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Home > 2022 > How an American college refused to be cowed down | Pramod Ranjan

Mainstream, VOL LX No 19, New Delhi, April 30, 2022

How an American college refused to be cowed down | Pramod Ranjan

Friday 29 April 2022

by Pramod Ranjan *

For the Brockport College of the State University of New York, March 2022 was a period of frenetic activity. The College faced acerbic attacks from White politicians and a section of newspapers. Reason: The College had invited a convicted Black Panther intellectual for giving a lecture.

It may be pertinent to mention here that Black Panther was the inspiration behind the founding of Dalit Panther in India in the year 1972. The ideology of the Black Panther was the guiding light of the Dalit Panther. But what happened at Brockport holds significance for India in other contexts, too. Freedom of expression is being mercilessly crushed in the Indian institutions of higher learning. The past few years have witnessed innumerable instances of colleges and universities being bamboozled into cancelling their programmes involving intellectuals opposed to the ideology and the policies of the ruling government. The Indian institutions of higher learning are so weak-kneed that they don’t even utter a word of protest in such cases. In contrast, the Brockport College stood its ground and defended its autonomy even in the face of tremendous pressure mounted by the dominant politicians and groups.

What had happened?

The Brockport College invited Jalil Abdul Muntaqim, a former member of Black Panther, as a speaker to one of its programmes. The event was to be held on April 6.

Jalil was arrested in 1971 on the charge of murdering two policemen and was sentenced to 25 years in prison for each murder, the sentences to run consecutively. After spending about 50 years in jail, he was released on 7 October 2020. Arguably, Jalil has served the longest jail term in any democracy of the world, including the USA.

Jalil’s life was traumatic. He was born in Oakland, California and grew up in San Francisco. He spent a major part of his childhood with his mother - a student of African dance and a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an organisation known for protesting excesses against the Blacks. Jalil and other Blacks were addressed derisively as ’niggers’. The driver of the school bus forced Jalil to sit on the seats in the last row. In fact, Jalil’s childhood bore and uncanny resemblance to what an untouchable child faced in India at the time. Both had to face humiliation, discrimination and apathy at every step. That was their fate.

The year 1967 was a turning point in Jalil’s life. On the 2nd of May of that year, about 30 young Black Panthers, armed with rifles and pistols and wearing black glasses, leather jackets and bracelets, captured the California Capitol. The legislature was to take up an anti-gun bill, seeking to prohibit carrying of loaded arms in public. The real intent of the proposed measure was to disarm the Black Panthers, which was rapidly gaining ground in California and the region around in terms of both weapons and ideas.

Jalil, who was 16 at the time, saw this incident as a ray of hope — as something that could win the Blacks their rights — and he got associated with the Black Panther Party.

The next year, Martin Luther King Jr was murdered. A year later, law enforcement officers assassinated 21-year-old Black Panther Fred Hampton in Chicago. These incidents hurt Jalil, who was 18 then, very deeply. Around this time, he was chosen as a member of Black Liberation Army, the underground outfit of Black Panther Party. Black Liberation Army was charged with throwing bombs and committing heists, besides attacking policemen.

On May 21, 1971, the Liberation Army killed two officers of the New York Police in an ambush. Of them, Joseph Piagentini was a White and Waverly Jones was a Black.

Shortly before the incident, a package was delivered to the New York Times. It contained a bullet and a press note that said, "We send them (bullet) in order to exhibit the potential power of oppressed peoples to acquire revolutionary justice. The armed goons of this racist government will again meet the guns of oppressed third world peoples as long as they occupy our community and murder our brothers and sisters in the name of American law and order ... We are revolutionary justice. All Power to the People.” [1]

Jalil Abdul Muntaqim, who was known as Anthony Jalil Bottom then, and his associates were charged with the murder of the two cops.

He was put on trial and despite many contradictions in the depositions of the witnesses for the prosecution, he was convicted and sentenced. The court said that he was may be paroled after 25 years. Accordingly, he become eligible for parole in 1993. But due to stiff opposition by White racist politicians, the organisation of New York police personnel and the kin of the killed cops, his parole applications were rejected on 11 different occasions. Whenever his application came up for hearing before the Parole Board, a bitter campaign was launched demanding its rejection. Thousands of letters were dispatched to the Board and White politicians issued a barrage of statements opposing parole to him, notwithstanding the fact that he was legally entitled to it.

