Collateral Damages: Contexts for Thinking of the Liberation of Jamil Abul Al-Amin (H. Rap Brown)

By Jeremy Matthew Glick

They seize these things from our homes as evidence/ Then they supply us with copies/ Stamped with their numbers/ And call it discovery/ Indeed/ The only thing they/ Really discovered/ Is that we are for real/ And it scared/ The shit out of them

-from "Note Scrawled" by Thomas Manning

Immediately in Africa, a black back runs red with the Blood of the lash; In India, a brown girl is raped; in China, a coolie starves; in Alabama, seven Darkies are more than lynched; while in London, the white limbs of a prostitute Are hung with jewels and silk. Flames of jealous murder sweep the earth, while Brains of little children smear the hills.  -from "The Propaganda of History" by Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, 1935

The murder trial of Imam Jamil Abdul Al-Amin, former sixties Black Power and Civil Rights activist—and a current Muslim spiritual leader—commenced in early January 2002.  Al-Amin stands accused in Georgia of shooting Atlanta Deputy Ricky Kinchen and also wounding his partner, Deputy Aldranon English, on March 16, 2000.  In Georgia, the Fulton County police asserted that the "shooter" had been wounded and that they were pursuing a trail of blood, which they thought to be—and misidentified—as Al-Amin's.  Medical officials affirmed on the record that Al-Amin was not wounded, as was reported in the Atlanta Journal Constitution in the weeks following the incident.  Yet, a problematic gag rule was put into place to deny Al-Amin the ability to address the case in public.  Subsequently, Al-Amin was found guilty of violating the gag rule and found in contempt of court for participating in interviews for various news outlets; Judge Stephanie Manis stated that he had tried to prejudice potentially selected jurors.  Such a jury selection, needless to say, is a loaded process—Al-Amin's beliefs as a Muslim, and his past activism, complicates any effort to insure that he is treated fairly. "I can't even say I'm innocent," Al-Amin decried to the New York Times this year.  "Do you know of any other defendant who is not allowed to say he is innocent? It's just part of the same continual persecution and prosecution against me, just part and parcel of the same thing." 

The inconsistency in ballistic evidence and the slanderous media coverage depicting Al-Amin—a respected religious cleric and grocery-store owner in Atlanta—as a radical Islamicist, coupled with an unconstitutional gag-rule and the rich history of federal and local repression of Al-Amin as a community activist, raises serious questions about the fairness of this trial process.  In a recent letter, Amnesty International expressed concern that the racist anti-Muslim backlash in the country post-September 11th would work against justice and due process for this ex-sixties activist.  Amnesty is specifically troubled by the prosecution's indication that they will introduce, if he is convicted, samples of Al-Amin's sixties and contemporary political and spiritual writing to make a case for "aggravating" evidence for a death sentence.  This is a clear violation of Al-Amin's constitutional rights and smells of the same injustice used against Mumia Abu Jamal, whose quoting of Mao-Tse Tung during his time as a Black Panther was used to paint a picture of guilt in his Philadelphia trial for the alleged murder of police officer Daniel Faulkner.

This continued denial of justice for Imam Jamil Abdul Al-Amin, formerly H. Rap Brown, Black Panther, and Black Liberation Activist, and member of the Student National Coordinating Committee (SNCC), for the alleged murder of a Fulton County Deputy has to be understood in the context of three separate but interlocking facets: first, capitalist crisis and its repressive methods of crisis management; second, Black resistance to such repression and FBI and local policy in response to such resistance; third—in light of our nation's reaction to the September 11th attacks—imperialism's abstraction of "Islam," which is used to rationalize the compromising of civil liberties and due process, and the pillaging of Arab peoples domestically and abroad.  In a political climate where media pundits and politicians are having serious discussions about the "legitimacy" of torture, and when Attorney General Ashcroft desires to deport 6000 Arabs from the USA, those concerned with justice should keep a close eye on Al-Amin's case, considering both the current political climate, and federal law enforcement's repression of Black radicals.

The utilization of the term "crime" is a perfect example illustrating the flexibility of language employed by the ruling class (the 6/10th of 1% that control most of the world's resources) and the mainstream media to rationalize greed and world plunder.  In a context of domestic anti-imperialist struggle, e.g. the radical social justice activism of 1968, "fear pertaining to crime" can be used to mask profound hatred of and protracted war against Black, Latino, American Indian, and progressive white radicals. In order to gear up for a strike on the people of Afghanistan and Arab peoples world wide, crime stretches its reach as a definition to include whole nationalities/religious groups. In a repressive Republican dominated landscape, "crime" is re-worked to rationalize obscene incarceration rates and the titanic growth of prison construction and its related industries.

