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Missing History in Action

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Issue: 21 Section: Media Analysis Geography: USA, Ontario Toronto Topics: racism, media

August 25, 2004

Missing History in Action

Canadian coverage of Joseph Pannell and the Black Panther Party

by Dru Oja Jay

Joseph Pannell in 1969.
On July 29th, the Canadian Press, Globe and Mail, Toronto Star and others reported that Joseph Coleman Pannell had been arrested in Toronto for the shooting of a Chicago police officer in 1969. All of the reports described Pannell as a former member of the Black Panther Party who was charged with attempted murder, jumped bail and fled to Canada. He lived in Montreal and then Toronto, where he worked for 13 years as a research librarian under an assumed name. The Globe and the Star offered additional information, the substance of which came entirely from accounts by the police and from the man Pannell is accused of shooting.

The media coverage of the case seems to be factually correct. The claims that were reported were in fact made. However, the coverage also omits massive amounts of relevant contextual information-information which undermines the claims which were reported.

In 1969, the year that the shooting in question took place, eleven black youths from Chicago's south side were killed by police. A dozen members of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, and slightly fewer members of the Chicago police force, were wounded or killed in shootouts. 100 Panther members were arrested, and the Panther headquarters were raided four separate times by FBI and police forces. At the same time, the FBI's CounterIntelligence Program (COINTELPRO) was planting agents within the Black Panther Party (and other political groups) with the aim of disabling or destroying the organization's political effectiveness.

All of these facts are well-established, uncontroversial, and a part of the public record. Yet not even a suggestion of conflict (much less constant arrests, raids, and shootouts) between the Panthers and the police appears anywhere in Canadian newspaper coverage. The reports, to the contrary, actively cultivate the impression that this was an aberration. A normal day; then, unprovoked, a policeman was shot.

The Globe quotes Terrence Knox, the man who Pannell allegedly shot, as describing the event this way: "I stopped him and asked him why he wasn't in school, and for some reason he decided to shoot me."

For some reason.

Since the reports do not acknowledge that a conflict existed at the time, there is no possibility at all of discussing the state of police brutality within black communities, or the political nature of the conflict. (Police oppression-beatings, arbitrary arrests, harassment-in black communities was the historical motivation for the creation of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, but the possibility of evaluating the legitimacy of such a motivation is preempted by the press's denial of the existence of conflict...other than this one shooting.)

The 1000-word Globe article, written by Jeff Gray and Jonathan Fowlie, goes on to quote Knox at length; 16 out of 28 paragraphs are based on claims made by the police officer. Neither Pannell nor his attorney were quoted in the initial coverage (Pannell's attorney was limited to a one-line assertion of innocence in subsequent coverage).

On December 4, 1969, police raided the home of Fred Hampton, the leader of the Chicago Black Panther Party. Hampton, who at that time was a figure of national prominence, was known for his unassuming charm as a public speaker and phenomenal talent as an organizer. Four Panthers were seriously injured, and two were killed-one of whom was Fred Hampton. No police were harmed.

Police claimed that they had returned fire when "attacked" by the "extremely vicious" Panthers, and had been acting in self defense and with remarkable "self-restraint". Later, forensic reports revealed that 99 shots had been fired, of which only one came from a Panther's gun; witnesses said his weapon went off as a result of the physical impact of being shot repeatedly. Witnesses reported that Hampton was injured during the initial raid, and then executed with two shots to the head by a police officer.

No members of the Chicago police department were ever charged in the killing. Decades later, the Chicago City Council designated "Fred Hampton Day" in the slain leader's honour.

This famous, thoroughly documented event provides obvious avenues of inquiry for even an incompetent journalist. Should a member of the same Chicago police department that was publicly shamed for telling blatant lies be relied upon as the sole source for a story, as if there was no doubt at all as to his credibility or motives? The fact that Fred Hampton's killers have gone unprosecuted, while a man allegedly responsible for a non-lethal shooting is in jail 30 years later, might also raise questions among journalists, were they interested in conveying some sense of the actuality of the event they were reporting on.

The Toronto Star, Canadian Press, CTV News and others did not differ substantively from the Globe's coverage, with one exception. The Globe's Gray and Fowlie added a short description of the Black Panther Party in their last paragraph. (Other media, including the CBC, made no effort to outline this context, only labelling the group as "notorious" or as being "at the height of their notoriety" in 1969.)

The Globe article describes the Black Panther Party as "a revolutionary black nationalist movement that rejected the integrationist vision of the more mainstream civil rights movement." Nothing else is said about the party, which was also famous for its popular free breakfast programs for inner city kids, its demands that the legacy of slavery be addressed in a fundamental way, its revolutionary politics, its war with the FBI, state and federal governments, and its high levels of support in black communities. (The Black Panther Party no longer exists. Those interested in learning about its history might begin by reading the Party's ten point program, which is available on numerous web sites.)

As of this writing, Joseph Pannell is awaiting an extradition hearing.

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