Marshall "Eddie" Conway
has been a cause célèbre among Baltimore leftists for four decades, ever since his incarceration for the murder of Baltimore Police officer Donald Sager began in 1970.
This celebrity has brought Conway occasional newspaper coverage; peace-loving people of good will gather regularly to agitate for his release. And he has a publisher—affording him a megaphone through which to address the public. So Conway is different from other convicted cop-killers. Supporters say this is because Conway is unjustly imprisoned, his trial unfair—not the same as being innocent, but close enough. Conway is a victim of a government conspiracy, he and they say. And it is a fact that this government conspiracy (despite official denials) keeps dissidents under legally questionable surveillance to this day. In the 1960s and ’70s it was called COINTELPRO—short for “counter-intelligence program.” Once secret, COINTELPRO is now, thanks to Sen. Frank Church’s hearings conducted in 1975-6, among the best-known police operations in U.S. history.
Read as a fast and loose (and derivative) primer on COINTELPRO,
The Greatest Threat
is no worse—and no better—than the dozens of other pamphlets cluttering the wire racks of places like Red Emma’s. For insight into what Conway did or didn’t do, the book is worthless; he neither proclaims his innocence nor confesses his crime. It is a polemic, pure and simple, which sets out to prove that 1) the FBI’s illegal tactics were the cause of the Black Panther Party’s demise—as well as the demise of many individual members; and 2) because of No. 1, those surviving members still incarcerated are “political prisoners” entitled to special status, if not immediate release.
The book proves no such things. But it illuminates its author’s philosophy in ways that could, if his supporters read it carefully, change some minds.
The Greatest Threat
is a confused brief for the right of violent revolution, and for kind and respectful treatment of failed revolutionaries. As previous revolutionaries shouted “give me liberty or give me death,” or “we must all hang together or assuredly we will all hang separately,” Conway’s position can be summed up as “give me liberty because cops took us seriously.”
He does not have the right to be set free though, because even if shooting a cop is a political act—and it certainly can be—it’s also a crime. Conway does not appear to understand that one does not get to be a political prisoner for shooting a cop, even if it was for the purest of political motives.
What is clear is that, even by this partisan’s reckoning, the Black Panther Party, established through a fusion of street criminals and student Marxists in 1966, retained a thuggish mind-set in at least equal measure with its political philosophy. And that mind-set—more than any dirty tricks the feds played—is what killed many Black Panthers.
Conway lays bare the gangster mentality that suffused Panther ideology on pages 56 and 57, complaining that, “A series of poison pen letters to Eldridge Cleaver in Algiers, Algeria from FBI agents masquerading as BPP members caused a split between Newton and Cleaver. That split resulted in the deaths of New York Panther Captain Robert Webb and National Distribution Manager for the Panther newspaper, Samuel Napier, and an unknown number of others. Both Webb, a Cleaver supporter, and Napier, a Newton supporter, were assassinated and the assassins remain unknown.”
Reading this, an impressionable freshman might conclude that government hit men did the dastardly deeds. But Conway is either ignorant or disingenuous. It is widely understood that both men were killed by fellow Panthers in the usual gangland style. One was gunned down on the streets of New York. The other, in retaliation, was tortured and murdered. Conway continues:
Conway calls the case of Fred Bennet an “excellent example” of law enforcement’s violence against the Party. But as Conway reveals in his own text, Bennet was killed by Jimmy Carr—a fellow Panther—who burned the body.
In Conway’s view, the FBI, writing letters and making false allegations about snitches, committed an unpardonable crime that “resulted in the deaths” of party members. The BPP members’ response—actually killing those alleged informants—is pardonable, even justifiable. That this is a Mafiosi’s mentality seems not to have occurred to Conway.
But the Panthers, remember, were not mobsters. They were “revolutionaries,” albeit of a peculiar kind: One of Fred Hampton’s “revolutionary” acts was robbing an ice cream truck on behalf of neighborhood children. And that raises another contradiction in Conway’s argument. No war was declared against BPP, as it was against Germany during WWII, Conway complains. “Nonetheless, citizens died because of COINTELPRO’s use.”
In other words, when the BPP was organizing an armed insurrection to overthrow the U.S. government (as it repeatedly claimed it was doing in its own literature), members were a revolutionary vanguard unbound by racist law or oppressive convention. But when police infiltrated and the feds wrote poison pen letters—and members killed each other—then BPP members were “citizens” whose civil rights were violated.
In attempting to shape COINTELPRO’s history into a brief for his status as a “political prisoner” or “prisoner of war,” Conway seeks special consideration not available to mere criminals. The legal strength of this case is not much debated: It is weak. No Black Panther—or anyone else—has ever been granted political prisoner status by a United States court.
The faithful take this as damning evidence that these revolutionaries are political prisoners. Conway takes it on faith as well, asserting that “at least 100” Panthers are political prisoners without defining the term. Instead he draws comparisons to other insurrections and the atrocities of Third World dictators, depicting Panthers as victims of a “dirty war” and comparing U.S. actions against his comrades to the war crimes of Argentina’s 1970s junta, which dropped victims from helicopters and “disappeared” more than 30,000 people.
For anyone familiar with recent Latin American history, the equivalence might not be obvious. In Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, El Salvador, and other nations, mere union members were tortured and killed in the thousands. Neo-fascist paramilitary death squads shot priests and raped nuns who were simply talking about getting people fair wages or the right to vote.
Conway’s political delusions, no doubt, are partly the product of his incarceration. What is mystifying is his continued viability among leftists, particularly those whose lifelong non-violent agitation on behalf of peace repudiates Conway’s sophism.
Two passages, mere pages apart, illustrate the confusion at the center of Conway’s argument. He writes, “Since almost every form of agitation and protest is treated as criminal behavior, it is hard to determine how many prisoners may be confined for agitation.” And then three pages later: “The overwhelming majority of BPP prisoners are serving sentences [for incidents] that involved the shooting of police or robbing banks.”
Come the revolution, one supposes, shooting police and robbing banks will not be crimes but solemn duties required of every citizen. Until then, as Richard Pryor said, “Thank God we got penitentiaries.”