While Jomo was still in the prison hospital recovering from his injuries at Attica, Elizabeth Gaynes, a third year law student at Syracuse, began to interview inmates at Auburn for the defense team of the rioters there. Each person she attempted to speak to told her they needed their Minister’s permission to talk to her. Exasperated, Elizabeth learned that they were referring to the Black Panther Party’s Minister of Defense, Jomo Davis, and angrily set out to confront him.
“That’s how I met my wife really, because she was going to school at Syracuse University Law School, and one of the lawyers that was dealing with the case, we had a team of lawyers, the Panthers always had a bunch of lawyers supporters and stuff like that. So they sent lawyers to deal with the guys for tearing up Auburn, and the guys there wouldn’t talk to them unless I sent a message back, because I was the highest ranked, so I had to send a code down for them to talk. And that’s how Liz came up, and Liz was mad as hell, she had to drive about 500 miles from Auburn. So she drove up there, it’s cold weather and all that, she said “who the hell you think you is, damn people down there locked up there in the jail in isolation and won’t talk unless I come and talk to you, who do you think you is, God?” And I said, “No, I’m the Minister of Defense and we got rules and all that, I’ll tell you what to say and they’ll know you talked to me.” And that’s how I met her because she was the first person to actually talk back to me.” -Jomo [audio:http://sites.duke.edu/docst110s_01_s2011_kgd3/files/2011/04/JomoCLip14.mp3|titles=JomoCLip14]
Jomo and Elizabeth began a correspondence; when the lawyer she was working for, Elizabeth Fisher, took on the Attica case, Elizabeth joined Jomo’s legal team. At this point, the publicity and energy surrounding the Attica trial began to pick up, and lawyers from all over the country in the National Lawyers Guild began to get involved. As Elizabeth said, “It went from the Panthers being a sort of political organizing to Attica being [something to organize around].”
“But Attica itself is kind of like circular, because the people doing the organizing before Attica had something to do with Attica happening and the people inside standing up and when the people inside stood up and got massacred that brought thousands more people into thinking about prisons that had never thought about it.” -Elizabeth [audio:http://sites.duke.edu/docst110s_01_s2011_kgd3/files/2011/04/ElizabethClip6.mp3|titles=ElizabethClip6]
As newspapers wrote about the Attica Brothers’ case, individuals were galvanized to join the prisoners’ rights movement. People, especially the youth, began to protest on the Brother’s behalf. Students and members of the church held vigils, demonstrations and wrote letters to members of government and various newspapers denouncing the state’s response to Attica.
“Two things happened, and it’s very applicable to organizing in the world generally; which is that this massive firepower emboldened and enraged some people who then started coming more into it and going, “this is terrible, we have to stand up about this.” And other people got frightened by it. Other people were like well wait a minute, “I was just bringing my kid to get breakfast at the Black Panther’s breakfast program, and now this is this scary thing and I don’t want any part of it” and I’m just gonna put my head down. I think some people that were being drawn out kind of went back into their bunkers, but there was larger group, which included a lot of students and young people and church people actually, who were like wait “you can’t go around killing people who were in a prison yard unarmed, what was that.” So I think it had both effects of really bringing some people out who were so appalled and horrified by the state’s response, and I think they became politicized.” -Elizabeth [audio:http://sites.duke.edu/docst110s_01_s2011_kgd3/files/2011/04/ElizabethClip23.mp3|titles=ElizabethClip23]
“They say our protesters is the one who stopped Rockefeller from becoming president, you know after that he ran for president and everywhere he went, everywhere he tried to speak, we had a group of people there like these people here . . . they said Attica’s all of us. Rockefeller would come out and speak about what he’s gonna do when he becomes president and somebody would get upset and be like ‘Remember Attica! What about Attica?’” -Jomo [audio:http://sites.duke.edu/docst110s_01_s2011_kgd3/files/2011/04/JomoClip3.mp3|titles=JomoClip3]
As a result of Attica’s visibility, the prison rights movement would see substantial success in garnering legal concessions from courts.
