Monday, September 20, 2010

1971 George Jackson Interview

An Interview with George Jackson
(with Karen Wald)

Karen Wald, an activist and anti-imperialist journalist who has lived in Cuba since 1973, conducted this interview as a reporter for the Liberation News Service.

George Jackson

George Jackson was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1941. Throughout his youth in Chicago's projects and then urban Los Angeles, Jackson had frequent conflicts with the police. He was first imprisoned at age sixteen in a California Youth Authority Institution, for an attempted burglary and possession of a stolen motorcycle (which he claimed to have purchased). In 1958, a few months after his parole, Jackson and several friends were arrested for robberies to which he pled guilty. After his release on September 18, 1960, Jackson allegedly drove the getaway car after his friend robbed a gas station of seventy-one dollars. He agreed to confess in return for a light sentence; the judge gave him one-to-life, which became life imprisonment. Initially sent to Soledad Prison, he was transferred at least four times during his incarceration.

Introduced to radical philosophy by W. L. Nolen, a major figure in the prison radical movement, Jackson, during his frequent solitary confinement, read Karl Marx, V. I. Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Friedrich Engels, Mao Tse-tung (Zedong) and other political theorists. In 1968, Jackson and other prisoners founded the Black Guerilla Family, a revolutionary organization (that authorities described as a "gang") that proclaimed black prisoners' rights to self-defense. Jackson would also serve as a Field Marshall for the Black Panther Party. In January of 1969, Jackson and Nolen were transferred to Soledad prison, a notoriously racist prison. On January 13, 1970, guards reopened Soledad's O Wing exercise yard, closed because of racial tension, and released a racially mixed group of prisoners, fully aware of potential violence.

The fight that began immediately ended by guard Opie Miller, a sharpshooter who fired four shots, killing Nolen and three other black inmates. Following the publicizing of a Monterey County grand jury judge's ruling that the deaths were justifiable homicide, guard John V. Mills was thrown to his death from the third tier of Y wing-George Jackson's cellblock. One month later, with no physical evidence, Jackson, Fleeta Drumgo, and John Cluchette were indicted for killing Mills. Attorney Fay Stender subsequently formed the Soledad Brothers Defense Committee, which eventually was headed by Angela Y. Davis.

Stender also arranged for the publication of the influential Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson. On August 7,1970 Jackson's seventeen-year-old brother, Jonathan, entered the Marin County Courthouse-with weapons registered in the name of Angela Davis-in an attempt to secure the release of his brother and the other Soledad Brothers. Law enforcement officers fired upon the parked van holding Jackson, the prisoners, and their hostages, killing Judge Harrold Haley, prisoners William Christmas, James McClain, and Jonathan Jackson, and wounding prisoner Ruchell Maggee and several hostages. During an escape attempt on August 21, 1971, guards shot George Jackson in the back. The exact events still remain unclear. Stephen Bingham, Jackson's attorney who allegedly brought Jackson a gun on the day he was killed, eventually emerged from underground to stand trial and was acquitted in 1986.

Durden-Smith, Jo. Who Killed George Jackson? New York: Knopf, 1976.
Jackson, George. "A Talk with George Jackson." Interview with Jessica Mitford. New York Times (13 June 1971): 30.

---. "Toward the United Front." In If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance, edited by Angela Y. Davis and Bettina Aptheker. San Francisco: National United Committee to Free Angela Davis, 1971.

---. "Letters to Jonathan Jackson." In If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance, edited by Angela Y. Davis and Bettina Aptheker. San Francisco: National United Committee to Free Angela Davis, 1971.

---. Blood in My Eye. Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1990.

---. Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1994.

Mann, Eric. Comrade George; An Investigation into the Life, Political Thought, and Assassination of George Jackson. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.


Karen Wald: George, could you comment on your conception of revolution?

George Jackson: The principal contradiction between the oppressor and oppressed can be reduced to the fact that the only way the oppressor can maintain his position is by fostering, nurturing, building, contempt for the oppressed. That thing gets out of hand after a while. It leads to excesses that we see and the excesses are growing within the totalitarian state here.

The excesses breed resistance; resistance is growing. The thing grows in a spiral. It can only end one way. The excesses lead to resistance, resistance leads to brutality, the brutality leads to more resistance, and finally the whole question will be resolved with either the uneconomic destruction of the oppressed, or the end of oppression.

These are the workings of revolution. It grows in spirals, confrontations, and I mean on all levels. The institutions of society have buttressed the establishment, so I mean all levels have to be assaulted.

