The Black Liberation Army (BLA) was a rare phenomenon in the annals of modern American terrorism: a group that intended to kill and did kill multiple times, and that killed with guns rather than bombs. Beginning in 1971 the BLA went to war against the police in several big cities across the country. Its members ambushed patrolmen and assaulted police stations in an effort to expel the â€œpigsâ€ from their communities. In turn the BLA guerrillas were intensively hunted, and many were killed or wounded in shoot-outs with the authorities. Even from jail they continued the war, organizing escape attempts and freeing captured comrades. In later years remnants of the BLA robbed banks and armored cars, shooting guards and police officers who resisted. Their last job left a bloody mess at an on-ramp to the New York State Thruway on October 21, 1981.
Rule number six of the Black Panther Party (BPP) stated that â€œNo party member can join any other army force, other than the Black Liberation Army.â€ The rules were drawn up in 1968, about two years after the founding of the Panthers, and BLA clandestine units were probably first established in that year. But these were self-defense squads; they did not engage in offensive actions at the start or issue communiquÃ©s. While some Black Panthers were involved in police shootings by the late 1960s, or engaged in crime or fought with rival groups, this violence did not rise to the level of terrorism. The BLA only turned to terrorism when the Black Panther Party was coming apart, in the first months of 1971. The split occurred when Huey Newton, Minister of Defense of the BPP, expelled Eldridge Cleaver and his followers in the New York branch of the party. The rift in part reflected philosophical differences — Newton was pulling back from armed struggle in 1971 while Cleaver believed that the war had already begun. But the clash also stemmed from personal jealousies, and it was intensified by government manipulation. The FBIâ€™s COINTELPRO (Counter-Intelligence Program) initiative spread false rumors within the party and inflamed the suspicions of the two camps. Newton ousted the Cleaver faction on February 26, 1971, and the two groupings soon drew blood from one another. On March 9 the West Coast Panthers assassinated Robert Webb, a Cleaver loyalist. The East Coast Panthers retaliated on April 17, killing Samuel Napier, the circulation manager of Newtonâ€™s paper. Napier was bound, shot, and then set on fire by men who would begin a war with the police a few weeks later in the name of the BLA.
These men were loyal to Cleaver, but Cleaver did not direct the BLA or participate in its actions. At the time he was living in exile in Algeria as head of the International Section of the Panthers. He would return to the United States in 1975, become a born-again Christian a year later, and eventually join the Republican Party. But in 1971 Cleaver and his allies believed that â€œwe have to fight a revolutionary struggle for the violent overthrow of the United States government and the total destruction of the racist, capitalist, imperialist, neo-colonialist power structure.â€ Blacks were living in Babylon, slaves to a fascist despot bent on the genocidal destruction of peoples of color across the globe. They had to fight back, â€œforcing all those responsible for oppression to realize that they too can bleed, they too can feel our pain. Only when this is realized … will we be conceded our right to self-determination.â€ A prison poem by one of the captured BLA guerrillas suggests the logic of armed struggle:
i believe a people wronged
are duty bound to make it right
valid claims long gone unanswered
justifies the fight.
â€œLiberation and Landâ€
is my slogan
war without terms
on the ruling class
no pie for me, you see
i want some ass
Off the Pigs!
War without terms commenced on May 19, 1971, the birth date of Malcolm X. Two officers guarding the residence of the prosecutor in the Panther 21 trial were lured into a trap. A car drove the wrong way down the street and the squad car gave chase. A few blocks away someone in the fleeing vehicle opened fire with an automatic weapon, seriously wounding both officers. Two days later the press received the first communiquÃ© from the BLA:
The armed goons of the racist government will again meet the guns of oppressed third world peoples as long as they occupy our community and murder our brothers and sisters in the name of American law and order. Just as the fascist marines and Army occupy Vietnam in the name of democracy and murder Vietnamese people in the name of American imperialism are confronted with the guns of the Vietnamese liberation army, the domestic armed forces of racism and oppression will be confronted with the guns of the black liberation army, who will meet out in the tradition of Malcolm and all true revolutionaries real justice.