In her crucial 1990s study of prison expansion and the continued repression of working people of color, Globalisation and US Prison Growth: from Military Keynesianism to Post-Keynesian Militarism, social scientist and prison activist Ruthie Gilmore argues that "law and order" campaigns, moral panic over crime, and frenzy pertaining to the so-called "Drug War" work to obscure the fact that the unprecedented expansion of the Prison Industrial Complex—rampant prison growth managed and overseen primarily from the private sector—is really about managing capitalist crisis at the expense of millions of working people of color. A governmental fiscal state apparatus that used to work to insure some sort of flimsy stability, via boosting its military apparatus, now works as a carceral apparatus. The profits generated from the burgeoning prison industry stimulate the economy and guarantee capital flow and more stable employment for workers displaced by capital's newly acquired flexible mobility—represented by such treaties as NAFTA. As demonstrated in the 1971 Attica prison riot in upstate New York, the criminalization of people of color works to maintain the historical cleavage between European American workers and oppressed nationalities (working class whites from economically depressed towns are often hired "to guard" inmates of color).

Gilmore sees prison expansion explained by two interlocking factors: racism, specifically anti-Black racism, and the lucrative potential of prison construction and its related industries. At one point, by a bread and guns policy, the ruling class, via what is referred to as "Military Keynesianism," worked as "a safety net for the capital class as a whole in all major areas: collective investment, labor division and control, comparative regional and sectoral advantage, national consumer market integration and global reach." This insured a "social wage" where workers could consume the commodities that capitalism produces. It was a liberal social policy that maintained a worker's safety net while simultaneously securing a profit-advantage for the ruling class. The government helped to absorb the flow of capital and risk that the private sector would not entertain on its own. However, post-1970, this trend allegedly became less lucrative for private industry and the trend is now towards increased privatization with less government regulation. 

The years 1967-68 mark the close of a gold age in American capitalist profit elevation.  These years also signal a landmark of the era of organized Black resistance to American imperialism domestically and abroad. H. Rap Brown was a crucial player in such resistance; and certainly the heroic efforts of the Black liberation movement marked a social crisis for the ruling sector of the United States. While Kennedy oversaw a repressive but more liberal capitalism, Nixon's regime, in order to maintain hegemony, engineered a so-called "war on crime" to act as a smoke screen for the repression of Black resistance. Nixon's "law and order" campaigns and counter-factual claims of a rising crime rate worked to obscure his protracted war against imperialism's most valiant resisters—members of the Black Liberation struggle. Through a policy of military spending, the state sucked up a surplus that the private sector could not absorb, working to stabilize "the crisis" created by the 1948 recession and 1972 oil crisis.

So as the ruling class began to disengage from the idea of the "welfare state," a new specter was needed to justify immense spending. The crime panic worked to create the condition of possibility to justify the Prison Industrial Complex. Fear of violent crime greases the wheels of bourgeois ideology, working to rationalize the shameful fact that the United States has the greatest per capita incarceration rate in the so called "civilized world." The correlate in South Africa is that discourse around street crime works to cover up the fact that post-Truth and Reconciliation (a national commission that purported to publicly testify to the injustices during the South African apartheid regime), Black Africans have not received land that was stolen from them. Now with Bush II illegally occupying the White House and pursuing a fast-track fascism and build-up of military spending (note poet-activist Amiri Baraka's jab at Bush in his Afro-American version of the Haiku, the "lowcoup": "The Main Problem with you is that You are not Locked-UP!"), the phenomenon of Nixon's "law and order" campaign is back in full force, rationalizing the most egregious acts of state murder and repression since Reagan. Al-Amin's continued incarceration and current trial must be viewed within this political-economic context in order to gain proper perspective.

