Committee United for Political Prisoners

Cecil Williams was an early leader in efforts to reform the justice and prison systems. “My charge was to think about the American tendency to put black people in chains in many different ways—to enslave them, to incarcerate them, to profile them, to arrest them, to stop them in traffic, to portray them as lazy and stupid. To own them.”266

In 1970, the Glide newsletter Glide In/Out describes a program based at the Glide Urban Center called Connections, an information and support service for inmates and their families.267 Connections staff provided transportation and housing for community members visiting friends or relatives in prison. The goal of Connections was “to establish a bureau of information about the prison system and how to survive in spite of it” and to put pressure on legislators to “question the validity of the penal code and the concept of incarceration itself.”268 Connections provided legal aid to prisoners, protected inmates from the exploitation of their creative works while incarcerated, and educated the public “about the myths and injustices of the present ‘rehabilitation’ system.”269 And, perhaps most importantly, the group fought against the “brutal penal system that promulgates ‘repeaters’” by connecting released prisoners to jobs, housing, and readjustment training.

The Committee United for Political Prisoners (CUPP) was founded in early 1970 by the Black Panther Party for Self Defense (Black Panthers).270 The group was formed as a response to incidents such as the Chicago Eight (later known as the Chicago Seven), the famous trial of eight men charged by the federal government for anti-Vietnam War protests during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.271

Black Panther chief of staff David Hilliard and attorney Charles Garry approached Cecil Williams to be a leader of CUPP. Williams became the national chairman, working closely with Janice Mirikitani.272 Glide was the national headquarters. A press release from 1970 provides insight into the organizations defining principles:

Acts committed against political prisoners have been some of the most inhumane that we have witnessed in the last 20 years. It has indeed become serious when our young people, peers and even close friends are being incarcerated because of situations which have nothing to do with acts of criminal nature. Our brothers and sisters are being snatched from the streets and from the campuses because they are trying to move from mere survival to positions where they can feel they have a voice and count in some of the decisions being made in our society. The everyday discrimination and psychological and physical brutality confronting our people in the third world communities cannot go unprotested. The political prisoners who are victims of discriminant justice in our courts cannot be left undefended.273

A flier inviting young African Americans to CUPP meetings at Glide reads:

If you want to change the system that’s putting its foot on your neck, are you going to end up like Bobby Hutton? Will they drive you from your own country, like they did Eldridge? Who’ll be there on visiting day to see you when you get busted?

You don’t have to be a Black Panther to get locked up, although it helps. They locked up the Japanese-Americans in concentration camps, and they figure the reservations are a safe enough place for the Indians. Latinos don’t get front page space in the newspapers to tell their story, and an awful lot of Whites who don’t want to kill the brothers in Vietnam are in jail or in Canada.

So it doesn’t matter too much what you believe, or what color you are. If you talk against the system, the system is out to get you.

There’s a group called CUPP that’s working to get us together to fight this oppression. CUPP wants to stop the murders and the prison sentences and the unfair trials. Today it’s the Panthers. Tomorrow it will be you. Come on out and hear about it.274

CUPP’s primary goals were to free all political prisoners and combat racism in the justice system.275 The group also raised funds for legal defense, oversaw public education campaigns about the plight of political prisoners, and visited political prisoners in the jails. CUPP held a benefit on June 7, 1970, at the Longshoremen’s Hall (400 North Point Street) to raise funds for the legal defense of Black Panthers Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. Keynote speakers were comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, actress Jane Fonda, and Black Panthers David Hilliard and Charles Garry.