The trial of the San Francisco 8

By Ben Terrall

On Monday, June 8, the seven former Black Panthers known as the San Francisco 8 will face a preliminary hearing in Superior Court. The defendants are charged in the 1971 death of a local police officer; the charges were initially brought back in 1975, and dismissed when a judge ruled that the central evidence in the case was obtained through torture.

In fact, the FBI COINTELPRO-era case has a chilling resemblance to stories of torture at Guantanamo Bay: the statements were obtained after several of the suspects were subject to sleep deprivation, wet blankets used for asphyxiation, and beatings.

Now, although the San Francisco district attorney refused to file charges, Attorney General Jerry Brown has brought the case back. In 2007, he charged eight men – all of them now in their 60s, 70s and 80s – with murder. One defendant has been dropped from the case.

The remaining defendants are Herman Bell, Ray Boudreaux, Richard Brown, Henry (Hank)Jones, Jalil Muntaqim (Anthony Bottom), Harold Taylor and Francisco Torres.

The case has attracted international attention, and Nobel Prize winners including Desmond Tutu have called on Brown to drop the charges.

Locally, it’s led to a fascinating battle within the San Francisco Labor Council.

On Feb. 9, the council passed a resolution calling for the dismissal of all charges.

Then Gary Delagnes, the SF Police Officers Association President, launched an attack on the resolution and tried to get the council to repeal it.

But on April 13, in a victory for the activists and their backers, the
Delegates Assembly of the SF Labor Council voted against a motion to rescind or repeal the SF 8 resolution. The 45 to 40 vote upheld the resolution.

Letter Carriers local 214 delegate Dave Welsh saluted the Labor Council’s decision, writing that progressive activists would “savor this small but significant victory.”

In a statement issued after the April 13 vote, the Free the SF 8 Committee argued, “This vote is a tribute to the solidarity of the progressive labor movement in San Francisco and its willingness to value political principles and refuse to endorse a 37-year old prosecution based on statements made under police torture. We thank all the delegates and the rank and file members of the Bay Area unions that voted and signed statements of solidarity calling for the dropping of charges against the San Francisco 8!”

Delagnes’s opposition to the resolution cited old allegations from the complaint against the SF 8. Supporters of the SF 8 note that "the prosecution claims to have a murder weapon but says it is now missing.” Further, the prosecution admitted in 2008 that DNA taken from the defendants in June, 2006 did not match DNA from the crime scene, and fingerprints alleged to match one of the defendants apparently don’t match at all.

Activists also point to the millions of dollars the case will cost the State of California in the midst of a budget crisis and massive layoffs of workers.

Black Panther Party members were targeted through the FBI’s COINTELPRO program for assassination, false imprisonment, and ongoing police harassment.

The FBI’s San Francisco Field Office generated thousands of pages documenting illegal electronic surveillance of Panthers in the Bay Area. The information was used to create divisions within the Party, frame its members for crimes they didn’t commit, and disrupt many of the BPP’s service programs, including breakfast programs for children, health clinics, schools and child care centers.

Richard Brown, one of the 8, told us that the Black Panthers were about “serving the people… and I continued to serve the people as an individual by working with community-based organizations.” Now a community court arbitrator at the Ella Hill Hutch Center who works to push alternatives to violence among black and brown youth, Brown has over 30 years experience working in support of affirmative action.

He told us, “I’ve always been an advocate, and have worked with all kinds of people to see that women and minorities got what they deserved.” He also has years of experience with the African-American Community Police Relations Board, which works to improve neighborhood interactions with the SFPD.

Brown said that the Labor Council’s decision was “wonderful … we [the 8] owe them a great deal of gratitude. We asked for support and we got justice. They were wonderful, they came through.” Brown said he hoped that the debate about the resolution would not lead to future division on the council, because the SFLC’s history “of social justice and moral stands” needs to continue.

At posting time, the SF Police Officers Association President had not responded to Bay Guardian requests for a comment on the labor council’s vote.

By Tim Redmond: May 04, 2009 03:58 PM

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