“The 70s was the hay day of prisoners rights litigation . . . I mean almost every right that prisoners have came out of litigation in the 70s and its actually only gotten worse from then. So Attica, it was all post Attica. And so it brought a lot of attention to that. So a lot of other things were happening, so I don’t want to get away from the organizing aspect of it but organizing occurs inside of an environment. And one of the impacts of the environment were the public sympathy for what happened at Attica and lawyers getting involved and supporting some of the things the Panthers were trying to do.” -Elizabeth [audio:http://sites.duke.edu/docst110s_01_s2011_kgd3/files/2011/04/ElizabethClip14.mp3|titles=ElizabethClip14]
Jomo discusses declining work opportunities in prisons after the 1970s. See video below.
However, the rebellion solidified in Governor Rockefeller’s mind the need to take a harder line when it came to law and order in society (Thompson 2010). In May of 1973, Rockefeller pushed through the state legislature a series of harsh anti-drug laws. These new laws established mandatory prison sentences for the unlawful possession and sale of controlled substances in small amounts. Judges typically imposed a sentence of 15 years to life for anyone convicted of selling two ounces, or possessing four ounces of a “narcotic drug.” As a result of these new laws, the prisoner population would increase dramatically.
“The dramatic postwar rise of the carceral state depended on what might well be called the “criminalization of urban space,” a process by which increasing numbers of urban dwellers– overwhelmingly men and women of color– became subject to a growing number of laws that not only regulated bodies and communities in thoroughly new ways but also subjected violators to unprecedented time behind bars” (Thompson 2010).
Furthermore, the prison system responded to the riots by changing the available channels for organizing.
“A few state prison administrations have responded to prisoner protest by taking steps to open channels of communication with inmates. In Texas and in Maryland, administrators meet regularly with inmates to air grievances and give prisoners some voice in the operation of the institutions. But in other states, like New York, wardens have tended to retrench. Censorship is today tighter than ever in New York prisons” (Badillo 1972).
In 1973, Jomo accepted a plea bargain from the prosecution that allowed him to maintain his innocence, and granted him time served in New York. Jomo, who had outstanding time to serve in the Virginia Beach prison, accepted the plea and was transferred to Virginia. In 1975, the state pardoned all of the Attica Brothers.
Jomo talks about his unwillingness to speak up in the beginning of the Attica trials, and how his ultimate involvement lead to a plea bargain. See video below.
“We got this hearing and we brought in the National Guard people, and the Press started listening to what these guys were saying about what they came in and saw — people being tortured, and people being shot, and finding Jomo and all that stuff. . . . And as we were going to finish up the hearing, they couldn’t stand the press, and they were like “we gotta stop this.” So they came and offered him a plea, if we would stop the hearing.” -Elizabeth [audio:http://sites.duke.edu/docst110s_01_s2011_kgd3/files/2011/04/ElizabethClip19.mp3|titles=ElizabethClip19]
“The deal that they were offering him was, time served–no extra time, you can go back to Virginia to begin serving time there that he still owed Virginia time. And he didn’t have to say he was guilty; it was a Alford plea, where you can get to say, “I didn’t do anything wrong but I’m taking the plea because staying here any longer is harmful to me and my family.” Of course the whole prosecution fell apart and everybody got pardoned a year later.” -Elizabeth [audio:http://sites.duke.edu/docst110s_01_s2011_kgd3/files/2011/04/ElizabethClip20.mp3|titles=ElizabethClip20]
Jomo’s outstanding time in Virginia came from his escape from prison in 1968– he left after he was convicted but before they could sentence him. When he moved to New York he changed his name and was arrested as Eric Thompson instead of Cleveland Davis. It took the FBI three years to figure out that this was the same person, at which point he was given time to serve in Virginia once he got out of Attica.