That very day, May 21, the BLA struck again. Two patrolmen were ambushed outside a public housing development in Harlem, struck from behind and at close range with automatic-weapons fire. Both were killed. One of the officers was black — a traitor to his people according to the BLA.
Two weeks later, on June 5, there was a break in the case. Four men were arrested during an armed robbery at a private social club in the Bronx. Three of the men were BLA members and had been indicted for the murder of Sam Napier. Ballistic tests on their submachine gun revealed that it had been used in the May 19 shooting. The next attacks claimed by the BLA came in late August, after the death of â€œSoledad Brotherâ€ George Jackson during a prison breakout. Jackson was an articulate and fiery advocate of armed struggle, revered by far-left revolutionaries. Although three guards had their throats slit during Jacksonâ€™s escape attempt, his advocates insisted that Jackson had been set up or killed in cold blood.
Weatherman bombed the California State Department of Corrections after Jacksonâ€™s slaying, harming no one, but the BLA wanted blood. Several BLA members belonged to the Panther 21, and the Panther 21 had chastised Weatherman for its bloodless terrorism. The Panther defendants insisted that â€œjust to be ready to die does not make a revolutionist.â€ Militants â€œMUST be ready to KILL to change conditions. Revolution is ARMED STRUGGLE — revolution is VIOLENCE — revolution is WAR — revolution is BLOODSHED.â€
Acting on this philosophy, a black man walked into the Ingleside police station in San Francisco on the night of August 29, 1971, and fired a shot-gun blast into the chest of the desk sergeant, killing him instantly. Outside, his accomplices peppered the station with gun fire, wounding a female clerk. Two days later the authorities received a note claiming the assault in the name of the BLA. A communiquÃ© published in Cleaverâ€™s journal Right On warned that â€œif one drop of Black Blood is shed, the sons and daughters of Malcolm will rise and pig blood will flow like a river wherever pigs exist. Woe unto those who cannot swim.â€
But it is not clear whether the San Francisco assailants were connected with the New York BLA. The Black Liberation Army was not a disciplined and hierarchical unit able to coordinate attacks across the country. Rather, it was a concept and a name which black militants could employ to communicate their agenda and express solidarity with other African Americans engaged in armed struggle. The label was not trade-marked and the BLA issued no membership cards. You were in the BLA if you took up the gun and used it in the name of the organization.
The San Francisco BLA perpetrated other attacks during the last week in August. It fired a 66 mm. anti-tank gun at the Mission police station and firebombed a branch of Bank of America. Two militants pulled alongside a squad car and tried to spray it with an automatic weapon, but the gun jammed. They were captured and the pistol of one of the officers killed on May 21 in New York was found in their possession. Meanwhile the New York section of the BLA fled the city in late summer to escape the intense manhunt. They rented two houses in Atlanta, stockpiled weapons and explosives, produced false identification, and trained daily in the yards. They also robbed banks and stores to raise funds for the war. Three of them were captured on November 7 during a holdup in a supermarket; they were suspected of having killed an Atlanta police officer four days earlier. But before the investigation was concluded the three managed to escape from the DeKalb County jail on December 12.
After the arrests in Georgia, the Atlanta cell scattered. On November 11, several were stopped by a sheriffâ€™s deputy in Catawba County, North Carolina. The deputy was shot and killed but four BLA suspects were captured after a chase. On December 20, a patrol car in Queens was demolished by a grenade as it pursued a BLA vehicle. The officers were not injured by the explosion but the suspects escaped. On the last day of December another BLA member was cornered by FBI agents at a Florida motel and gunned down in an exchange of fire.
