Speaking Truth to Power

Political Prisoners in the United States

by Dhoruba Bin Wahad

from the book

Criminal Injustice

edited by Elihu Rosenblatt

South End Press, 1996


I spent 19 years of my life in prison for something I didn't do basically because I was very vocal about my political beliefs. I believe that African-American people have the right to defend themselves against racist attacks by any means necessary. Because I publicly advocated that position as a leader of the Black Panther Party, I was targeted and framed by the U.S. government through a racist and political counter-insurgency program, known as the Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), aimed against political (mostly Black) activists in the '60s. Popular myth holds that COINTELPRO was an aberration, the result of the sick mind of an individual named J. Edgar Hoover-that it never would have occurred if Hoover wasn't head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). But the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had a similar program, known as Operation Chaos, which also utilized domestic surveillance techniques in its efforts to suppress the anti-war movement, the Black nationalist movement, and the so-called New Left in the United States. The CIA engaged in this type of activity even though it had no legal mandate to. So much for the sanctity of the law. As U.S. history amply attests, the rule of law is merely the rule of privileged white men.


COINTELPRO changed the political environment. It changed how people perceived those individuals who fought for change. Police agents infiltrated the Panther Party and caused the leadership to abandon the struggle. We were placed in jail. We had to fight constantly to raise bail. Once the atmosphere changed, the support that had been there initially disappeared. When I was finally convicted, there was nobody in court but the police, district attorneys, and the prosecutors. They were successful because there was no one in court for me. They believed the hype.

The United States has a history of destroying those individuals who they cannot control and to whom people have begun to listen. They destroyed the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., they destroyed Marcus Garvey. They have destroyed numerous African-American leaders and working-class white leaders who have struggled for the rights of working-class people. We need to learn from these things, so we don't make mistakes again. Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King once said that he did not believe that an unjust law was worthy of being obeyed. We have a moral obligation to speak truth to injustice.


What is the main cause of this build-up of the prison system: Today the major justification is the "war on drugs." Back in the '60s, the code word for getting the Black folks off the street was "law-and-order." Now it is "war on drugs." Under the guise of fighting drugs, various states and cities and municipalities are passing laws that are blatantly unconstitutional. They are passing stop-and-frisk laws. Police SWAT teams are kicking in doors in African-American communities. People are more terrified of the drug dealers in our communities than they are of the police and Drug Enforcement Administration who play a more pivotal role as drug traffickers than the low-level street dealers. People are so uptight about the nihilistic behavior of these drug dealers and our youth that they are calling for more police. That is like someone calling for more arsenic. If we agree that drug dealing is a reprehensible crime that should be punished, then all perpetrators should be dealt with and stricter punishment reserved for law enforcement officers. But in our eagerness to deal with the "drug problem," the legislation that is getting passed is heralding the way for fascism. Laws are being passed that allow, under the guise of fighting the war on drugs, for the police to kick down your door without a warrant. If you are a political organizer, they just kick down your door and say, "We just thought he was a drug dealer." These laws are testing the limits of our tolerance for fascism-if it comes disguised as something else.


So long as you lack political power, the police can come into your neighborhood and do I whatever they want. Can you imagine them doing that in Scarsdale? Picture the police racing into Scarsdale, sealing off one end of the block lined with $300,000 to $2,000,000 homes and rounding everybody up, putting them in police vans, and then searching the houses, kicking in doors and looking for drug dealers. They wouldn't do that, because Scarsdale has political clout.


Criminal Injustice