Elmer Geronimo “Ji Jaga” Pratt, the former Black Panther Party leader died Friday of natural causes at his home in rural Tanzania at the age of 63. Once again I think of Bernice Johnson Reagon’s song “They Are Falling All Around Me.”
A victim of the FBI’s COINTELPRO campaign targetting leadership of the Black movement in the late 60s and 70s, Geronimo spent twenty-seven years in prison on a trumped-up murder charge that was ultimately overturned. Wiretap evidence that would have exonerated Geronimo was lost or destroyed by the FBI and police. Only in the last years of his appeal was it disclosed that a key prosecution witness had been an ex-felon and police informant. After his release a federal judge approved a $4.5 million settlement in Geronimo’s false-imprisonment and civil rights lawsuit.
His friend and lawyer Stuart Hanlon writes: “What happened to him is the horror story of the United States. This became a microcosm of when the government decides what’s politically right or wrong. The COINTELPRO program was awful. He became a symbol for what they did.”
Scanlon says: “He had Southern, rural roots, hardworking parents who sent all of their kids to college. He goes to the military, fights and is a decorated soldier in Vietnam, comes back, becomes a football star in college. That would be an American hero. It was different because he was black and he became a Panther and then the road went the wrong way.”
After release Geronimo divided his time between Louisiana and a small Tanzanian village, Impaseni. Asked why Geronimo chose to settle in Africa, Hanlon says, “I think he felt he had tasted the worst America could give and it wasn’t very good.”
I met Geronimo in 1999 when my friend Melody Ermachild brought him to a Berkeley video studio. In his years at San Quentin, Geronimo knew our good friend Jarvis Masters, whose book Finding Freedom had just been released. Geronimo was not going to be able to attend a book release event we had planned, but agreed to videotape a greeting and a reading of Jarvis’s searing piece “Scars,” about how so many prisoners care the very real scars of violence and abuse across generations.
It was moving to hear Geronimo read, and just to be in the formidable presence — and “present” is the right word — of a man still sane, whole, and generous after all the injustice he had endured.
A year or so later, I met him again in the streets of Berkeley, after a poetry reading in support of political prisoner Marilyn Buck. (I don’t know if I have already written about this, but until her death Marilyn had been the lynchpin of our meditation group at the Federal Prison in Dublin, CA. She and I spoke often and shared a birthday, the same day and year. But all of that is for another time.
Anyhow I caught up with Geronimo as he was going to his car. He remembered me slightly and asked how Jarvis was doing. I filled him in on some news, and asked how he was. He said, “I am moving to Africa this month.” I could understand why.
Geronimo is not so much the symbol of Black resistance to injustice. He was a man who lived with that reality day after day, year after year. A man. Still whole and honorable. This is as much as one might wish for any woman or man. Wholeness…and peace.
— Alan Senauke