The New Jersey Supreme Court did what the parole board refused to do since Sundiata Acoli was first eligible for parole in 1993. It granted Acoli, a Black political prisoner and U.S. prisoner of war, parole on May 10. Acoli, now 85 and suffering from dementia and other serious health problems, plans to live with his daughter and grandchildren in New York City upon release.
The story of Acoli’s near 50-year incarceration is unfortunately an all too familiar one. Acoli, a former Black Panther Party member, was first arrested and incarcerated in 1969 as a member of the Panther 21, a FBI-fabricated conspiracy case against the New York Branch of the BPP. Acoli and the others were incarcerated for two years. Although the charges were eventually dropped, he and other Panther Party members faced constant FBI surveillance, harassment and intimidation. These provocations drove Acoli and others underground. (sundiataacoli.org)
In May 1973, Acoli and his comrades were ambushed by New Jersey state troopers on the New Jersey Turnpike. New Jersey state police have a well-documented hundred-year history of racism and terrorist attacks on Black and Brown people. During this attack, Zayd Shakur was killed and Assata Shakur was injured and captured. A state trooper was killed and another wounded. Acoli was captured three days later. Assata Shakur later escaped from prison and is living in safety in Cuba.
Needless to say, after a highly sensationalized and biased trial, Acoli was found guilty and sentenced to N.J. state prison for life plus 30 consecutive years. In New Jersey, even those with a life sentence are eligible for parole after 20 years. This former Black Panther was placed in a specially constructed lockdown unit and eventually moved to a maximum security federal prison.
When Acoli was finally eligible in 1992 for his first parole hearing, he was not even allowed to attend in person. In fact, true to the racist and vindictive nature of the N.J. injustice system, Acoli received an unprecedented “20 year hit” due to his prior membership in the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army.
Acoli is internationally recognized as a political prisoner and prisoner of war by the International Jurist and other organizations. Thousands of people have written letters and signed cards over the past four decades demanding immediate parole and freedom for Acoli.
In fact, it was only the legal intervention of the New Jersey Supreme Court two weeks ago, overruling the refusal of the parole board to grant parole, that finally opened the door to Acoli’s freedom. The legal decision granting Acoli parole was finally won. In its opinion, the majority of supreme court justices stated, “Acoli must be released because the statutory standards for granting parole have been met.” (Sundiata Acoli v. New Jersey State Parole Board)
There are many elderly and infirm political prisoners in U.S. prisons who are more than overdue for immediate release. Dr. Mutulu Shakur, who has been incarcerated for nearly four decades, is suffering from life-threatening bone cancer and was recently turned down for federal parole. Mumia Abu-Jamal, former BPP member and internationally acclaimed author and journalist, has been imprisoned for over 40 years and now has severe cirrhosis of the liver and hypertension. Indigenous political prisoner Leonard Peltier, falsely incarcerated for almost 40 years, has been in declining health and tested positive for COVID-19 in January.
It is time to release these three men and all U.S. political prisoners back to their communities. In 2022, it’s time to finally free them all!