On April 2, 1969, twenty-one members of the Harlem Chapter of the Black Panther Party were formally indicted and charged with 156 counts of “conspiracy” to blow up subway and police stations, five local department stores, six railroads, and the Bronx-based New York Botanical Garden.
By the early-morning hours of April 3, mass sweeps were conducted citywide by police combat squads. Law enforcement agencies including the CIA, FBI, U.S. Marshals and New York State Police worked to coordinate assaults on Panther homes and community-based offices. After numerous raids, 10 Panther men and two Panther women were arrested, processed and quickly jailed. There was no doubt the indictment of the Panther “New York 21” was a political and racist frame-up to not only “disrupt, discredit and destroy,” but to utterly dismantle the Black Panther Party from the inside out.
For the Panthers who, fortunately, weren’t murdered or assassinated, exiled or imprisoned, the courts became a convenient and effective form of legal lynching, a straightjacket beyond the walls, a robbery of valuable time and resources.
Each member of the “New York 21” was held on $100,000 bail, totaling over $2.1 million. It was not until January 1970 that the first Panther was able to post bail. That panther was 22-year-old Alice Faye Williams, better known as Afeni Shakur.
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Sister Soldier, Woman Warrior
In a grueling and tedious trial, Afeni Shakur (facing 300 years of prison time) daringly chose to be her own attorney, partly because financial resources were already razor-thin. Afeni, however, meticulously conducted her own legal research, her own interviews, as well as in-court cross examinations – fully realizing that “she would be the one serving, not the lawyers.” She was the only Panther who served as their own counsel.
Here was a small-framed, impoverished black girl from the backwoods of Lumberton, North Carolina, staring down a full team of New York state prosecutors – outwitting a full cast of establishment-owned media outlets.
Despite the odds, after all the surveillance, warrantless wiretapping, infiltration and frame-ups, not one shred of state’s evidence stood in court. In their undying efforts to “discredit,” it was revealed during the trial that the FBI had actually planted undercover infiltrators who, under oath, admitted their role as provocateurs.
Though the case of the Black Panther “New York 21” was at the time the longest trial in New York state history, on her own guts and wit, Afeni Shakur would successfully secure her freedom. No money. No attorney. No privilege. Pregnant with her second child, Tupac Amaru Shakur, what Afeni was able to do in that courtroom was nothing short of miraculous. Magical. Mind blowing.
On May 12 1971, after two years of legal proceedings, all 21 panthers were acquitted of their charges. The jury needed just a mere 45 minutes to see the truth.
The name Afeni was given to her by a community elder from South Carolina, a descendant of the Yoruba tradition who chose the name Afeni meaning, “lover of the people.” And love the people is exactly what Afeni did. A dedicated community organizer, fearless warrior, activist, scholar, teacher, and real-life revolutionary, Afeni Shakur gave her life to the people.
So, as we commemorate the mother of Hip Hop’s “Black Jesus,” let us not forget the Black woman general who indubitably blazed her own legacy. Farewell to the ‘Sister Soldier’ who just joined Malcolm, Harriet, Ida. All power to the people!
N.C. based activist, Lamont Lilly is the 2016 Workers World Party U.S. vice-presidential candidate. He lives in Durham.