Herman Bell, one of the San Francisco Eight
Herman Bell: A Mini-bio, 2008
I was born in rural Mississippi on 14 January 1948. My folks were sharecroppers, which is an economic relationship whereby white people own the land and black people work the land. It's a legacy of the U.S. Civil War of 1861, at the end of which northern industrialists re-enfranchised the ex-slave-owning rebellious south, but took no steps to safeguard the freedoms and rights of the ex-slaves. This oversight, intentional or otherwise, paved the way for former slave owners and white racist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan to maim, murder, and terrorize black people with impunity. The result is that from 1871-1964, black people could not vote in the south or do much of anything else without white people's permission. Blacks produced this wealth in the south, and white landowners reaped the benefits. Whites controlled the instruments of political power: the legislature, the courts, and the police. Such were the social and economic conditions into which I was born.
In July 1955, I went to live with my father in Brooklyn, NY. As the rural-to-urban cultural shock diminished, I discovered the world through new eyes. Obviously, the vision of a seven-year-old child, as I was then, lacked the clarity and understanding that I later acquired. Yet even then, the Negro community was abuzz with concerted activity centered on uplift and improvement in Negro life in America, and regarded education as the chief means by which advancement could be made.
I became a talented football star and won a scholarship to play football in the Bay Area. But in the interim, as the '50s became the '60s, Negro people were undeniably on the move: "I'm Black and I'm Proud," "Black Is Beautiful," and "Black Power!" It was the time of "Freedom Rides" to the South, of Malcolm X and Dr. King, and of urban rebellion. A time when to be called Black was a political triumph, as the term itself was an act of political self-assertiveness.
I arrived in Oakland, CA, to play football in the fall of 1967. And the place – Vietnam – where many young black men and young white men were sent to die fighting a people they knew nothing about, had become a household name. Many of those drafted into this war were returned in body bags or were reduced to invalids walking on crutches, mangled, maimed, and psychologically scarred. College students demonstrated in the streets and on campus against the war, and national guardsmen shot them down to quell their defiance. Malcolm and Dr. King had been assassinated. Medgar Evers, Fred Hampton, and Mark Clark had been assassinated. The Civil Rights movement, the Black consciousness movement, the Anti-war movement, the tone and spirit of those times were highly charged and volatile.
For me and many other young, impressionable, and idealistic black men and women, joining the Black Panther Party was the most logical thing to do; through its survival programs, it sought to educate, protect, and organize the Black community. Since chattel slavery, black Americans have long claimed the right to pursue happiness in their own fashion. The historic battle they fought for their freedom before and after the U.S. Civil War has always focused on carving a political and economic niche for themselves in America. Staunchly opposed to these efforts were those who wanted to keep the "Negro" race in its appointed place.
The U.S. FBI's counter-intelligence program, called COINTELPRO (a continuation of this suppression campaign to stifle black political aspirations), sought to destroy all black political organizations in the U.S. by any means necessary. Its operation is largely responsible for the deaths and imprisonment of a significant number of young black leaders of the stormy '60s and '70s. By initiating search-and-destroy missions under the guise of "criminal" investigations, the FBI attempted to criminalize all forms of movements for social change. State and local police agencies were covertly recruited in the suppression of black political aspirations. This further exacerbated what had already been perceived as an unambiguous racist policy of police malevolence: willful brutality, excessive use of deadly force, and general disrespect of Black people's rights. The result is that scores of policemen, at that time, were seriously injured or fatally shot in the Black community. People were killed on both sides, families and lives were destroyed, and it's regrettable, because this could have been avoided.
I was part of the black struggle for self-determination movement. It's now widely known from documents revealed by the Congressional 1976 Church Committee Report (which was not admitted as evidence during my trial) that a secret U.S. domestic repression campaign to stifle black political aspirations for self-determination – called Cointelpro – existed to neutralize and discredit black organizations and black leaders; the Black Panther Party was high on this list of targeted black organizations. Because of relentless covertly-joint FBI and local police attacks on the BPP, I went underground in 1971. Under Cointelpro, "frame-ups," secret deals, coercion, threats, intimidations, and planted news articles were all part of its strategy to criminalize the Black Liberation Movement. Given these daunting circumstances, one either went underground or left the country – I chose to stay.
