Since the emergence of the Movement for Black Lives and the uprising against police violence that sparked new waves of activism last summer, an entire generation has returned to the lessons and tenets of past thinkers, organizers, and agitators, namely the Black Panther Party. Meanwhile in the mainstream, celebrities, activists, and public figures frequently don Black Panther aesthetics to signal their adherence to a certain type of revolutionary politics. Even despite the visual and ideological links between the Black Panther Party and organizing in the present, many Black Panther Party members who are still alive today have largely been rendered invisible by prison walls and forgotten by the broader public.
Until last year, Jalil Muntaqim was among 13 former Black Panthers still imprisoned since the late 1960s. After 49 years of incarceration, he was finally paroled in October 2020—less than two weeks before his 69th birthday—but he’s now facing the threat of reincarceration for allegedly attempting to vote. In the shift from political prisoner to newly paroled and disenfranchised, Muntaqim’s life story exemplifies how at every stage, the carceral system is wielded to quell Black political activism: From the policing and incarceration of Black liberation organizers, the release of those leaders is often only under the condition that they renounce their political allegiances, the stripping of their right to vote upon release, and the omnipresent surveillance of their bodies and behavior while on parole.
From revolutionary to ‘evolutionary’
Muntaqim came of age in an era when both federal and local law enforcement devoted significant resources to policing and brutalizing Black communities.
While the targeting of Black political activists and organizations by the FBI is well known—particularly the history of the covert counter intelligence program (COINTELPRO)—scholar Dr. Dan Berger notes that law enforcement entities, which received an influx of resources and power in the late ‘60s, also worked toward similar ends.
“I think we have to see what the FBI was doing on the one hand, and what local police and prosecutors are doing, which were sometimes in tandem and sometimes separate,” said Berger in an interview with Prism. “Some of the FBI COINTELPRO operations were aimed at trying to incarcerate people but their main purpose was to destroy the organized space of Black liberation, whether that was SNCC or the Black Panther Party or the Republic of New Africa or other groups. That also overlaps with the kind of law and order politics that tried to give voice to a broader racist and anti radical sentiment that was aimed not just at members of these organizations, but at people who could have been members of these organizations. So, where we have a kind of targeted political repression in the case of COINTELPRO that was actively trying to destroy the radical left then you also have just a broader racist movement among the police and other officials trying to weed out the community bases of support and those two things really align after 1968.”
It was in that political and social context that the 18-year-old Muntaqim joined the Black Panther Party and a more militant underground organization, the Black Liberation Army. The Black Liberation Army coordinated prison breaks and police car bombings, and expressed its aim to “take up arms for the liberation and self-determination of black people in the United States.” Its activity throughout the 1970s and into the ‘80s was often in response to police violence and the impunity with which law enforcement brutalized Black communities.
In 1974, at 23 years old, Muntaqim was sentenced to 25 years to life for the 1971 murder of two NYPD officers in Harlem, Joseph Piagentini and Waverly Jones. Over the course of his nearly five decades in prison thereafter, his political identity shifted, though he is still committed to racial equity and the pursuit of justice, Muntaquim told The Guardian in 2018.
“I now take the ‘r’ off the word and make it ‘evolutionary,’” Muntaqim told The Guardian. “Revolution for me is the evolutionary process of building a higher level of consciousness in society at large. I’m an evolutionary revolutionary.”
While inside, Muntaqim was a noted mentor for other incarcerated people, earned a number of degrees and certifications, and expanded his activism. In 1998 he helped found the National Jericho Movement, a group advocating for the amnesty and release of incarcerated political prisoners, and in 2004 he filed a lawsuit challenging the New York state law that barred incarcerated people with felony convictions from voting. The case was later dismissed.
A long road to release, and a threat to return
Despite Muntaqim’s exemplary record inside, the notoriety of his case coupled with its ongoing politicization thwarted his 11 prior efforts to seek parole, and now looms over his life even after returning home—so much so that it may result in his reincarceration.
As an initial matter, in parole hearings it is often essential that parole board members believe the person has an adequate level of genuine remorse for the offense committed. However, some—including writer, scholar and activist Angela Davis—argue that the process seeks to force activists to denounce their political ideologies in order to return home, representing yet another stage at which the system itself seeks to quell dissent.
