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40 Years on, 1960s Black Radical Still Suffers Racial and Political Injustice 

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

The consequences of America’s racist history still linger deep into the present. No one understands this better than Gary Freeman, a 1960s black civil rights activist whose life has been turned upside down by the racial and political injustice perpetuated first by the United States and now by Canada.

Freeman has spent the last four years separated from his Canadian wife and four grown children due to false allegations that he is a former member of the Black Panthers Party. This accusation stems from an incident that took place in 1969, when Freeman, just 19 at the time, shot a white police officer in the arm, which he claims was in self-defense.

Freeman, known back then as Joseph Pannell, was charged with aggravated battery and attempted murder, which carried a 30-year jail sentence. Given the racial bigotry of the time, he feared a fair trial was impossible, so he changed his name and began a new life in Canada, where he spent nearly four decades building a life as a father, husband and research librarian.

That all changed in 2004, when he was arrested at gunpoint and thrown into pre-extradition Canadian detention, where he spent four years fighting extradition to Chicago.

In 2008, following three years of negotiations with prosecutors, Freeman agreed to voluntarily return to Chicago, where he accepted a plea bargain in exchange for a 30-day prison sentence and two years’ probation, which he finished serving in 2010 without incident. He was also required to donate $250,000 to the Chicago Police Memorial Foundation, a fund for families of officers killed or injured in the line of duty.

Since then, Freeman says, “American authorities have treated me with dignity and respect.” Canada, on the other hand, refuses to allow Freeman back into the country, not because of the shootout, but based on the discredited rumor that Freeman was formerly a member of the Black Panthers Party.

Still, if not for the injustice perpetrated against Freeman by the United States, Canada would not be in the position to refuse him entry. So, let’s rewind and examine how this all began.

A White Cop Stops a Black Kid

On March 7, 1969, 19-year-old Freeman (still known then as Joseph Pannell) was stopped in the south side of Chicago by Terrence Knox, a 21-year-old white police officer. Knox claimed that he stopped Freeman to ask why he was not in school and that Freeman responded by inexplicably firing shots at him.

Freeman vehemently disputes Knox’s version of events, saying he was compliant until Knox attempted to frisk him. Freeman refused on the grounds that the officer lacked probable cause, at which point Knox threw him over his squad car, put a gun to his head and began screaming, “I’m gonna blow your head off, nigger.”

“I was waiting to be killed. I turned my head around and closed my eyes,” recalled Freeman.

“And then I heard a voice. We were in front of a school. Some of the black kids were hanging out at the window asking, ‘Hey brother, what’s wrong, what’s happening?’ That paused him [Officer Knox] for just a second.”

“Things were very fast, but in slow motion,” said Freeman. “So, I drew my own, I swung around and he started firing and I started firing and I happened to be more accurate. My purpose was to disarm him.”

Black and Radical in 1960s Chicago

Freeman insists that he was carrying a firearm because it was, “a dangerous time.”

“The question was and remains why self-defense is not okay for those held to be the ‘other,’ or less than that,” argues Freeman.

Chicago was indeed a scary place for African-American youth in the 1960s. As the Boston Review points out, “Chicago police led the nation in the slaying of private citizens, who were euphemistically characterized as ‘fleeing felons’ to mask the routine use of excessive force by police against racial minorities.”

In 1969, the same year the shooting occurred, 11 black youths from Chicago’s South Side were killed at the hands of Chicago police. Meanwhile, the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) was illegally surveilling, infiltrating and disrupting lawful political activity with the participation of the Chicago Police Department, and adhering to an obsessive focus on the Black Panther Party. John Edgar Hoover, the FBI director at the time, even called the Black Panthers, “the greatest threat to internal security of the country.”

In fact, in 1969, Chicago Police actively conspired with the FBI to carry out the pre-meditated murder of 21-year-old Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, whose apartment was sprayed with nearly 100 bullets in a midnight raid, two of which were fired in his head at point blank range.

Black men fared no better in Chicago’s prisons. The UN Committee on Torture has even compared the treatment of black men in Chicago jails from 1971 to 1991 at the hands of Chicago police to the unaccountable torture unleashed on prisoners at Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

Was Freeman on the FBI’s Radar?

Although he was not a Black Panther, it is conceivable that Freeman was on the FBI’s radar.

During his time in Chicago, Freeman worked with the Rainbow Coalition, a multiracial alliance made up of black, Puerto Rican, white and poor people’s organizations that sought to continue the fight for social justice following the passage of the Civil Rights Act under the Lyndon Johnson administration. As it turns out, the FBI’s COINTELPRO was actively sabotaging the Rainbow Coalition as demonstrated by “The COINTELPRO Papers: Documents from the FBI’s Secret Wars Against Domestic Dissent.”

Even more dubious is that Knox, the officer Freeman shot, was named as a defendant in a 1974 lawsuit filed by the Alliance to End Repression against the Chicago Police Department’s Subversive Activities Unit, otherwise known as the “Red Squad.” The Red Squad was the intelligence unit of the Chicago Police Department that gained notoriety in 1985 when the group was found guilty of unconstitutionally spying on lawful political organizations. Court depositions listed Knox as a Red Squad “control officer.”

