Still There: Black Power Behind Bars

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The arrest of Delbert Africa in August 1978. Photo by Jim Domke/ Philadelphia Inquirer

Almost half a century on, America's historically racist, vengeful "justice" system still holds captive 19 African-American radical political prisoners - including members of the Black Panthers, Black Liberation Army and Move 9 - representing "the unfinished business of the black liberation struggle" from the 1960s to 1980s. Among the 19, two of whom are women, the oldest is 81 and next year the longest-serving inmate will have been locked up for half a century. Another 10 have died in prison. In a devastating series of reports from two years of interviews, The Guardian's Ed Pilkington tells the pained but resolute stories of eight of the 19 survivors who have languished behind bars, largely invisible to the public and often spending years in solitary, for decades.

All are caught in the same impossible bind: Having been convicted of violence against police, they feel empathy for those killed but maintain their innocence; they also yearn for freedom but will not renounce their ideals, along with their insistence they are victims of systemic injustice. A flagrant case in point is that of the surviving six members of Move 9, who next week will mark the 40th anniversary of the bloody police siege of their Philadelphia commune. All were charged with the murder of the one officer who died - and sentenced to 30 years to life - though the victim was killed by one bullet, likely from friendly fire. "We demonstrated against police brutality (and other injustices). And we did so uncompromisingly," says Janine Africa, one of the six. "Slavery never ended, it was just disguised."

Jalil Muntaqim, 66, a former member of the Black Panthers and its underground Black Liberation Army,  has spent almost 47 years in prison for his part in the 1971 murders of two New York City police officers. Under the terms of his sentence, he's been allowed to seek parole every two years since 2002, and this August he will do so again for the ninth time. He's had a clean record for years, he says he's "matured - revolution for me is the evolutionary process of building a higher level of consciousness in society," and he will tell the panel of his contrition for the pain he's caused both the officers' and his own families. But he will not disavow his politics. “If you understand the oppression that black people have suffered in this country," he says, "no one should have any regrets for having been identified as a revolutionary."

Del Africa, one of the Move 9 still behind bars - two died, one was just released - was likewise turned down for parole last year despite a clean record for over 20 years. He must now wait another four years to prove he poses no danger to society. But he, too, is ensnared in a double bind of racist history and systemic injustice. He can only be freed if he expresses penitence for a crime he insists he didn't commit. “How can I have any remorse for something I never did?” he asks. Would he show remorse to the parole board, Pilkington asks, if he felt it would give him his freedom? “No, never going to do that,” he said. “That would be akin to making them right. They are the ones who were wrong.”

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Bobby Seale, Huey Newton and the popular public perception of the Panthers

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What the Panthers also did, along with free lunch programs and other community support

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Back in the day

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Jalil Muntaqim today. Photo by Tom Silverstone/The Guardian

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