A 25-year journey to meet a man I already knew | Think Piece

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Visiting one of the last remaining Black political prisoners of the 1970s, Kofi Taharka writes of his trip to meet Sundiata Acoli, famed Black Panther arrested with Assata Shakur in 1973 and convicted in 1974. Now an octogenarian, he fights to be released. 

On a summer morning in July 2019, I woke up at 5 a.m. to prepare for a trip which was 25 years in the making. 

Used to the heat and humidity I left in Texas, I stepped outside into Washington D.C.’s darkness to cool and refreshing air. During the 2-hour drive up to the Allegheny Mountains of western Maryland, many thoughts and considerations raced through my mind. My life-long confidant and driver was the perfect person to share this trip with because throughout our lives, we experienced many important milestones together. 

About a week earlier, I told him, “I need you for some soldier work.” He immediately agreed. Our ride through this beautiful area was filled with discussion, mainly me explaining the importance of the person that I was going to see and the overall context of why it was so meaningful. The visit had come to fruition based on a request made to Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee of the 18th Congressional District in Houston, Texas. 

Coming from a primarily flat part of Texas, the lush green rolling hills and picturesque valleys invited us. One road sign read, “Be aware of Bear and Deer.” I even joked to my brother to leave me out there so I could take in what nature had to offer.

After a brief stop for directions, we went down a winding road. Nestled in a small valley with mountains jetting up in the rear, we arrived at our destination. I felt strong, confident, and determined. After emptying everything out of my pockets and leaving my belongings in the car, I got out taking note of the large fences, razor wire, and the natural environment surrounding this edifice. 

I walked in the doors of the Federal Correctional Institute in Cumberland, Maryland. Three guards were sitting behind a desk waiting for my arrival. They took my I.D., sent me through a metal detector, and stamped my hand with an invisible fluorescent substance. Then a guard walked me through an outside corridor to the interior of the prison and up a sidewalk to another building. Finally, he sat me in a room with two chairs, a table, and a television monitor. 

While walking, the guard told me the prison was on lockdown because of some problems. Now inside, I could see the well-manicured grass, fences, and razor wire up close. The room was extremely cold; however, my focus on this meeting outweighed anything else in the environment. Going in, I didn’t know if he would have any forewarning of my visit or not, but he did have prior notification. 

After a few minutes, a man walked in by himself in a khaki prison uniform, no handcuffs or guards, carrying a large postal envelope with a handwritten inscription that read “Legal Correspondence.” I was a little surprised because I didn’t see where he came from, almost like he just appeared out of nowhere.

I rose from my seat and grabbed his hand. We bumped shoulders in a brief embrace. I said, “Brother Sundiata.” The fairly, small-framed, 82-year-old, returned the greeting. He is Sundiata Acoli, government name Clark Squire, a former member of the legendary Black Panther Party (BPP) and Black Liberation Army (BLA) of the 1960s and 1970s.

We sat down and began to talk. He giggled a little and said, “Well, Brother Kofi, it is good to finally meet you in person.” He asked about some other anticipated visitors who were unable to make the trip.

Our voices seemed to bounce off of the walls as if we sat in a soundproof booth. Acoli articulated his upbringing in the small towns of Decatur and Vernon, Texas, his family life and experiences, and his educational experience at Prairie View A&M University, where he graduated in 1956 with a degree in mathematics. 

He worked at NASA, occasionally interacting with astronauts. He told me about going to New York City and exploring different activist circles. In 1964, after the murder of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Neshoba County, Mississippi, Acoli felt the need to up his commitment to changing society. He stated that the reported news would scare people away from participating in the Freedom Summer, and going to Mississippi to register African-Americans to vote. Unafraid, Acoli paid for his own travel and went to work on the project. 

While we didn’t discuss any of his work in the Black Panther Party (BPP) or Black Liberation Army (BLA), it is important to understand the context of the era that ultimately placed Acoli in his current situation as a political prisoner. Acoli increased his commitment to society’s structural change by joining the Black Panther Party’s Harlem, New York chapter in 1968. 

He spent 24 months incarcerated from 1969 to 1971 as a co-defendant in the Panther 21 case, a historical legal battle accusing almost two dozen Black Panther members of conspiring to plan bombings. All 21 Panthers were acquitted of the charges set against them. Due to intense harassment, surveillance, and provocation by the FBI, he was driven underground.

In 1973, Acoli, Assata Shakur, and Zayd Malik Shakur of the BPP and BLA encountered the New Jersey State Police during a traffic stop. A confrontation took place. When the smoke cleared, Zayd Malik Shakur laid dead, Assata Shakur was shot, a New Jersey state trooper was mortally wounded, and another New Jersey state trooper was shot, but still alive. 

A few days later, Acoli was captured and taken into custody. In 1974, Acoli and, in 1977, Shakur were convicted of the murder of the state trooper, Werner Foerster. In 1979, Shakur was liberated from prison and later received political asylum in Cuba. In the last few years, the FBI has placed her on the “10 Most Wanted Terrorist List” and offered a $2 million bounty for information leading to her capture.

