Soledad Brothers (by Tom Watts, 8 May 2019)

George Jackson, Fleeta Drumgo, and John Clutchette became internationally known as the “Soledad Brothers” in 1970, after they were charged with murdering a prison guard in Soledad State Prison in California, allegedly in retaliation for the killing of W.L. Nolen and two other black prisoners (Cleveland Edwards and Alvin Miller) by a guard in the exercise yard. Nolen and George Jackson had been transferred to Soledad together from San Quentin State Prison in January of 1969.

George Jackson entered San Quentin after being convicted of holding up a gas station for $70 in 1961. He was sentenced to from one year to life imprisonment. He was 18 years old. In 1966, George Jackson was befriended by W.L Nolen, a phenomenal prison boxing champion, who introduced him to Marxist and Maoist ideology. Together they co-founded the Black Guerrilla Family, a politicized prison gang, and then the Prison Chapter of the Black Panther Party, which appointed George Jackson with the rank of Field Marshall.

There was a good deal of collusion between racist white guards and white supremacist gangs like the Aryan Nation, as W.L. Nolen testified: “Prison guards are complicit in fomenting racial strife by aiding white inmate confederates in ways not actionable in court, i.e., leaving cell doors open to endanger the lives of New Afrikans; placing fecal matter or broken glass in the food served to New Afrikans etc., as these material factors would be difficult to prove.” (See W.L. Nolen, et. al. v. Cletus Fitzharris, et. al.) Not infrequently, guards would supply these white racist prisoners with store-bought knives and instructions to extra-judicially kill or maim selected prisoners. In such cases the prisoners would be forced to defend themselves.

On January 13, 1970, after many months of not being allowed access to an exercise yard, the guards at Soledad released 14 black and 2 white inmates from the maximum-security section into a recreation yard. The two whites were members of the Aryan Brotherhood. A scuffle broke out and Officer Opie Miller, an expert shot, opened fire from the guard tower killing Nolen and the other two black prisoners. George Jackson described the scene as seeing three of his brothers having been “murdered […] by a pig shooting from 30 feet above their heads with a military rifle.”

Following the incident, thirteen black prisoners began a hunger strike in the hopes of securing an investigation. On January 16, 1970, a Monterey County grand jury convened, then exonerated Miller in the deaths with a ruling of “justifiable homicide.” No black inmates were permitted to testify, including those who had been in the recreation yard during the shooting. In Soledad Prison, inmates heard the grand jury’s ruling on the prison radio. Thirty minutes later, John V. Mills was found dying in another maximum-security wing of the prison, having been beaten and thrown from a third-floor tier of Y Wing, George Jackson’s cellblock, to the television room below.

There was no evidence against any of the “Soledad Brothers,” but the prison administrators figured this was a good opportunity to get rid of “known troublemakers.” They were charged with 1st degree murder, and if convicted, it would mean the gas chamber. The Black Panther Party and other radicals took up their defense. Among them was Angela Davis, a black college professor at UCLA and member of the Communist Party. The Soledad Brothers Defense Committee was formed by Fay Stender, a radical lawyer from San Francisco, to assist in publicizing the case and raising funds to defend Jackson, Drumgo, and Clutchette. Among the several celebrities, writers, and left-wing political activists that supported the SBDC and their cause were Julian Bond, Kay Boyle, Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Noam Chomsky, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Tom Hayden, William Kunstler, Jessica Mitford, Linus Pauling, Pete Seeger, and Dr. Benjamin Spock.

Stender also arranged the publication of Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson, which was to contain various letters written by Jackson while in prison. She also persuaded the French intellectual Jean Genet to write an introduction, propelling the book to become an international best seller. The substantial proceeds from the book went to a legal defense fund that she set up. The great Trinidadian author and revolutionary C.L.R. James called Jackson’s writings in Soledad Brother “the most remarkable political documents that have appeared inside or outside the United State since the death of Lenin.”

Before the book went to press, on August 7th, 1970, George Jackson’s 17 year-old brother Jonathan walked into the Marin County Courthouse packing guns Angela Davis had bought for him when she took him on as her personal bodyguard. His intent was to free the “Soledad Brothers” by taking hostages. He freed prisoners James McClain, William A. Christmas and Ruchell Magee, and took Judge Harold Haley, Deputy District Attorney Gary Thomas, and three jurors hostage. What he didn’t figure on was that the prison guards who were there would not hesitate to kill the hostages before they would let the prisoners get away. He, the Judge, McClain, and Christmas were killed in a hail of gunfire as they attempted to drive away. Others were wounded.

