Sad news arrived last night that Geronimo ji-Jaga (formerly Elmer ‘Geronimo’ Pratt) died of an apparent heart attack at his home in Tanzania, where he lived with his wife, Joju Cleaver ji-Jaga, the daughter of Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver. He was 63.
ji-Jaga was a leader of the Southern California chapter of the Black Panther Party and was also deeply involved in the organization’s overall leadership.
In a short piece summarizing his life, the Los Angeles Times reports that “Pratt was convicted in 1972 and sentenced to life in prison for the 1968 fatal shooting of Caroline Olsen and the serious wounding of her husband, Kenneth, in a robbery that netted $18.” The article goes on to day that this “case became a cause celebre for elected officials, Amnesty International, clergy and celebrities who believed he was framed by the government.”
More emphatic language should have been used to describe ji-Jaga’s life after it took a tragic turn at the hands of law enforcement in 1968. The cause of his freedom was no mere activist fad. His rights were violated by the police and prosecutors. He was convicted and imprisoned unjustly.
Pace cultural warrior Stanley Crouch, the use of the COINTELPRO program against the Party and other political radicals is now well established. Even the ideologically middling television show “60 Minutes” found it important in 1984–amidst the Reagan years–to shed light on the conspiracy surrounding ji-Jaga’s case.
A recent article in the San Francisco Bay Guardian highlighted the ji-Jaga conspiracy as a case that explained the law enforcement’s declining integrity in the eyes of the public, noting that “…the government had not disclosed that a key witness against Pratt, Julius Butler, was an informant for both the FBI and the LAPD.”
In the same article, defense attorney Stuart Hanlon was more forthright in his assessment of ji-Jaga’s framing for murder: “We learned that law enforcement officers had hidden evidence, let people commit perjury, and destroyed evidence to convict someone who was innocent.” (Former TIME bureau chief, the late Jack Olsen delivered a definitive accounting of the injustices visited upon ji-Jaga; see his book, Last Man Standing: The Tragedy and Triumph of Geronimo Pratt).
In 1997, after 27 years imprisonment at San Quentin State Prison–8 of these spent in solitary confinement–ji-Jaga was vindicated and conviction overturned. He later received a $4.5 million settlement from the the city of Los Angeles and the US Department of Justice as compensation for his false imprisonment. However, justice and “the right to have rights” are priceless. And, Geronimo ji-Jaga’s life in freedom was much too short.