Last year I taught poet Asha Bandele's 1999 book The Prisoner's Wife to a group of students in a NYU Black Urban Studies class. In this memoir Bandele documents her marriage to Rashid, the person she fell in love with while conducting a writing workshop in prison.  It occurred to my colleague and me that the condition of possibility for the lexicon of Bandele's memoir is the protracted war/Counter-Intelligence initiatives of the United States government against Black radicals. Early in the text, Bandele and her husband debate whether or not he fits the status of "Political Prisoner":

Back then I saw all prisoners as victims.  I told Rashid this. Yes, well, a lot of us also think like that in the beginning, he said to me. And some people really are, straight-up victims.  At first we say we're all political prisoners because of the politics of the criminal justice system.  And race is always an issue.  But you know, as you get older, you want to take responsibility for all your life.  Because if you live long enough, you do good things too. And I began to want to claim the good I had done. But if I was responsible for that, then I had to be responsible for the bad, too, right?

The incorporation of such a political vocabulary in the text not only represents Bandele's individual politicization, but crucially calls attention to the success of organized education movements and Black progressive communities in bringing a legacy of repression to the forefront. Rashid and Asha go back and forth debating the status of "victim," "political prisoner," and the dialectic between structure and individual agency, conceived by Hegel as freedom versus. necessity. The inclusion of the discussion of "political prisoner" status in the text marks the currency of this term—a currency created by the popularization of these issues by activists and educators.

In the U.S., federal repression of people of color working for social change created the category of political prisoner by locking up and targeting people based on their ideology and work in their communities.  Federal repression of radical activists is a facet of contemporary American political reality H. Rap Brown is greatly acquainted with. The Counter-Intelligence Program initiative spearheaded by J. Edgar Hoover worked through subterfuge, deceit, and terror to break up group alliances, discredit progressive organizations and individuals, and create a climate where leftist organizations were at war with each other as much as with the state. The Federal Bureau of Investigation worked with local law enforcement to spy on radical organizations, falsify documents, and send fake hate mail between activist groups to create rivalries. In a FBI memorandum, dated early in 1968, Hoover called, for example, on the initiative to: "prevent the coalition of militant black nationalist groups, prevent militant black nationalist groups and leaders from gaining respectability, prevent the rise of a black messiah who would unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement," as Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall report in Agents of Repression: The FBI's Secret War Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement.

This infamous memorandum went on to signal the Hon. Elijah Muhammed of the Nation of Islam, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Stokely Carmichael as potential candidates for the "messiah" role, and marked them as targets for neutralization. Under this ethic, Brown, as a civil rights activist, was subject to countless incidents of harassment, surveillance, and intimidation.  Brown was added to the FBI's Most Wanted list in the 70s, and absorbed a great brunt of the COINTELPRO initiatives which took the lives of many members of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP). Churchill and Vander Wall, in the their study of federal repression of the BPP and the American Indian movement, correctly argue that "the Bureau was founded, maintained and steadily expanded as a mechanism to forestall, curtail, and repress the statement of political diversity within the United States." Hoover employed the safe signifying myth of "crime" to cover the agency's excessive acts of violence, and labeled the BPP the "greatest security threat to the US."

SNCC leader and Prime Minister of the BPP Stokely Carmichael was the victim of a FBI move that aimed to create a split between himself and Brown that could have lead to violence and to both groups' liquidation. The Director of the FBI, in a memorandum dated April 1, 1968, describes the following plan of action: "It is suggested that the following letter be sent to H. Rap Brown as soon as he gets out of jail. Dear Rap: Dig this man I got it from the inside. Stokely and [James] Forman sent you to the West Coast so that the man would get you. They are a little too cool for you Rap Baby. With you out of the way they can have the whole pie. Signed, SOUL BROTHER." The memo goes on to specify typing arrangements and typing details in order to mimic authenticity. These kinds of forms of harassment were directly responsible for strain on such diverse groups as the Republic of New Africa, the Independista movement, the American Indian Movement, SNCC, BPP, and various Black Student Unions, and in some cases took the lives of activists.

In 1995, for instance, in Georgia, Al-Amin was charged with aggravated assault after a neighborhood man claimed he had shot him. The accuser later recanted and said that he was pressured by the police to identify Al-Amin as the shooter. Al-Amin has been investigated for everything from domestic terrorism—one large example is that his mosque was fallaciously linked to the first bombing of the World Trade Center—to gunrunning, and a total of fourteen homicides in Atlanta's West End. None of these accusations lead to any convictions and all were attempts to malign Al-Amin's character. The Gatekeepers of law and order never gave up on "getting" Rap Brown, as veteran activist James Forman writes. Everything from his credit/financial history, his marital status, and religious convictions as a Muslim have been grist for the mill. Such a rigorous pursuit of slander on behalf of law enforcement coupled with the still fully unaccountable murders during COINTELPRO of Amin's comrades paints a sour picture of any  attempt by the state to garner legitimacy in Al-Amin's current trial.

