Sundiata Acoli: New Afrikan Liberation Fighter

Sundiata Acoli: New Afrikan Liberation Fighter

Revolutionary Worker, #94, 25 January 1998

On May 2, 1973, state troopers closed in on a carload of Black revolutionaries driving south on the New Jersey turnpike. A shootout erupted along the highway. One of the revolutionaries, Zayd Shakur, was gunned down. A uniformed cop also died. Sundiata Acoli and Assata Shakur were captured, framed and subjected to years of brutality by the state.

Sundiata Acoli has been locked up since that day, in some of the oppressors’ deepest dungeons. He is one of the longest held political prisoners in the U.S. Now over 60, he remains an unbroken revolutionary, deeply committed to the liberation of Black people in the U.S. He describes himself as a fighter for the New Afrikan Independence Movement, saying, “We use the term `New Afrikan,’ instead of Black, to define ourselves as an Afrikan people who have been forcibly transplanted to a new land and formed into a `new Afrikan nation’ in North America.”

From Texas Farm Country to the Liberation Struggle

Sundiata Acoli grew up in the tiny rural town of Vernon, Texas during the ’30s and ’40s. As a child, he worked in the fields. In 1956 he graduated from a Texas college with a degree in mathematics. He became a computer programmer for NASA, in its earliest days in California. He then moved to New York City, where he worked in the computer field for the next 13 years. He was propelled into political activism by the murder of three civil rights workers –Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner–in Mississippi. In the summer of 1964, Sundiata read a newspaper article which suggested that the murder of the three students might frighten off volunteers in the campaign against Jim Crow in Mississippi. Sundiata immediately called up to volunteer, bought himself a plane ticket and left for Mississippi. That fall, he returned to his New York computer job–but his life now belonged to the liberation struggle.

Sundiata writes, “i couldn’t be proud of survival under the system in America, because too many of my brothers and sisters hadn’t survived…i was aware of the subtle pressures working to force upon me the acceptance of white values, to give up more and more of being Black…i loved being Black–the Black mentality, mores, habits and associations. i looked around for an organization that was dedicated to alleviating the suffering of Black people.”

That organization was the Black Panther Party (BPP). Sundiata Acoli joined as soon as the Panthers arrived in New York. Years later in prison, Acoli described what he saw as the many positive contributions of the BPP: advocating and organizing armed self-defense, and linking up the revolutionary nationalist movement with the masses of people in creative ways.

It is important to Sundiata Acoli that women played important roles within the BPP. “This occurred,” Acoli writes, “at a time when most Black Nationalist organizations were demanding that the woman’s role be in the home and/or one step behind the Black man, and at a time when the whole country was going through a great debate on the woman’s liberation.”

Within months of joining the BPP, Acoli and other leading New York Panthers found themselves in jail–facing serious charges in the notorious attempt by the FBI’s COINTELPRO program to frame the New York Panther 21.

Sundiata writes: “In the summer of ’68, David Brothers established a BPP branch in Brooklyn, New York, and a few months later Lumumba Shakur set up a branch in Harlem, New York. i joined the Har-lem BPP in the fall of ’68 and served as its Finance Officer until arrested on April 2, 1969 in the Panther 21 Conspiracy case which was the opening shot in the government’s nationwide attack on the BPP. Moving westward, Police Departments in each city made military raids on BPP offices or homes in Philadelphia, Chicago, Newark, Omaha, Denver, New Haven, San Diego, Los Angeles, and other cities, murdering some Panthers and arresting others.” (From Acoli’s “A Brief History of the Black Panther Party–Its Place in the Black Liberation Movement”)

Sundiata writes: “On April 2, 1969, i was arrested to stand trial in the Panther 21 case. Twenty-one of us were accused of conspiring to carry out a ridiculous plot to blow up a number of New York department stores and the New York Botanical Gardens. Although the legal process took two years and the trial lasted eight months–the longest criminal prosecution in New York history–the jurors took only 56 min-utes to acquit all the defendants of every charge. Police agents appearing at the Panther 21 trial had also attended some group political education classes held at my apartment. Although an ad hoc organization of my fellow workers named `Computer People for Peace’ had raised and posted bail for me during the Panther 21 trial, and although several other defendants had been released on bail, the judge refused to let me out on bail. i had to do the entire two years on trial in jail until released on acquittal. i endured 2 years of political internment.”

After the Panther 21 were released, the FBI and police’s murderous harassment and disruption contin-ued: “Most of us returned to the community and to the BPP but by then COINTELPRO had taken its toll. The BPP was rife with dissension, both internal and external. The internal strife, division, intrigue, and paranoia had become so ingrained that eventually most members drifted or were driven, away. Some continued the struggle on other fronts and some basically cooled out altogether.”

Sundiata associated himself with those, like Assata Shakur, who believed that organizing small, armed, underground “strike teams” was the best way to continue resistance. They formed the clandestine or-ganization known as the Black Liberation Army (BLA).

On May 2, 1973, Sundiata, Assata Shakur, and Zayd Malik Shakur were ambushed by state troopers on the New Jersey Turnpike. Zayd died. Sundiata escaped and police only captured him after a massive two-day manhunt. Sundiata writes: “When i was arrested, police immediately cut my pants off me so that i only wore shorts. Whooping and hollering, a gang of New Jersey state troopers dragged me through the woods, through water puddles, and hit me over the head with the barrel of their shot gun. They only cooled out somewhat when they noticed that all the commotion had caused a crowd to gather at the edge of the road, observing their actions.”

Sundiata was denied medical care, newspapers and kept in isolation from everyone but his lawyer. Bright lights were kept turned on in his cell 24 hours per day; his food was restricted. State troopers pa-raded in front of his cell–harassing and threatening him.