But on January 28, 1972, the BLA once again took the offensive. Two NYPD officers were ambushed on the Lower East Side, cut down by submachine-gun fire. The assailants stood over the fallen officers and emptied their magazines into the bodies. Shortly thereafter the authorities received a communication from the George Jackson Squad of the Black Liberation Army:
No longer will black people tolerate Attica and oppression and exploitation and rape of our black community. This is the start of our spring offensive. There is more to come. We also dealt with the pigs in Brooklyn.
The last sentenced referred to two recent incidents in which officers had been wounded by unknown attackers. The BLA next showed up in St. Louis on February 15. A gun battle erupted during a routine traffic stop and one officer was wounded. Others returned fire, killing one suspect and wounding two more. A search of the car turned up one of the pistols taken from the officers who were ambushed on January 28.
But then the trail went cold for almost a year. January 1973, however, was a bloody month. On the twelfth a BLA suspect wounded two off-duty housing detectives in New York. Twelve days later the NYPD cornered three BLA members at a bar, killing two in the shoot-out. In retaliation, the BLA ambushed patrol cars on January 25 and 28, wounding four officers. In its communiquÃ© the BLA urged black cops â€œnot to take arms against us and refuse to be pitted in mortal combat against their own people, defending a system which has enslaved, still exploits, brutalizes and murders black people.â€
Another huge manhunt followed, but suspects were only captured after a traffic stop on the New Jersey Turnpike on May 2, 1973. The BLA fugitives opened fire, killing one state trooper and wounding another. Other troopers returned fire, killing one man and wounding a woman. A third suspect escaped. The woman was a reputed leader of the BLA, Joanne Chesimard (Assata Shakur). The authorities dubbed her â€œthe soul of the Black Liberation Army.â€ But the organization was not broken yet. On June 5, 1973, a BLA member was chased by transit authority police in the Bronx for jumping the turnstile. He drew a gun, killing one patrolman and wounding the other. But the dying officer returned fire and hit the suspect, who was captured shortly thereafter.
The first phase in the life of the BLA came to an end on November 15, 1973, when one of the last BLA fugitives was gunned down on a street in the Bronx. During the arrest he pulled a gun and wounded an FBI agent, two police officers, and a bystander before being killed in a hail of bullets. He was the seventh BLA member to be killed by the authorities. Nineteen others had been apprehended by then, including the only white associate of the group, Marilyn Buck. She purchased weapons and ammunition for the BLA at gun shows but was arrested in March 1973.
In 1974 a group in Jacksonville, Florida, began abducting and murdering white youths. The group took credit for the killings in the name of the Black Liberation Army, declaring that the victims were â€œexecuted and made to pay for the political crimes that have been perpetrated upon black people.â€ But this BLA was not connected with the New York BLA and the four members were caught and convicted for the murders in 1975.
The second phase in the BLAâ€™s war was fought in courtrooms, jails, and prisons. Several BLA members were acquitted or had charges dismissed or reduced, but most were convicted and received long sentences. Many did not resign themselves to this new Babylonian captivity, however. They plotted with comrades on the outside and made numerous attempts to escape. Several were successful. One BLA prisoner escaped from a county hospital on September 27, 1973, but he was recaptured a week later. On December 27, four BLA sympathizers were caught trying to break into the Tombs through the sewer system. Another four tried again on April 17, 1974, using a small blow torch to cut through a steel partition in a visitorâ€™s booth. The attempt failed and the four fled. Several were tracked to New Haven and captured on May 4 after a shoot-out in which two police officers were wounded. On August 5, 1974, a woman was caught trying to sneak a hacksaw blade in her shoe to a BLA convict. A week later that convict and two other prisoners overpowered their guards and tried to scale a fence at the Brooklyn House of Detention. The BLA prisoner was shot and recaptured.
On February 17, 1975, BLA commandos in wet suits paddled rafts to Rikers Island and tried to free 11 comrades held there, but the attempt failed. On May 12 sympathizers smuggled explosives, mace, knives, wrenches, and lock picks to three BLA members on trial in the New York Criminal Courts Building. The materials were hidden in large envelopes and sat on a courtroom table all day before being discovered in the holding pen. Two weeks later two more BLA members broke free from their cell and tried to climb down a wall at the Brooklyn House of Detention. The improvised rope broke and one escapee plunged 100 feet to his death. The other inmate was recaptured at the outer fence.