The politicization of Muntaqim’s case also drew negative attention to his parole requests. Once Muntaqim became eligible for parole in 2002, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), the largest municipal law enforcement union in the country, vehemently opposed his release and even created a website with information on every person incarcerated for the murder of an on-duty New York City police officer. An automated feature on the database allows users to send letters directly to parole boards in opposition of their release. Alongside the PBA, family members of Joseph Piagentini—most notably his wife—also opposed Muntaqim’s parole requests.
While opposition from victims’ families and law enforcement organizations was perhaps expected, Muntaqim saw bipartisan political resistance to his release as well. In 2002, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the majority of the New York City Council opposed his first request for parole and in 2020, Democrat Attorney General Leticia James also opposed his early release, even after Muntaqim contracted COVID-19 inside. Muntaqim is among the over 358,000 people who contracted the virus while incarcerated in prisons and jails across the country while government officials—particularly governors who have the ability to grant mass commutations and offer compassionate release—fail to adequately respond. Last year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo commuted a total of five sentences and pardoned only 18 incarcerated people despite receiving 2,518 total applications.
On Oct. 7, after his 12th parole hearing, Muntaqim was finally granted release and returned home. The return was welcomed by organizers within the Jericho Movement, some 75 public scholars and activists who advocated on his behalf, and his own family which includes his mother, his daughter, his grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
No less than a month later however, Muntaqim was faced with the threat of reincarceration. In late October, Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley charged Muntaqim with voter fraud, at the behest of the county’s Republican Party chairman, Bill Napier. On Oct. 22, Napier held a news conference alleging that the day after his release, Muntaqim committed voter fraud by registering to vote despite not having his right to vote restored.
New York state law prohibits people with felony records from voting, but in 2018, Cuomo issued an executive order stating that upon release, formerly incarcerated people will be automatically considered for a voting restoration pardon, through which the governor could restore their rights.
The voting restoration pardon process can be complicated and intimidating. People on parole can check their eligibility via the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s (DOCCS) “Parolee Lookup” website, but many don’t know the site exists according to reporting by Roshan Abraham in City Limits. The site itself can also be inaccurate. According to reporting from Rochester City News, the DOCCS website was updated sometime between Nov. 13 and Nov. 17 showing that Muntaqim had been granted a voting pardon by the governor. A spokesperson from DOCCS says that the website’s assertion that Muntaqim received a voting pardon was a “clerical error” and now shows that his pardon was denied. Indeed, in November, after Muntaqim’s arrest, Cuomo denied his pardon.
Muntaqim is now charged with a misdemeanor for filing a completed voter registration form and two felonies, the first for tampering with public records and the second for offering a false instrument for filing. One felony carries a maximum of seven years in prison, the other, four. In a conversation with Prism, Muntaqim’s cousin Blake Simons said that to his knowledge, this is the first time the state has imposed these charges, representing yet another way the law is wielded against Black radicals. Simons says it’s also important to remember that the charges were filed against the backdrop of the 2020 election—one of the most heated, controversial, and consequential elections of our time—and that he wouldn’t be surprised if the directive came from former President Donald Trump himself.
“It’s painful that the threat of incarceration is looming over his head,” said Simons.
In a mid-November rally held outside the Spiritus Christi Church, Billie Bottom Brown, Muntaqim’s mother, shared that “this is the first time that I have been able to bond with my child in 49 years, and the thought of him being put back in (to prison) for a mistake that was made on a packet of papers that was issued to him to help him assimilate himself back into society is devastating.”
Brown and other friends of Muntaqim assert that the voter registration form in question was included in a packet of paper provided by the Monroe County Department of Human Services. The packet included other integral documents like organ donor forms, information on medicare, food stamps, and the like.
Advocates have been circulating a petition opposing the current attempts to reincarcerate Muntaqim; it currently has over 11,000 signatures, says Simons. His most recent court hearing was slated for Dec. 14, but was postponed.
Muntaqim’s story is one that is both deeply personal and unmistakably political. Beneath five decades of headlines is a 69-year-old man, recovering from a nearly fatal disease, seeking to reconnect with the life and the people he was separated from for over half of his life. However, his story also speaks to how the carceral system fears and attacks Black political representation and dissent. While the Black Power movement continues to light the torch now being carried by the Movement for Black Lives—creating an ideological link between the past and the present—too many of the actual organizers of the time have fallen into chasm between the dreams of Black radical organizers of the ‘60s and ‘70s and the reality we live in today.
“Political prisoners are often forgotten about even though they’ve made the most crucial impact on abolition,” said Simons. “It’s important for us to uplift the names of the Black Panthers.”