EDITOR’S NOTE: This column is available for reprint courtesy of The Cool Justice Report.The president of Yale went off his privileged white rocker. Tanks lined the outskirts of the city. National guardsmen stood with fixed bayonets by the New Haven green.Students smoked dope freely, played Frisbee and listened to rock music in what became a liberated zone on the green. About 15,000 protesters had gathered for the political trial of Black Panthers for murder.Some of the guardsmen were more afraid of their peers than the Black Panthers. And with good reason. The guardsmen were told they could shoot to kill with impunity, as fellow soldiers would do days later at Kent State. The Black Panther Party was so loaded with FBI informants and provocateurs no one knew who was playing for what team.
One thing was certain: The Panthers became the perfect foil and budget builder for J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. As they would with draft board raiders and various student groups, FBI infiltrators set up and committed crimes so the bureau would have a convenient menace and a rationale for “protecting” the American people from minorities, civil rights activists or Vietnam War protesters.The players, the events and the milieu of the 60’s are recounted masterfully by authors Paul Bass and Douglas Rae in their new book, “Murder In The Model City: The Black Panthers, Yale And The Redemption Of A Killer,” published this month by Basic Books. Their prose is hard and smooth, like marble. Their reporting is as comprehensive as comprehensive gets. They show how the Panthers could have destroyed themselves without the help of the FBI. They document how the FBI and other law enforcement agencies helped, often by illegal means including warrantless wiretaps and break-ins and even murder, such as the fatal shooting of Chicago Panther Fred Hampton in his sleep.Bass and Rae give the inside story of the Panthers in Connecticut, based primarily on access to former Panther Warren Kimbro, the shooter who went on to become a model prisoner and a college dean; and home-grown New Haven detective Nick Pastore, who would later become chief.Events culminated in May 1970. Black Panthers Bobby Seale of Oakland, Calif., the national chairman, and “political educator” / Connecticut leader Ericka Huggins, were on trial in New Haven. They were accused of conspiring to murder Connecticut Panther Alex Rackley, who was beaten and tortured before being shot in the ear and chest on May 20, 1969. Rackley had been suspected of being an informant. Authorities had information about Rackley’s kidnapping and torture, but did not pursue the case until he was killed.I learned of these events as a semi-cloistered student at St. Bernard Boys’ High School in Montville. Some of my classmates joined protesters at the Montville jail to display “Free Bobby” signs. My connection to the jail was through the son of the warden, who gave me rides in his sports car and bought me ice cream cones as a youngster.Seale was brought into the case as a pretext for the FBI to raid Panther organizations around the country. Authorities knew there was no solid evidence of his involvement.In a tacit admission that Rackley and others throughout the country were set up as informants, Hoover wrote in a 1971 memo about FBI plans to sabotage other Panther chapters: “Such action could possibly result in a situation similar to that which occurred in May, 1969, when Alex Rackley was tortured and killed by BPP members, if the allegation was believed.“Panthers were not the only citizens who generated government work geared to stifling their attitudes and behavior. Theodore Koskoff, founder of one of Connecticut’s most effective law firms, was branded by the FBI as a friend of communists for his support of the Henry Wallace People’s Party in 1948. His big crime in the 60’s was representing Panthers.Another communist pal, the FBI asserted in its smear campaign, was Huggins’ lawyer, Catherine Roraback. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Roraback successfully argued the landmark birth control information dissemination case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1965. The FBI also criticized Roraback for traveling to Mississippi in 1964 “to assist the handling of legal problems that arose from Negro voter registration.“The Bureau counted many friends in Connecticut. Conservative Yalies demanded the head of President Kingman Brewster when he dared to say: “I am appalled and ashamed that things should have come to pass in this country that I am skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States.“Brewster had the smarts to contain the protesters, opening the gates of Yale, serving refreshments and meeting secretly with Yippie Jerry Rubin and SDS President Tom Hayden.In a stunning portrait, Bass and Rae show how a conservative, law and order Irish judge, Harold Mulvey, developed a working relationship with Seale and ran a fair courtroom. When the jury deadlocked on charges against Seale and Huggins, Mulvey ended the case, dismissing all counts.The primary shooter, Kimbro, had already pleaded guilty and redeemed himself in the eyes of the system, working with the wardens at the Montville and Brooklyn jails where he served time and testifying in the Seale-Huggins trial. Kimbro was perhaps the only local person who mourned the death of Rackley. Kimbro believed he was in a kill or be killed position when Panther George Sams, also suspected of being an informant, gave him a gun and ordered him to kill Rackley. Sams also directed Panther Lonnie McLucas to fire the insurance shot to the chest.Kimbro had been a respected community organizer in New Haven before joining the Panthers. In jail, he edited newspapers and counseled inmates to work the system, contrary to Panther ideology. Prosecutor Arnold Markle said this about Kimbro: “This man is truly contrite. I think that there is very little that prison life can do for him.” Judge Mulvey sympathized, then sentenced Kimbro to life.Many friends watched over Kimbro. He had cultivated them while studying at Eastern Connecticut State College while in jail. Harvard wanted him. The state pardon board listened to the tale of redemption when Kimbro and his friends appealed. His sentence was reduced to four years, a rare act of leniency.Kimbro worked as a drug counselor at Perception House in Willimantic, then went on to become an administrator and dean at Eastern. Now in his 70’s, Kimbo lives outside New Haven with his family. He runs a program that helps ex-offenders get jobs. Kimbro wakes up at 5:30 every morning to pray and watch the sun rise, thinking about the sunrises he took away from Rackley.Planting provocateurs remains a part of the FBI playbook, as evidenced by the so-called terror plot in Miami. The problem today is government spying is more systematic, widespread and refined while the citizenry remains docile. Andy Thibault, author of Law and Justice In Everyday Life and a private investigator, is an adjunct lecturer of English and a mentor in the MFA writing program at Western Connecticut State University. He also serves as a, consulting editor for the literary journal Connecticut Review. Click here to read Thibault’s blog The Cool Justice Report and here to get to his web site.