On 2 September 1973, I was captured and illegally extradited to New York City on charges of having killed two NYC policemen. Along with four co-defendants, we pled not guilty. No eyewitness identified me as one of the assailants, and the prosecutor produced no eyewitnesses. I was not even put in a "lineup." The jury was unable to reach a verdict during the first trial. Torture by law enforcement personnel, coerced witnesses, perjured testimony, manufactured and circumstantial material evidence in conjunction with prosecutorial and judicial misconduct are what persuaded the jury to convict 3 out of the 5 of us at the end of our second trial. (We were sentenced to 25-years-to-life.) Years of state and federal appeals have been unsuccessful, and I am writing this not to make light of the charges against me or of the conviction. Rather, I am writing to explain the conditions as I knew them then. The decades of the '60s and '70s were turbulent, and I regret that there was loss of life resulting from those turbulent times. One can object strongly to the tactics employed back then (and that cuts both ways) without denying that the motivation was not self-interest, but was a political will to counter state misconduct and bring about political change. Many people from those days have moved on, have been forgiven, have been allowed to go on and live productive lives (while others were sent to prison and are still carrying that burden). The past is behind me now, and I wish to move on.
I have spent most of my adult life in prison, and I like to think that the time has been spent productively. I've been a mentor and father-figure. I've encouraged countless young men along the way to take advantage of every academic and vocational program they can get in prison so that their time spent in prison will mean something to themselves when they get out.
I went to school myself. I earned a dual Bachelor of Science degree in psychology and sociology, and a Masters degree in sociology. Through self-study, I've learned music theory and am mastering the flute. I've coached football and basketball to enhance my communication skills with these young men. I've participated in many educational and cultural activities benefiting prisoners throughout these three and a half decades of my confinement (including Black History, English grammar, and writing skills), opening doors in hope that this dispirited underclass of prisoners can see their lives within the context of their history and culture, and claim the pride, dignity, and responsibility that comes with their knowledge.
In my outreach beyond prison walls in 1995, I met Carol and Michael (two marvelous environmental activist farmers from the state of Maine); together, we created the Victory Gardens Project. The VGP brought together people from diverse lifestyles and remote locations (we called it the urban-rural connection) to plant, grow, tend, harvest, and then distribute the food free to our communities. This life-giving project enjoyed eight successful seasons distributing food in Maine, Boston, New Jersey, Brooklyn, Harlem, and the Bronx.
In 2002, I invited several people (New York state prisoners) I knew to join me in a pen-pal dialogue with homeless children in NYC, which was made into a booklet for free distribution. Through the Victory Gardens Project in 2004, I invited middle school students enrolled at the local school in Athens, Maine, to participate in an essay contest. I asked them to write on "What contribution they made to their community without being asked to do so" – just giving/contributing from their own motivation. First prize was $100, and fourth prize was $25; the local newspaper mentioned the contest in its daily publication.
From 2001 on, I invited a group of Canadian friends to join me in creating a calendar for annual distribution that documented historic and current people's struggles for social justice. Proceeds from the sale of this calendar are earmarked for its reproduction, and the rest of it is donated to proven community-based groups that do excellent support work within their respective communities.
Finally, Parole Commissioners have noted that I have an "impressive" institutional record and list of accomplishments over the course of my 35 years of imprisonment.
Quoting from the victim impact statement by Waverly Jones Jr., son of one of the NYC police I was convicted of having killed, who requested to meet with the New York State Parole Board in 2004: "Me, personally, have forgiven these men for the positions that they took back then . . . I don't see them as someone that's going to come out of prison and commit violent crimes or anything of that nature . . . I feel that Herman Bell and Anthony Bottom were both victims as well of a much larger scheme which got them incarcerated to this day. . . And to me they have shown great resilience in prison, that their mind is still intact, that their spirit is still eager to do good, and I just pray that the Parole Board will look at the context and the time and send a message to me of healing."
Herman Bell # 79D0262
Sullivan Correctional Facility
P.O. Box 116
325 Riverside Drive
Fallsburg, New York 12733-0116
E-mail: freethesf8 [at] gmail [dot] com