An Interview with John Potash about his book The FBI War on Tupac Shakur and Black Leaders
By Joseph E. Green (25 June 2012)
June 16 would have been the 41st birthday of the hip hop artist known as Tupac Shakur. His story is not generally well understood even today by the general public, which actually connects back a generation to the height of COINTELPRO operations against the Black Panther Party. Filling the void in this story – and many other political crimes that are not often known even to researchers – comes John Potash with his book The FBI War On Tupac Shakur and Black Leaders.
I first met Mr. Potash when he gave a tremendously detailed and fascinating account of his research at the Coalition on Political Assassinations conference in Dallas, Texas, the week of November 22, 2011. We were both presenting at the conference and found some common ground, as I spoke about Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. He kindly agreed to this interview in order to cover some of basic groundwork for his excellent book.
How did you first get interested in the Shakur story?
I was doing addictions counseling in Baltimore and someone I counseled said my father was a Black Panther killed by the police. I decided to make him a character in a political novel I was writing and researched the Panthers. Then I saw that Tupac was shot in New York. The Washington Post pointed out “another strange twist” in the case was that the same cops showed up [at the murder scene] as had shown up on a sexual assault charge a year earlier. So I called Tupac’s lawyer, Michael Tarif Warren, and asked if he believed police intelligence were targeting Tupac like his mother, Afeni Shakur, one-time leader of the Harlem Black Panthers. He said yes and no one’s writing about it. I found out Tupac had similar radical leftist views as myself and published locally, then in Covert Action Quarterly, started by CIA whistleblower Phil Agee. Then Tupac’s business manager and close political mentor, former Black Panther Watani Tyehimba, said you have to turn this into a book.
You received your Master’s degree in social work from Columbia University. I would not have thought that the Columbia milieu would be conducive to the kind of work you eventually took on. Am I wrong? How did Columbia shape your views?
I went to Columbia for its name recognition for jobs outside of New York and for one particular radical professor, the late Richard Cloward. He and his wife, Frances Fox Piven, wrote radical leftist sociology classics Poor People’s Movement, Regulating the Poor, and Why Americans Don’t Vote. You might have heard about them being attacked for over a week by Glen Beck, formerly of Fox News, for their work from decades ago. I studied closely with him, including a one-on-one tutorial.
However, you’re not just an academic, having worked on acupuncture drug treatment at Lincoln Detox in the Bronx. How did that change your perspective?
I worked in addictions counseling in Baltimore City, around Washington D.C, and New York City. This allowed me to meet people from many historically oppressed communities and coworkers similarly in touch with such communities. Some had similar leftist political views as me and shared books with me. Lincoln Detox was where Tupac’s radical activist stepfather, Mutulu Shakur, was once assistant director and is now a political prisoner.
You write that, after a period in the wilderness, so to speak, Tupac had begun turning political again – citing, among other things, “White Manz World.” Do you feel this was decisive in his death?
I argue that the “wilderness” was some months of continuing the Penal Coercion Tupac experienced in jail. Amnesty International discusses how Penal Coercion manipulates prisoners’ minds with solitary confinement and other means. They did it to Tupac’s Aunt Assata and others. I show the evidence that the “dozens and dozens of police officers” at all levels of Death Row Records had the job of trying to continue this Penal Coercion method of manipulating Tupac. A top Los Angeles police detective, Russell Poole, said his superiors told him these Death Row cops could be considered “covert agents,” possibly because he was white and they thought he’d be racist and cooperative with their plans.
Tupac signed a 3 CD contract with Death Row. Once he completed that, he fought with Suge Knight saying he owed them nothing more. He had already started his own record label and film company. Death Row encouraged Tupac to write most of “All Eyez on Me” after they got him stoned and drunk, recording much of it within 24 hours of leaving prison. The next CD, under the name Makavelli, did get back to political statements about freeing Mumia, Geronimo Pratt, Sekou Odinga and all political prisoners. He also had an excerpt from Malcolm X on that song, amongst other political statements.
The East-West rap feud was set up. What is the best piece of hard evidence suggesting this? Was Suge Knight a kind of “inside man”?
I can’t say there is one piece of “hard” evidence. It has to be examined in several ways. First, with the amount of evidence around the New York recording studio shooting scene that started it. Secondly, we have to look at the many parallels with the East versus West Panther rivalry the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program manufactured between Huey Newton’s Oakland National office and the New York Panther 21, in which Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur, was one of the leaders at the time. And finally, within the context of this New York shooting as, arguably, the fifth attempt by U.S. Intelligence on Tupac Shakur’s life.
