The Return To Torture: The Case Of The San Francisco 8

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On September 17, 2001—in the immediate aftermath of the
9/11 terror attacks—then Attorney General John Ashcroft
created the Anti-Terrorism Advisory Council. The goal of
this organization is to vigorously disrupt potential terrorist
activities in the United States and prosecute any terrorists
who have committed or intend to commit terrorist activities
in the United States. This Council soon came under the control
of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) when it
was created. DHS proceeded to work in tandem with state
governments to create Anti Terrorism Task Forces in every
state with the goal of combating any cases of terrorism, both
past and present. DHS and the Anti-Terrorism Task Forces
re-opened every unsolved case where a police officer had
been murdered and labeled the perpetrators as terrorists.
The federal and state governments were adamant about
fighting terrorism. However, when California’s federal and
state Anti-Terrorism Task Force began investigating an
unsolved murder of a San Francisco police officer, it would
ironically lead to their acceptance and condoning of terror
tactics used against innocent Americans, in this case
against former Black Panther Party members.
On August 29, 1971, a San Francisco police officer
named John Young was murdered. Police investigators
believed the perpetrators were members of the Black Liberation
Army, an ideological offshoot of the Black Panther
Party that believed in armed struggle for liberation. This
split was not just due to differences in ideology but also
due to inter-organizational problems from the FBI’s
counter-intelligence program (COINTELPRO) disruption/
neutralization activities directed at the Panthers.
COINTELPRO’s extralegal activities varied from illegal surveillance
to murder and were used to disrupt the efforts of
the Black Panther Party and a wide number of dissident
political organizations during the 1960s and 1970s.
Two years later in 1973, three members of the Black
Panthers/BLA, John Bowman, Ruben Scott, and Harold
Taylor, were arrested in New Orleans. Two officers from
the San Francisco Police Department who were also working
with the FBI—Frank McCoy and Ed Erdelatz—would
ask the three men questions hoping to get answers. When
the three men refused, McCoy and Erdelatz left the room.
The three BLA members were then tortured. According to
Bowman, Scott and Taylor—the three men suffered systematic
and purposeful torture that the police hoped
would get them to confess to Officer Young’s murder.
Describing the events that took place in the New Orleans
police station, Harold Taylor stated: “I was in there for maybe
five minutes, when the door opened. Three police officers of
New Orleans came in, dragging me out by my heels, took me
to a chair, where they handcuffed me to the chair and handcuffed
my ankles, my feet, to the bottom part of the chair.
Without asking any questions, they commenced beating
me… [The cattle prod was placed] down on my private parts,
under my neck, behind my ears, down my back. I think I
passed out one time, and they woke me back up, and they
had taken me to another room. Two detectives had me by one
arm—by each arm, and a detective came out of nowhere and
he just cold-cocked me and knocked—I mean, he knocked
me straight out. I was unconscious… There was two detectives
from San Francisco. I later found out it was McCoy and
Erdelatz. They started asking me questions. They told me
they had a script. I’m sure I saw a recorder there, too. And
they was reading to me about what they said took place in
San Francisco. I told them I had no knowledge of it…It was
back again with the plastic bag. This time they had a blanket.
I don’t know what they soaked it in, but it was really, really
hot, and they just covered me with that blanket and put that
plastic bag over my head. And I couldn’t scream, I couldn’t
holler. I couldn’t get my hands up to poke a hole in the bag,
because I was handcuffed to the chair and my legs were tied
to the chair. And they kicked the chair over and let me just
suffocate. I was just about to pass out. They would snatch it
off, spit in my face, and they left me sitting there for a little
while. McCoy and Erdelatz, they started asking me questions.
I had no knowledge of the things they were asking me, so I
couldn’t answer them, you know. So
they said, “Well, we’ll”—they turned
off the recorder or whatever they had
and said, “We’ll tell you what happened.
And then after we tell you, this
is what we want you to say.”
According to the San Francisco
Chronicle: “A court found that
when the two San Francisco police
investigators who came to Louisiana
to interview the three men were out
of the room, New Orleans officers
stripped the men, blindfolded
them, beat them and covered them
in blankets soaked in boiling water.
