Soledad Brother: The Legacy of George Jackson





Recently California Prisons made headlines with hunger striking inmates protesting conditions and treatment handed out by authorities. These prisoners were organized and militant yet non-violent. The story demonstrated the never ending tensions between the state and its prisoners. It brought up notions of the purposes of incarceration and the tug of war between punishment and rehabilitation. It also demonstrated something different in Prison activism; the non-violent and organized protest for a redress of grievances. This was in stark contrast to the prison uprisings of the past. This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the Attica prison uprising and massacre. One factor that lead to the tensions at Attica was the death in California of George Jackson forty years ago today.

On August 21, 1971 George Jackson was shot to death by guards at San Quentin for attempted escape. The story made national headlines as George Jackson was not a normal inmate; he was a celebrity, best-selling author and militant activist that frightened the authorities.

George Lester Jackson was born on September 23, 1941 in Chicago. He moved to California while he was young and found himself running with other juveniles who committed a series of petty crimes. At the age of eighteen he was accused of stealing $70 from a gas station. His Public Defender recommended he plead guilty in exchange for a light sentence. As a result he was given an indeterminate sentence of one year to life.

Every year he would have to face a parole board and every year he would be denied. He became increasingly disillusioned that he could ever gain his freedom from the State. He was introduced by a fellow inmate to Maoist and Marxist theories. He became more identified with the militant wings of the civil rights movement and ultimately would associate himself with the Black Panther Party.

During this period of growth and self development Jackson was becoming a writer. He wrote long and detailed letters explaining his life and beliefs. These would ultimately form the basis for his book Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson. Critically acclaimed and embraced by leftists and prison activists, the book elevated Jackson to celebrity status inside and outside of prison. It did not improve his relationship with prison officials however. Tension between Jackson, his followers and officials continued to grow. A confrontation began to seem inevitable. Jackson said during an interview, “I could die tomorrow, but there’d be two, three hundred to take my place.”

The letters in Soledad Brother revealed Jackson’s thoughts on imperialism, capitalism and race relations. He saw, as did many on the Left, a relationship between the three. In a letter to his mother he expressed his outrage toward the society he was born into, “I was born knowing nothing and am a product of my total surroundings. I blame the capitalistic dog, the imperialistic, cave-dwelling brute that kidnapped us, pulled the rug from under us, made us a caste within his society with no vertical economic mobility. As soon as all this became clear to me and I developed the nerve to admit it to myself, that we were defeated in war and are now captives, slaves or actually that we inherited a neoslave existence, I immediately became relaxed, always expecting the worst, and started working on the remedy.”

He felt that a great injustice had been committed against him by his excessive and indeterminate sentence. He came to believe that he would never be allowed to walk out of prison alive. He became increasingly defiant in his attitude toward the justice system in general, particularly with regard to the racial disparities in rates of incarceration and lengths of sentencing.

In 1970, the same year his book would be published an incident occurred that accelerated the inevitable confrontations to come. Three black inmates were shot to death while fighting with white members of the Aryan Brotherhood. None of the whites had been wounded by gunfire. The officer who fired the shots was quickly determined by officials to have engaged in justifiable homicide. Jackson, as well as many others, was outraged by the incident. He became more outspoken about mistreatment by guards and the need for inmates to defend themselves. This posturing, especially given his new found celebrity status, did not ingratiate him to prison officials.

In January 1970 a guard was assaulted and thrown over a tier and died of his injuries. George Jackson and three of his fellow inmates were accused of the murder, viewed as retaliation for the shooting episode. They would face a mandatory death sentence if convicted. They became known as The Soledad Brothers.

On August 7, 1970 Jonathan Jackson, George’s seventeen year old brother smuggled weapons inside the Marin County Courthouse where he stormed a courtroom and freed three prisoners and passed out weapons. The group took hostages including the trial judge. As they moved from the building Jackson demanded the release of the so-called Soledad Brothers. Surrounded by police they attempted to leave the scene in a yellow van. Police fired on the van and in the ensuing gunfire Jackson, prisoners William Christmas and James McClain and Judge Haley were all killed. The story made international headlines and elevated George Jackson further into the news. Jackson was distraught by the death of his baby brother. In his book he referred to him as his, “brother, comrade, friend — the true revolutionary.”

In a letter dated two days after his brother’s death he said, “I want people to wonder at what forces created him, terrible, vindictive, cold, calm man-child, courage in one hand, the machine gun in the other, scourge of the unrighteous.”

His next book, Blood in My Eye, was completed shortly before his death. In it he states his views unequivocally, “To the slave, revolution is an imperative, a love-inspired, conscious act of desperation. It’s aggressive. It isn’t `cool’ or cautious. It’s bold, audacious, violent, an expression of icy, disdainful hatred! It can hardly be any other way without raising a fundamental contradiction.”

One year later on August 21, 1971 Jackson (now back at San Quentin) met with one of his attorneys regarding a suit he had filed against the Department of Corrections. He was about to begin the trial for the death of the prison guard. He believed there was no possibility of receiving a fair trial and was certain he would receive the death penalty. Jackson drew a pistol on a guard. He ordered the officer to open a number of cells. A fellow inmate Johnny Spain and Jackson made it to the yard. Spain surrendered and Jackson was shot in the leg. He attempted to run and was shot in the head. He died at the scene. The escape attempt, where the gun came from and the circumstances of the shooting created questions in some quarters that remain unsettled even forty years later.

In 2005, Crips Gang co-founder, Stanley “Tookie” Williams was denied clemency of his death sentence by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. One of the reasons stated for this denial was, “The dedication of Williams’ book Life in Prison casts significant doubt on his personal redemption… the mix of individuals on [the dedication] list is curious… (b)ut the inclusion of George Jackson on the list defies reason and is a significant indicator that Williams is not reformed and that he still sees violence and lawlessness as a legitimate means to address societal problems.” Williams was executed the following day.

Jackson’s legacy has been sustained among those concerned with prison reform and disparities in the justice system. His death at the hands of guards generated much fervor especially in the African-American community. As writer James Baldwin put it, “No black person will ever believe George Jackson died the way they tell us he did.” A week later, the day before Jackson’s funeral, the Corrections Department office in San Francisco’s Ferry building was bombed by the radical group the Weather Underground. Their communiqué expressed outrage over the killing of Jackson.

As long as there are inequalities among class and race in the criminal justice system and our prison population continues to grow, the story of George Jackson will remain relevant. He was convinced that he (and many others) would never be treated fairly by the system. As a result he took matters into his own hands. As he once wrote, “Patience has its limits. Take it too far, and it’s cowardice.”

About Ted Tipton