Steven Katsineris pens an Open Letter to US President Barack Obama about a US prisoner. Steven Katsineris is a Melbourne based writer and activist.
Dear Mr Obama,
I write to you about the heartbreakingly sad and very unfair situation of former Black Panther Party member Sundiata Acoli, who has been imprisoned since 1973, that’s 42 years. He is now 78 years of age.
Sundiata Acoli is a mathematician and computer analyst who was born on January 14, 1937, in Decatur, Texas and raised in Vernon Texas. He graduated from Prairie View and A and M University of Texas in 1956 with a degree in mathematics and for the next 13 years worked for various computer-oriented firms, mostly in the New York area.
During the summer of 1964 he participated in civil rights work and voter registration in Mississippi. In 1968 he joined the Harlem Black Panther Party and did community work around issues of schools, housing, jobs, child care, drugs and police brutality. Sundiata later became the Harlem B.P.P.’s finance minister.
On April 2, 1969, he and other members were arrested in NY in the Panther 21 conspiracy case. He was held in jail without bail and on trial for two years before being acquitted, along with all other defendants, by a jury deliberating less than two hours.
Upon release, FBI intimidation of potential employers shut off all employment possibilities in the computer profession and the stepped-up COINTELPRO harassment, surveillance and provocations soon drove him underground.
On May 2, 1973, three members of the New York City chapter of the Black Panther Party - Sundiata Acoli, Assata Shakur and Zayd Malik Shakur- were stopped on the New Jersey Turnpike for a purportedly "faulty tail-light." A shoot-out ensued during which a state trooper, Werner Foster and Zayd Shakur were killed and Assata and Sundiata wounded. Both Assata and Sundiata were subsequently convicted of the murder of the trooper and related charges and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
You may be aware that at that turbulent time many members of the Black Panther Party (and other black organizations) were being targeted and attacked by various security and armed groups intent on repressing and destroying the BPP and killing its leaders and rank and file members in the process. BPP members felt like they were under a state of and were therefore fearful of being arrested, killed or wounded for campaigning for their civil and human rights. Scores of BPP members were killed, or badly injured or jailed (some framed) in the operations to suppress the organization. Numerous other militants fled overseas or underground to escape persecution. The context of the era is very important in looking at Sundiata’s case. As you know racial problems still exist in the US today, as you said not long ago, “a simmering distrust..exists between too many police departments and too many communities of color.”
Since then Sundiata has found it difficult to even be considered for parole. In 1994, Sundiata appeared before the Parole Board was denied parole and assigned a new parole eligibility date in 2006. At the time of his appearance before the Parole Board, Sundiata had maintained a "charge free" record for eight years and had outstanding educational and work reports. He was not permitted to appear before the New Jersey Parole Board in person but was only allowed to participate from US Leavenworth via telephone without an attorney present. After a 20 minute telephone hearing Sundiata was denied parole. In denying Sundiata release the Parole Board, ignored all of the evidence supporting his release and instead concluded that a substantial likelihood existed that if released on parole Sundiata would commit another crime because of, inter alia, his former membership in the BPP; his characterization of himself as a "political prisoner," and because his family, friends and supporters had written letters to the Parole Board demanding his release.
In other words, Sundiata is being held in prison because of his and his supporters First Amendment protected beliefs and activities. The transcript of Sunidata's telephonic parole hearings and the Board's decisions also make clear that the Parole Board had predetermined to deny Sundiata parole in violation of his right to due process of law.
No evidence exists that if released on parole, Sundiata, who is now 78 years old, will embark on a life of "crime." The purpose of prison, is supposed to be rehabilitation, not punishment and torture. What purpose would it serve society to continue this brutal punishment of him. Sundiata has already spent more time in prison than others convicted of similar crimes. Just because Sundiata is a former member of the Black Panther Party should not mean that Sundiata should spend the remainder of his life in prison.
I believe that what Sundiata did and is in prison for, is not much different to what Nelson Mandela did; the actions they took were in reaction to what they saw as a brutal system of racism, discrimination and abuse. In racially divided societies they were both motivated by the quest for justice and fought to change things for the better. Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in jail for struggling for equality, civil and human rights. Sundiata Acoli has now spent 42 years in jail fighting for the same aspirations.
Surely forty-two years is long enough! After so many long years of imprisonment in the nation's harshest penitentiaries, Trenton State Prison, USP Marion, Il., and USP Leavenworth, Ks., and with an exemplary prison record, it’s time to free Sundiata. Even at his elderly age Sundiata has valuable contributions to make to his community and society. And his release will not only have a positive impact on his life and that of his family and friends, but will have a much wider constructive effect of healing and repairing painful wounds of the past.
I can only write and plead for kindness, understanding and forgiveness, but you have the power to act to achieve a just outcome. I respectfully ask you to please help renew Sundiata’s life by interceding and releasing him. I hope you will give this your deepest consideration. Thank you. With best wishes,
March 24, 2016.