Revolution#113, December 23, 2007
Interview with San Francisco 8 Defendant Richard Brown
San Francisco 8: A Case of Injustice and Torture
The Revolution Interview is a special feature to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theater, music, literature, science, sports, and politics. The views expressed by those we interview are, of course, their own, and they are not responsible for the views expressed elsewhere in Revolution.
Eight former Black Panthers were arrested January 23, 2007 and charged with murder and conspiracy related to the killing 35 years ago of a San Francisco police officer. This is not the first time these same charges have been brought against some of these defendants. Similar charges were thrown out in the 1970s after it was revealed that police used torture to extract confessions in New Orleans in 1973. It appears that the government plans to introduce the same torture-tainted evidence in 2007.
This case comes at a time when the government is openly justifying the use of torture and attacking fundamental rights. Bill Goodman, Legal Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said, “The case against these men was built on torture and serves to remind us that the U.S. government, which recently has engaged in such horrific forms of torture and abuse at places like Bagram, Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, has a history of torture and abuse in this country as well, particularly against African Americans.”
The Black Panther Party was a powerful revolutionary force in the 1960s and early 1970s. They stood up to police terror, they popularized the Red Book of Mao Tsetung, they put revolution on the political map in the U.S. in a way that had never really been done before. They drew support from millions, both among the basic masses and from more privileged sections of society. For this the government viciously attacked them, and they have never forgiven or forgotten this, attacking former Panthers as well as trying to erase their revolutionary legacy. And this is especially true in the current situation with the many crimes of the system intensifying, including importantly the oppression of Black people, and with many people of all nationalities looking to resist and seeking answers to big questions.
The case has begun to generate significant support, although much more is needed. Rappers Mos Def and Talib Kweli have appeared at programs for the SF8 that have drawn hundreds of people from the community, including many youth. Ozomatli had SF8 members introduce their four San Francisco concerts and their L.A. dates as well. Hearings for the 8 have been packed with supporters. Recently the City of Berkeley passed a resolution calling for all charges to be dropped. Two Nobel Laureates, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Mairead Corrigan Maguire, have initiated a petition signed by human rights and religious groups demanding that the charges be dropped on the SF8, that the government launch an investigation of the allegations of torture, and that Herman Bell and Jalil Muntaqim be freed immediately.
The San Francisco 8 are Richard Brown, Richard O’Neal, Ray Boudreaux, Hank Jones, Francisco Torres, Harold Taylor, Herman Bell, and Jalil Muntaqim. Bell and Muntaqim have been held as political prisoners for over 30 years in New York State prisons.
Revolution sat down with Richard Brown, one of the San Francisco 8, to talk about the case and its importance. Richard Brown has worked for the last 25 years as a community organizer with the Ella Hill Hutch Center in the Western Addition in San Francisco.
Revolution: Could you tell me about the charges against you and the other defendants who make up the San Francisco 8?
Richard Brown: We’re being charged with the 1971 Ingleside Station attack where a police sergeant by the name of John Young was murdered. Because we were Panthers we are being charged with that murder and conspiracy to murder police officers and commit certain crimes. This was brought up for the first time in the 1970s. When the case was taken to court, the three people charged, John Bowman, Ruben Scott, and Harold Taylor all stated that they were tortured and forced to confess. Because of that and the fact that they were questioned without any attorney being present in New Orleans, the court threw the so-called “admission of guilt” and the case out. In January of this year, 2007, they rearrested eight of us for the same crime and the same charges and as far as we can tell from what we’ve heard in court they plan to use the same “confessions” that were ruled illegal in the first place. If you go according to what they said in court, what they’ve presented so far, they don’t even have any new evidence. We are being recharged with the same thing again which was already stated as illegal back in the 1970s.
Since then I might add that a lot of things have changed because of the Patriot Act and Homeland Security and the environment of the country period where they feel that they can come back and use what they couldn’t use before because it’s not so clear whether [the torture] is illegal or not.
Revolution: Could you give people a picture of the torture that took place in New Orleans?