George would dedicate his book to his brother, to Angela Davis and his mother:

“To the man-child, tall, evil, graceful, bright-eyed, Black man-child — Jonathan Peter Jackson — who died on August 7, 1970, courage in one hand, assault rifle in the other; my brother, comrade, friend — the true revolutionary, the Black communist guerrilla in the highest state of development, he died on the trigger, scourge of the unrighteous, soldier of the people; to this terrible man-child and his wonderful mother Georgie Bea, to Angela Y. Davis, my tender experience, I dedicate this collection of letters; to the destruction of their enemies I dedicate my life.”

Angela Davis became a hunted fugitive after the incident, and an international celebrity. She was placed on the FBI’s “10 Most Wanted” list and she was apprehended in NYC in October of that year. Support committees to “Free Angela” sprang up all over the world. Her case inspired songs from popular entertainers of the time with John Lennon and Yoko Ono recording the song “Angela” to show their solidarity in 1972; The Rolling Stones also recorded a track, “Sweet Black Angel,” in honor of Davis, and she was acquitted on all charges in that same year.

While awaiting trial, George Jackson wrote a follow-up book, Blood In My Eye, which some say surpassed the first. Once it was safely smuggled out of the prison, Jackson allegedly made an escape attempt that led to his being killed on the yard by San Quentin Prison guards on August 21st, 1971. On that day, Jackson met with attorney Stephen Bingham on a civil lawsuit Jackson had filed against the California Department of Corrections. After the meeting, Jackson was escorted by Officer Urbano Rubico back to his cell when Rubico claimed he noticed a metallic object in Jackson’s hair, later revealed to be a wig, and ordered him to remove it. Jackson then pulled a Spanish Astra 9 mm pistol from beneath the wig and said “Gentlemen, the dragon has come”—a reference to Ho Chi Minh’s famous poem “When the Prison Gates are Opened the Real Dragons Will Come Out.” It is not clear how Jackson obtained the gun. Bingham, who lived for 13 years as a fugitive before returning to the United States to face trial, was acquitted of charges that he smuggled a gun to Jackson.

Jackson, it is claimed, ordered Rubico to open all the cells and along with several other inmates he overpowered the remaining correction officers and took them, along with two inmates, hostage. Five other hostages, guards Jere Graham, Frank DeLeon and Paul Krasnes, along with two white prisoners, were killed and found in Jackson’s cell. Three other officers, Rubico, Kenneth McCray, and Charles Breckenridge, were also shot and stabbed, but survived. After finding the keys for the Adjustment Center’s exit, Jackson along with fellow inmate and close friend Johnny Spain escaped to the yard where Jackson was shot dead from a guard tower and Spain surrendered. Jackson was killed just three days prior to the start of his murder trial for the 1970 slaying of officer John Mills in which the other two “Soledad Brothers” were acquitted.

The story kept changing. “No Black person will ever believe that George Jackson died the way they tell us he did,” wrote author James Baldwin. Bob Dylan would eulogize Jackson in song, singing of his “tears in my bed” upon hearing the news. The Black Panther Party buried George will full honors and Huey P. Newton delivered the eulogy:

“When I went to prison in 1967, I met George. Not physically, I met him through his ideas, his thoughts and words that I would get from him. He was at Soledad Prison at the time; I was at California Penal Colony.

“George was a legendary figure all through the prison system, where he spent most of his life. You know a legendary figure is known to most people through the idea, or through the concept, or essentially through the spirit. So I met George through the spirit.

“I say that the legendary figure is also a hero. He set a standard for prisoners, political prisoners, for people. He showed the love, the strength, the revolutionary fervor that’s characteristic of any soldier for the people. So we know that spiritual things can only manifest themselves in some physical act, through a physical mechanism. I saw prisoners who knew about this legendary figure, act in such a way, putting his ideas to life; so therefore the spirit became a life. ….

