From left to right: Attorney Robert Boyle, Marshall “Eddie” Conway, Attorney Phillip Dontes
BALTIMORE — Marshall “Eddie” Conway, 68, is a human rights activist, who spent 44 years in prison for killing a police officer — a crime he says he didn’t commit — until he was released last March.
On April 26, 1970, the former minister of defense for the Black Panther Party’s Baltimore chapter was arrested at the post office where he worked in Baltimore and charged with killing a police officer.
Many believe that Conway was a political prisoner. He and others have maintained that he was framed for the killing, since the prosecution did not have any direct physical evidence linking him to the crime and one “witness” refused to testify.
Further, in 1977, the Church Committee — a Senate Select Committee assembled to investigate the legality of intelligence-gathering activities of the FBI, CIA and National Security Agency in the wake of the Watergate scandal — reported that the FBI had been ordered to target and cripple the Black Panther Party around the time of Conway’s arrest.
The report says: “During 1967-1971, FBI headquarters approved 379 proposals for COINTELPRO actions against ‘black nationalists,’” which would have included the Black Panther Party. COINTELPRO (an acronym for COunter INTELligence PROgram) was a program created by the first director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, to carry out a series of covert — and often illegal — projects to discredit, spy, infiltrate, and disrupt domestic political organizations.
In one of the 14 reports published by the committee, the authors note: “Some of the targets of COINTELPRO were law-abiding citizens merely advocating change in our society.” As a result of this program, many Black Panther Party members are still inside American prisons.
Conway has always maintained his innocence and attempted to overturn his conviction throughout his decades of imprisonment. When the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled in 2012 that to comply with due process as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, the “State must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt” before a jury can convict a defendant, Conway finally had a way out. As the ruling could be applied retroactively, Conway’s attorneys filed a motion stating that Conway’s judge had not properly instructed the jury on the “beyond a reasonable doubt” proviso in his case. After an agreement was negotiated, Conway was released.
MintPress News spoke with Conway, who is currently working as a producer at The Real News Network, to hear his take on the current state of the Union, in light of President Barack Obama’s upcoming address on the topic. MintPress asked Conway about what has changed in the world since he was imprisoned in 1970, and whether he sees any promising opportunities for the future of humanity.
Eddie Conway, in his own words:
Eddie Conway (EC): “Whether we like it or not there’s a new kind of attitude in America. There’s a sense that things need to be changed, and the sense that some things are really wrong, and people are searching now to try to figure out what needs to happen and how it needs to happen.
“That is for sure, there’s a new attitude. I’m looking at the amount of students that’s coming out [to events and demonstrations], and the kinds of things people don’t pay any attention to, whether its protests around mountaintop removal or other things.
“There’s all kinds of stuff that spring up all over the place — and it means a new attitude, and I think with that with that new attitude there’ll hopefully come people … that are dedicated to uplifting humanity.”
Expansion of the war state
MintPress News (MPN): “I’m wondering if you think we’ve progressed as a country?”
EC: “Hellll no! (laughing) No. No. No. That’s not what I’m saying!
“As a country we have probably become more decadent. I mean, obviously we’re using drones, we’re killing people. I think when Obama came in [office] there was actually three wars going on. I think now there’s seven wars, even though maybe one or two are by proxy … I mean, there’s a civil war in Pakistan … and a civil war in Somalia. It’s American-financed and -organized. There’s a drone base in Niger that’s flying all over the Sahara Desert … So there’s an expansion of stuff going on.”
[Writer’s note: When Obama came into office the U.S. was at war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and conducting drone strikes in Pakistan. The U.S. is currently involved in military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq; it is reportedly still conducting drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen; and it is involved in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).]
“There’s been 5,000 people killed since Obama got in office and used the drones, and 4,000 of them have been innocent civilians.
“So there’s been a huge increase in how America is dealing with the rest of the world. And I guess you’ve seen that CIA torture report that just came out.”
Deindustrialization, and the tale of two cities
EC: “I was 24 when I was locked up, and there’s a huge difference [between then and now].
“In terms of jobs, that’s the period in which America deindustrialized. The factories moved to China and Mexico, and what factories and industries that did develop, they developed with automation and cybernation.
“The jobs not only disappeared, but nothing came in to replace them, except for drugs. So the drugs that came into a lot of the communities, that drug culture didn’t exist in the 1960s and 70s. It came in on the heels of the Vietnam War and it expanded, and it became one of the dominant sources of employment in the community, which is very destructive.
“The quality of life in cities changed, too. One block away from the gentrified urban centers it’s dismal.
“I mean, the drug lines are long, the welfare lines are long, the food stamps run out before the end of the month. If you’re working in certain jobs, like Wal-Mart, you’ve got to actually get on food stamps in order to eat even though you’ve got a 40-hour-a-week job. So the infrastructure’s collapsing, blah, blah, blah… Do I need to go on!?”
MPN: “No. But, the quality of life — How old are you?”
EC: “I’m 68.”
MPN: “I’m 36.”
EC: “Oh yea, so you don’t know about the quality of life. You don’t know that there used to be jobs. I mean, even though there was poverty people went to work and they had money and food, and the housing stock was in repair.
“Even though there were poor communities, there were poor communities that were lived in and they were neighborhoods.
“You’re in D.C., so you don’t see what I see here in Baltimore. But rarely could you come down the street and find an abandoned building that was not getting ready to get repaired. Now you can go down block after block after block, and you can find five or ten houses that down on the ground you can look up through the windows, and look up into the sky.