Richard Brown: Three members of the Black Panther Party—John Bowman, who was a San Francisco Panther; Ruben Scott, who was a San Francisco Panther; and Harold Taylor, who was a Panther from Los Angeles—were arrested in New Orleans in 1973. Actually they arrested 13 Panthers. They were separated and for days they were tortured. They were stripped naked, handcuffed, isolated, repeatedly beaten, denied sleep, food, and all that type of stuff. They were beaten around the stomach and back. They used slapjacks on their shins and legs, where torturers are trained to beat people so the wounds don’t show. They used what is called waterboarding now. Technically what they were using were hot and wet blankets. Also plastic bags were placed over their heads until the point where they would pass out. They used electrical cattle prods to their private parts and to their anus. Their treatment was so inhumane it’s hard to even describe, let alone endure. And my friends who had to endure this, I see how this has affected them. How they look when they describe it. It’s horrifying and it’s hard for me to even talk about it, honestly and truly. It’s horrible for human beings to treat someone else like that for days.
They tortured them like that for three or four days.
Revolution: There were two San Francisco police who participated in the torture in New Orleans. What’s their role?
Richard Brown: Ed Erdelatz and Frank McCoy were San Francisco homicide detectives and had run-ins with the Panthers long before the Ingleside case. In 1973, they were in New Orleans. Their part was that they never actually touched them. They would come into the room along with the detectives from New York, Los Angeles, and the FBI. They would come in and ask questions and if the questions weren’t answered to their satisfaction they would leave the room and the New Orleans Police Department would come in and they would start the torture. Actually the torture started before the questioning even started. They arrested them, took them in, stripped them, isolated them and just started beating them. They just enjoyed torture. They would do a job on them and then leave and tell them ‘we’ll be back.’ Then the detectives would come in and start asking questions. First they would try and tell the detectives that they were being tortured and then the detectives would get up and walk out of the room and the New Orleans police would come in. This went on for days. They would keep them up at night, not allow them to sleep. Wake them up every hour or so. Throw water-soaked blankets on them, scalding hot water so they couldn’t breathe. This is the treatment that they had to endure for days.
Ed Erdelatz and Frank McCoy were the ones who in 2005 came knocking on people’s doors during the grand jury investigation asking, ‘Do you remember me?’ and giving us subpoenas to appear before a grand jury. They were brought out of retirement and deputized by Homeland Security in order to do these cold case things [opening previously closed cases involving the Black Panther Party—Revolution] that were going on nationwide.
Revolution: What happened with the grand jury investigation?
Richard Brown: When they first came and wanted to talk to us we were told that they wanted to question us about white people that we knew. But once they started asking questions it was clear that they were interested in Black people’s role in the Ingleside attack. They had made up their minds already that the Panthers had to be responsible for this. It was a situation where they were trying to make the evidence fit the theory, and they’ve been trying to do that ever since then.
In 2005 we all refused to testify before the grand jury. Five of us were held in contempt of court: Hank Jones, Ray Boudreaux, Harold Taylor, John Bowman (now deceased) and myself. We were held in contempt of court and locked up until the Grand Jury expired. We were released on October 31, 2005.
Revolution: How long were you locked up for?
Richard Brown: I was locked up for about a month. People were locked up at different times depending on when we were called in front of the grand jury for questioning. I think Hank Jones was first and he was in the longest. John Bowman was the last and he was only locked up for eight or nine days. I think Hank did something like two and a half months. We weren’t guilty of any crime. We were just standing on the fifth amendment and because of that I was taken away from my family, locked up. I was transferred all around. Nobody actually knew where I was, including my attorney. It would take days for them to find me and then when they did find me, I’d be transferred to another place. They just messed with us as usual to put pressure on us or to just be vindictive, whatever motive people like that have, that’s what they were doing. I’m sure they always have some motive in their twisted mind about why they torture people or why they lie about people or why they kill people, why they lock people up for life knowing that they are innocent. They can obviously justify that shit in their mind because they do it and they’re still here and they continue to do it. I find it difficult to see and understand though.
Revolution: Could you speak a little more about why you decided not to cooperate with the grand jury?
Richard Brown: First of all because they’re trying to convict me of something that I am innocent of. The grand jury is trying to go along with this story that was concocted in New Orleans by the conglomerate of agencies that were there, putting together a case involving torture that was targeting me and saying that I was a part of it. And now you ask me to go before a grand jury and participate and say something so that it can be used against me. I know that as a Black man in America and as a Panther I have not been treated fairly by the judicial system in the courts. Every time I have gone to court I have never seen justice, so why would I? And we’re talking about a murder, a homicide, and they want me to cooperate with them? And I know from the facts that all this is bullshit; they are trying to convict me of something that I am not guilty of.