On the other hand, many civil rights organisations and progressive individuals favoured his release.

Ultimately, Jalil was released only after he had spent most his sentence in jail. In an exemplary and inspiring act, Junior Waverly Jones, the son of the slain policeman Waverly Jones, supported his release. Appearing before the Parole Board, he said that the murder should be seen from the ’historical perspective’ of the horrifying racism prevalent then.

While in jail, Jail converted to Islam and took the name of Jalil Abdul Muntaqim. He established his identity as an educationist and a civil rights activist. He struggled for the rights of the prisoners and wrote articles demolishing the theoretical basis of racism. He also wrote a book during his prison days which was published under the title We Are Our Own Liberators.

He was tortured by jail officials for introducing his fellow prisoners to the history of the Blacks and was condemned to solitary confinements for months. Some journalists met him in jail and published his interviews. In these interactions, he sought to throw light on the various dimensions of his ideology.

Reading the story of Jalil Abdul Muntaqim, one is reminded of the Hindutva leader Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. The ideologies of Jalil and Savarkar were poles apart. Savarkar represented the dwij supremacists — the Indian equivalent of the White supremacists of the West. The only similarity between the two is that in 1910, Savarkar was sentenced to 50 years in prison on the charge of murdering a police officer. But within a year, he began groveling before his British masters, seeking his release, invoking the "beneficence and mercy" of the British and promising that in return for freedom, he was "ready to serve the government in any capacity they like." In sharp contrast, Jalil never bowed before the government nor sought an apology.

Be that as it may, the topic of Jalil Abdul Muntaqim’s lecture at Brockport College, State University of New York, was “History of Black Resistance, U.S. Political Prisoners & Genocide: A Conversation with Jalil Muntaqim."

A post on the college website regarding the event introduced Jalil Abdul as a ’political prisoner’. As the news about the proposed event spread, White supremacists brought tremendous pressure to bear upon the college management for cancelling the event. Thousands of e-mails were sent and scores of politicians and police officers wrote to the college, voicing their stern opposition. They objected to Jalil being called a ’political prisoner’ and insisted that legally, he was a convicted murderer and that public funds should be wasted on his lecture. A section of the students of the college also voiced a demand for cancelling the event.

But the college refused to be cowed down. Taking note of the opposition, the college wrote on its website that Jalil has been invited to the college by a faculty member and that "Academic Freedom gives faculty a great deal of autonomy to invite guests of their choosing to address our students. They have a right to pursue research, discuss subject matters, and engage in dialogue. Brockport believes in freedom of speech and wants to continue to encourage the willingness of the community to engage in critical and respectful dialogue. We have routinely held speaking events involving speakers from various backgrounds and viewpoints, and will continue to do so.” [2]

The most interesting part of the information about the event on the college website is the advice to the ’Campus community’ opposing the programme. The college wrote, “We recognize that this event has, and will continue to, elicit strong emotional reactions, and for some, trigger a response to previous trauma. Members of our campus community are invited to utilize the support services available to assist in processing and dealing with the impact this event may be having” [3]

This ’information’ is followed by the address, telephone number etc of the Mental Health Centre of the college. It was also informed that no appointment is necessary for accessing the facility. Whenever one has emotional issues, one can visit the place. Can there be a more apt and a more restrained response to the charge of ’hurt sentiments’.

Needless to say, no Indian institution of higher learning can even dream of responding in this manner. Is it because in the present-day India, the oppressive machinery is very swift and very severe? Or, is it because our educational institutions are much too dependent on the government in administrative and financial matters? Or is it because of the social composition of these institutions, which are dominated by the dwijs? Or is it because of a combination of all these factors?

* (Author: Pramod Ranjan is a journalist and an educationist)


[1Nytimes.com. 1971. The New York Times (archives). [online] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/1971/05/23/archives/police-is-there-a-war-against-the-cops.html [Accessed 7 april, 2022.]

[2Brockport.edu. 2022. Information & Resources for Jalil Muntaqim Event: SUNY Brockport. [online] Available at: https://www.brockport.edu/about/president/jalil_muntaqim_event/ [Accessed 6 April 2022].

[3Brockport.edu. 2022. Information & Resources for Jalil Muntaqim Event: SUNY Brockport. [online] Available at: https://www.brockport.edu/about/president/jalil_muntaqim_event/ [Accessed 6 April 2022].

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