The Briar Patch: The People of the State of New York v. Lumumba Shakur Et Al
by Murray Kempton
Dutton, 282 pp., $7.95
Every author has his own special reason for writing about a trial. So the first question to come to mind is why Murray Kempton chose to spend almost seven months in Manhattan’s Criminal Courts Building, following the prosecution of thirteen Black Panthers. Obviously any account of a criminal case provides some insight into the functioning of justice. But even in the opening pages of The Briar Patch (a mistaken and misleading title) it becomes plain that Kempton has something much more ambitious in mind. His subject is the condition of American radicalism itself.
In the early morning hours of April 2, 1969, five-man squads of New York policemen, armed with shotguns and wearing bulletproof vests, pounded on a succession of apartment doors throughout the city. This foray, which ranged from Washington Heights to the East Village, resulted in the arrest of twelve black citizens, all of them members of the New York branch of the Black Panther party. Two others were already in custody on other charges, and seven more were rounded up later. Of these twenty-one young men and women, thirteen were eventually brought to trial on 156 counts involving attempted arson, attempted murder, and three kinds of conspiracy. They were charged with, among other things, planning to blow up various police stations, school buildings, a railroad yard, and the Bronx Botanical Gardens. At the end of the trial the jury found the defendants innocent of all these crimes.
Kempton leaves no doubt that this was entirely a New York event. The arrests, indictments, and prosecutions had no connection whatever with John Mitchell’s Justice Department, but originated within the city at the midpoint of John Lindsay’s administration. Yet in its major particulars, New York’s Panther case paralleled the attempts to convict war protestors in Gainesville, Harrisburg, Camden, and other American cities. Like the others, it was a conspiracy trial. People found themselves arrested for having participated in discussions which the authorities chose to construe as penultimate planning sessions. For example, it was suggested that at the time of their apprehension the Panthers were on the verge of planting explosives in Bloomingdale’s. In addition, nearly all the government’s evidence came from infiltrators who not only dissembled their way into the discussions, but revealed an uncommon enthusiasm for even the most hypothetical of projects. Finally, the police, prosecutors, and others connected with the case really believed that a local jury would vote to convict in spite of the tawdriness of the evidence.
Trials of this kind are not surprising when they come from an administration that gave custody of the nation’s justice to John Mitchell, Richard Kleindienst, and William Rehnquist. But how could such a case come about in New York Country—the statutory name for Manhattan—which boasts one of America’s most liberal and tolerant citizenries? Kempton’s book shows, better than anything else I have seen, how the criminal justice apparatus can pursue its course and remain virtually untouched by the …