Kairi Al-Amin, in front his father, political prisoner, Iman Jamil Al-Amin. Kairi is his father's attorney. The Al-Amin family now demand that Imam Al-Amin be completely exonerated.

Black political prisoners such as Imam Jamil Al-Amin are out of sight, not out of mind

Jamil Al-Amin is one dozens of Black activists who have been incarcerated for many years. With another wave of Black political activism such as Black Lives Matter, the hope is that younger generations reach back to help elders who paved the way.

Prisons in this country are not only home to people who have committed crimes, they also detain Black political prisoners. The detainees are  primarily men who have been locked away for decades for expressing, and acting on political beliefs to fight ongoing racism and oppression. 

While the US government’s official position is that it houses  no political prisoners, The Jericho Movement, which works for recognition of political prisoners inside U.S. prisons, claims there have been as many as 19 or more. Prison activists like Angela Davis, who was once a political prisoner, emphatically disagrees with the government too. In a 1971 essay produced in a jail cell where she was awaiting trial on charges of accessory to kidnapping and murder, Davis wrote, “The offense of the political prisoner is political boldness, the persistent challenging — legally or extra-legally — of fundamental social wrongs fostered and reinforced by the state.”

The rise of Black power 

The late 1960s and early 1970s saw an emergence of Black organizations. Its members supported armed self-defense against attacks in Black communities by racist white policemen, and white supremacist hate groups. Unlike Civil Rights organizations of the early 1950a and 60s, these nascent  organizations did not embrace nonviolence and passive resistance. Moreover, groups such as The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense; The Black Liberation Army, the armed wing of The Black Panthers; and The Deacons for Defense, an armed group of Black men in the South protecting Civil Rights activists, rejected the strategy of arrests as tactics for persuading the nation’s whites to support voting rights and total racial integration.   

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As swiftly as they emerged, these groups were deemed “terrorists” and “Communists” by J. Edgar Hoover, then director of the FBI.  Hoover considered them dangerous because they could unite Black people in common cause.  He advocated “neutralizing” or assassinating such leaders if necessary. As a result, he created COINTELPRO, or “Counter Intelligence Program,” a special wing of the FBI to infiltrate organizations by sowing seeds of mistrust. The strategy aimed to  prevent revolutionary Black groups from growing stronger through coalitions, all the while,  blocking what they termed the rise of “a Black Messiah” such as The Panther’s Huey P. Newton or Pan Africanist Islamic leader Malcolm X.   

Many members of The Panthers, the Black Liberation Army, and others, were arrested and imprisoned for 20 to 30 years or longer without parole. Those who remain  in prison are now in their 60s and 70s. Some were freed in recent months.

One political prisoner who was recently released is former Black Panther Party member Jalil Muntaqim. Also known as Anthony Bottom, he was paroled on October 7 from Sullivan Correctional Facility in Fallsburg, New York.

Jalil Abdul Muntaqim spent 49 years in prison as a political detainee. He is said to be targeted in a politically motivated campaign to re-jail him for voter fraud. Photo credit: Jalil Abdul Muntaqim.

Muntaqim, 68, was incarcerated  in maximum security for more than 49 years. Joining The Black Panther Party at 18, in 1971, Muntaqim  was convicted for ambushing and killing two policemen in Harlem,  In 1998, when he became eligible for parole, Muntaqim expressed remorse about the killings before the parole board. The two-commissioner board accepted his expressed regrets as genuine.  

Muntaqim could have been paroled sooner, but the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James, representing the state’s corrections department, appealed a ruling by Sullivan County Supreme Court Judge Stephan Schick. The ruling would have released Muntaqim in April, due to his age, scarred lungs, and heart disease, which made him susceptible to catching COVID-19—a health crisis currently rampant in U.S. prisons. Eventually, Muntaqim’ss exposure to  COVID-19 led to him catching the novel coronavirus.

Since, he is said to have recovered since his hospitalization and release, but now faces re-incarceration charges for voter fraud. He was served a warrant for registering to vote days after his release.

. . . . 

Another Black political prisoner, activist Imam Jamil Al-Amin, formerly known as H. Rap Brown, has been imprisoned for 20 years for a crime he did not commit, says Bilal Sunni-Ali, a close friend of the Imam. Sunni-Ali had been a member of The Black Panther Party in New York,  and the Black Liberation Army.