“The summer of 71′, they finally put it all together . . . they figured out that Eric Thompson was really Cleveland Davis. So they brought him back in May of 1971, while all the federal case was going on, in between the Auburn 1970 and the Attica uprising, in May they brought him back down to Virginia Beach and then they did the sentencing. So he knew that whenever his case in New York was finished, he was gonna have to go back to prison in Virginia to do the 15 years. So when they offered him this deal to be able to take a plea to time served in New York, to not admit your guilty and go, he was thrilled because the 15 years didn’t start until he got back there.” -Elizabeth [audio:http://sites.duke.edu/docst110s_01_s2011_kgd3/files/2011/04/ElizabethClip21.mp3|titles=ElizabethClip21]
In 1976, Jomo was released from prison and married Elizabeth. While still a self-identified Black Panther, Jomo played less of a formal role with the Party chapter in New York City. The Party ideology in the city, through government programs such as COINTELPRO and internal leadership conflicts, became more militant and morphed into the Black Liberation Army.
“But in case of the Panthers, this whole campaign called COINTELPRO, this counter-intelligence thing was an effort to destroy the Panthers and the police ultimately did essentially. People either moved toward becoming more militant . . . they pretty much killed it off by isolating people, making them appear more militant, some of them maybe did become more militant. But people didn’t even want to go to meetings because they figured half the people at the meetings were cops” -Elizabeth [audio:http://sites.duke.edu/docst110s_01_s2011_kgd3/files/2011/04/ElizabethClip22.mp3|titles=ElizabethClip22]
“By the time Jomo was arrested in Brooklyn, he wasn’t so much identifying, well I guess he would still consider himself a Panther, but the movement had morphed in a lot of different ways, and most of the people were being considered to be moving into more militant or revolutionary modes and there were a lot of cases around cops getting killed and a lot of infiltration. But the organizing shifted from, at that point it wasn’t so much about organizing people into the Panthers, as much as try to organize people around the basic idea that prison was being used as a way to control black people. And that people were being sent to prison rather than having their needs met. So it went from being just the Panthers organizing black people as black panthers to an actual prison movement.” -Elizabeth [audio:http://sites.duke.edu/docst110s_01_s2011_kgd3/files/2011/04/Elizabeth-Clip2.mp3|titles=Elizabeth Clip2]
Still, the Black Panther Party’s programs had a lasting impact in the black community and set a precedent for similar government programs.
“It’s predominate influence was in the community-based programs that gradually became part of the government. We finally got medical clinics, so when we get sick we don’t have to go [somewhere else]. We put a consciousness back into the black students of their responsibility to their community– hopefully that they would study something relevant, so the Party pushed black studies. The breakfast program [became the impetus for the free and reduced lunch program] and prison reform.” -Agieb [audio:http://sites.duke.edu/docst110s_01_s2011_kgd3/files/2011/04/AgiebClip6.mp3|titles=AgiebClip6]
Jomo was arrested again in 1978. Before the Attica Brothers were pardoned in 1975, Jomo’s friend Dalou skipped bail. When he ran into Jomo years later, he was convinced that despite the pardon, if he turned himself in he would be charged with jumping bail. Jomo took Dalou to talk to a lawyer about turning himself in, but on the way they ran into two cops. Jomo recalls how a shoot out commenced between Dalou, one of Dalou’s friends and the two cops. Dalou and the two cops were killed, and Jomo was shot will getting into his car as he attempted to leave the scene. A few blocks away Jomo crashed the car due to a loss of blood.
Elizabeth remembers learning about her husbands injuries from the incident in a 1995 interview with Jean Stein:
“The off-duty policemen who found him assumed he’d been involved in the shoot-out — even though he was unarmed. They handcuffed him to a stretcher in the ambulance and kicked and pistol-whipped him so badly that they broke his skull in twenty places and fractured the orbits around both eyes. The doctor testified later that if he didn’t know better, he would have assumed that Jomo had fallen out of a five-story building” (Davis 1995).