Sundiata Acoli who was arrested with Assata Shakur in 1973 is taken into custody. Today, he is one of the few remaining Black political prisoners of the 1960s and 70s.

It may be hard for those unaware of this history. To fathom, that the political environment of repression that took place against Black activists and organizations across a wide spectrum of ideologies criticizing the U.S. government’s treatment of Black, brown, and poor people. Targets of these efforts ranged from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to the Black Panther Party, and many others. 

The government program, entitled Counter-Intelligence Program or COINTELPRO for short, was designed to “prevent the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement.” Various methods were used to accomplish the stated goals, from assassination to the marginalizing of organization leadership. Off-shoots of COINTELPRO such as New Kill and Chesrob were also initiated.

While political activist and organizers of the period were aware of government surveillance of their activities, it is generally accepted that most were not fully apprised of the depth of the actions being taken against them. More information would be revealed later about government efforts to silence its critics. What is very clear and has been proven, the FBI identified the BPP as a major threat. Subsequently, the organization across the country was attacked by local police forces in conjunction with federal agencies. 

The 1960s and the early 1970s is often presented as a single-second sound bite of “I have a dream…” When in fact, its scope produced much more than a few single charismatic leaders. Put plainly, the government of the United States sought to destroy any dissenting organization and its leadership by any means necessary. These facts are not up for debate. 

The records from the agencies themselves document the intent. I suggest we all study them to get a fuller understanding of what is happening in 2019 as well as the 1975 Church Committee Report for additional information on government intelligence programs against dissent. Today, we can see a COINTELPRO 2.0 taking place with the FBI designation, “Black Identity Extremist.”

Acoli also explained his frustrations with the parole process over the years, his hopes dashed several times over these four-plus decades. At 82 years old and with a good record over several decades, no other reason could explain his denial of parole other than his political beliefs. 

With no clock in the room, Acoli and I estimated whether we were closing in on our allotted time for the visit. After two and a half hours of non-stop talking, we summarized our visit. I assured him, I would continue to write and bring his greetings to those on the outside. We embraced shoulder to shoulder as we had in the beginning. He gave me that kinda half-grin laugh as he walked away. The guard stationed outside of the visitation room walked me back to the exit. 

The place was as quiet as a church mouse. I stepped back outside in the parking lot area and waited for my ride to pick me up. During that 45-minute wait, I was standing out in the middle of nowhere, watching prison staff exit and enter. While I am no stranger to visiting prisons, this set up seemed a little different from my experiences. 

The prison appears as if dropped down in the mountain depending on the angle you are looking from. On one hand, there is this beautiful scenery and on the other, it is a prison. When my ride came, I felt I fulfilled a major unspoken life commitment—to meet Acoli in person. His profile walking away back into confinement forever etched itself in my mind.

Being a part of the National Black United Front (NBUF) since the early 1990s, I became better educated on the existence of political prisoners (PPs) and prisoners of war (POWs). Our chapter began to support efforts such as letter-writing campaigns sponsored by groups whose sole purpose was to free PPs and POWs. 

We made a special connection and commitment to stay in contact with Acoli.  I remember once being at a national meeting and representatives from various diverse movements filled the room. These people represented, in total, hundreds of years of dedication to liberation work and close to a hundred years of incarceration based on their political beliefs. As a young observer, I thought, “Damn, this is not a book, not a movie, not a documentary, these are real people, this is not a game or something to be romanticized, they really believe in the cause of liberation for African people.” 

In 25 years of correspondence with Acoli, we have developed a friendship, a bond.  Through the ups and downs of my life, I’ve done my best to honor our commitment to support him. Often when faced with challenges, I use him for inspiration to help me push through. He has been a source of wise counsel on a host of situations. Even though I just met Acoli in person, I’ve known him for a long time.

Kofi Taharka (middle) with NBUF Members at community event.

In Reflection 

It is our obligation, not to allow a historical disconnect to widen between younger generations and our political prisoners and prisoners of war.  There are other PPs and POWs that need support. You can find them through organizations such as the Jericho Movement, the Malcolm X Commemoration Committee, and the Black August Organizing Committee.  By looking into these groups, we can learn about the most up-to-date information. The groups also give direction on how to best help PPs, POWs, and their families.  

Organizations must make it a part of their program to teach on this most important area of our movement. In discussing the 1960s and 1970s, a friend of mine told me, “It is almost a by-gone era brother.” Over these 25-plus years, I went from just studying political prisoners and prisoners of war on posters or websites to meeting them in person. I even had the good fortune to see a few of them released from prison.  Conversely, several of them have joined the realm of the ancestors while still locked down. Many are reaching their later years. 

I am not aware of any successful movement that leaves its soldiers on the battlefield. This is an actionable item in the push for social justice and resurgence of the demand for reparations. The hour is late in this arena sisters and brothers.

Editor’s note: This think piece is a special to Ark Republic and was written in 2019. We held the piece awaiting the results of Acoli’s appeal for parole. He was denied in December 2019. Sundiata Acoli has spent almost 47 years in prison. He turned 83 on January 14.

Kofi Taharka has the privilege, honor and responsibility of being the National Chairman of the National Black United Front

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