Review of We Are Our Own Liberators:
Select Writings by Jalil Muntaqim
by Leslie James Pickering
Jalil Muntaqim (a.k.a. Anthony Bottom) was nineteen when he was sent to prison. He’ll turn 60 this year. He’s serving two concurrent sentences of 25 years to life. Although he’s already served his minimum sentence, chances aren’t good that Jalil will ever see the streets again.
Police allege that on the night of August 27, 1971, Jalil drove a dark sedan alongside of a police car idling at a red light while his passenger, Albert “Nuh” Washington, pulled a machine gun on the sergeant behind the wheel. The gun jammed, quickly turning the ambush attempt into a midnight chase through the streets of San Francisco. Jalil sideswiped another car, sending the sedan spinning on the pavement. By the time they crawled out from the wreckage the two were surrounded by police.
It is said that the ambush was meant as retaliation for the murder of prisoner, Black Panther and best-selling author, George Jackson by San Quentin prison guards less than a week earlier.
Jalil and Nuh were arrested and connected to what the president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association called a “nationwide conspiracy against police by some maniacs.”
He was referring to the Black Liberation Army, said to be responsible for shooting and killing cops in New York, New Jersey, Georgia, Texas, Missouri and California, as well as a list of bank robberies and prison breaks.
For those skeptical of taking the cops’ word as fact, there is another side to this story.
In 1966 the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was founded to defend the local Black community in Oakland, California from brutality and murder at the hands of their Police Department. Executive Order #6 of the Rules of the Black Panther Party stated, “No party member can join any other army force other than the Black Liberation Army.”
A black underground had existed for generations, surfacing in the form of slave revolts, the Underground Railroad, armed bands defending their people from the likes of the Ku Klux Klan, and riots in America’s black ghettos.
The Black Panther Party grew from the “by any means necessary” teachings of Malcolm X, and was seen as a result of the over 400-year legacy of slavery, lynching and racism in the United States. As the Party grew to become a national organization, serving free breakfast for children, opening free health care clinics across the country and “policing the Police” in black communities being victimized by the cops, they drew numerous violent confrontations with local and federal law enforcement agencies.
In September of 1968, the F.B.I. prioritized the Black Panther Party as "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” At that time, the F.B.I. was secretly (and illegally) operating under COINTELPRO (agency speak for Counterintelligence Program), with directives from J. Edgar Hoover to “neutralize” organizations and individuals the Bureau deemed a threat. At least 27 Black Panther Party members were killed by COINTELPRO operations and scores of others were falsely imprisoned or otherwise “neutralized.” No official was ever held responsible.
When internal conflict (incited by COINTELPRO) destroyed the Black Panther Party from within, rather than being “neutralized,” a number of the more dedicated Panthers went underground with the Black Liberation Army.
“We have seen throughout our history pain, blood, rape, exploitation, poverty, our families torn asunder by a cruel and brutal culture, our youth murdered and socially crippled, our women degraded, our lives ever at the mercy of the cold American dream machine,” the BLA proclaimed. “We therefore, will illustrate in the only terms that the ruling classes can understand – the terms of blood – their blood. America must learn that black people are not the eternal sufferers, the universal prisoners, the only ones who can feel pain…”
Auburn is a maximum-security prison in central New York State. Built nearly two centuries ago on the site of a former War of 1812 prison camp, and home of the first electric chair execution, Auburn’s massive castle-like architecture is commanding and intimidating.
After parking, I walk past a row of houses facing the side of the prison. They have the kind of front porches typical in the northeast only the chairs on these porches face the view of thirty-foot tall cement walls. As I head towards the entrance, two neighborhood kids look me up and down. I guess I look like I’m from out of town, and realize how powerful the local curiosity must be about the souls locked behind those towering walls.
As I enter the prison gate, the guards at the front desk are scratching lotto tickets and drinking soda. Off to the side, another guard strikes up what seems to be a frequent argument over whether his coworkers, scratching away, have gambling problems.
They stamp my hand with invisible ink and buzz me through two steel gates before I walk into a typical prison visiting room. The guard at the visiting room desk is actually eating donuts. He assigns me to one of the tables arranged in a grid in what looks nearly identical to a grade school cafeteria. I sit there, waiting for Jalil to surface from the depths.
I’ve been to prison visiting rooms dozens of times but somehow the scene at Auburn still amazes me. The prisoners are all muscular. They’re nearly all black. All the guards I’ve seen are white and mostly overweight. There is a Mickey Mouse mural on the back wall.
Over a month earlier I wrote Jalil, hoping to arrange to come and meet him. In my second letter I described my appearance, so he knew what to look for in the visiting room. I’m tall, white, with dark hair, and although my first name is Leslie, I’m male.
“I certainly would have been disappointed if I had come into the visiting room expecting a young lady (ha!),” he jokingly replied.
Meeting Jalil is easier and more natural than what I expected. Surprisingly, he doesn’t seem awkward striking up a conversation with someone he barely knows while surrounded by prison guards. The look on his face easily shifts from a powerful seriousness to a remarkably kind smile. We talk and laugh for the afternoon before the guards call out the end of visiting hours. He goes back to his prison cell. I go home.
We Are Our Own Liberators is a recently re-released collection of Jalil’s writings from the almost 40 years of his imprisonment. It includes some of the most in-depth philosophical writings on the Black Liberation Army that have ever made it print, as well as articles tackling issues like President Obama, Hurricane Katrina, the black bourgeoisie, ethnic cleansing, neo-colonialism, racism, poverty, US political prisoners, COINTELPRO, US imperialism… much of which is new material.
Jalil’s writings are uniquely uncompromising and on-point, displaying the energy and commitment that has distinguished him throughout these four decades as a political prisoner. His call for freedom and revolution remain as powerful in these writings as it was the day he was arrested, rattling not just the establishment but also those who may have gotten a little too comfortable within the movement. We Are Our Own Liberators gives an unparalleled look into the struggle for Black Liberation, the reality political prisoners here in America, and the politics of revolution.
We Are Our Own Liberators: Selected Writings by Jalil Muntaqim is available directly from the publisher at www.arissa.org and anywhere good books are sold.