Sunni-Ali was in New York when he met the Imam in 1967.  At the time, Imam Al-Aminwas still H. Rap Brown, and was the fifth national chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (“Snick”). In their work, members of the Civil Rights group risked their lives in Southern states assisting Black people to register to vote.

“He was speaking at Columbia University,” Sunni-Ali told Ark Republic. “Me and a few friends walked up to him and told him we wanted to talk to him afterwards. We met him in the Snick national office in New York and talked about organizing in New York City.” Not long after, said Sunni-Ali, the Imam was named The Black Panther Party’s Honorary Minister of Justice.

Imam Al-Amin was arrested and incarcerated in Attica Prison from 1971 to 1976 in connection to  an attempted robbery of a bar. While in Attica, he converted to Islam. “A masjid (place of worship) in Brooklyn held services in the prison, “ said Sunni-Ali. Imam Al-Amin who also attended the services and began studying Islam and Arabic. “Eventually he made his declaration of faith in Islam,” said Sunni Ali. H. Rap Brown also changed his name.

A new dawn, a new day, same old system 

After serving his time in prison, Imam Al-Amin moved to Atlanta, settling in its West End neighborhood with his wife Karima and son Ali. There, he opened a grocery store and worked with the community to get rid of gang activity and drug trafficking. 

On March 16, 2000, a Fulton County, Georgia sheriff’s deputy and an officer accompanying him said they were serving Iman Al-Amin a warrant at his business. However, they were shot outside of the grocery store. The sheriff’s deputy, Ricky Kinchen, was killed. The other officer, Aldranon English, was wounded, but survived. The surviving officer identified Imam Al-Amin as the shooter from photographs he was shown while he was hospitalized.

“The officer said that Imam Al-Amin was shot in the incident, but Imam Al-Amin was not bleeding and had no bullet marks on him,” said Sunni-Ali.  “When he was arrested, we knew he hadn’t done anything, and we thought he would be released in a few hours.” But Imam Al-Amin was tried and convicted of the shooting in 2002. Although, he appealed to the US Supreme Court, they  declined to hear his case.

At the time the imam was arrested, another Black man, Otis Jackson, who claimed he was a gang leader, confessed to the shootings.  He fit the physical description given by the wounded officer, and he had bullet marks where the officers shot him. But, the confession was not admitted into Imam Al-Amin’s trial. Late last year, when Jackson was in a court on another matter, he confessed again; this time it was recorded on video tape.

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Sunni-Ali said the imam’s family and supporters are calling for his  exoneration. Sunni-Ali added that the Fulton County District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit was asked by the imam’s supporters and family to review the procedures in his  trial to determine if he was wrongfully convicted.

While incarcerated, Imam Al-Amin has been kept away from prisoners in the general population. Sunni-Ali explained it is because authorities fear his power of persuasion. His nickname “Rap” alludes to that skill, which made his Civil Rights organizing effective.

Sunni-Ali said he hasn’t seen Imam Al-Amin, who is in the federal penitentiary in Tucson, Arizona in some time. Imam Al-Jamin’s  wife and son, who are on the Imam’s legal team, have visited, but contact is limited. Due to COVID-19, visits prohibit  contact and require social distancing. Added, all visitors must wear masks in an attempt to reduce infection rates.

As he is aging, Imam Al-Amin who is 77-years-old, has had some health challenges in prison. Said Sunni-Ali. “He had a stroke, but it had no debilitating effects. He has cancer, called a ‘smoldering’ myeloma, but it’s in remission. He developed cataracts in his eyes. He can see out of his left eye, which was operated on, but not his right.”

| Read: A 25-year journey to meet a man I already knew

Sunni-Ali said the imam was mocked by someone who told him he was destined to die in prison, old, alone and forgotten.  Unlike political prisoners such as Mumia Abu-Jamal, not all Black political prisoners have families, vast support systems or solidarity groups which keep their names and stories before the public and  the news media.

Chip Fitzgerald, said to be the longest imprisoned Black Panther Party member in U.S. history, wishes Black Lives Matter would take up the issue of Black political prisoners.

“My ask of the masses of people in the street is that they call for the release of the political prisoners.” Fitzgerald said in an interview with Left Voice. Fitzgerald who has spent over 50 years incarcerated for his activism in California. 

He continued. “Just direct some of that energy to getting these old folks set free. After all, before people showed up with the cool slogans, some of these old folks were children feeding children. Before the advent of that great slogan, some were setting up free health clinics and walking older people to get their checks cashed.” 

Margaret Summers has worked as a print and radio news reporter and a media relations professional. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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