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Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt: The Untold Story of the Black Panther Leader, Dead At 63

Elmer Pratt, the prominent Black Panther known by his nom de guerre, Geronimo ji-Jaga, died at 63 on June 2 in Tanzania. He had served 27 years in prison in Los Angeles for murder, the first eight in solitary confinement, and had been denied parole 16 times before his sentence was vacated and he was freed. His conviction for the 1968 slaying of Caroline Olsen became an international cause célèbre, and the long campaign to free him was supported by politicians on both sides of the aisle, by luminaries like Nelson Mandela, and by the ACLU, the NAACP and Amnesty International.

Pratt’s former comrades in the Black Panther Party mourned his death in public pronouncements. Former Black Panther chief of staff, David Hilliard, said Pratt “symbolized the best of human spirit .... He is one of the true heroes of our era [who] dedicated his life to service of his people.” At a memorial service, Panther party co-founder Bobby Seale praised Pratt as an “exceptional and methodical leader in our Black Panther Party.”

Pratt was widely viewed as a martyr of racial injustice and admired as both a leader on the outside and a scholar while in prison—“our Mandela,” one activist described him— who had been railroaded by the FBI's COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) and the Los Angeles Police Department. That was certainly true. The prosecution in Pratt’s trial concealed evidence that would have probably exonerated him. 

But there is one important part of Pratt’s story—one largely ignored, in the scrutiny of FBI tactics against the Panthers, but that I learned during three decades of covering the Black Panthers as a journalist. While Pratt was a victim of the government’s attempt to destroy the Panthers, he was also a victim of a schism within the Black Panther Party. Panther leader Huey Newton ordered members not to corroborate Pratt’s alibi that he was in Oakland meeting with Panther Central Committee members at the time the murder took place. The refusal of Panther members to back up Pratt’s story—which subsequently was confirmed—undermined his own alibi and helped to convict him.

Pratt’s story is part of the tangled history of the Sixties—and of the violent clash between black militants and government authorities. Both sides had their justification: The Panthers argued that the civil disobedience championed by Martin Luther King was no longer effective in securing racial justice; and the police and FBI saw themselves as forces of law and order in a time of ghetto riots, massive anti-war demonstrations, and deliberate attacks by armed Panthers against the police. But as Pratt’s story makes clear, both sides often behaved in ways that were far from heroic.

ELMER GERARD PRATT (the name he rejected later as that of a “dirty dog” slave master when he was 20), was born in Louisiana on Sept. 13, 1947, the youngest of seven children. His parents ran a scrap metal business. Pratt, a high school quarterback, joined the Army after graduation, serving two tours of duty in Vietnam. He earned two Purple Hearts and was promoted to sergeant, but left the Army with an honorable discharge, shattered by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

Back in the States, Pratt drove west to enroll in UCLA under a program recruiting minorities. Using his Army benefits for tuition, he became a political science major. At UCLA, he met Bunchy Carter, a charismatic leader of the Los Angeles chapter of the Black Panthers. Carter recruited him into the party and fostered his political education.

Seale and Newton had founded the Black Panther party in Oakland in 1966. It was originally dedicated to protecting black neighborhoods from police brutality, and the Panthers themselves became known for flaunting their weapons in public—“taking up the gun,” as it was called, and shocking the nation in 1967 by marching into the California State Legislature, rifles in tow, wearing their iconic black leather jackets and berets. By the time Pratt joined, the party had several thousand members, a newspaper, and almost 30 chapters around the country. In September 1968, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover called the Panthers “the greatest threat to the internal security of the nation.”

Pratt was only 20 years old when Carter recruited him, but as a decorated Army veteran he became known for his skills with weaponry. He became the military operations chief for the LA group. He taught weaponry to the Panther cadres and organized the defense of their chapter in 1969 when local police were attacking Panther redoubts nation-wide. LA Panthers were also then locked in gang-like war with the a rival black nationalist group, US (United Slaves), headed by Ron Karenga, known for his invention of the holiday Kwanzaa. In January, 1969, members of Karenga’s group killed Carter and another prominent Panther, John Huggins in a shootout on the UCLA campus. Pratt succeeded Carter as the LA Panther chief following Carter’s recorded instructions in the event of his death.