The New York shooting happened when a man named James Rosemond, an associate of (later West coast-based) Tupac’s former friend, Jacques Agnant, offered Tupac $7,000 to rap a line or two on someone else’s CD. Tupac needed the money at that time. East coast-based top rapper Biggie Smalls was in the studio upstairs. Tupac was awaiting a verdict on a sex abuse trial at that time where Agnant had set up the whole scene. Tupac’s New York trial lawyer, Michael Warren, who was Mumia Abu-Jamal’s European spokesman, said Agnant’s huge rap sheet with all the cases dismissed showed him to be an FBI agent.
Tupac was shot twice in the skull at that scene and miraculously survived. Government documents support that Agnant’s associate, Rosemond, was collaborating with the government around that time, and Dexter Isaac said Rosemond offered him huge money to kill Tupac.
Police malfeasance at the scene included the same cop showing up at that incident as had shown up first at the alleged sex abuse scene a year earlier. Also, a guard at the New York recording studio had the incident on security camera videotape of the lobby area where the shooting happened. He said that he offered it to the police and they just turned it down and closed the case, calling it a “random mugging” of Tupac.
Panther National spokeswoman Kathleen Cleaver, now a Yale-trained law professor, looked at the accumulated evidence I had that the East/West Panther war was duplicated with Tupac and Biggie and agreed it appeared that the FBI had manufactured it. COINTELPRO documents revealed that the FBI wrote fake letters between people, and wrote anonymous letters to affect the splits between leaders. U.S. Intelligence then used the purported East vs. West war between Panthers to cover up their murders of Panthers. Tupac received anonymous letters saying Biggie set up the New York recording studio shooting. The FBI also used undercover agents in and out of prison to manipulate Panther cofounder Huey Newton regarding this East vs. West war. Tupac said strangers in prison told him his friend Biggie set up his shooting.
An investigating police detective found that Tupac’s next record label, Death Row Records, instigated the East vs West hype. Knight also brutalized people at political rap events and committed a vast amount of crimes, but remained untouched by the law, until after Tupac’s murder.
You detail some of the key issues in government’s murder of Malcolm X. What did you think of Manning Marable’s 2011 biography?
I only skimmed that book, but it looked like it had some great evidence on the huge operation U.S. Intelligence was waging against Malcolm X. I only disagreed with Marable about one key point and that pertains to Eugene Roberts. Marable, who was a great scholar and activist, surprised me when he didn’t give the full history of Roberts. As I said earlier, one of Malcolm X’s closest associates was Saludine “Abbah” Shakur. Abbah’s sons, Lumumba Shakur and Zayd Shakur, were part of Malcolm’s group. Roberts followed the younger Shakurs into the New York Black Panthers, Lumumba founded the Harlem Chapter and Zayd was Minister of Information for the Bronx chapter. Roberts then came out in court at the NY Panther 21 trial saying he worked for police intelligence. He unsuccessfully tried to frame Lumumba and Tupac’s mom Afeni Shakur.
At the scene of Malcolm’s murder, Roberts’ wife held back Betty Shabazz, a nurse, from running to her wounded husband Malcolm. Undercover agent infiltrator Roberts was the first to arrive. This paralleled how a black undercover agent infiltrator Marrell McCullough was the first to arrive at MLK’s slain body. William Pepper (James Earl Ray lawyer and current lawyer for Sirhan Sirhan) said this was to check on MLK’s life signs to make sure the U.S. Intelligence assassination was successful, and signal the back up snipers to disband.
The story of Afeni Shakur and the Panther 21 trial is astonishing. My immediate thought, reading that section of your book, is that it would make a terrific Hollywood movie, if Antwon Fuqua directed it. Could this be made in Hollywood? Related question: are there points of view systematically kept out of popular culture, especially films?