Even if you could get past all that, these same people, Ed Erdelatz and Frank McCoy, the police departments, and the FBI and the rest of them tortured my friends. It’s pitiful. I truly will never get over that, what they’ve done to my friends. I will never, ever cooperate with people like that. I will have no respect for them. I don’t like them. I think they should be arrested and held accountable for the crimes that they committed back then. Until that happens they can forget about me even having a decent word to say to them. I don’t want to have nothing to do with them and I’m sure the rest of the people share that. I will never cooperate with them, I didn’t then and I never will.
The things that were done to the Black Panther Party by the Cointelpro and by the local police departments all across the country and the way I was treated every time I went to court, I have nothing but disdain for them. Even if there was something to cooperate about they couldn’t get it from me.
Revolution: You started talking about Cointelpro and we were talking about it a little earlier. A big part of the background to this case is Cointelpro, the Counterintelligence Program by the FBI that targeted the Black Panther Party. Could you speak to what Cointelpro was and what it did, both any personal experience you have as well as its overall role?
Richard Brown: What they did overall was destroy the Black Panther Party as it was. Their job as the Counterintelligence Program was to destroy the movement period, all of the progressive political movements that were going on at that time. If I’m not mistaken at that time [FBI Director J. Edgar] Hoover declared the Black Panther Party the greatest threat to the nation’s internal security. And we in the Panthers, even at the time he was saying that, had no idea, I actually don’t even remember him saying that. I was too busy as a Panther trying to do something to serve my community. I was a young Black man in a community of Black people. And Black people at that time were in a world of trouble—actually today we still are. We had nothing in the world going for us. The government didn’t represent us at all. They weren’t doing anything for us. The only thing we saw every day was repression from the police department as an occupying force in our community, trying to keep us in line or intimidate us from doing anything against the other parts of society. We were the lowest on the totem pole. We didn’t have decent housing, we didn’t have decent food, we didn’t have decent schools, we didn’t have decent jobs—we had no jobs. So when the Black Panther Party came along and said we can do all this stuff for ourselves, people like me and hundreds of other young people joined the Party in order to serve the Black community and to help the people. We were interested in feeding children, getting people to organize, to unify, to bring about the vote so that we could control the politicians in our community, to putting together schools for our children, clinics—all of the things that the government had failed to do for us we were willing to do for ourselves and we were beginning to do that.
For this the counterintelligence program deemed us the number one threat in the United States and focused on us with an intensity that I to this very day find astonishing. I didn’t believe it at all back then. None of us believed that the FBI and the Counterintelligence Program and all of these agencies were spending all this money, going through all these tricks, doing everything they could to undermine our efforts to help our people—framing us, using up all our resources by taking us to jail every other day, falsifying documents and evidence to send people to jail for life to get rid of them and destroy our leadership, torture and even murder. It has been proven that they were guilty of all of that. We honestly did not know that they would do something like this, that they were doing it. I’m still finding out things that the Cointelpro did today.
In the 1970s the Senate’s Church Committee investigation found that the Counterintelligence Program was illegal and unconstitutional. A couple of agents were even found guilty of some charge but they never did any time because their sentence was commuted by the president. He decided that we should forgive and forget. But here I am, almost 40 years later, not forgiven and forgotten—and I’m not even guilty! These people were guilty of those crimes.
Revolution: This case goes back more than 35 years. Why do you think they are bringing it back now?
Richard Brown: Number one, they want to legalize torture. They felt this would work for them because we are all Black people and it’s easier to find Black people guilty than it is to find white people or anyone else guilty. It’s a ready-made case for them. They thought they would be able to turn the public against us because a police officer lost his life, especially with eight Black men accused. They want to see if this case will fly because of the new laws and the doing away with of certain constitutional rights that we used to have. They call it ‘relaxation,’ that they’ve temporarily taken them, but we don’t have them any more. They feel that if they can do it with us and get away with it then they can push it forward and take it nationwide to anyone and everyone who is opposing and will oppose them because of the direction that this country is going in. They are alienating all of the masses and they have to find some way to keep them in line and intimidate people so that they know that “if you go against us we ain’t going to never let it go. We’ll come back at you time and time again. You will suffer. So you better think twice.”