Pratt was highly respected, but also feared for administering corporal punishment and Panther-ordered “hits.” In 1969, Pratt and an associate Julius Butler were arrested and charged with pistol-whipping a 17-year-old Panther whom they suspected of working with Karenga. Butler pleaded guilty, but Pratt got off on a hung jury. Over the years covering the Panthers, I heard several sources exclaim somewhat jocularly about Pratt and the Olsen murder, “Well, he didn’t commit that murder.”

THAT MURDER TOOK PLACE on the evening of December 18, 1968, on a Santa Monica tennis court when two black men accosted a white elementary schoolteacher, Caroline Olsen, and her husband, Kenneth, demanding money. When the robbery netted only 30 dollars, the disappointed men shot both Olsens. Caroline died 11 days later; her husband survived.

Santa Monica police made no progress on the murder for two years. But then Butler, who had vied with Pratt for leadership of the L.A. chapter and had later been expelled, handed one police officer a sealed letter in which he claimed to have heard Pratt bragging about being Caroline Olsen’s killer. Butler also claimed that Pratt’s gun was the murder weapon.

Police traced some of the bullets to Pratt’s gun. And they also tagged Pratt’s car, which he had continued to drive, as the getaway vehicle described by Kenneth Olsen. Pratt was arrested in Dallas in 1970 and charged with murder and kidnapping. He insisted that at the time of the murder he was 340 miles away in Oakland, attending a series of Panther Central Committee meetings. He told police his car and gun were common Panther possessions that others used. But lacking credible corroboration of his main alibi, he was convicted and drew a life sentence.

Soon after Pratt entered Los Angeles County jail, his legal team, which at one time included Johnnie Cochran, began raising serious questions about the trial. Julius Butler, they learned, had lied on the stand when he denied that he was a government informer. The prosecution knew this.

The prosecution also failed to inform the jury that Kenneth Olsen had originally identified as his assailant someone whom he described as tall with Negroid features. Pratt was short, and light-skinned. His nickname—Geronimo—had as much to do with his Native-American color and features as it did with his ferocity as a soldier and fighter. (Among intimates, Pratt referred to himself simply as “G.”)

Almost three decades later, an appeals court judge, citing the two omissions, vacated Pratt’s sentence; and the L.A. District Attorney declined to prosecute in a new trial. Pratt was freed, and in a subsequent civil suit, was awarded $4.5 million for false imprisonment. (According to Pratt’s attorney, LA paid $3 million; the FBI reneged.)

IT IS LIKELY that the FBI and the Oakland police could have confirmed Pratt’s story that he was in Oakland for the period covering the week of the murder. At the FBI’s behest, wiretaps were placed in Panther hangouts in LA and Oakland. Retired FBI agent Wesley Swearingen wrote a book about the FBI’s targeting the Panthers and said he had seen evidence of COINTELPRO wiretaps that backed Pratt’s presence in Oakland during the murder, but that later those files had disappeared. Oakland police had wiretaps on various Oakland Panther haunts, but when Pratt’s attorneys tried to subpoena them, according to Stuart Hanlon, Pratt’s long-time attorney, Oakland police claimed the taps had been destroyed. (Years later, as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the FBI, the wire taps surfaced and again confirmed Pratt’s presence in Oakland.) Said Hanlon, “I knew they existed. The FBI never throws anything away!”

Of course, the other group who knew Pratt was in Oakland were was the local leaders of the Panthers, but by the time of Pratt’s trial, the party was locked in a deadly dispute between Newton and Eldridge Cleaver. While in prison for rape, Cleaver had written a best-selling book of essays, Soul on Ice. After he was released from jail, he joined up with Newton and Seale. In 1967, when Newton was jailed for the shooting death of an Oakland policeman, Cleaver ran the party. In 1968, Cleaver was arrested for a shooting ambush of Oakland police. He jumped bail and fled to Cuba and then Algeria, where he championed the cause of violent revolution.