"Islam," like "crime," works as an abstraction to raise fear and suspicion for the purpose of rationalizing unethical economic gains. Al-Amin's current trial could be read in light of September 11th more as a forum for denigrating his religious and political convictions, than as an objective venue to insure due process in determining innocence or guilt. As literary scholar and Columbia professor Edward W. Said argues in Covering Islam, "In no really significant way is there a direct correspondence between the 'Islam' in common Western usage and the enormously varied life that goes on within the world of Islam, with its more than 800,000,000 people, its millions of square miles of territory principally in Africa and Asia, its dozens of societies, states, histories, geographies, cultures." Contrary to Salman Rushdie's Op-Ed assertion in the New York Times, neither the continued aggression against the people of Palestine and Afghanistan— nor Al-Amin's trial— is "about Islam" per se. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution spends a great deal of time playing upon such misconceptions and Orientalist fallacies pertaining to Islam in its coverage of Al-Amin's case, from focusing on his so-called zealous Black Power violence, to polygamy and "irrational" marriage habits.  Orientalism, the West's construction of the Orient as "Other," works as an abstraction to ground the West's claim to ethical and civilizational supremacy.  Considering that America's "common-sense," mainstream prejudice and mis-information of Islam is akin to a Tom Wolfe/Joan Didion version of New Journalism that portrayed the Panthers as gun totting, phallus wielding gang members, one has to ask what is actually at stake here in the current persecution of this veteran activist.

Just as the discourse of crime functions, American media language around Islam masks an imperial impulse to gain "stability"— i.e. free markets in the oil rich Middle East. The material consequences of the sort of Bruce Willis Siege type fantasy (a 1998 movie where Bruce, a fascist in real life, plays a maniac general in charge of detaining Arab Americans in Yankee stadium after a series of terrorist attacks) are registered on the heads of victims of US violence in Afghanistan, and in the callous dismissal of Iraqi life by former Secretary of State Madeline Albright.  In 1996, when asked on 60 Minutes if the sanctions against Iraq were worth the death of half a million Iraqi children, Albright stated, "We think the price is worth it."  Post-September 11th mainstream and White House sanctioned debate pertaining to a kind of "United We Stand" sentiment works to obscure cleavages, contradictions, and discrepancies in wealth and access to power domestically and internationally. A blind patriotism, identified correctly by Toni Morrison as a disrespect for independent thinking, obfuscates the very inequality that is working to deny Al-Amin justice. Not only does this blind patriotism demonstrate a profound contempt for the life of impoverished Afghanistan masses, but this mainstream media discourse masks a profound contempt for the victims and surviving families of the September 11th attacks. This is something I am intimately acquainted with, having lost my father that day on the 64th floor of Tower I.

Performance artist and actor Danny Hoch, in his recent piece, "Corner Talk, September," featured in the first progressive anthology pertaining to 9/11, Another World is Possible: Conversations in a Time of Terror, correctly exposes the limits of such a "United We Stand Divided We Fall" mentality when faced with reality of youth in the inner-cities of the U.S.  The following excerpts point to the fact that discourses on American unity smooth over points of difference, such as access to power and resources.

hey yo, I rented the siege last nite son. I swear to my mother george bush is quoting bruce willis from the siege son. They had rounded up all the arabs and put em in some sprung shit, you know like internment camps in brooklyn, and I swear to my grandmother kid, bruce willis said, "make no mistake, we will hunt them down, we will find them, and we will wipe out evil in the world." Rent that shit son! George bush said that shit 15 times this week. "make no mistake, we will do what bruce willis said in the siege" he think he in a movie son! George bush think he fuckin bruce willis. He think colin powell is denzel washington. That shit is crazy sonš.You wasnt patriotic when they was shootin amadou 32 times, or was you? You wasnt patriotic when they was shovin a broom handle in abner louimas ass, or when they was chokin anthony baez to death, or when they was shooting anthony rosario and anibal carrasquillo and frankie arzuaga in the Back, on the Floor, or was you. Why you lookin at me like that? Something wrong? Did I upset you? I didnt mean to upset you. You wasnt patriotic when bruce willis was stealing the fuckin election. Or was you. Tu si tenias la bandera yanqui puesta mientras bombardeaban a vieques, es o no es? Y ahora tu ta patriotico como carajo. You wasn't patriotic when we was bombing 200,000 iraqis, or when we were planting biological warfare in cuba, or when we were buying israel 7000 torture kits. Or was you. Or was you just shook? Hey yo I aint scared yo, I aint scared. People on my block was already threatening to kill me man, cops too. My block already look like a plane hit it. Word is bond son.

