Published: May 11, 2011
I wish I were as convinced of Marshall “Eddie” Conway’s guilt as Edward Ericson Jr. is in his review of The Greatest Threat: The Black Panther Party and COINTELPRO (“No Excuse,” Feature, April 27). If I were, it’d be easier to write Conway off and never have to think about him again. And I had hoped for a better review of Conway’s work. It’s one thing to qualify the author in a book review, but Ed makes a huge leap in fact and logic that has skewed his sense of history as well as his ability to fairly judge this work. The attempt to turn Conway’s words around on him as proof that the Panthers got what they deserved is surprising, and I was also shocked at the dismissive tone that runs throughout the review.
To be clear, I’ve heard Conway profess his innocence, and I’ve read about his case, and I don’t think it’s as open and shut as this review makes it seem.
Labeling someone a “cop killer” sure makes for great headlines. But for the record, Conway and his supporters say he is innocent, has been unjustly imprisoned, and had an unjust trial. The tone that runs throughout this review makes me wonder why Ed would look past what Conway and his supporters are actually saying and hear only “unjustly imprisoned” and “his trial [was] unfair,” then snottily pronounce “not the same as being innocent, but close enough.” So, OK. Ed thinks the man is guilty.
But what about history? Here he picks parts of the book and adds his preconceived opinion to write off things like COINTELPRO and the Black Panther Party (BPP) as trivial events in U.S. history. I wouldn’t think to sum up the Panthers with phrases like “thuggish mind-set” or “gangster mentality” without putting things into some context. There must be more to it than this.
Instead Ed makes these sweeping generalizations about the BPP, while ignoring the community-support programs the organization blended with its survival programs. Things like the Ten Point Program (pp. 217-221), Breakfast for Children, and free medical clinics (discussed pp. 32-34). Also ignored—and what the hell, while we’re pointing fingers—is the fact that prior to the 1970s police acted pretty thuggish toward African-Americans—especially toward members of the BPP. These generalizations overlook the context in which Black Nationalism developed. Ask Emmett Till, lynched in 1955. Ask Charles Mack Parker, lynched in 1959. Both lynchings happened during Conway’s lifetime, and both were murders that involved complicit law enforcement officials. Bring it closer to present day and ask Rodney King about Officer Friendly. Here in Baltimore, police higher-ups still cook their books. Pretty gangster if you ask me.
What Ed calls a derivative primer, I call a welcomed addition to understanding the history of the BPP—and the racism still rampant in our country—written by someone who lived it.
The writer is a former City Paper editorial staffer.
Thanks to City Paper for getting some good information out about former Baltimore Black Panther leader Marshall “Eddie” Conway. But Edward Ericson Jr.’s review of Conway’s The Greatest Threat showed many instances of prejudicial rancor for the subject of Conway’s book and places that sell such books. Limited space for this letter can only cover a few examples.
First, Ericson erroneously described Conway’s perfect-bound paperback book as a “pamphlet,” which he stated is “no worse—and no better—than the dozens of” others “cluttering the wire racks of places like Red Emma’s.”
Ericson then presented Conway’s conviction for “shooting a cop” as fact, despite evidence that police framed Conway for exposing that a National Security Agency undercover agent and several of his NSA cohorts started his Baltimore Black Panther chapter. Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Seymour Hersh wrote that the CIA and other agencies worked with the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program against leftists.
After police arrested Conway, a judge ordered Conway’s release because they didn’t have a reason to hold him. When prosecutors took Conway to court, the top evidence was testimony from a jail cellmate who said Conway confessed to the crime. Years later, when incarcerated for the crime, Conway’s defense group hired an investigator. It was discovered that the cellmate, Charles Reynolds, was a career criminal and police informant commonly testifying to “confessions” by other cellmates.
Ericson further mocked leftist leader Chicago Panther Fred Hampton. He neglected to mention that Hampton had organized top anti-war white, black, and Hispanic activist leaders in the first “rainbow coalition.” World-renowned linguist and leftist professor Noam Chomsky traveled from Boston to attend the 21-year-old Panther’s funeral after police killed him in his bed.
Red Emma’s displays some of Chomsky’s “pamphlets,” at least one of which was a New York Times bestseller. The store also carries a memoir, FBI Secrets, in which former FBI COINTELPRO Agent M. Wesley Swearingen reported the Chicago FBI COINTELPRO chief admitting having orchestrated the police execution of Hampton.
It’s this sort of racist, murderous police behavior, often under the direction of U.S. intelligence, which the Panthers struggled against. What Ericson maliciously describes as the Panthers’ “thuggish mind-set” came out of the kind of self-preservation represented in their founding name, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense.
Ericson also suggested Conway’s comparison of U.S. intelligence’s behavior toward the Panthers and the Latin American “dirty war” was unfounded. Not only were there many murderous parallels in both sagas, but The New York Times exposed that the CIA’s “Operation Condor” aided the war on Latin American leftists.
And finally, Watergate muckraker Carl Bernstein published one of the most important and little-known findings of Sen. Frank Church’s hearings, which Ericson mentioned. Bernstein said they found that “more than 400 journalists had lived double lives maintaining covert relationships with the CIA.” That Bernstein listed most of the top media owners as collaborating with the CIA might explain the kind of antagonism toward leftists found in many articles such as Ericson’s.
Edward Ericson Jr. responds: Carl Bernstein’s excellent work notwithstanding, my status as a CIA agent can be neither confirmed nor denied.
What a great cartoon by Tom Chalkley about Don Schaefer (Static, April 27)—it brought back so many depressing memories. Nice to see that not everyone drinks the corporate Kool-Aid and that City Paper will publish the results.
Clarification: Last week’s review of Power Moves Forever Quest (Art, May 4, 2011) insufficiently described the video art created by Chris Balint that accompanied the performance. In an e-mail, creator Claire Côté explains:
The statement, “Chris Balint came up with video art to be used during the production,” falsely represents his mode of production, making it sound as though he simply found some images and pre-made the video. Rather, his process is quite involved and deserved a proper description. He improvisationally uses circuit bent hardware to make evolving feedback loops of visual material. He is manipulating the circuits live based on the live recording of our movement onstage—that is, he works in tandem with the movement occurring onstage and manipulating the feedback loop to create original patterns, colors, shapes, etc. He does not use any program/software, and his machine is custom made for his purposes.
Editor’s note: Max Robinson occupies this week’s column spot under the banner Writer’s Block, our catch-all for occasional/guest columnists. Think you have a column in you? Contact Editor Lee Gardner at firstname.lastname@example.org with your pitch.
Next week: our annual Sizzlin’ Summer issue.