“That’s war-torn. I mean, that’s what it looks like, like a war-torn city, in Baltimore in certain regions.
“If you go around Johns Hopkins or the University of Maryland, and see the amount of gentrification that’s going on — the communities are gated sometimes, or certainly guarded most of the times.
“And it’s another world. Actually, it’s the tale of two cities.”
Violence and the effects of the prison-industrial complex
EC: “You know, it’s funny. When I was growing up, twice a year somebody got killed in the city. A young person, that is. Now you had your Friday night, Saturday night barroom fights with somebody that got cut up or beat up or something. Rarely deaths, but people did die. A young person 15, 16, 17, 18 — somebody like that got killed in the city [and] it was news. It was shocking. I’m talking twice a year! If you had two incidents like that it was like, ‘Damn!’ It just wasn’t happening.
“But the kind of violence you have here every day now — it would have been mind-boggling.
“But it’s not just the violence, it’s also something else that people don’t realize — it’s the devastation that the prison-industrial complex caused to most families.
“There are so many people in the prison system that disappeared from the community and collapsed the family structures either because they were engaged in illegal activities, or the underground economy, or protection, or self-defense, or whatever.
“The fact is that a tremendous amount of families have been scarred by the prison system, and the ones that have returned, have returned disenfranchised. So not only do you have missing people, but when you have people coming back, they’re not whole. They can’t vote, or they don’t even have a damn interest in voting anymore.
“The difference between what was going on 40 years ago and what’s going on now is shocking.
“I spent three years in Germany [in the 1960s], and they left some parts of Germany intact [since World War II], some of the war-scarred cities, because they didn’t have the money to build them up or they wanted to use them for army training and practice, right.
“Some of the parts of our city in Baltimore look just like those areas after the World War II devastation.
“That’s scary because there has been no World War III here.”
Finding our way out of the mess
EC: “There’s always a way forward. When I came out [of prison] I was speaking at a school with 1,000 children, and I learned that there was no library at the school. So what I did was I called on a bunch of people and we borrowed books, and we bought books, and we spent some time cataloging those books. We put a library in the school, and the reason I’m saying this is because we not only put a library in the school, we are now creating a space in the library in which children can come and learn stuff, we can have lectures there, etc.
“From the library, they gave us, like, a half an acre of land. So we planted some food, and now we have the young people in school engaged in actually farming to grow their own food in the urban environment.
“We’re called the ‘Coalition of Friends.’ It’s a bunch of people that came together as a result of me speaking asking, ‘What can we do?’
“We decided initially to go down into the projects and tried to see if we could help the young people there because one of the things that I learned while I was in prison was that when you talk to young people, and you get past that anger and that frustration, and you give them some other alternatives and some choices, and it dawns on them and they finally get it, they always say that they wish somebody talked to them before they got locked up.
“I said, what we need to do is catch them before they get in trouble. We need to catch them at [the ages of] 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 — way before they start gangbanging, or whatever, and give them alternatives.
“We done did food cookouts, clothes giveaways, that kind of stuff.
“We go down [to the projects] once a week, and we meet with a bunch of young people in the neighborhood, and talk to them, and work with them through things that they might have problems with, right.
“What we did was develop a relationship so that they know that they have resources outside their community and options other than getting involved in the drug trade.”
In the face of hopelessness, a thousand little solutions
EC: “I think that tens of thousands of little efforts like that all over the country is what’s gonna change the country. And it’s also going to change the momentum of what’s going on in the world.”
“But it’s not trying to create a kinda big national apparatus, or trying to address everything.
“It’s like, find out what you can do.
“If there’s a food shortage, or a food desert in the community, you know, then plant some food.
“If there’s young people in the community, and they’re on the corner, and they’re not doing anything, engage, talk to them.
“If there’s something happening in the school that you think is wrong, go work with it.
“It’s a thousand little things like that that you can do, and you should do, and I think people are doing them.
“I don’t think there’s a systematic way of doing it because every time you come up with a systematic way — whether it’s the civil rights movement, the black liberation movement, or the anti-war movement — the government sabotages it, subverts it, puts agent provocateurs in it, misleads it, leads it astray, suppresses it, kills the leaders, locks people up, runs them out of the country, and damages their character.
“So that means, to me, a leaderless kind of organizing activity. You’ve got to build the blocks. People’ve got to work down on the ground. You build a strong block here. And I’m doing positive stuff, and I look across the street, and I see you’re doing positive stuff, and we can support each other.
“But if your stuff falls apart, that won’t have anything to do with mine.
“A couple of days ago they [Quakers] did a prayer thing in the PNC bank [against the bank’s business relations with corporations that fund] mountaintop removal [a form of surface mining]. A lot of people don’t even think that’s important, but that is important in terms of the environment.
“Even while that was going on some students was doing a die-in at some store.”
[Writer’s note: In December, organizers disrupted traffic and shopping at the Towson Mall near Baltimore, as part of ongoing, nationwide actions to demand accountability for police brutality.]
“Out in California, in the business district of San Francisco, a crowd of students and community people went downtown and disrupted the commercial district.
[Writer’s note: In late November, people in Oakland, California demonstrated against a grand jury’s decision not to indict the Ferguson, Missouri, police officer who killed Michael Brown.]
“So it’s all kinds of little things and big things happening that might not seem connected, but they’re very much connected, in terms of, it’s all about protecting the planet and changing the conditions on the planet.”