I had the pleasure of talking with Geronimo Ji Jaga. He provided some crucial insights and helped me to realize some stuff about racism, alliances, and capitalism.
For those whose RSS feeds don’t include radical websites, Geronimo Ji Jaga was the Los Angeles Black Panther Party field marshal, and he died yesterday. He had fought in Vietnam and shared his insight on urban guerrilla struggles with other L.A. panthers. His role in terms of clarity of cause for the Panthers comes through in quite a few memoirs.
David Hilliard gives Ji Jaga the space to tell his own story in a lengthy first-person quote in his book This side of glory. Here is an excerpt of Ji Jaga describing his changing awareness.
I stay until ’67. I’m a sergeant now. After a few months at home base in Carolina, the riots jump off in Detroit and we’re sent there. The next thing I know I’m standing next to Lyndon Baines Johnson at Fort Bragg — I want to say something to him but he doesn’t shake my hand. Then I’m on my way back to Vietnam going to Hue to retake the city. We get there and the dead are everywhere. They give us a parade down the streets. It was like something out of a movie. Thousands of people. A weird feeling, just coming from the situation in Detroit. But I survive all that and now I’m a sergeant, making money, sending it home to Mama, got a girlfriend, got another woman, got a trailer I won shooting dice, got it made in the service, and it’s April fourth, 1968, and I’m about thirty miles south of Hue and I’m on the bunker and on the radio I hear Martin Luther King is assassinated. Everything got quiet. I will never forget that feeling — standing on top of that bunker, looking over the country and feeling as though I missed my calling, and within a month I’m out of the service (Hilliard and Cole, 217)
Here is Geronimo describing the moment of his arrest, four days after the police murder of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in Chicago.
The police had made a dry run at the end of November,” Remembers G., ” during a regular community night, at which you had parents and people in the community coming to the library and stuff. They went through terrorist tactics for fifteen minutes and then it was over. Then we got the word that they were hitting hus on December 7. So I stayed there. Had everything prepared, sandbags at the location, weapons and stuff laid out. And they didn’t come.
Instead they came the next night.
At that time I had been up like two and a half nights: Fred Hampton had been very close to me.
I figured they would hit the central office on Central Avenue. Around three-thirty that morning the other Panthers said to me, “Brother you got to get some rest.” It was looking like they might not do it. We were hoping our information was wrong.
So I say, “Okay.”
We have a bunch of different houses. I got to Fifty-fifth — a community center — and I just fell out, sleeping on the floor like I always do becuase of Vietnam.
I’m in a deep sleep. I might have been drugged. Or it could have been from me staying up so many days and nights. I don’t even hear the first boom from the front door. Then they’re shooting everywhere. But they miss. because it’s completely dark and because I’m sleeping low.
They bust in. I see the shots. My wife, Sandra, goes “Ahh!” She throws herself half on top of me. She’s screaming and hollering at them — screaming at them the whole time. She was a very audacious woman.
I’m still trying to focus, trying to figure out whether I’m in Vietnam or here, and what the hell is this? The detectives come in. You can tell something is wrong because they look surprised to see me there still living. They swing me over to handcuff me and I see them take a gun out and put it under the bunk. To justify the shooting. Because there wasn’t a single weapon in that building. That was a community center. (Hilliard and Cole, 269-270).
Ji Jaga is being framed. Charged with a murder that he supposedly committed while he was speaking to 400 Bay Area panthers, a meeting that the FBI surveilled, and in fact knew Ji Jaga was innocent. The FBI Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) dictated that law enforcement lie to get revolutionaries off the street.
Clang. Twenty-seven years incarcerated. Eighteen months on death row. Years locked down in solitary confinement, because the FBI labeled him dangerous.
A few folks fought hard for his appeal — most notably Johnny Cochran and Stuart Hanlon. Investigations confirmed that the prosecution had hidden evidence that pointed clearly to Ji Jaga’s innocence. In 1997 his conviction was overturned. In subsequent lawsuits, he was awarded 4.5 million dollars for false imprisonment and civil rights violations.
I saw him on the speaking tour shortly after he was released. The spirit of mutual solidarity was quite strong during this time. The messages from this talk and our visit were quite clear about mutuality and the need to build bridges between movements. This is a pretty good description of his talk at the time.
Geronimo talked about his background, how he came up in rural Louisiana and how he bought his first pair of shoes by selling catfish. He described how his family organized against the lynching of Black people in the south. And he recalled how his family told him and others to go to the army, “to get some training so we could come back and further protect the community against the Klan terror and we did that.” He talked of his great faith in the ability of people to rise above the everyday struggle for survival and all the other traps the system lays out. He spoke about how the Panthers had gone to gang members and how, “they would change their gangster mentality into a revolutionary mentality.” He said that while he was in prison, “not one time was I ever disrespected by one of the Crips or Bloods” and that the youth need leadership, not contempt or cynicism. He put the blame for problems in the community like drugs and guns and “Black-on-Black violence” on the system, not the people.
That message still lives. And if you watched the 1491s video on that OTHER Geronimo, then you know that of course Geronimo Ji Jaga certainly isn’t dead.