In memory: Geronimo Ji Jaga Pratt, warrior for justice and freedom

Published on Indymedia, by Gloria Riva, June 11, 2011, (first on Liberation).

Geronimo Ji Jaga Pratt, noted Black revolutionary who fought a 27-year battle for freedom after an FBI frame-up, died at his home in Tanzania on June 3 at the age of 63 due to illness. He had been living in Tanzania for several years, after his hard-won release from California prison in 1997.

Geronimo was born Elmer Gerard Pratt on Sept. 13, 1947, the youngest of seven children. He grew up in rural Louisiana, Morgan City, during the era of segregation. Ku Klux Klan attacks on the Black community were common. 

Geronimo’s consciousness was shaped in early life by the brutal racism of the South. Early on, his family and community instilled in him an understanding of the need for community self-defense against racist attack. He was deeply affected as a 15-year-old when his brother Timothy was viciously beaten by Ku Klux Klan members.

Geronimo and his three brothers worked hard alongside their father Jack, collecting scrap metal to sell in New Orleans. In the biography “Last Man Standing: The Tragedy and Triumph of Geronimo Pratt” by Jack Olsen, Geronimo recounted: “Daddy taught us to be tough … me and my brothers, we worked in that fire and smoke till we near dropped, baled up rope, rags, newspapers, ripped the lead plates out of batteries, raked hot ashes for coat hangers and wire springs and bolts. … We could break the welds and chop up a car in an hour…”

When his father suffered a debilitating stroke, it was now upon his mother and the children to keep the family going. It is a tribute to the parents’ determination that all the children went to college.

Deacons for Defense:

Geronimo’s life took a different turn at the age of 17. The elders in the African American community led an organization called Deacons for Defense and Justice. They quietly but effectively organized self-defense of their community.

After another killing by Klansmen, the elders called on Geronimo and other youth to join the U.S. military. Their training would help defend the community on their return. Geronimo said, “By the time the elders finished amping me up, I was ready to take on the whole KKK single-handed.” (Last Man Standing, p. 26)

The next day he took a bus to join the army.

Geronimo served two tours in Vietnam. He was wounded twice and awarded two purple hearts. His war injuries would haunt him in prison, where extremely harsh conditions made his physical suffering greater. It was on his second tour that he became conscious of the genocidal and racist nature of the war.

With his discharge from the military in the summer of 1968, the elders sent him to Los Angeles to meet the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Geronimo quickly met BPP leader Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter, who educated him in revolutionary politics, and gave him the name Geronimo Ji Jaga.

Carter in turn recognized Geronimo’s abilities. He was exceptional for his keen defense and discipline skills, forged in his childhood and U.S. military training, as well as a deep sense of justice.

Defense minister for Black Panther Party: … //

… Framed for murder:

One year earlier on the evening of Dec. 18, 1968, a woman named Caroline Olsen and her husband Kenneth were shot in a tennis court during an apparent robbery in Santa Monica. Caroline Olsen died 11 days later.

With false information from BPP member Julius Butler—who was revealed years later as an FBI informant and close collaborator—Geronimo was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. At the time of the murder, Geronimo was in Oakland at a BPP meeting, and the FBI, which had the Los Angeles and Oakland offices under constant surveillance and wiretapping, was fully aware of this fact. The FBI had successfully exploited growing divisions and manufactured others inside of the BPP so that witnesses who were with Geronimo refused to testify on his behalf.

Because of FBI and LAPD falsification—and the COINTELPRO operation unknown to anyone at the time—Geronimo was convicted. The trial included false testimony against Geronimo based on lies told by the FBI informer. For 27 long years—including eight years in solidarity confinement—Geronimo suffered the brutality of prison, demonization and a long chain of frustrated appeals and parole denials.

It took many years and the tireless work of appeals attorney Stuart Hanlon, along with trial lawyer Johnnie Cochran, before Geronimo was finally freed.

In a rare occurrence, the FBI and LAPD had to pay a $4.5 million settlement for his wrongful conviction. But no amount of money could make up for the years Geronimo lost and his suffering at the hands of the state.

Bato Talamantez, former political prisoner of the San Quentin Six struggle, was a close friend of Geronimo. “Ji, like George Jackson, was a great bridge of love and solidarity between prison racial groups, trying to bring about unity so they could win justice for everyone.

“He continued to care greatly about serving the Black community, in Morgan City or Tanzania. Ji confided to me many times, and he told me again last month after his visit to the U.S., ‘I’m going back across the waters … to Mother Africa.’”

Attorney Stuart Hanlon said: “Geromino was much more than a client. From the very beginning he was a close friend. What I will remember most about him is his warmth, his joy at life, his lack of bitterness at those who framed him and took away 27 years of freedom. I will also remember his indomitable will and strength, his refusal to yield or bow to oppression and fear. He often told me they locked him in the hole for nine years but never could take away his freedom, the freedom of his mind and soul to soar and be always with his comrades and his ancestors.

“The Government could never silence him or his voice. Before his false imprisonment, during and after, his voice rang true for justice and freedom, for the end to racial and all forms of oppression. While in prison and for the 14 years outside that he had after his release, he was relentless in fighting for these beliefs. He was, and is a true warrior and leader. I will miss my friend, and we will all miss the power and commitment of the warrior Geronimo Ji Jaga.” (full text).

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