Freeman would later learn that a woman he was dating in Chicago was an informant for Knox, which is likely how his whereabouts were known by Chicago authorities as early as 1974. Truthout obtained a copy of a letter dated August 1, 1974, written by Knox to the Canadian Immigration Center, specifying Freeman’s location.

Freeman told Truthout that he planned on going to trial, but as the trial date approached, he was threatened by two white men in suits at a neighborhood bar and shot at by an unknown party whom he could only assume was sending a threatening message.

An Angry Cop Seeks Vengeance

Although Freeman always planned on one day returning to Chicago to deal with his past, he says that, on at least two occasions, he had lawyers in the United States search for a warrant for Joseph Pannell, to no avail. Freeman maintains that as recently as 1997, following the passing of his father, there were no warrants out for his arrest in the United States.

Nevertheless, in 2004, Freeman was arrested at gunpoint by a Canadian tactical team (equivalent to a US SWAT team) outside the Toronto Reference Library, where he worked. He spent the next four years in Canadian pre-extradition custody fighting extradition to the United States. Earlier that year, Knox, who was a successful AT&T executive at the time, had approached Chicago police about renewing the search for Freeman. According to Knox’s obituary in the Chicago Tribune (he died last year) he never gave up on the search for Joseph Pannell.

The media immediately labeled Freeman a cop-killer, black militant and Black Panther, trumpeting the statements of Knox as fact. Even after he returned to Chicago for a plea bargain, the headline of an Associated Press article read, “Ex-Black Panther pleads guilty to ’69 police shooting.”

Still, Freeman received an outpouring of support from prominent figures like Yousuf Gabru, the deputy speaker of South Africa’s Western Cape Province. In 2007, Gabru wrote a letter to Canada’s Minister of Justice urging Canada not to extradite Freeman to the United States for fear that he, “may not receive a fair trial” and, “may be the victim to retaliatory punishment.”

According to Freeman, Chicago prosecutors began discussing a plea bargain as early as 2005. In late 2006, Freeman wrote a letter to Knox suggesting that the money Knox demanded he put towards the Chicago Police Memorial Foundation go instead to, “a Police/African-American Reconciliation Scholarship fund created to benefit the children of all those killed in police/community confrontations.” But Knox never responded, leaving Freeman to ask, “How could you not want to take part in a fund that provides for all children?”

Negotiations went on until the night before the plea bargain was made. Ultimately, it was the candidacy of Barack Obama that convinced Freeman to return to Chicago. The possibility of America electing its first black president left Freeman feeling hopeful that perhaps the United States had changed since the days of the Red Squad.

Canada Picks Up Where America Left Off

Having served his time, Freeman is considered by the US government to be a free man. He has an American passport and can travel around the world as he pleases – everywhere except Canada.

According to Access to Information (the Canadian equivalent to the US Freedom of Information Act) documents, Canadian authorities acknowledge that, “there exist considerable humanitarian and compassionate considerations” to allow Freeman back into the country to reunite with his family. They even admit that Freeman is harmless and poses no threat to national security. Despite this admission, the documents also reveal that they rejected a request for a temporary visa to attend his father-in-law’s funeral in 2009 because Freeman, “has been linked to an organization which used terror in pursuit of its goals,” a reference to the Black Panthers.

In 2010, Freeman obtained an American passport and filed for a Canadian visa under spousal sponsorship. Under Canadian law, the immigration office had two options: 1) Accept the application on humanitarian grounds, or 2) reject it based on his criminal conviction, in which case his wife would have the option to appeal to the Immigration Appeal Division. Instead, the immigration office never responded. According to his lawyer, Barbara Jackman, “By not making a decision on his case they’re preventing his wife from filing an appeal,” leaving Freeman in legal limbo.

“I think they’re acting in bad taste,” said Jackman. “They’ve picked up on this Black Panthers claim, but it was never substantiated. I think that they intended to sit on it until he was eligible to overcome criminal conviction,” which takes five years. Jackman believes that the Canadian government is punishing her client for his politics.

Although there is no evidence to prove that Freeman was a Black Panther, Jackman argues, “Even if that was the case, it shouldn’t matter.” After all, Angela Davis, a prominent 1960s activist once on the FBI’s most wanted list, was closely associated with the Black Panthers, yet travels in and out of Canada all the time.

Nevertheless, on April 12 Freeman recieved a letter from the Canadian Government informing him that he is permanently inadmissable to Canada “for membership in the Black Panther Party, an organization for which there are reasonable grounds to believe has engaged in terrorism.” The letter goes on to say that “no appeal may be made to the Immigration Appeal Division” because Freeman “has been found inadmissible on security grounds.”

Freeman currently spends his days in Washington DC, where he was born, waiting to find out where his future lies and missing his family terribly. He has already missed the birth of his first grandchild, his father-in-law’s funeral and, more recently, the death of an old friend. His life has been turned upside down by a United States unwilling to confront its racist past and a Canadian government determined to punish a political dissident.

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