Yes, I agree that this would make a great movie. I think that production costs are huge and provided mostly by groups that don’t want to reveal this kind of history for fear of it inspiring too much change. I do think there are points of view systematically kept out of mainstream media. I have two chapters in my book, and parts of my film, on how that is accomplished. Part of it references former Cal-Berkeley Journalism School Dean Ben Bagdikian on how media companies share boards of directors with defense contractors, oil companies, banks, etc. Bagdikian says that by corporate law they can’t go against their stock shareholders’ interests. Another reference is Watergate muckraker Carl Bernstein who quoted a Church Committee finding that well over 400 members of the media, including virtually all the owners, led dual lives in their work for the CIA. Also, just after Fahrenheit 9/11[the Michael Moore documentary] came out, the infamous Bush-linked Carlyle Group bought out 2 of the 3 top movie chains. [italics added]
Obviously the current state of hip-hop as viewed by radio popularity is atrocious. At the same time, over the last decade or so, artists like Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Immortal Technique, and Dead Prez have released albums aimed directly at the governing state. What is your assessment of these artists? Do you think this helps the movement? Do you see this as a movement?
I think Immortal Technique has excellent lyrics. I quoted some Dead Prez lyrics in my book. I like Mos Def but don’t know his stuff that well. I mention incidents of targeting Dead Prez and Mos Def though.
Related to the last question, Malcolm once said we need to “talk right down to Earth in a language that everyone here can easily understand.” And NWA famously declared that we were about to “witness the strength of street knowledge.” Has revolutionary hip hop failed to reach across to the masses, or is the message one that is never going to take hold of the youth. Is the Tupac murder part of a message being sent to stick to “pimps and hoes” in your lyrics?
I think revolutionary hip hop won’t be allowed to reach much of the world since the conservative groups control so much of mainstream media, particularly the means of distribution of media and information. They even have gotten control of much “independent” media through foundations offering struggling media grants, usually with strings attached. One CIA whistleblower, Ralph McGehee, said that he saw a CIA document before his resignation, boasting about the Intelligence agency having a representative in every media organization in the country that could spin, twist or censor content.
Another music artist mentioned in the book is Jimi Hendrix. Most people are completely unaware of the suspicious nature of his death. I had read about it in Alex Constantine, who in turn I believe got the bulk of his analysis from the great Mae Brussell. Why might the government have had an interest in Hendrix’s death?
Constantine’s research themes and conclusions overlap mine in a big way and Brussell was great in my mind too. Martin Luther King’s assassination helped radicalize Jimi Hendrix. After that, Hendrix spoke openly of the need for The Black Panthers and he dedicated his last album to the Panthers. According to his fiancée, Monika Danneman, Hendrix also started formulating many radical leftist, antiwar projects in his last year. He further had fired his business manager, Mike Jeffrey, that was effectively controlling his career. Jeffrey admitted being an ex-agent of Britain’s MI6. I show evidence that he never left MI6. In a drunken state he admitted having Hendrix killed, though he pretended it was for more personal reasons.
So many people are targets of the white power structure and the media working hand-in-hand, as in the cases you cite of the bogus 2006 assault charges against Cynthia McKinney, Allen Iverson, and Jim Brown. These are seemingly very different people doing very different things with their lives. How are they connected? Are we dealing, in your view, with a state that reacts to the same activities in the same way as a reflex action, or are we dealing with a long-term cooperative plan?
We’re dealing with anyone who develops the fame and means to reach many poorer people and tries to help them rise up from their poverty and change society for the better of what Occupiers now call the 99%. I only spend a few paragraphs on Iverson and Brown, and about a page or two on McKinney, though I could have possibly covered her more if I came out with the book a year later. I believe Iverson and Brown – particularly Brown – were doing something U.S. Intelligence feared. They were setting an example to other wealthy star athletes that looked up to them, in trying to raise money for neighborhood uplift programs in the poor neighborhoods from which they came. Brown was also trying to convert gang members into productive citizens and activists, similar to Tupac and the Panthers.
How did you come to know Mumia Abu-Jamal and Fred Hampton, Jr.?
I had worked on Free Mumia benefits and written about him before. When I published in Covert Action Quarterly, Mumia was featured in that issue. Mumia’s freedom campaign organizing chairwoman, Pam Africa, saw my article and told a member of the publishing group, Lou Wolfe, how important she thought the article was. He told me. So I approached her when I got the “Staples-bound” first form of the book completed and she read it in several days. She said she was happy to contribute a Foreword and told me to talk with Mumia’s New York organizer, who told me how to get the book to Mumia in jail. Pam then discussed Mumia’s contribution to the Foreword with him on one of her jail visits.
I also gave copies of this first form of the book to New York and New Jersey Black Panthers, including one named Shep who brought it to Fred Hampton Jr. in Chicago. When Fred Hampton came to New York to do a talk for Mumia, I met him there and discussed the book, the chapter on him and an Afterword.