“George Jackson, even after his death, you see, is going on living in a very real way; because after all, the greatest thing that we have is the idea and our spirit, because it can be passed on. Not in the superstitious sense, but in the sense that when we say something or we live a certain way, then when this can be passed on to another person, then life goes on. And that person somehow lives, because the standard that he set and the standard that he lived by will go on living. ….

“Even with George’s last statement – his last statement to me – at San Quentin that day, that terrible day, he left a standard for political prisoners; he left a standard for the prisoner society of racist, reactionary America; surely he left a standard for the liberation armies of the world. He showed us how to act.”

The killing of George Jackson sent shockwaves through the prison systems of America. Journalist Heather Ann Thompson describes the morning after Jackson’s murder, when more than 800 prisoners gathered in the cafeteria and sat silently, not touching breakfast at Attica State Prison in upstate New York. Each one had a black shoelace tied around his bicep. One month later, Attica would erupt in one of the most inspiring and bloody prison rebellions in history.

Walter Rodney, the author of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, wrote about Comrade George:

“The greatness of George Jackson is that he served as a dynamic spokesman for the most wretched among the oppressed, and he was in the vanguard of the most dangerous front of struggle.

“Jail is hardly an arena in which one would imagine that guerrilla warfare would take place. Yet, it is on this most disadvantaged of terrains that blacks have displayed the guts to wage a war for dignity and freedom. In Soledad Brother, George Jackson movingly reveals the nature of this struggle as it has evolved over the last few years. Some of the more recent episodes in the struggle at San Quentin prison are worth recording. On February 27th this year, black and brown (Mexican) prisoners announced the formation of a Third World Coalition. This came in the wake of such organizations as a Black Panther Branch at San Quentin and the establishment of SATE (Self-Advancement Through Education). This level of mobilisation of the nonwhite prisoners was resented and feared by white guards and some racist white prisoners. The latter formed themselves into a self-declared Nazi group, and months of violent incidents followed. Needless to say, with white authority on the side of the Nazis, Afro and Mexican brothers had a very hard time. George Jackson is not the only casualty on the side of the blacks. But their unity was maintained, and a majority of white prisoners either refused to support the Nazis or denounced them. So, even within prison walls the first principle to be observed was unity in struggle. Once the most oppressed had taken the initiative, then they could win allies.

“The struggle within the jails is having wider and wider repercussions every day. Firstly, it is creating true revolutionary cadres out of more and more lumpen. This is particularly true in the jails of California, but the movement is making its impact felt everywhere from Baltimore to Texas. Brothers inside are writing poetry, essays and letters which strip white capitalist America naked. Like the Soledad Brothers, they have come to learn that sociology books call us antisocial and brand us criminals, when actually the criminals are in the social register. The names of those who rule America are all in the social register.

“Secondly, it is solidifying the black community in a remarkable way. Petty bourgeois blacks also feel threatened by the manic police, judges and prison officers. Black intellectuals who used to be completely alienated from any form of struggle except their personal hustle now recognize the need to ally with and take their bearings from the street forces of the black unemployed, ghetto dwellers and prison inmates.

“Thirdly, the courage of black prisoners has elicited a response from white America. The small band of white revolutionaries has taken a positive stand. The Weathermen decried Jackson’s murder by placing a few bombs in given places and the Communist Party supported the demand by the black prisoners and the Black Panther Party that the murder was to be investigated. On a more general note, white liberal America has been disturbed. The white liberals never like to be told that white capitalist society is too rotten to be reformed. Even the established capitalist press has come out with exposés of prison conditions, and the fascist massacres of black prisoners at Attica prison recently brought Senator Muskie out with a cry of enough.

“Fourthly (and for our purposes most significantly) the efforts of black prisoners and blacks in America as a whole have had international repercussions. The framed charges brought against Black Panther leaders and against Angela Davis have been denounced in many parts of the world. Committees of defense and solidarity have been formed in places as far as Havana and Leipzig. OPAAL declared August 18th as the day of international solidarity with Afro-Americans; and significantly most of their propaganda for this purpose ended with a call to Free All Political Prisoners.”

Every year “Black August” commemorates the lives of George and Jonathan Jackson, and the other martyrs and comrades who have struggled and sacrificed inside the “slave pens of oppression.” It reminds us that the struggle must go on, not just to achieve more humane prisons but to end all oppression and to create a bright future for humanity.



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