When Newton was released in 1970, his sentence overturned on trial errors, he re-assumed command—David Hilliard had succeeded Cleaver—and called for abandoning armed struggle in favor of “survival programs pending the revolution.” Cleaver—from Algeria—denounced Newton’s approach as “sissy” and renewed his call for armed insurrection. Pratt had favored military action and sided with the Cleaver faction in the party. In 1971, Newton expelled Pratt (who was awaiting trial in prison) from the Panther party, along with Eldridge Cleaver and his wife Kathleen. When Pratt’s pregnant wife was murdered that year, Pratt believed the brutal stabbing might have been ordered by Newton.

When the trial took place in 1972, Seale and Hilliard, who had been present at the 1968 meetings in Oakland, refused to testify. Bob Bloom, another of Pratt’s attorneys, told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1991 that Seale and Hilliard had come forward to tell him that Pratt was there, but they admitted that they couldn’t testify earlier because Newton had dictated that Panthers “should not associate or help Geronimo Pratt,” or they would be expelled. (The only Panther to testify on Pratt’s behalf was Kathleen Cleaver, who risked personal injury in returning from exile in Algeria for the trial, but her testimony was considered too vague and unspecific about dates and times to help Pratt.) In 1992, Seale and Hilliard announced publicly that they had been wrong not to come forth to support Pratt’s alibi.

DURING THE YEARS Pratt served in jail, Newton turned a political organization into a street gang. Initially, he embarked on “survival programs,” including the Panther school and free breakfast program. He courted white support, traveled to China and met with Chou en Lai. But at the same time, he organized a secret criminal enterprise in the Oakland streets that used muscle, arson and even murder to extort club owners, dealers, and pimps. He expelled party members who had sided with Cleaver or whom he believed to have crossed him, including Seale and Hilliard.

In 1974, Newton went on a cocaine-fueled rampage of serial violence in which he shot to death a teen-aged prostitute, pistol-whipped his tailor, and viciously beat two women in a nightclub. Returning in 1977 to face charges, he reportedly had his personal thugs beat up Elaine Brown, who was the caretaker chairman while Newton hid out in Cuba after he was charged with the murder of the prostitute. Newton’s leftist lawyers prevailed to keep him from prison, but all the charges and Newton’s after-hours violence hurt the party.

The Panthers withered away. Once loyal cadres fled. By the mid-80s, Newton and his cocaine habit were all that was left. Addicted to crack, hewas killed on an Oakland street in 1989 by a drug-dealer who told me after his conviction that he was tired of Newton demanding free cocaine.

Before he died, however, Newton had tried to make amends with Pratt. In August, 1988, Newton was sent to San Quentin, where Pratt also was serving, for a parole violation. “Newton was terrified of meeting up with Geronimo,” Hanlon recalled recently, “but they made up.” In turn, when Newton’s sentence of 60 days was up, he refused to be freed to protest Pratt’s incarceration. Hanlon said he and Pratt’s other lawyers preferred that Newton leave prison and then work outside to get him released, but finally Newton simply left, his protest over.

When Pratt was finally released in 1997, Hilliard and Elaine Brown showed up to embrace him. The old feuds, killings, and betrayals were forgotten, blamed on COINTELPRO and various police forces—on everything else but themselves. Pratt himself didn’t stick around long to enjoy the good fellowship. After 27 years in prison, he took off for tranquil Tanzania. Panther days and old battles no longer interested him; and he seemed to have left his own violent past well behind him. Last April before he died, he visited California on a mission, according to Hanlon: “He was working for the cause of people he knew who were still in prison because of COINTELPRO, spending his own money. He had a commitment to help friends still in prison.”

Kate Coleman is a journalist who has covered the Black Panthers since 1977 (“The Party’s Over,” New Times) and in numerous articles since. She is the author of The Secret Wars of Judi Bari, the Earth First leader.