jericho dragon

August 29, 2007

The FBI's secret war against the Black Panthers
is under close scrutiny in Omaha COINTELPRO case

By Michael Richardson

Omaha, Nebraska, birthplace of Malcolm X, has a long history of racial tension. In September 1919 a white crowd of 4,000 burned the Douglas County Courthouse to gain access to an accused black prisoner, Will Brown. Brown had been erroneously accused of the rape of a white woman and was in custody at the courthouse when the lynch mob gathered in the streets of downtown Omaha.

Mayor Edward Smith sought to quiet the mob and was dragged to a lamppost and hanged with a makeshift noose. Pulled down by a quick acting policeman the mayor hovered near death for several days. Will Brown was not so lucky. The mob hanged Brown and then dragged his body through the downtown streets behind a car before burning it on a street corner.

Fifty years later an Omaha policeman shot a 14 year-old girl, Vivian Strong, in the back to disperse a crowd. The death of the youngster triggered a year of intense tension between Omaha police and the black community.

Chief critics of the Omaha police were Black Panthers Ed Poindexter and Mondo we Langa (formerly David Rice). Poindexter and Langa were the leaders of the Panther group National Committee to Combat Fascism and were at the center of attention.

But it was not just the Omaha police that were watching the two Panthers, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was conducting a nationwide secret war against the Panthers code-named COINTELPRO. Poindexter and Langa were targets of the COINTELPRO agents.

It all came to a head one night in August 1970 when police were called to a vacant house to investigate an emergency call about a woman screaming. Instead, a suitcase bomb was waiting for the police. Officer Larry Minard was killed and seven others injured in the blast.

Police dragnets swept up dozens of people, multiple arrests were made but in the end a 15 year-old, Duane Peak, confessed to placing the bomb. But the COINTELPRO operation did not want a 15 year-old in custody, they wanted to silence the Black Panthers in Omaha. Freedom of Information requests have revealed that the FBI worked closely with Omaha police on the case and that critical information was later withheld from defense attorneys for Poindexter and Langa who were charged with the crime.

Peak was given a deal and sentenced as a juvenile in exchange for his testimony against Poindexter and Langa. The tape of the emergency call was withheld and later destroyed without ever being heard by a jury. Evidence implicating an uncle of Vivian Strong was not pursued by police. Conflicting testimony by police was made over dynamite allegedly found in Langa's residence.

Poindexter and Langa both denied their involvement in the crime and continue to proclaim their innocence from their prison cells, thirty-six long years after the trial that resulted in life sentences for the pair.

However, a now-deceased police dispatcher, perhaps suspecting COINTELPRO dirty trick tactics would be used in the case, quietly made his own copy of the emergency call that lured police to the deadly trap. It took years for the existence of the copy to become known but finally, in May of this year, Douglas County District Judge Russell Bowie listened to the tape in open court and heard testimony from an expert witness that the voice on the tape was not that of Peak.

The Nebraska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has filed an amicus brief with the court bringing judicial attention to the abuses of COINTELPRO, a then secret operation unknown to the jury that convicted Poindexter and Langa.

Judge Bowie has spent the summer reviewing the 1971 trial transcript, studying the legal briefs and considering the contradictory testimony of police detective Robert Pheffer who claims he found dynamite in Langa's home-dynamite never seen by the crime scene evidence technicians.

While the public waits for Judge Bowie to conclude his review of the COINTELPRO tainted trial, two men wait more anxiously than the rest from their cells in the Nebraska State Penitentiary. For Ed Poindexter and Mondo we Langa justice is long overdue.

Permission granted to reprint

Author's Bio: Michael Richardson is a freelance writer based in Boston. Richardson writes about politics, election law, human nutrition, ethics, and music. In 2004 Richardson was Ralph Nader's national ballot access coordinator.

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