It all started the night of May 21, 1971. Two police officers, Waverly Jones and Joseph Piagentini, were fired upon while walking to their patrol car at a housing project near the Macombs Dam Bridge in Harlem. Jones died instantly from a gunshot to his head. Piagentini, who was shot 13 times, died en route to the hospital. Today nothing marks the location of the shooting, but in the 1970s, it was among a string of cop killings that garnered the attention of J. Edgar Hoover and even President Richard Nixon, who told his FBI director “not to pull any punches” in going after the black militants believed responsible.
Working with the NYPD, the FBI launched operation NEWKILL, casting a nationwide dragnet to track down members of the Black Panther Party’s paramilitary offshoot, the Black Liberation Army (BLA), which had issued statements claiming responsibility for the deaths of Jones, Piagentini and other officers in their war against the United States government.
After a shootout with police in San Francisco, two young men — Anthony Bottom and Albert “Nuh” Washington — were arrested on August 28, 1971 for the killings of Jones and Piagentini. Nearly two years later a third accomplice, Herman Bell, was arrested in New Orleans. They became known as the “New York Three” and in 1975 were convicted of first-degree murder, weapons possession and conspiracy.
‘I am an example of what was going on during the 1960s and ’70s leading out of the Civil Rights movement.’
In 2000, Washington died in prison from cancer. On April 27 of this year, Herman Bell was granted parole. Anthony Bottom, who later changed his name to Jalil Muntaqim, is the only member of the New York Three remaining behind bars. Just 19 years old when he was apprehended, Muntaqim was a member of the BLA, but he’d already been politically active years before that. An activist with the NAACP’s San Francisco chapter, he joined the Panthers after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.
“I had a job at California human resources as a social worker and I worked with them getting people employment,” Muntaqim said, recalling the era in which he was radicalized during a recent interview conducted at the Sullivan Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in upstate New York. “At the same time, I was engaged with the Black Panther Party and their operations.”
Since his arrest, Muntaqim has spent the past 47 years behind bars. The 66-year-old has done time at Attica and Sing Sing in New York and at San Quentin in California, among other prisons. His case represents a turbulent era in the United States, when the government actively suppressed nonviolent movements as well as their militant counterparts, including the Weather Underground, Puerto Rico Liberation Front, the American Indian Movement and the BLA.
“We got close to a real revolution in this country,” Muntaqim said. “I am an example of what was going on during the 1960s and ’70s leading out of the Civil Rights movement.”
Since entering prison Muntaqim has been a tireless advocate for radicals such as himself who are serving decades-long prison sentences, helping to run an organization he formed called the Jericho Movement, which raises awareness of their plight. In terms of his own case, he has repeatedly been denied parole since he became eligible in 2002, although his last parole assessment classified him as a low-risk inmate.
Until recently, the New York State Board of Parole could deny parole solely based on the severity of a prisoner’s past offense, even if he or she was deemed to have been rehabilitated and a low risk to society if released. Under new regulations, the parole board is now required to give much greater weight to an applicant’s record while incarcerated and the likelihood they can be reintegrated into society.
In Bell’s case, the parole board cited his exemplary prison record and his apology for his role in the killings of the two police officers. “There was nothing political about the act,” Bell told the parole board in March. “As much as I thought [so] at the time, it was murder and horribly wrong.”
Muntaqim has also garnered praise for his conduct behind bars and will go before the parole board the week of June 11. Stung by Bell’s release, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association and its political allies are clamoring for Muntaqim to remain behind bars and point to his continued identification as a political prisoner as a sign of his lack of penance for his crime.
An organizer, writer, poet and educator, Muntaqim has twice received commendations for quelling tensions and preventing prison riots. He has written three books while incarcerated and, in 1994, graduated from SUNY New Paltz with a B.S. in Psychology and a B.A. in Sociology. These days, he focuses on educating the inmates around him, teaching classes in poetry, sociology and history.
He has also dedicated himself to his Muslim faith. “Prison is not easy,” Muntaqim said, explaining how Islam helped him mature over the years and find peace. However, he has refused to entirely renounce his revolutionary views, which, he believes, is the reason he continues to be locked up. His political convictions have also gotten him into hot water in prison. He spent four months in solitary confinement at Attica beginning in December 2016 because authorities were not happy about the content of one of his classes.
“They came to my cell and took me to the SHU [Secure Housing Unit],” Muntaqim said. “I was teaching a black history class for about two months straight. I started from 1861 and I was bringing it up to 1960s. So during the 1960s naturally I have to talk about the Black Panther Party. That was one of the biggest things going on in this country at the time. I was bringing a comparison to the Black Panther Party and street organizations, particularly the Bloods. The [prison] administration was not happy about the fact I was making that kind of comparison. So they took my narrative and turned it into something completely different. They put me in the box, saying I was trying to organize the gangs or something.”
Meanwhile, as aging radicals such as Oscar López Rivera, Herman Wallace, Herman Bell and others are finally released from state and federal prisons, Muntaqim hopes the New York State parole board will set him on the path to freedom so he can continue the work he began in prison on the outside.
He already has plans for what he will do when he’s free. Going to federal prison at the age of 19, Muntaqim was separated from his soon-to-be newborn daughter. At the age of 66, he has yet to spend time with her, his granddaughter or his great-granddaughter outside of prison.
He wants to be involved in community gardens and to take part in forming a community center where young people can learn computer skills, especially coding. He also has a few history lessons he would like to impart to the next generation.
“Some of us on the inside need to come out,” Muntaqim said. “We have a voice that needs to be shared.”
Photo: HISTORY LESSON: Former Black Panther Jalil Muntaqim has taught black history courses to his fellow inmates in the New York State prison system. Credit: Sheri Pinto.