Diane Piagentini at home. Photograph: The Guardian
Such a backlash to the parole of his co-defendant underlines the huge challenge facing Muntaqim as he goes before the parole board in August.
In his favor is the clean prison record he has held for years. So too is the mellowing of his character since the heady days of his black liberationist activism as a teenager.
Ive matured. I now take the r off the word and make it evolutionary. Revolution for me is the evolutionary process of building a higher level of consciousness in society at large. Im an evolutionary revolutionary.
He also said that his views on armed struggle had evolved. He said the priority now was not insurrection but to build a mass popular movement. I prefer to say we are armed with ideas, and compassion and love for our people.
Like most of the 19 remaining black radicals behind bars, he sees himself as a political prisoner, arguing that his participation with the Black Panthers was undertaken for no personal self-aggrandizement or profit. In 1998, he formed the
Jericho movement, which campaigns for those it calls political prisoners and prisoners of war.
My engagement in the struggle was self-sacrifice because of my love of my people and humanity. Because of that I was targeted by the government and that indicates that my incarceration is of a political nature.
untaqims conflict his burning desire for freedom rubbing against his determination not to renounce his politics which he sees as noble is shared by most of the 19 remaining black radicals behind bars. M
Of the 19, all but three were convicted of murdering police or other uniformed officers. Many profess their innocence, and most argue they have been selectively subjected to the full wrath of the American state.
How does their treatment compare with that of other convicted murderers who killed officers in the course of committing common crimes such as robberies? Firm comparisons are impossible given the devolved nature of Americas criminal justice system. As the Sentencing Project points out, the 50 states vary on sentencing. As there are relatively few political cases, its hard to form any concrete conclusions.
International comparisons, however, are instructive. Compared with the penal treatment of armed revolutionaries who were carrying out violent acts in Europe in the 1970s, the US appears far less open to concepts of rehabilitation.
Take the Baader-Meinhof Gang in then West Germany, the far-left militant group founded in 1970 also known as the Red Army Faction. One of its militants, Irmgard Mller, was arrested in 1972 for bombings that wounded several police officers and killed three soldiers she was released in 1995. Brigitte Mohnhaupt was captured in 1982 and sentenced to five life terms for her role in numerous assassinations she too was
released in 2007 after 24 years in prison and since then has lived anonymously with no further engagement with law enforcement.
Criminal justice reformers argue the long sentences of the black radicals have to be seen in the context of Americas uniquely severe approach to punishment, especially for black men. The US has 5% of the worlds population, but 25% of worlds prisoners, with more than 2 million in confinement. Black people in America are almost six times as likely to be imprisoned per capita than white people.In 2016, according to the
Pew Research Center, black people represented 12% of the US adult population but 33% of the prison population. White people, by contrast, accounted for 64% of adults but 30% of prisoners.
The vast pool of captive Americans is also ageing fast. By 2030, people aged 50 or older are
projected to account for a third of the US incarcerated population.
The issue is one of justice and rehabilitation, said Robert Boyle, who has represented six former Black Panthers in parole proceedings, including Herman Bells. He declined to discuss the Bell case but said in general terms: Its a discussion that we need to have in this country and around the world. Is the only justice for the murder of a police officer or other serious crime that the person is executed or dies in jail, even when they are no longer any danger to the public?
The writer and activist Angela Davis, who was herself branded by President Richard Nixon a dangerous terrorist after she was accused but later acquitted of involvement in a courtroom kidnapping, told me that the remaining imprisoned black liberationists were caught in a double-bind. Either they repent of crimes they may not have committed, or they die in their cells.
Many of the people in prison, I believe, are not actually guilty of the charges. They would have to confess to engaging in acts which they hadnt engaged in.
Davis said that there was also pressure on the militants to betray their politics. They have to denounce a party that was the forerunner of movements like Black Lives Matter today.
hen Jalil Muntaqim stands before the parole board in a few days time, he is almost certain to be asked what happened on the night of 21 May 1971. When I met him in prison, I asked the same question. W
He still believes that his case was unjustly handled. He has obtained documents under freedom of information laws that show that Nixon and Hoover took close personal interest in the hunt for the killers of the New York police officers, which they codenamed Newkill, short for New York killings. That unusual collaboration between the White House, FBI and local detectives had not been disclosed to Muntaqims defense team at trial as it should have been.
Muntaqim also believes the documents point to glaring discrepancies in evidence put to the jury about the gun used in the murders.
Is he saying that there was a desire at highest level to pin the killings of Piagentini and Jones on him?
I am saying that emphatically. This case was a frame-up. It is important that people understand we did not receive a fair trial. Nixon and the FBI intended to make sure Black Panther party members were convicted of this crime.
Despite the injustices he insists he suffered, Muntaqim is not making a claim of innocence. Since 2006, he has been
telling the parole board every two years that he takes responsibility for the shootings and that I deeply regret my involvement in these tragic deaths.
He said to us: I have admitted to committing this act and have accepted responsibility. I have also expressed remorse for the loss of life. I understand the devastation for anyone losing their loved one. Both families the Jones family and the Piagentini have lost somebody very precious to them.
Were he to be allowed to walk free, he said, his focus would be to re-establish my relationship with my family. I havent spent a single day with my daughter on the streets. Im a great-grandfather and I havent spent any time with any of my kids.
He had a direct message for Diane Piagentini: I understand her anguish. She lost the love of her life and her childrens father. Thats devastating. I understand her hurt and pain, I truly do.
Piagentini is having none of that. Muntaqim, she said, has never admitted to killing my husband. He has never shown any remorse. All he is trying to do is get out of prison.
Of the death of her husband almost 47 years ago, she said:
The hurt never goes away. To know that he will never come home again I dont feel it any less. He didnt want to leave me that night, and therefore he has never left me.
She scoffed at the idea that Muntaqim and his peers were political prisoners. These men are not political prisoners, that is a figment of their imagination. They did not have to do what they did to be in politics. There is no war. This was murder. They are murderers.