There were other attempts too. A prison uprising in New Jersey was organized by a BLA convict. Marilyn Buck walked away from a prison furlough and went back underground. But the most famous escape attempt liberated â€œthe soul of the BLA,â€ Joanne Chesimard. Several armed men forced their way into the minimum security facility where she was being held and led her out safely. The getaway vehicles were driven by Buck and another white woman from the M-19 organization. Chesimard was then spirited out of the country and into exile in Cuba. Her escape was a media sensation.
The final phase of the BLA story involves the Family, a mixed group of BLA members, white revolutionaries, and ordinary criminals. They were not an assassination team, as the earlier BLA had been, but instead robbed banks and armored cars. Some of the proceeds from the robberies were funneled to black nationalist groups, but the rest of the money was distributed within the Family.
The Family was headed by Nathanael Burns (Sekou Odinga), one of the Panther 21, who had fled underground in 1969. He was involved in a plot to bomb a police station in New York that summer but the plan was foiled by an undercover agent, who replaced the plastic explosives with an oatmeal concoction. Burns joined Eldridge Cleaver in exile in Algiers. When Cleaver fell out of favor with the Algerians, Burns returned to the United States in January 1974, after most BLA members had been captured. But he remained committed to the cause and helped organize the liberation of Chesimard.
The Family began its robbery spree in December 1976. Its attempts were not always successful, but with practice the sophistication of its attacks grew. The Family recruited a small, white revolutionary organization into its operation. M-19 (May 19 Communist Organization) was formed by a handful of ex-Weathermen (David Gilbert, Kathy Boudin, Susan Rosenberg, and Judith Clark) who remained underground after that organization disintegrated in 1976. M-19 provided cover for the BLA core of the Family; the whites drove the getaway vehicles to fool the authorities, who would be looking for black men.
On June 2, 1981, the Family netted nearly $300,000 from an armored car in the Bronx. But they killed one guard during the robbery and wounded another. The carnage was even greater, however, in their last job. The plan was to rob an armored car at a mall in upstate New York. Some of the proceeds were to be used to bomb a Brooklyn police precinct where one of the BLA members had been held. The robbery started well but ended badly. The gang made off with $1.6 million in cash but killed a guard and wounded two others in the process. A few minutes later the getaway truck was stopped at a roadblock. The white radicals were driving and the blacks burst from the back of the truck with guns blazing. They killed two police officers and wounded another. One of their own was mortally wounded by the return fire, and Marilyn Buck shot herself while pulling a pistol from her boot. The team then piled into several cars, but the one with the cash crashed during the chase and four members of the Family were apprehended. Others were captured in the days to come. The Black Liberation Army had come to an end in a hail of bullets.
Over the course of a decade BLA members killed at least 14 guards or law enforcement officers and wounded more than 20. Nine of their own died in action and more than two dozen were convicted of various crimes. At its height the police believed that the BLA (or at least its New York branch) consisted of 25 or 30 hard-core activists and another 75 sympathizers. Sixteen people belonged to the Family, including the M-19 associates.
Although they had no faith in the criminal justice system, several BLA members were acquitted at trial. Joanne Chesimardâ€™s first trial ended in a hung jury; in the second she was acquitted of bank robbery; but in the third she was convicted of first-degree murder for the shooting of the New Jersey State Trooper. Henry Brown was acquitted for the murder of two police officers in January 1972 but convicted of several other charges. Richard Moore was found guilty in 1973 for the first BLA shooting, but eventually his conviction was thrown out and he was paid a large cash settlement by the government.
All of those involved in the October 1981 Brinks armored car robbery received long prison sentences. A few in the second tier of the Family have been released in recent years, but many participants will not be eligible for parole for several more decades.