Revolution: Two of your co-defendant,s Herman Bell and Jalil Muntaqim, have been in jail for the last 30 years. I know you wanted to speak about their situation.
Richard Brown: Them and all political prisoners who are still suffering behind the Counterintelligence Program or Cointelpro. It has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that people were framed, that evidence was manufactured, that people were paid to lie, they withheld evidence that could prove people was innocent. The case of Geronimo ji Jaga who was framed and did 27 years before the government was forced to admit that they knew he didn’t do it. They withheld the evidence that could prove that he was somewhere else when the crime was committed. These types of things are what I would really like America to understand and take a good hard look at. Not only does it affect us, Black people at this particular time—and most of the political prisoners though not all are Black. But I would like all of the political prisoners’ cases to be reopened. I would like everyone who was touched by the counterintelligence program in any way, for their cases to be revisited and for something to be done in order to remedy the situation.
You have people still to this day like Herman and Jalil who are locked up only because of the participation of the Counterintelligence Program and how they went about conducting their business over the years.
I was framed, just blatantly framed, given a case. At the time I was raising nine children in the same house. And they took me away from my family for over two and one half years behind that crap. I still say I was fortunate because I didn’t have to stay in for 27 years or 35 years like some of my other comrades who are still locked up today. And I could have been in prison much longer if it hadn’t been for the attorneys who were able to legally get me out and prove that I was innocent.
This has to change. We have to do something. We have hundreds and hundreds of people all over this nation who are locked up in prison and who it appears have no chance of ever coming home because of the Counterintelligence Program and what it did to them. The masses are not in charge of when they come home or don’t come home. This fascist government is still saying we deem these people a threat just like they deemed me a threat for trying to feed children in the Black community. And they’re not going to release them and that is one of the biggest crimes being committed by this government.
Revolution: What gives you the strength to carry on the struggle?
Richard Brown: The love for my great-grandchildren, my grandchildren and my children, my love for the people. The fact that I’m just not the type of person who’s just going to lie down and take anything. You hit me, I hit back. I believe in people. That’s another thing that the Party taught me, that true power comes from the people. I love the masses. I actually love America and I love the American people. There’s a difference now. I’m not talking about the American so-called government. The so-called President and his administration, if you go by the definition of what a president is, he doesn’t fit that. He fits more of the definition of a dictator and therefore he’s in charge of a regime. It has nothing to do with the American people. I believe that the majority of the American people are decent people who believe in freedom, justice and equality for all, who truly want this to be “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” It is not that but it can be that, and I have faith that it will be if we continue to try and bring forth the contradiction, which is what I’m doing and educate people to get them to understand the true picture of what’s going on so that things will be better not just for my grandchildren and great-grandchildren but for everybody’s children.
I can’t stop. If the people understand and take control like they can, they can turn this around and they will. As long as I can be effective and as long as I can try to continue to do that, I’m going to be working toward that. I guess I’m doing this out of love for the people and love for peace and freedom. And until we get it I’m going to continue to fight.
Revolution: Anything else that you want to add?
Richard Brown: Again, political prisoners and prisoners of war. Honestly and truly I want people to understand and take a good look at that. We started the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights, that’s what the SF8 has started. And out of this we want to reopen an investigation of the Counterintelligence Program. It’s kind of silly to think that the government is taking freedom and constitutional rights away from us and we’re talking about investigating an agency that did the same thing that the government is doing now. It’s in order to get the people of the United States to understand what’s truly going on and until we paint a clear picture of what happened and what is happening now political prisoners don’t have a chance of coming home. We not only want them to come home, we want people who are guilty of these crimes against them and against all of us to be held accountable.
Honestly and truly when I think of Jalil and Herman and other political prisoners I feel real, real, real bad. I feel like I’m not doing enough. You asked me what keeps me going. The love that I have for those brothers, who gave so much because of their love of the people, and who’re suffering like they are. And I want to stop that.
To follow developments in the case of the San Francisco 8 see their website: www.freethesf8.org
If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.