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Page 9
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<< 8. Part 5: Vets Movement: Vets Demand Action10. G.I.s Struggle >>

Free Gary Lawton And All Political Prisoners


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In an atmosphere of continuing repression, the third trail of Gary Lawton ( a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War/Winter Soldier Organization) began on January 8th in Riverside, California. The first tow trials of Lawton ended in hung juries, though a majority of jurors saw that Gary was innocent. Though Lawton is being tried for the murder of two white Riverside policemen, his real "crime" is being Black and organizing the minority community in Riverside to fight back against the attacks brought on this community by the Riverside rulers. The struggle to free Gary Lawton is of major importance to all people in this country and for this reason, it is necessary to understand some of the history of this struggle and its relationship to other struggles currently being waged in the U.S.

The major event which set this racist attack on Gary Lawton in motion was the April, 1971 killing of two Riverside policemen. Officer Christiansen and Teel responded to a burglary call on the edges of Riverside's Black community and were ambushed by unknown assailants. Eyewitness reports stated that four men had been seen fleeing from the scene of the shooting -- 3 white teenagers and one short teenage Black with an Afro haircut. (It should be noted that Gary Lawton is 34, 6'3", of heavy build and partially bald). A reign of terror was unleashed on the community of Riverside and in the confusion, no clues as to the identity of the assailants were found. However, someone had to pay for the killing of these cops and with no clues; the police singled-out Gary Lawton. That was almost four years ago, and after nearly two years in jail, two trials, and incredible harassment, the struggle to free Gary Lawton is still going on.

The reasons behind this outrageous frame-up of Lawton are clear. He has been active in organizing among Third World, poor and oppressed people in Riverside since 1968. He headed up the city's Black Congress, an organization which fought for the rights of all oppressed people within the community. Lawton struggled for decent housing, against discriminatory employment practices, against segregation, and organized people to fight back against police brutality within the community; he was deeply involved in fighting for decent living standards for the people of Riverside. Because of this, it is not difficult to understand why Lawton has been made the target of this political attack waged by those who rule Riverside.

Gary was arrested shortly after the killing of Christiansen and Teel, even though he had taken 3 lie detector tests which proved " no deception" on his part. In order to bolster their case, Riverside police also arrested two other Black brothers to stand trial along with Gary -- Nehemiah Jackson and Zurebu Gardner. All three were charged with murder and conspiracy to murder, even though they had not met prior to their arrests. All of these brothers were denied bail and were held in the segregation unit of the local jail until Sep. 1972 when their first trial began.

The first trial was held in Indio -- an isolated, predominantly white, desert community 75 miles from Riverside. By moving the trial, the government attempted to undercut the support for these brothers, figuring that the poverty of their supporters would prohibit them from traveling to Indio for the trial. The government witnesses in this trial were a highly uncredible group -- police officers, paid police informers, prisoners who had been in jail with the defendants and who had been offered lesser sentences or the dropping of charges if they would testify against Lawton, addicts whose habits were supported by Riverside police in return for their testimony, etc. Government testimony was riddled with contradictions from beginning to end.

On the other hand, eyewitnesses testified that it was not Lawton they had seen escaping the scene of the ambush. Witnesses testified as to the whereabouts of the three defendants at the time of the shootings -- proving none of the brothers were anywhere near the area of the police ambush. Despite evidence, however, the jury was unable to reach a definitive decision and the first trial ended with a hung jury in February, 1973. The vote of the jury was 9-3 for acquittal. Remarks from the jurors included: "It is a frame-up...They have no real evidence...In the beginning it was prosecution. Now it is persecution."

The second trial was moved back to Riverside and began in June, 1973. Bail for the brothers was finally granted and they were released after nearly two years in jail. Also, Nehemiah Jackson was severed from the case because the prosecution felt that his clean-cut college student image would hamper their chances for getting a conviction; and the government was definitely out to get a conviction this second time around. Later, all charges against Jackson were dropped.

This second trial contained much the same evidence as did the first trial. On top of the same group of police officers and informers, the same eyewitnesses and the same witnesses testifying in the brothers' defense, concrete evidence to the fact that the Riverside Police Department (RPD) was bribing witnesses was introduced. However, this apparently made no impression on the jury, and as with the first trial, this second jury was also hung. A mistrial was declared after six months of trial, with the jury voting 8-4 for conviction of Lawton and 7-5 for conviction of Gardner.

Since the conclusion of this second trial in Nov. 1973, there have been many developments surrounding this case. All charges against Gary's co-defendant, Zurebu Gardner, were dropped in Oct. 1974. The District Attorney stated there was a lack of evidence and after two trials and continual harassment; Zurebu is finally free from these trumped-up charges. This is seen as a real victory in this struggle, but it is now crystal-clear what the government is trying to do. They will now be going after Gary Lawton alone in an attempt to concentrate all their fire for a racist conviction; but even this becomes more difficult as information which has been long suppressed by the government comes to light. It was disclosed in court that evidence points not at three Black men, but at one white police officers. Wayman Vaughan, formerly a paid police informer, stated at the time of the ambush that Officer James Tennell (chief investigator for the prosecution of the Lawton case) was having an affair with the wife of one of the slain policemen and that it was Tennell who arranged the ambush. (This is the same Tennell who had personally paid an admitted heroin addict $30 a day, the cost of his habit, for perjury against Lawton in the first trial.) Though evidence pointing Tennell was known, the RPD made no attempts to further investigate this -- the only lead the government received as to the identity of the real killers.

