Leftist icon dies in the Motherland

Gregg Reese | 6/8/2011, 5 p.m.

Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt, the Vietnam War-hero-turned-Black Panther who became a cause célebre for the leftist leaning counter culture, has died in his adopted Tanzanian homeland of a heart attack. He was 63 years old, and is survived by a daughter and three sons.

Ayuko Babu, a fixture of the activist movement of that era and the current director of the Pan African Film Festival, summed up the legacy of Geronimo ji-Jaga (the name he adopted) thusly:
"As Ossie Davis said of Malcolm (X), Geronimo symbolized the best of Black manhood. Borrowing a phrase from the great comedian Richard Pryor, he stood up to the powers that viewed people of color as a disposable commodity, intending to 'take your life and waste it like salt.'"

Born and raised in the Louisiana hamlet of Morgan City, which straddles the parishes of St. Martin and St. Mary, Pratt was a star high school football quarterback who was mentored by neighborhood elders as the Civil Rights Movement raged throughout the South. As hostilities escalated on the Indochina Peninsula, he volunteered for paratrooper training, and as a member of the fabled 82nd Airborne Division, became a highly decorated veteran of two combat tours during that controversial Indochina conflict, before his discharge and relocation to Los Angeles to attend UCLA.

There he met former Slausons gang leader Alprentice "Bunchy" Carter, who'd formed the Southern California chapter of the Black Panthers. Carter dubbed him "Geronimo" as an homage to his paratrooper background, and promoted him to minister of defense to utilize his military expertise. In 1970, Pratt was arrested for the shooting death of Caroline Olsen, a 27-year-old elementary schoolteacher, and her husband, Kenneth, who was shot but survived an armed robbery for $18 at a Santa Monica tennis court.

Pratt had been fingered by fellow Black Panther and police informant Julius Butler, who was part of a maze of double agents, agents provocateur, con men, and connivers who inhabited the late 1960s and early 1970s political minutia that was a staple of American society of that era.

The crux of the persecution case hinged upon a match between a handgun belonging to Pratt, a Colt .45, and the standard-issue military sidearm of the Vietnam era, and the cartridges found at the crime scene. Pratt's car, a Pontiac GTO convertible with North Carolina plates, had also been seen in the area.

Further complicating the case was Pratt's recent break with the Panther hierarchy. He'd always maintained that he was hundreds of miles away at a Black Panther meeting in Oakland, during the time of the murder. No one in that organization vouched for him however, including Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, and Elaine Brown, who comprised that group's top brass. Pratt's pregnant wife Saundra was also murdered in 1971, possibly as a result of the division according to numerous sources.

A then-little-known Loyola Law School graduate, Johnnie Cochran, was retained for his defense, and after his client's 1972 guilty verdict, became convinced Pratt had been the target of the FBI's COINTELPRO (for Counter Intelligence Program) project geared towards disrupting domestic political organizations. The murder conviction politicized Cochran, and his belief that the justice system was ethnically biased led to his use of the "race card" in the 1995 O. J. Simpson murder case that made Cochran famous. Cochran vowed that what happened to Pratt would not happen to Simpson.