rights, he joined the San Jose State University engineering school.
He became one of the spokesmen of the Black Student Union and dedicated himself to social work in undeserved communities.
His ideas would be shaken, as those of many young people of his generation, on April 4,1968, when Luther King was victim of a deadly shooting in Memphis, Tennessee.
“I lost all hope that Black people could fight without resorting to self-defense, without responding to police’s and racist group’s violence,” he recalls. “I hadn’t yet turned 17, but I decided to enroll myself in the Black Panthers, to my mother’s dismay.”
Muntaqim would go beyond that, actually. Little more than a teenager, he agreed to join the armed wing of the organization that would later be known as the Black Liberation Army.
“Our role was to guarantee the party’s headquarters’ safety, combat drug dealers in Black neighborhoods, face the police and obtain funds through bank expropriations,” he explains, with large gestures and a paused voice, being careful with his words. “There was a war going on and we had the right to act with the same resources as our enemies”.
The times of freedom would end on Aug. 28, 1971, when he was detained for attempted murder of a police officer in San Francisco, during a confrontation typical of a period when the repression aiming the Black Panthers was being intensified.
He was arrested with Washington and Bell, the three quickly became the perfect choice for the FBI and the New York police, to be held responsible for the crime that had occurred three months earlier.
Nearly five decades went by.
Having spent more than twice of his life in prison than he spent on the streets, Muntaqim graduated in psychology and sociology, before the university education program was cut off for detainees sentenced to life.
He also wrote novels, essays and poems, some of them collected in the book “Escaping the Prism, Fade to Black,” released in August 2015.
More than anything, however, he dedicated himself to fighting for the rights of prisoners, in and out each jail he was sent to. He received numerous punishments, usually long periods of solitary confinement.
With his letters and manifestos, he soon became the main supporter of the solidarity movement towards political prisoners in North America. An appeal signed by Muntaqim led to the Jericho March in 1998, when thousands of activists protested in front of the White House against this cursed inheritance of the rebel years.
“I made an effort to build an existence in prison, keeping myself politically active in any way possible,” he says. “Prison makes you figure out your weaknesses and know better your enemy. You learn to survive through the worst situations, to be patient and determined.”
Jalil Muntaqim Part 1
Jalil Muntaqim Part 2