The Gary Lawton case is not isolated from the rest of the Riverside community. Between 50-100 witnesses and defense workers have been harassed, intimidated or arrested by the RPD since the beginning of this struggle. In March, 1973, members of the Riverside Political Prisoners Defense Committee (RPPDC) and VVAW/WSO were at the Riverside courthouse to show support for another RPPDC member, William Palmer, who was on trial for supposedly assaulting a police officer. While at the courthouse, police tried to arrest Palmer's 14 year-old son. Chukia Lawton (Gary's wife) and Rusty Bronaugh were brutally attacked by police when they questioned the police about Palmer's son being arrested without a warrant. Zurebu Gardner was also attacked and beaten by seven cops, Chukia was chocked unconscious, and all three were arrested. Chukia was charged with assault and resisting arrest, and Rusty was charged with interfering with a police officer in the line of duty. They under-went a three week trial on these charges which ended un a hung jury. They were to be re-tried beginning Jan. 13th, but the judged ordered the charges dropped because it would cost the tax-payers too much money for such a bogus charge. Zurebu Gardner was also charged with assault as a result of this courthouse attack; no date has been set for his trial.

The struggle of Gary Lawton is also not isolated from what is going on in the test of the country. The repression in Riverside is just one example of the increased nationwide attacks against Black, Chicano, Asian, Native American and white working people in communities all across the country. There is the instance of Operation Zebra, where Bay Area police stopped and searched every Black man in a reign of police terror following shootings in the community. Elsewhere in the Bay Area, there was the case of Tyrone Guyton -- a 14year-old Black youth who was murdered by police in Emeryville, California after he had stolen a car. Another youth, Clifford Glover who lived in Jamaica, Queens(NYC) was walking his stepfather to work when an unidentified man pulled up in a car and told them to stop. Fearing being robbed, Clifford and his stepfather ran; Clifford was shot in the back by a plainclothes cop, Thomas Shea. Shea was acquitted of murder in a white-wash trial in New York.

There is the case of Tony Wilkins, a 26 year-old Black community activist who was murdered by Los Angeles police. Wilkins had taken a group of children from a community youth group to hear a concert at the Hollywood Bowl. Police accused the group of gate-crashing (though they had tickets); a small scuffle started and when police fired, Wilkins was killed. There is the case of Ray Mendoza, a 20 year-old Chicano recently sentenced to two life sentences in prison after being tried on charges of shooting two drunk, off-duty cops in Milwaukee. These policemen were brutally beating Mendoza outside a tavern when the shootings took place. There is the case of Antowyn Cauley, a 20 year-old Black man living in Chicago who is standing trial for charges of disorderly conduct, assault on a police officer and use of an unlawful weapon. These charges stem from Cauley being stopped by police, forced spread-eagle on a parked car and then shot in the back. There is the continued attempt by the government, Teamsters Union official and growers to smash the United Farm Workers in their efforts to organize themselves. There is the persecution and deportations of so-called "illegals' in the government's attempts to divide working people. Police are used to detain, harass and deport Latinos -- whether they be on the streets, in the fields or in the shops. There are the decade long trials of Ruchell Magee in California and Martin Sostre in New York. There is incredible repression in the communities of Atlanta, Dallas, and Detroit. The list is endless and growing daily.

Some of these attacks have been planned, such as the attempts to stop the work of Gary Lawton; others and indiscriminate attacks on minority communities; and still others have stemmed from people being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But one thing is clear -- they are not isolated or separate government attacks, but just a few examples of the incredible repression coming down on minority people in particular, and on poor and working people in general everywhere across the country. Imperialism does not only function in countries abroad; it also exists in all of its exploitative brutality here in our own back yards. As the economy continues to crumble and the owners of the corporations continue to find their profits are dropping, they will attempt to throw their crisis onto the backs of the working people here in the U.S. But the masses of people are resisting these attacks, fighting for better living and working conditions; and repression is the only way imperialism can respond to these struggles.

Attacks such as the racist and repressive campaign being waged against Gary Lawton will continue to be used by the state in the hopes of intimidating people into submissiveness and a fear of fighting back. Gary Lawton is a man who has been a much too effective community organizer and who continues to speak out for the rights of all oppressed people. For this reason alone, the government finds it necessary to silence him, to stop his work, and to try to show other people that they should just sit back and allow the government to retain tits control. But the people of this country will not put up with these lies, with these frame-up trials, and with the incredible police repression going on within our communities. People must continue to organize to fight back -- we are the ones who should be controlling our own lives!

During the almost four-year struggle to free Gary Lawton, man lessons have been learned. We have learned that there is no ?justice" in the courtrooms of America; we have learned that it takes more than a good lawyer to beat a trumped-up charge; and we have learned that the state is not a neutral bystander which insures equality for all. But the major lesson learned is that the freedom of Gary Lawton will not come through the courts -- it will come about through the support of the masses of people in this country who are fighting for the freedom of Gary Lawton and who are organizing themselves to fight repression in their own communities. The struggle to free Lawton would never have come as far as it has if it had not been for this support of a mass struggle. With the third trial now going on, that support is needed more than ever. As Gary Lawton has said, "FREEDOM FOR ONE IS NOT ENOUGH-FREE US ALL, SAY ON!"

<< 8. Part 5: Vets Movement: Vets Demand Action10. G.I.s Struggle >>