If you say to the average white person, “Tupac was murdered by the FBI,” they might think you were crazy. To this day people cannot conceive of why he might have been a target. Can you just briefly talk about his family and their affiliations, and how he emerged from this “dangerous” family?
This question could take days to answer as it’s detailed in half the book. In a nutshell, though, people close with the Shakur family, such as the aforementioned, Watani Tyehimba, told me the Shakur history. Saludine “Abbah” Shakur had been in Malcolm X’s inner circle in New York. He had a number of biological and adopted sons who also joined Malcolm’s Organization for Afro-American Unity before Malcolm died. These included Lumumba Shakur, founding leader of the Harlem Black Panthers; Zayd Shakur, founding Minister of information for the Bronx Panthers; and Mutulu Shakur, a cofounding member of the Republic of New Afrika (RNA). The RNA is little known, but had at least hundreds of national organizers meet at Aretha Franklin’s father’s church in Detroit in 1968, for its founding.
Tupac’s mom, Afeni, married Lumumba and then was elected Harlem Panther leader when Lumumba was in jail. Lumumba divorced Afeni, but she ended up getting ‘married’ to his adopted brother, Mutulu. Afeni raised Tupac to be the “black prince of the revolution.” Tupac’s godfather was LA Panther leader Geronimo Pratt. Tupac considered Afeni’s close friend Assata his aunt. His uncle Zayd later became cofounding member of the Black Liberation Army.
Some former Black Panthers and members of the Republic of New Afrika eventually formed the New Afrikan People’s Organization (NAPO). NAPO’s younger members (about ages 16-30) formed The New Afrikan Panthers. When Tupac was about 17, he became The New Afrikan Panthers youngest ever leader. He only took on the “gangsta” rap persona as part of a political plan. His Black Panther extended family had helped gain a peace truce between Bloods and Crips in Los Angeles, and they were helping this peace truce spread nationally. The gang members were turning on to leftist politics. Watani Tyehimba confirmed to me that Tupac took on the gangsta persona to appeal to gangs and politicize them to help with this peace truce movement. That’s part of what “Thug Life” was about.
You talk about a new COINTELPRO operation directed against political rap artists and a specific U.S. intelligence document. Can you describe the document? Many people do not understand why or how the intelligence complex would be concerned about popular music, but clearly they are.
The document was from the 1976 Church committee hearings on the CIA and FBI. It described targeting political musicians with the use of drugs, women, etc. The CIA is about winning the “hearts and minds” of people to, as other documents say, act in ways that they think are actually in their own interests, without realizing it’s in the CIA’s interest. Musicians are uniquely able to win over people’s hearts and minds, to sabotage the CIA’s multi-million dollar projects.
Strangely – publicity for this came about, in part, because of Dan Quayle. Do you think he (and Robert Dole) were simply seizing the moment as politicians will do, or do you think that there were specific directives to make these public statements against political hip hop artists?
Sundance Award-winning documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield said in his film, Biggie and Tupac that in 1993 U.S. Congress came up with a directive against political rap out of concern about its subversive elements. The FBI were trying to get NWA’s concerts cancelled in 1988. I believe there were specific directives for Dole and Quayle to make their statements. Quayle’s statement came out in a nationally publicized speech when Tupac only had one CD out, which hadn’t even gone gold yet.
You made a presentation for your book at the November 2011 COPA conference which was quite well-received and helped to broaden the scope of political assassination as a tool of the oppressors. What was your experience like?
Thank you. I met some great leftist activist folks like yourself. It’s only too bad that a competing conference next door drew so many people away from the COPA conference. Still, COPA compiled an amazing list of presenters who skyped in, such as Peter Dale Scott, arguably one of the top leftist researchers of the century in my mind. He’s right up there with Chomsky.
I understand you are working on a novel, is that right? Any other current projects?
I decided to delay the novel until after I first published a book on the use of drugs as weapons against the masses, and activists in particular. The novel was originally part of that book, but now I decided to separate the two. The non-fiction book will also cover Tupac and Hendrix, but will have more ink on Kurt Cobain and John Lennon, along with the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). That’s probably part of why I like Peter Dale Scott so much as he covers part of this subject and I reference his work in some chapters. Like the FBI War on Tupac book, it also will have over a thousand endnotes.
Peter Dale Scott is a favorite of mine as well, as a person and an author. I look forward to reading your new book.