Wald: How does the prison liberation movement fit into this? Is its importance over-exaggerated or contrived?

Jackson: We don't have to contrive any ... Look, the particular thing I'm involved in night now, the prison movement was started by Huey P. Newton and the Black Panther Party.iv Huey and the rest of the comrades around the country. We're working with Erika [Huggins] and Bobby [Seale],v the prison movement in general, the movement to prove to the establishment that the concentration camp technique won't work on us. We don't have to contrive any importance to our particular movement. It's a very real, very-very real issue and I'm of the opinion that, right along with the old, familiar workers' movement, the prison movement is central to the process of revolution as a whole.

Wald: Many of the cadres of the revolutionary forces on the outside have been captured and imprisoned. Are you saying that even though they're in prison, these cadres can still function in a meaningful way for the revolution?

Jackson: Well, we're all familiar with the function of the prison as an institution serving the needs of the totalitarian state. We've got to destroy that function; the function has to be no longer viable, in the end. It's one of the strongest institutions supporting the totalitarian state. We have to destroy its effectiveness, and that's what the prison movement is all about.

What I'm saying is that they put us in these concentration camps here the same as they put people in tiger cages or "strategic hamlets" in The idea is to isolate, eliminate, liquidate the dynamic sections of the overall movement, the protagonists of the movement. What we've got to do is prove this won't work. We've got to organize our resistance once we're inside, give them no peace, turn the prison into just another front of the struggle, tear it down from the inside. Understand?

Wald: But can such a battle be won?

Jackson: A good deal of this has to do with our ability to communicate to the people on the street. The nature of the function of the prison within the police state has to be continuously explained, elucidated to the people on the street because we can't fight alone in here.

Oh yeah, we can fight, but if we're isolated, if the state is successful in accomplishing that, the results are usually not constructive in terms of proving our point. We fight and we die, but that's not the point, although it may be admirable from some sort of purely moral point of view.

The point is, however, in the face of what we confront, to fight and win. That's the real objective: not just to make statements, no matter how noble, but to destroy the system that oppresses us. By any means available to us. And to do this, we must be connected, in contact and communication with those in struggle on the outside. We must be mutually supporting because we're all in this together. It's all one struggle at base.

Wald: Do you see any signs of progress on the inside, in prison?

Jackson: Yes, I do. Progress has certainly been made in terms of raising the consciousness of at least some sectors of the prison population. In part, that's due to the limited victories we've achieved over the past few years. They're token victories, perhaps, but things we can and must take advantage of.

For example, we've struggled hard around the idea of being able to communicate directly with people on the outside. At this point, any person on the street can correspond with any individual inside prison.

My suggestion is, now that we have the channels of education secured, at least temporarily, is that people on the outside should begin to bombard the prisons with newspapers, books, journals, clippings, anything of educational value to help politicize the comrades who are not yet relating.

And we, of course, must reciprocate by consistently sending out information concerning what's really going on in here. Incidentally, interviews like this go a long way in that direction. There should be much more of this sort of thing.

Wald: [Inquiring to whether the life of George's younger brother, Jonathan, was wasted when he was killed on August 7, 1970 in a courtroom shootout.] vii

Jackson: Well, that's obviously a tough question for me because, emotionally, I very much wish my little brother was alive and well. But as to whether I think Jonathan's life may have been wasted? No, I don't.

I think the only mistake he made was thinking that all of the 200 pigs who were there would have, you know, some sort of concern for the life of the judge. Of course, they chose to kill the judge, and to risk killing the D.A. and the jurors, in order to get at Jonathan and the others. It may have been a technical error. But I doubt it, because I know Jonathan was very conversant with military ideas, and I'm sure it occurred to him that there was a possibility that at least one pig would shoot, and that if one shot, they' all shoot, and it'd be a massacre. Judge or no judge.

It was all a gigantic bluff, you know? Jonathan took a calculated risk. Some people say that makes him a fool. I say his was the sort of courage that cause men of his age to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in somewhat different settings. The difference is that Jonathan understood very clearly who his real enemy was; the guy who gets the congressional medal usually doesn't. Now, who's the fool?

Personally, I bear his loss very badly. It's a great burden upon my soul. But I think it's imperative - we owe it to him - never to forget why he did what he did. And that was to stand as a symbol in front of the people - in front of me - and say in effect that we have both the capacity and the obligation to stand up, regardless of the consequences
He was saying that if we all stand up, our collective power will destroy the forces that oppose us. Jonathan lived by these principles, he was true to them, he died by them. This is the most honorable thing imaginable. He achieved a certain deserved immortality insofar as he truly had the courage to die on his feet rather than live one moment on his knees. He stood as an example, a beacon to all of us, and I am in awe of him, even though he was my younger brother.