Such an illustration of the immanent contradictions of the "New Patriotism" as explored in Hoch's urban realism piece correctly illustrates the paucity and hollowness of mainstream discourse surrounding Islam and the "war on terrorism." We cannot allow H. Rap Brown/Al-Amin to be sacrificed as another victim of that war. That H. Rap Brown's calls for self-defense in the sixties against police racist aggression have been reconfigured as prophecies of violence fits perfectly in the symbolic package of the demonized, threatening Muslim.  The great perpetrators of violence on an immense level have been representatives of the state in forms like Hoover's COINTELPRO, which has been given a de jure jump-start in forms like the Patriot Act. The Patriot Act unconstitutionally curbs democratic forms of dissent against policies of the U.S. government and fits into a current paradigm of further police surveillance, repression, and curtailment of progressive sentiment.  As literary critic and theorist Frederic Jameson points out in his article "Actually Existing Marxism," the United States Intelligence agencies must have taken a page from U.S. Foreign Policy in their ability to reconfigure the Panthers' and SNCC's calls for self-defense as violent provocations: "It should be stressed that the violence and physical repression to be observed in actually existing socialisms was always the response to genuine threats from the outside, to right-wing hostility and violence, and to internal and external kinds of subversion (of which the US blockade of Cuba still offers a vivid illustration)." Al-Amin's religious convictions and political history provide in a post-September 11th context the extra momentum to seal his fate, compromise his civil liberties and neutralize his continued presence in the Muslim community.  A repeal of the gag order and the rescinding of punishment of Al-Amin for violating such a clause is a minimum in insuring accountability and fairness in his case. To attest to the structural inequality and built-in unfairness in the justice system while simultaneously demanding full accountability of the law and due process to insure justice for Al-Amin is a productive contradiction.  In light of the September 11th tragedy, to provide justice for victims like my father, we also need to rethink our policy towards the Arab world. Ruling class interests and oil greed can not be continued to frame assumptions that dictate enemies and friends, and cast right wing fanatics as "the moral equivalent of the founding fathers," to quote President Reagan speaking about the Mujahadeen (the contemporary Taliban regime).

Since the death of my father, I've sat back and watched the Bush administration roll back democracy for American people domestically, bombard the people of Afghanistan and enfranchise the government agencies responsible for training Bin Laden and placing the Taliban in power (the CIA).  There has been a horrific anti-Arab sentiment in the mainstream media, comparable to the criminalization of the Japanese during World War II.  Al-Amin represents a force fighting against American racism; he paved the way through his sacrifice for a lot that my younger generation takes for granted. As a "victim" of 9/11 I will not passively accept sacrificing another innocent brother.  The victims of state aggression like Al-Amin get re-cast in paltry newspaper discourse as domestic threats. If we fail to secure his rights, we not only risk the neutralization of a vital community force, but this failure will be part of a larger trend of retrogression, and in this climate of reaction we will continue to perpetuate a world order more bleak that the late great Dr. DuBois imagined for the turn of the twentieth century.

The author thanks Reginald Betts for his insight into this article, an earlier version of which was published in Blu Magazine Vol 14.

Works Cited

Bandele, Asha. The Prisoner's Wife: A Memoir.  New York: Washington Square Press, 1999.

Churchill, Ward and Jim Vander Wall.  Agents of Repression: The FBI's Secret War Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement. Boston: South End Press, 1990.

Gilmore, Ruth Wilson.  "Globalisation and US Prison Growth: from Military Keynesianism to post-Keynsian Militarism."  Race and Class number 40, volume 2/3.

Hoch, Danny. ""Corner Talk, September."  Kim, Jee et al, eds.  Another World Is Possible: Conversations in a Time of Terror.  New Orleans: New Mouth from the Dirty South, 2001. 

Jameson, Frederic. "Actually Existing Marxism."  Marxism Beyond Marxism.  Makdise, Saree et al, eds.  NY: Routledge, 1996. 

Said, Edward W.  Covering Islam.  New York: Pantheon Books, 1981.

For info on the case of Imam Jamil al Amin see: