Geronimo Is Free!

Black revolutionary released after 27 years of unjust imprisonment

Revolutionary Worker #912, June 22, 1997

"Free! Free! Free! Free!" The words bounced off the walls in the packed courthouse hallway. A minute before, a judge inside a Santa Ana, California courtroom announced, "Bail will be set at $25,000." Geronimo ji Jaga Pratt, revolutionary political prisoner, was an hour from freedom. The courtroom, packed with 150 supporters and press, erupted in applause. All the court employees were smiling and looking at Geronimo. Outside in the hallway on the ninth floor, the people shouted and danced, laughed and cried. When the courtroom doors were opened, a young Black journalist rushed out pumping both fists in the air. An older white man came out wiping tears from his eyes. Mollie Bell, a community activist straight outta Compton, reminded people later, "The day we found out we were free it was Juneteenth. Today is June tenth. Today will go down in history. Write it down in your book, put it in your memoirs...."

June tenth, 1997. Almost 27 years after he was arrested, framed up and railroaded for murder, sentenced to life in prison, locked down in the hole for eight years, denied parole 16 times, gassed, beaten and lied on, Geronimo ji Jaga Pratt was about to walk into the sun. He had been targeted for "neutralization" by the government's COINTELPRO program for being a revolutionary, a leader of the Black Panther Party. A conspiracy of lies involving the FBI, the LAPD, the L.A. District Attorney's office had railroaded him to jail for life. And the cold disregard for the truth in court after court--where judges had confronted the mountain of evidence proving Geronimo's innocence and turned down appeal after appeal--had kept him there for 27 years.

Now the people who had fought so tenaciously for Geronimo's freedom were vindicated. And it was sweet.

Amid shouts of "Freedom!" and "Yea Geronimo!" Ginny Pratt walked out of the courtroom. Geronimo's older sister, she had attended every court hearing and spoken out for her brother. "I feel wonderful! I feel like I'm going to shout and cry!," she told the RW. Jeanne Hamilton said, "It's a great relief. I knew this day was going to come. I wish it hadn't taken so long, but I'm glad it came today." Hamilton was one of the jurors who voted to convict Geronimo but worked to free him when she learned the truth about the frame-up. Roland Freeman, who was with Geronimo in the Black Panther Party, said, "You just never can give up. It's not the system that's giving out the justice, it's the people who don't give up."

The 10 a.m. hearing in the courtroom of Judge Everett W. Dickey came 12 days after the same judge threw out Geronimo's 1972 murder conviction, ruling on a mountain of evidence that the government had built their case around the testimony of police informant Julius Butler, and then kept that and other crucial evidence from the defense.

And the people in the courtroom were thinking about those years of injustices against Geronimo, thinking about the future, about freeing all political prisoners, about a new high point in the struggle, about justice, liberation, revolution. Rev. Robinson Gaither of Faith United Methodist Church, which opened its doors for weekly meetings of the International Committee to Free Geronimo Pratt, told the RW, "He's a real symbol of the struggle of the '60s, an image of a strong Black man standing up for his rights, one who gives the example of how you can challenge the system and not back down, persevere against the system, and at the end get the victory. I hate to say it, and I hate to stereotype it, but law in America is one rule for Black people, one rule for white people. Geronimo is an example of that, the COINTELPRO program and how it was used to bring havoc on grassroots Black leadership that was making a difference. So he's an example in many ways for those of us who are warriors, soldiers and grassroots people."

Gaither was one of many ministers who came to the hearing for Geronimo--where the diverse crowd testified to the broad support for this revolutionary brother. Among the clergy who attended were three representatives of the First AME Church, the largest Black church in L.A. It was impossible to see them there and not recall the bitter irony that Julius Butler, the police snitch who helped to frame Geronimo, was a deacon at First AME--until he was finally forced to resign the afternoon of June tenth. People at the church told the L.A. Times that Julius Butler's presence had cause increased tensions in a congregation with a long history of supporting civil rights.

Geronimo's wife, Ashaki Pratt, their two children and many nephews and nieces were there. Many of those who stood and cheered were too young to hear about Geronimo when he was sentenced to prison. But they had followed his case keenly, impressed by his spirit and his example. This was especially true of the young people who live with the reality of police brutality in the barrios and ghettos of the U.S. A youth from East L.A. told the RW, "I'd like to see Geronimo get out of jail because I know what he stood for, and that he's innocent. You see how the system is, if someone is fighting for poor people's rights, they lock you up. I can understand because they're still doing it now. They're still locking up a lot of brothers for things that they probably didn't even do, or for petty things with that `three strikes' law."

"The spirit of the people is greater than the man's technology," Kamal Hassan of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement told the RW. "Geronimo is living proof of that. His spirit, his unwillingness to compromise his principles and his values, and his unwavering reliance on his supporters and his belief in himself and the truth of what he knew about his life was greater than the lies they told, was greater than solitary confinement, greater than [Prosecutor] Richard Kalustian, greater than the FBI, the LAPD, the District Attorney's office: All of those things fell away because Geronimo showed us how to stand firm under all kinds of injustice and stand for right no matter what."

Some at the courthouse had only heard about the case recently, as the movement grew in strength. Others were with Geronimo when he was a young revolutionary, a leader of the Black Panther Party in Los Angeles. Ronald Freeman said, "A lot of people refer to us as `former' Panthers, but what we believe in still exists, like when Malcolm talked about it, when Marcus Garvey talked about it, when they talked about it in the 1800s. It's still the same situation."

A Black legal worker from L.A. described the scene inside the courtroom as Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr. and Stuart Hanlon, Geronimo's chief lawyers, argued for bail. "I think that it was nothing like anybody there had ever experienced before. You had a lot of people of all different racial backgrounds, economic backgrounds, ages, different nationalities, all sitting in that room, bound together by a common feeling, a feeling that something that had been done wrong was about to be undone."

An 18-year-old Latino from Santa Ana was in the courthouse for jury duty, and joined the vigil in the hallway. He said, "He represents like a change in time, where we're moving on to something better where everybody is becoming more knowledgable about what is going on and the government's getting caught. We're catching them and we're starting to punish them and get what we deserve back. He's an expression of power, of people. The power that we could have to suffer for 27 years and be locked up for something he didn't commit. It shows me how the government just screws everyone. People are getting more organized, and coming together and making a difference."

Before the hearing, a 24-year-old Black man told the RW, "I'm part of the hip-hop culture and we see how brother Geronimo has been standing strong for 26, 27 years. And we know that the struggle is still alive and the struggle continues. So we not backing down one bit. As a matter of fact we're coming stronger. A little harder, and we're going to see what happens from here. We coming with a lot more wisdom, a lot more understanding because we're drawing from the past. So when we can draw from the past, we know we going to persevere in the future. We're going to come with the revolutionary spirit that Geronimo had when he was unjustly incarcerated."

At a short press conference following the hearing, Stuart Hanlon, who began working on Geronimo's case 24 years ago when he was a law student, answered a reporter's question: "People have said, `Does this justify the legal system?' The answer is `No!' The legal system that kept him in jail for 27 years for something he didn't do cannot be justified by one judge having the guts to do the right thing."

And as people waited for Geronimo to appear, there was awareness that the fight was not over. Just days before the June 10 hearing, L.A. District Attorney Gil Garcetti had announced his decision to appeal Dickey's decision throwing out Geronimo's conviction. So it would be necessary in the weeks and months to come to see to it that Geronimo is finally free. But today it was necessary to celebrate.


The Orange County Jail is two blocks from the courthouse in downtown Santa Ana. Laughing and shouting, groups of supporters waited to greet Geronimo. A group of Mexican immigrants who were hanging by a hot dog cart asked where everybody was going and joined in. One older campesino from Michoacán kept repeating "Veinte y siete años." Twenty-seven years. A group of Native American drummers set up outside the door and the rhythms began: "Freedom, freedom." With them was the prominent activist Dennis Banks. Sister Samoyah, one of the original L.A. Panthers and one of the L.A. Panthers arrested in a shoot-out with police in 1969, sang a song she had written for Geronimo. There were members of R&R! in the house. Many of Geronimo's relatives were there, as they had been for a lot of the court hearings in the last year-and-a-half. A red banner from the RCP was taped to the fence: "Viva Geronimo Pratt, A great victory for the people, Una gran victoria para el pueblo." Two young Latinos drove the ten miles from La Habra as soon as they heard the news on TV. Before they joined the celebration, one of them told the RW, "It's a big, big accomplishment for everybody. Because not just one man benefits from this. Everybody benefits from it. It opens eyes for everybody. You don't really get to know people. Usually you have the Latinos in one place, the Blacks in another place, the whites and Asians in another. This right here brings everybody together."

