Tim Rutten: ‘Geronimo’ Pratt and Johnnie Cochran
Los Angeles is a city that lives in the present and looks to the future. Time passes here in a blur, and there’s usually little appetite for weaving together the strands of memory into the stories we call history — and few hungry to hear them when we do.
Even so, Thursday’s unexpected death of the onetime Black Panther, Elmer G. “Geronimo” Pratt, is one of those events worth pausing to consider because he was half of one of our city’s most fascinating human stories: the deep and consequential friendship he formed with the late Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.
Pratt was just 63 when he died in the rural Tanzanian village where he spent a great deal of his time in recent years. He was born in Morgan City, La., where his Catholic parents ran a small scrap-metal business. The Vietnam War was raging when he graduated from high school. Pratt enlisted in the Army, was assigned to the 82nd Airborne and served two combat tours in Southeast Asia. He was awarded a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts. In 1968, he enrolled in UCLA, where he was recruited into the Black Panthers.
It’s hard now — particularly with an African American in the White House — to recapture the feeling of Los Angeles in those days; not only the degree of antagonistic racial division but also the violence that routinely flared in that divide. Many of the Panthers were dangerous thugs, but J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and a racist, red-baiting Los Angeles Police Department were obsessed with the organization and riddled its ranks with informers and provocateurs.
In a way, the two sides were the living manifestation of the other’s worst paranoid nightmares of rebellion and repression.
Not long after Pratt joined the Panthers, the city was rocked by a particularly brutal crime. Caroline Olsen, a white schoolteacher, and her husband were accosted one evening on a public tennis court in Santa Monica, robbed of $18 and shot. Caroline Olsen died of her wounds, and Pratt subsequently was arrested and charged after being fingered by a fellow Panther, who later was exposed as a law enforcement informant.
Cochran was engaged to defend Pratt. The two men were fascinated with each other, as I would discover when — some years later — I collaborated with Johnnie on his autobiography. Both were from rural Louisiana and both were devoted to the cause of equal rights, but they understood that they’d chosen diametrically opposed paths. As Cochran told me, “I remained rooted in my Baptist church, and Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King — apostles of law and nonviolence — were my heroes. Geronimo had left the Catholic Church and chosen Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver. We both thought the other was living in a dream world.”
Pratt’s trial was a sham, marked by the prosecution’s deceitful withholding of exculpatory evidence and the presence of a government spy, still unidentified, inside the defense team. He was convicted and spent the next 27 years — eight of them in solitary confinement — in prison. Cochran never accepted the defeat, though he would say it “radicalized” him and opened his eyes to the possibilities of government misconduct. He remained devoted to Pratt’s cause until, in 1997, an Orange County Superior Court judge overturned the conviction because the prosecution had concealed evidence regarding its informant. Pratt at last was freed.
While in prison, Geronimo embraced nonviolence and became a peacemaker among other inmates, one on whom the prison guards and authorities relied. He later told me that he’d gotten through the eight years of solitary confinement by replaying in his head the blues he’d heard as a boy like a mantra — and by thinking about his conversations with and letters from Cochran, all of which made an unswerving case against injustice, but only through nonviolence.
Johnnie ultimately helped win Geronimo more than $4 million in compensation from the city of Los Angeles and the federal government. He used most of it to support programs for youths in Morgan City and development projects in East Africa founded by other ex-Panthers. When Johnnie died, Geronimo praised him as “a soldier fully dedicated to making sure the rights of the oppressed are defended.”
They were, in the end, two remarkable men from Louisiana, who came to this city and changed it as they remade themselves according to what they most admired in each other. It is, somehow a very Los Angeles story.
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