[Joy James, ed., NeoSlave Narratives: Prison Writing and Abolitionism (SUNY Press, 2004)]



i Jo Durden-Smith, Who Killed George Jackson? (New York: Knopf, 1976), 177.

ii Fay Stender was allegedy shot in 1979 by an associate of Jackson. She committed suicide in May, 1980. See Paul Liberatore, The Road to Hell: the True Story of George Jackson, Stephen Bingham, and the San Quentin Massacre (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1996), 199.

iii Editor's note: This interview with George Jackson was conducted by Karen Wald and recorded May 16, 1971 at San Quentin prison in California. It was first broadcast on KPFA-FM, a Berkeley, California radio station. The interview was published in 1995 in Black Prison Movements USA: The NOBO Journal of African American Dialogue, Volume 2, Number 1 by Africa World Press in New Jersey, where it was misidentified as an interview done August 21, 1971 (the day Jackson was killed by prison guards). It was also published in the Michigan Citizen, Volume 22, Issue 38 (13-19 August 2000) as a Black August Memorial. It is reprinted here with permission of Karen Wald.

iv Editor's Note: In May 1967, Bobby Seale and thirty other members of the Black Panther Party were arrested in Sacramento, California, for protesting a proposed California bill which sought to outlaw the carrying of loaded guns in public. (The Party, originally the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, supported the carrying of loaded guns in public as a means to discourage the widespread police brutality meted out upon African Americans.) This confrontation catapulted the Party to national attention and attracted scores of new members in California and throughout the country. In October 1967, Huey Newton was arrested and charged with murder in the death of a police officer. Eldridge Cleaver (a former convict and author of Soul on Ice) recruited Stokeley Carmichael, the former chairman of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee and a nationally known Black power leader, and together they built a national "Free Huey" movement on behalf of their accused comrade. In September 1968 Newton was found guilty of manslaughter. His conviction was later overturned in August 1970. In the subsequent years, Party chapters were opened in prisons across the nation to politicize Black prisoners (such as George Jackson). See Akinyele Omowale Umoja, "Set Our Warriors Free: The Legacy of the BPP and Political Prisoners" in Charles E. Jones, ed. The Black Panther Party [Reconsidered] (Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1998).

v Editor's Note: At the time of this interview, Bobby Seale was Chairman of the Black Panther Party. In May 1969, he, Erica Huggins, and twelve members of the New Haven, Connecticut chapter of the BPP, the "New Haven 14", were charged in the murder of an alleged police informant. The incarceration of these members forced the New Haven BPP to shut down. Although Seale and Huggins were eventually exonerated of the charges, several other New Haven defendants were convicted in the case. See Jones, ed. The Black Panther Party [Reconsidered] and Angela Y. Davis and Bettina Aptheker, eds., If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance (New York: Third Press, 1971).

vi Editor's note: "Tiger cages" were the five feet by nine feet cement cells of the Con Son prison in South Vietnam. The cells, built by the French in the 1940s, were used to hold political prisoners in the 1960s. (Stanley I. Kuntler (Ed.), Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War (New York: Simon & Schuster Macmillan, 1996) 543-544.) Under South Vietnamese U.S. supported leader Ngo Dinh Diem, U.S. Special Forces instituted the "strategic hamlet" program in 1962. The program, based on a tactic used to suppress anti-colonial movement-building by the British in Malaya, relocated the South Vietnamese rural population into fortified, heavily policed hamlets in an attempt to cut off the spread of Communist support and destroy the infrastructure of the National Liberation Front. The program created deep, widespread resentment among the population. (Gabriel Kolko, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the United States, and the Modern Historical Experience [New York: The New Press, 1994] 132-137.)

vii Editor's note: On August 7, 1970, Jonathan Jackson, George Jackson's younger brother, age seventeen at the time, stormed into the Marin County Courthouse in California in an attempt to free Ruchell Cinque Magee, William Christmas, and James McClain. Jackson, the prisoners, the trial judge, the prosecutor, and several jurors (whom Jackson had taken hostage) were fired upon by police and prison guards while inside a van. Jackson, McClain, Christmas and the judge were killed, the prosecutor was paralyzed for life, and Magee and the jurors were wounded but survived. See Bettina Aptheker, Morning Breaks: The Trial of Angela Davis (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999)

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