Sundiata’s trial was a farce wrapped in manufactured hysteria. At the end, the judge stated that Sundiata was an avowed revolutionary and sentenced him to life in prison–and then to 30 more years to be served consecutively. No credible evidence ever linked Sundiata to the killing of the state trooper.

Behind the Walls

The system has tried to break Sundiata’s spirit and force him to renounce his support for the liberation of the Black people–and, they kept him isolated from the general prison population for long periods of time.

Soon after Sundiata’s arrival in the antiquated Trenton State Prison, the warden there created a new Management Control Unit (MCU) for Sundiata and 50 other “politically oriented” prisoners. His isola-tion cell was smaller than the SPCA’s recommended space for caging a German shepherd. Sundiata de-veloped tuberculosis. After five years, Sundiata was transferred to the federal penitentiary at Marion, a special facility for punishing and isolating political prisoners.

Sundiata and the other prisoners at Marion were locked down for 22-23 hours per day. Sometimes they were shackled spread-eagled on their bunks. Drinking water at Marion came from a federal toxic waste dump. Prisoners developed skin rashes and tumors.

On November 2, 1979, Sundiata’s comrade and co-defendant Assata Shakur was liberated from the Women’s Prison in Clinton, New Jersey by a multinational underground unit. Assata made her way to exile in Cuba.

Sundiata was immediately punished by new restrictions on visits that lasted throughout his eight years at Marion. He writes: “i was permitted visits with immediate family and attorneys only, with no friends or associates allowed. Because of the great distance and costs, these visits were possible only every one to three years. Prison officials constantly berated my children and threatened to cut off their visiting privi-lege for playing (i.e., not sitting still in the visiting booth). They once declared a baby blanket a non-permitted item, and took it out from under my daughter’s infant sister who was sleeping on the floor, causing the child and mother to cry. Only 24 total hours of visiting were permitted each month. Once my mother traveled 2,000 miles to visit me, unaware that i had already used 16 visiting hours that month. Prison officials rudely cut off her visit after only 8 hours, causing my mother to cry. In another instance, legal aide Anne Else traveled 550 miles to visit me. The FBI and Marion staff eavesdropped on our meeting until they were inadvertently discovered in the act by another prisoner, Leonard Peltier.”

After eight years, in large part due to the work of outside supporters in exposing the Marion lockdown, Sundiata was transferred to Leavenworth.


“All history has shown that this government will bring its police and military powers to bear on any group which truly seeks to free Afrikan people. Any Black `freedom’ organization which ignores self-defense does so at its own peril.”

After serving 21 years in the harshest penitentiaries of the U.S. prison system, Sundiata became eligible for parole. But the vengeance of the authorities continued. They turned down his parole after a 20 min-ute hearing in New Jersey, in 1994. Sundiata was not even permitted to attend but was forced to listen in from Leavenworth via telephone.

Sundiata was an ideal candidate for parole–according to official regulations. He had attended college from prison. He had a profession and outside job offers. As fellow political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal has pointed out, if Sundiata Acoli had been a “common criminal”–he would have been free a decade ago.

But Sundiata Acoli remained an unrepentant supporter of the liberation struggle. Not only was he denied parole, but the New Jersey parole board ruled that he would only be able to apply for parole again after another 20 years! The parole board gave blatantly political reasons for this new “20 year hit.” They ar-gued that he had not been punished enough and that he had not been “rehabilitated.” They pointed out that hundreds of letters had demanded his freedom, describing him as a New Afrikan POW who had contributed to the theory and practice of the New Afrikan Independence Movement.

In short, the authorities said that Sundiata would remain in prison because he was still an unbroken revolutionary leader. Last August, Mumia pointed out that in Sundiata’s parole case, the authorities were trying to treat signs of outside support for political prisoners as an argument against release. Mumia wrote: “This is political hogwash, which seeks to deaden popular support for them, and further isolate them from supporters.”

Sundiata was transferred to U.S.P. Allenwood, Pennsylvania–the federal maximum security prison complex for the East Coast. In January 1997, Sundiata’s legal team appealed the outrageous and bla-tantly political denial of parole–and a series of hearings were held last year, in which the government stalled for time.

Now over 60 years old, Sundiata Acoli has dedicated his life to the liberation of Black people. He has spoken out in defense of others, including Chairman Gonzalo, the imprisoned leader of the Communist Party of Peru. Sundiata has also made his experience and conclusions available through a series of writ-ings that analyze the legacy of the Black Panther Party, denounce the criminalization of Black youth, and lay out his support for the New African Independence Movement.

Sundiata Acoli is a living proof of the fact that in the U.S., the biggest criminals run the society, while heroic representatives of the oppressed are persecuted.

“Prisoners everywhere are being harshly repressed. Control units and control complexes abound, mass arrest, mass imprisonment, building more and harsher prisons, the death penalty, more police, more guards, and the `lock ’em up and throw away the key’ mentality, is the order of the day. Prison guards’ unions have grown as powerful as the policemen’s PBA in bankrolling law-and-order politicians to pass more repressive crime legislation. Nothing is too cruel to be done to prisoners today, particularly since most prisoners are Black, and Brown, or other people of color….

“If Attica represents a high point of the unity and consciousness of the prison struggle movement, then today represents a low point in prison conditions, consciousness, solidarity, and struggle. The real lesson of Attica is that it serves as a beacon to remind us of where we were, and how we got there. Today’s prisons are filled with mostly younger, less politically aware, but rebellious prisoners who were swept up during the Big Lie `War on Drugs,’ actually it was, and is, a War on people of color. We changed the prisons before and we can again, even further this time. To do so it’s necessary to politically educate and activate a whole new generation of prisoners, and community and legal supporters.”