They also used electric prods on
their genitals, court records show.” As a result, a federal
court ruled in 1974 that both San Francisco and New
Orleans police had engaged in torture to extract a confession.
A San Francisco judge dismissed the charges against
the three men based on the federal court’s ruling in 1975.
Fast forward almost thirty years. Due to the tragic events
of September 11, 2001, the United States government created
the Department of Homeland Security. Using Department
of Homeland Security money, special divisions called
Anti-Terrorism Task Forces were created to work in tandem
with state governments to
apprehend suspected terrorists,
including cases that were still
unsolved like Officer Young’s
murder from 1971.
The state of California and
the federal task force re-opened
the case of Officer Young in
2003. In 2005, the government
began to convene grand juries
to pursue charges against members
of the Black Liberation
Army that they had been investigating.
The BLA/Black Panthers
who had been tortured in
the 1970’s and other members—
Richard Brown, Ray
Boudreaux, Harold Taylor,
Hank Jones and John Bowman—
were jailed for refusing
to cooperate with the grand
jury investigations. In January
of 2007, it was announced by the San Francisco Police
Department that nine BLA/Black Panthers—Richard
Brown, Richard O’Neal, Ray Boudreaux, Hank Jones,
Francisco Torres, Harold Taylor, Harold Bell and Jalil
Muntaqim—were arrested and were charged.
Prosecutors have stated that they have no new physical
evidence in the case since it was originally dismissed. The
physical evidence the prosecution does have is very limited.
An affidavit filed with the court said in 2004 an FBI
investigator matched five of the fifteen shotgun shells
recovered from the crime scene to spent shells recovered
from a shotgun found at Herman Bell’s New Orleans home
in 1973. But police are now saying they have since lost the
shotgun allegedly found at Bell’s house. This means that
defense forensic scientists cannot duplicate the conclusions
of the FBI. There was also a latent fingerprint that
was lifted off of a lighter. There was an attempt to match it
to Francisco Torres and a number of other people. All of
these tests yielded negative results. These attempts continued
all the way up until 2002.
Due to the lack of physical evidence, the prosecutors
are relying on a theory that implicates all eight defendants
(John Bowman has since died of terminal cancer in
December 2006). The prosecutors are relying on the belief
that the BLA was involved in a conspiracy to murder as
many police officers as possible. In order to supplement
their theory of the crime and limited physical evidence,
prosecutors plan to use the confessions that the three BLA
members gave in the 1970’s to
prove their guilt. Yes, the same confessions
that federal and California
courts dismissed in 1975 because
tactics of terror and torture were
used to retrieve the confessions.
The case of what is now known as
the San Francisco Eight is not only a
local issue for the citizens of San
Francisco and the state of California.
This case fits into the framework of
debate about the functionality and
acceptance of torture in America.
Americans are now familiar with the
vile, disgusting photographs and
reports of systematic torture by US
soldiers that emerged from the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.
Americans have been exposed to the ugly realities of waterboarding,
sensory deprivation and the indefinite detentions
at Guantanamo Bay and other secret prisons being used in
the ‘War on Terror.’ People are aware of the publicized
police abuses like the torture of black suspects by the New
York Police Department. The public knows about Sergeant
Burge who tortured over 100 black men in the South Side of
Chicago. Abuses have even been known to occur locally
after Sergeant Myers pled guilty to tasering inmates in
The United States government has created these anti-terror
organizations to protect our rights that are enshrined in
the Constitution and protect all citizens from being terrorized.
There is a disappointing incongruence between the
Constitutional ideals that our government should uphold
and their current activities to legitimize torture as a necessary
tool in their war to combat terrorism. The San Francisco
Eight case seeks to normalize torture as an acceptable practice
to elicit legal confessions inside the United States legal
system. If we do not condone the use of torture or terrorism
against American citizens, then the United States government
must end the prosecution of the San Francisco Eight.
Addendum: The San Francisco 8 had initial bail hearings
and two—Richard O’Neal and Richard Brown have been
freed on bail. Further hearings on court motions will continue
on Sept. 11, 2007.

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