The Black Liberation Army (BLA) was an underground Black Power organization that operated in the United States from 1970 to 1981. Composed entirely of Black Panthers (BPP) who served as members of both groups, the organization's program was one of war against the United States Government, and its stated goal was to "take up arms for the liberation and self-determination of black people in the United States." The BLA carried out a series of bombings, killings of police officers and drug dealers, robberies (which participants termed "expropriations"), and prison breaks.
The Black Liberation Army gained strength as Black Panther Party membership declined. By 1970, police and FBI sabotage (see COINTELPRO), infiltration, sectarianism, the lengthy prison sentences, and death of key members (among them Fred Hampton) had significantly undermined the Black Panther Party. This convinced many former party members of the desirability of an underground existence, seeing that a new period of violent repression by the U.S federal and local government was at hand. BLA members operated under the belief that only through covert means, including but not limited to retribution, could the movement be continued until such a time when an above-ground existence was possible.
The conditions under which the Black Liberation Army formed are not entirely clear. It is commonly believed that the organization was founded by those who left the Black Panther Party after Eldridge Cleaver was expelled from the party's Central Committee. A fallout was inevitable between Cleaver and other Panther leaders after he publicly criticized the BPP, among other things accusing Panther social programs of being reformist rather than revolutionary. Others, including black revolutionary Geronimo Pratt (AKA Geronimo ji Jaga), assert that the BLA "as a movement concept pre-dated and was broader than the BPP," suggesting that it was a refuge for ex-Panthers rather than a new organization formed through schism.
Some accounts of the Black Liberation Army argue that the BLA grew out of the BPP and its original founders were members of the Party. The organization is often presented as a result of the repression on the BPP and the split within the Panthers. It is said to have formed after the collaboration of several Black revolutionary organizations and consisted of the Black underground which came to be collectively known as the Black Liberation Army. Assata Shakur, in her autobiography, asserts:
“… the Black Liberation Army was not a centralized, organized group with a common leadership and chain of command. Instead there were various organizations and collectives working together and simultaneously independent of each other.”
The newly formed BLA believed that "the character of reformism is based on unprincipled class collaboration with our enemy" and asserted the following principles:
According to a Justice Department report on BLA activity, the Black Liberation Army was suspected of involvement in over 70 incidents of violence between 1970 and 1976. The Fraternal Order of Police blamed the BLA for the murders of 13 police officers.
On October 22, 1970, the BLA was believed to have planted a bomb in St. Brendan's Church in San Francisco while it was full of mourners attending the funeral of San Francisco police officer Harold Hamilton, who had been killed in the line of duty while responding to a bank robbery. The bomb was detonated, but no one in the church suffered serious injuries.
On May 21, 1971, as many as five men participated in the murder of two New York City police officers, Joseph Piagentini and Waverly Jones. Those arrested and brought to trial for the shootings include Anthony Bottom (a.k.a. Jalil Muntaqim), Albert Washington, Francisco Torres, Gabriel Torres, and Herman Bell.
On August 29, 1971, three armed men murdered 51-year-old San Francisco police sergeant John Victor Young while he was working at a desk in his police station, which was almost empty at the time due to a bombing attack on a bank that took place earlier - only one other officer and a civilian clerk were there. Two days later, the San Francisco Chronicle received a letter signed by the BLA claiming responsibility for the attack.
On November 3, 1971, Officer James R. Greene of the Atlanta Police Department was shot and killed in his patrol van at a gas station. His wallet, badge, and weapon were taken, and the evidence at the scene pointed to two suspects. The first was Twymon Meyers, who was killed in a police shootout in 1973, and the second was Freddie Hilton (a.k.a. Kamau Sadiki), who evaded capture until 2002, when he was arrested in New York on a separate charge, and was recognized as one of the men wanted in the Greene murder. Apparently, the two men had attacked the officer to gain standing with their compatriots within Black Liberation Army.
On January 27, 1972, the Black Liberation Army assassinated police officers Gregory Foster and Rocco Laurie at the corner of 174 Avenue B in New York City. After the killings, a note sent to authorities portrayed the murders as a retaliation for the prisoner deaths during 1971 Attica prison riot. To date no arrests have been made.
On July 31, 1972, five armed individuals hijacked Delta Air Lines Flight 841 en route from Detroit to Miami, eventually collecting a ransom of $1 million and diverting the plane, after passengers were released, to Algeria. The authorities there seized the ransom but allowed the group to flee. Four were eventually caught by French authorities in Paris, where they were convicted of various crimes, but one—George Wright—remained a fugitive until September 26, 2011, when he was captured in Portugal. Portuguese courts rejected the initial pledge for extradition. American authorities may still appeal this decision.
In another high-profile incident, Assata Shakur, Zayd Shakur and Sundiata Acoli were said to have opened fire on state troopers in New Jersey after being pulled over for a broken taillight. Zayd Shakur and state trooper Werner Foerster were both killed during the exchange. Following her capture, Assata Shakur was tried in six different criminal trials. According to Shakur, she was beaten and tortured during her incarceration in a number of different federal and state prisons. The charges ranged from kidnapping to assault and battery to bank robbery. Assata Shakur was found guilty of the murder of both Foerster and her companion Zayd Shakur, but escaped prison in 1979 and eventually fled to Cuba and received political asylum. Acoli was convicted of killing Foerster and sentenced to life in prison.
The BLA was active in the US until at least 1981 when a Brinks truck robbery, conducted with support from former Weather Underground members Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, left a guard and two police officers dead. Boudin and Gilbert, along with several BLA members, were subsequently arrested.
In January 2007, eight men, labeled the San Francisco 8 were charged by a joint state and federal task force with John Young's murder. The defendants have been identified as former members of the Black Liberation Army. A similar case was dismissed in 1975 when a judge ruled that police gathered evidence through the use of torture. On June 29, 2009, Herman Bell pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in the death of Sgt. Young. In July 2009, charges were dropped against four of the accused: Ray Boudreaux, Henry W. Jones, Richard Brown and Harold Taylor. That same month, Jalil Muntaquim pleaded no contest to conspiracy to commit voluntary manslaughter becoming the second person to be convicted in this case.
Following the collapse of the BLA, some members - including Ashanti Alston, Donald Weems (a.k.a. Kuwasi Balagoon) and Ojore N. Lutalo - became outspoken proponents of anarchism. Weems died in prison of an AIDS-related disease in 1986. Alston remains active in prison support and other activist circles. Lutalo was released from prison in 2009 after serving 28 years on charges related to a shootout with a drug dealer in 1981 (and parole violation stemming from his conviction for a 1975 bank robbery), during which time he was punished with solitary confinement for receiving anarchist literature. While incarcerated, the Anarchist Black Cross Federation gave him support.
On January 26, 2010, he was arrested for endangering public transportation while on the Amtrak train to New Jersey after attending the Anarchist Book Fair in Los Angeles, being mistakenly identified as making terrorist threats on his cell phone. The charge was dropped for lack of evidence, and Lutalo settled a suit against the city of La Junta, Colorado, where his arrest was made, for an undisclosed amount.
An organization exists today claiming to be a recreated Black Liberation Army. The group is called the New Black Liberation Militia, a black nationalist paramilitary group with Fred Hampton, Jr. as a member.
BLA members in prison as of 2017, include the following:
Other high-profile BLA members and associates:
2. Foster and Laurie by Al Silverman. Published by Little and Brown, 1974. ISBN 0316791164. Days of Rage: America's Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence by Bryan Burrough. Published by Penguin Publishing Group, 2016. ISBN 0143107976.