Three Democratic lawmakers hosted a forum earlier this month where several convicted cop killers were hailed as political prisoners. The event featured a former Black Panther implicated in the torture of a member suspected of being a police informant.
Speakers at the May 10 forum, hosted by Reps. Steve Cohen (D., Tenn.), Bobby Rush (D., Ill.), and Barbara Lee (D., Calif.), praised Mumia Abu-Jamal, Mutulu Shakur, H. Rap Brown, and other black liberationists who are all serving life sentences for killing police officers. The topic of the event was COINTELPRO, the FBI program that tracked black separatist groups in the 1960s and 1970s.
The defense of the cop killers comes as Democratic leaders are trying to downplay the perception that the party is anti-police. Some congressional Democrats have supported defunding police departments in the wake of high-profile deaths of minorities during interactions with police. Kristen Clarke, who was confirmed this week to lead the Justice Department’s civil rights division, penned an essay last year in which she supported defunding the police. She also moderated a conference in 1999 where Abu-Jamal and other cop killers were touted as political prisoners.
Lee introduced perhaps the most controversial speaker at the event, former Black Panther leader Ericka Huggins. Lee, who worked closely with the Black Panthers as an Oakland community activist in the 1970s, referred to Huggins as her "former colleague and comrade."
Huggins and another forum speaker, Black Panther Party cofounder Bobby Seale, were charged in 1970 with the murder of Alex Rackley, a party member suspected of snitching to the police. Rackley was tortured on May 18, 1969, at a Black Panther hideout in New Haven, Conn. He was fatally shot and dumped in a river two days later. Huggins and Seale were accused of ordering the hit on Rackley, who was 19 years old.
While the case was dropped against Huggins and Seale after a jury failed to reach a verdict, a tape recording introduced at their trial revealed that Huggins was present while Rackley was being tortured. Black Panthers beat Rackley with sticks and poured boiling water over him to force him to confess that he was a police informant, according to contemporaneous news reports of the trial.
The Washington Post reported in a 1977 retrospective of the case that Huggins admitted to boiling the water poured on Rackley, verbally abusing him and kicking him while he sat tied to a chair.
Huggins’s lawyer claimed at her trial that she was pressured into taking part in the interrogation and that she played no role in his death.
Lee and her Democratic colleagues did not mention Rackley’s murder at the hands of Black Panthers. But Lee hailed Huggins as an example of the strength of leadership of women in the Black Panther Party. She said it was "mind-boggling" to her that Black Panthers were harassed, assaulted, and killed by police.
Huggins, who did not respond to the Washington Free Beacon’s request for comment, told the Guardian in 2015 that she stayed with the party for another decade after the Rackley murder because she was "committed to the party, not to orchestrations of the FBI." Huggins, who refers to herself as a "former political prisoner" on her personal website, has forged a career in academia since leaving the Panthers.
Huggins did not discuss the Rackley affair during her remarks at the forum. She instead criticized unspecified "forces" that she said are spreading disinformation about the Black Lives Matter movement. She said that, like modern-day activists, the Black Panthers’ goal was "to help create a just and equitable world."
The Democrats also did not rebuff two other speakers who claimed that a group of black liberation activists convicted of killing police officers were political prisoners.
One speaker, Akua Njeri, called for the release of Abu-Jamal and Brown, referring to them as "political prisoners, prisoners of war, prisoners of consciousness." Nkechi Taifa, a civil rights activist, lamented that the cop killers had not received parole even though they are all in their 70s and 80s.
Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther, was sentenced to death for the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. He has become a martyr of sorts for left-wing activists, who claim he was given an unfair trial.
Other cop killers praised at the event have similar records. Mutulu Shakur, a former member of the Black Liberation Army, is serving a 60-year prison sentence for murder and robbery in his role in the 1981 heist of a Brinks armored truck in New York. Shakur and five others murdered one guard and injured another.
Russell Maroon Shoatz, a former Panther, was convicted in the 1970 murder of a Philadelphia police officer. H. Rap Brown, another former Panther known as Jamil Al-Amin, was sentenced to life in prison for killing two Georgia sheriff’s deputies in 2000. Sundiata Acoli, another former Black Panther mentioned at the forum, was sentenced to life in prison for the 1973 murder of a New Jersey state trooper.
Cohen and Lee did not respond to requests for comment submitted to their congressional offices.