Geronimo ji Jaga Pratt strode out of the jail at 12:40 p.m. He held his head high. He was smiling, nearly crushed by reporters, friends and relatives. For 27 years he had been standing for the truth, and it gave strength and confidence to everything he did. He smiled a huge smile and wiped his forehead in the afternoon heat as he spoke to reporters. The drummers continued next to him.

"I want to express my love and thanks to my Native brothers for coming with the drums," he said. "My Native blood runs strong. I always give praise and thanks to our Native brothers. Free Leonard Peltier. I'm overwhelmed with all the love and support." When he was asked, "Why do you think after all this time that you are finally free?" he replied, "I attribute it to the power of the people. The fact that we continued the struggle, that we would never relent." He went on to expose COINTELPRO, and talk about the political prisoners who are still in the dungeons of the U.S., including Mumia Abu-Jamal. And he spoke of visiting his mother, who is 93, and hasn't been able to visit him in prison for years. "I want to see my mother. Every time I've left home, I've always gone back. I'm a mama's boy."

It was Geronimo Pratt Day in Los Angeles. Celebrators gathered at Leimert Park in the Crenshaw district for an hour-long rally. A Black woman stood on the corner of Crenshaw and Vernon Avenue, waving a large red, green and black flag, shouting over and over "Free all political prisoners! All power to the people!" A man next to her held a small sign, "Honk 4 Geronimo ji Jaga Pratt," and the steady honking from cars and city buses sounded at times like one long blast, punctuated by the cry, "Freedom!"

Geronimo spent his first day giving interviews, talking about freeing political prisoners and revolutionaries. He told one reporter he plans to visit Mumia Abu-Jamal. That evening he came to a celebration at Faith United Methodist Church. Rev. Robinson Gaither kicked off the meeting before Geronimo's arrival, saying, "This is a great day. Tonight's gathering is for us grassroots folk, who kept it alive, who kept the struggle alive." Almost 200 people packed the church. Kathleen Cleaver, the only Panther to testify for Geronimo at his original trial, and now a lawyer who worked on his case, was there. So was Rodney King, and Rev. James McCloskey of Centurion Ministries whose mission to free innocent prisoners drew him to Geronimo's defense in 1995.

Vi Redd played the saxophone, "As the Saints Go Marching In," as Geronimo walked into the church as the church erupted in cries of "Geronimo." Geronimo gave a long hug to Georgiana Williams, who became active following the L.A. Rebellion in the struggle to free the LA4+. Her son, Damian Williams, is still in prison for participating in the rebellion. As the program continued, standing ovations greeted those who had worked for years and years on the campaign to free Geronimo. Stuart Hanlon said, "This is the greatest day we've ever had. It's a day for Geronimo to taste freedom, and it's a day for all of us who have put in all these years. It was all worth it because we fought for Geronimo and we fought for ourselves. We're living in this world, and we know what kind of world it is. And when we get to work together and free Geronimo, and work together to free people like him, we all win." A statement was read from Mumia Abu-Jamal, and followed by shouts of "Free Mumia!" (See statement page 5.)

Geronimo came on to shouts of the battle cry of the New Afrikan liberation movement: Free the Land! He said, "People ask me for my autograph. I'm not a movie star. I'm a revolutionary!" He spoke to the roots of Black resistance in America, going back to 1527. He recalled his own life growing up in Louisiana, "I was born into the struggle," going toe-to-toe with the KKK. He recalled joining the army at the insistence of his elders. In the wake of lynchings of Blacks like Emmett Till, they wanted him to get military training to lead people in armed self-defense. "I've never been patriotic to the United States."

Most of his remarks were about the political prisoners who are still locked up. Speaking of Mumia he said, "The brother is innocent. You know that. We can't let them kill Mumia. I'm serious about that. We have to help Mumia. Mumia stopped his cab to help that brother. He did not kill that pig. Mumia is very important to us, because he has a voice, he has a brain and he has a heart."

Geronimo said, "Though I am free from prison. We are not yet free." Kamal Hassan told the crowd, "I'm glad to hear that after all these years Geronimo is not a changed man."

Geronimo slowly left the church, pausing to shake every hand that was stretched toward him. But the celebration at the church continued hours after. It seemed like nobody wanted the day to end. The last person who was interviewed by the RW was a 37-year-old Black woman, who said she "grew up in the struggle." She couldn't remember the first time she heard about Geronimo. "I feel great. I feel wonderful. It's truly a spiritual and uplifting day. It's good to see the brother free. Geronimo is what a revolutionary is. I want to see fairness. I want to see some of these brothers that's locked down free. I want to see fairness and justice."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)