Free Them All! Political Prisoners and the Black Radical Tradition

Six Black radicals have endured decades of incarceration because of their 1970s membership in the Black Panthers or its offshoot, the Black Liberation Army. In 2018, there were 19 such political prisoners (and who knows how many before then). After being incarcerated for 40 to 50 years, the other 14 were either released, died in prison, or died shortly after release. (Assata Shakur escaped prison, in 1979, to Cuba where she lives under asylum. She is now 76.)

It is generally understood that the crimes for which these prisoners were arrested and convicted were pinned on them and/or led to disproportionate sentences by officials eager to neutralize and punish these political activists. They are political prisoners.

Former FBI agent Mike German wrote in the Guardian in 2020, “Throughout its history, the FBI has viewed Black activism as a potential national security threat.” This began, he wrote, with J. Edgar Hoover’s targeting of Marcus Garvey and his Universal Negro Improvement Association in the 1920s for “agitating the Negro movement.” During this same period, the FBI ignored the murderous terrorism of White vigilantes. In the 1960s and early 70s, the FBI formed Cointelpro to target Civil Rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and to harass and terrorize activists.

It hasn’t ended. In response to Black Lives Matter, German wrote, the FBI “invented a new domestic terrorism program category it called the ‘Black Identity Extremism movement.'” Its 2018-2019 “Iron Fist” operation prioritized investigating Black protestors “over investigations of far more prevalent violence from white supremacists and far right militants over that period.”

Following the 2020 protests of George Floyd’s murder, members of a new generation of Black activists, like Philadelphians Ant Smith and Khalif Miller, are now also behind bars on federal charges. (Smith’s 2023 sentencing came after the City of Philadelphia settled the case we helped bring on behalf of him and other residents in a predominantly Black West Philadelphia neighborhood. The historic settlement included three other cases arising out of the police department’s excessive and unwarranted use of militaristic force during peaceful protests in that part of the city.)

In the summer of 2020, ALC and the Black Philly Radical Collective held a rally calling for the release of Mumia Abu-Jamal, Joseph Bowen, and Fred Burton along with fellow freedom fighter Russell Maroon Shoatz. Shoatz was convicted of the death of police sergeant Frank Von Colln during a 1970 attack on a police station. It was during the reign of Frank Rizzo in Philadelphia, “infamous for his record on police brutality, especially against communities of color,” WHYY reported.

As our executive director Robert Saleem Holbrook said that day: “These men fought [Rizzo] when he was alive, when he was the police commissioner and when he was the mayor…when he boasted that same police force could invade Cuba and win. That same police force was unleashed on our neighborhoods.”

ALC litigation ended Shoatz’s 22 years of solitary confinement in 2016. We helped win his compassionate release from prison in 2021; he died from terminal cancer 52 days later.

Mumia Abu-Jamal looking at camera, smiling with some white in his beard, with arms crossed

Mumia Abu-Jamal
Incarcerated since: 1981
Age: 69

1: Mumia Abu-Jamal (formerly Wesley Cook) is incarcerated at SCI Mahanoy, PA. Before his arrest, Mumia had been the president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists. He was convicted of murdering police officer Daniel Faulkner and given a death sentence, commuted to life without parole in 2011. In 2023, a judge dismissed his appeal for a new trial based on exonerating evidence found in 2019.

Joseph "Jo-Jo" Bowen in red prison uniform with red cardigan and hat, white beard, looking at camera, unsmiling

Joseph Joe-Joe Bowen
Incarcerated since: 1971
Age: 78

2: Joseph “Joe-Joe” Bowen is incarcerated at SCI Fayette, PA. He was convicted of murdering police officer Joseph Kelly. Prisoner Solidarity states “During his time in prison he has raised the consciousness of thousands of Pennsylvania prisoners through his powerful history and political/military education classes.” He was held in “control unit segregation” for 40 years until 2017.

Fred "Muhammad" Burton with grey and white hair and beard, looking at camera, unsmiling

Fred “Muhammad” Burton
Incarcerated since: 1970
Age: 77

3: Fred “Muhammad” Burton is incarcerated at SCI Somerset, PA. He was also convicted of murdering Sgt. Von Colln and given a death by incarceration sentence.

WHYY reported that Bowen and Burton were also convicted in 1973 of fatally stabbing a prison warden and deputy “after they were denied a room to meet with their Muslim group.”

As Saleem said at the rally in 2020, “We’re not really here to go over whether they are innocent or guilty. Our position is clear: They have done enough time. They’re seniors.”

Veronza Bowers holding a flower outside, smiling, white beard, not looking at camera

Veronza Bowers, Jr.
Incarcerated since: 1973
Age: 78

4. Veronza Bowers, Jr. is incarcerated at FCI Butner, NC for the murder of U.S. park ranger Kenneth Patrick. He’s always said he was framed—convicted solely on the word of two government informers with no other eyewitnesses or evidence. At trial, two of those informants’ relatives testified that the informants were lying but were ignored. His scheduled 2005 parole was blocked “based on political pressure by GW Bush appointed Attorney General Alberto Gonzales apparently on behalf of the Association of National Park Rangers, the widow of the dead ranger and the Fraternal Order of Police.”

Kobo Bomani Sababu in a tan collared shirt with a white top over it and a white hat, with some white in his beard, looking a camera in front of colorful background

Kojo Bomani Sababu
Incarcerated since: 1975
Age: 70

5. Kojo Bomani Sababu (formerly Grailing Brown) is incarcerated at USP Canaan, PA. Arrested for bank robbery, he was then charged with the murder of a drug dealer, and in 1981, convicted of seditious conspiracy. In 1988, he was charged with planning to help Puerto Rican independence fighter Oscar Lopez Rivera escape from federal prison. Pres. Obama later freed Rivera.

Kamau Sadiki with white in his beard, looking at camera, unsmiling

Kamau Sadiki
Incarcerated since: 2002
Age: 71

6. Kamau Sadiki (formerly Freddie Hilton) just turned 71 at Augusta State Medical Prison, GA, where he suffers from inadequate care of several serious health problems. In 2002, after he refused to cooperate with FBI attempts to recapture former MOVE member Assata Shakur, the FBI charged him with the 1971 murder of police officer James Green. There was no evidence and the judge blocked exonerating testimony but allowed irrelevant info about Sadiki’s 1970s Black Liberation Army membership. He got life in prison.

Free them all!