America Soledad Brother
The Prison Letters of George Jackson, Bantam Books, 250 pps., $1.50
"SKIN SEARCHED." To be "skin searched" is to be stripped naked next to your cell. A guard, by examining your body or patting you assures himself that you are not concealing a weapon. You must spread the cheeks of your buttocks so the guard can make certain that nothing is concealed in your anus. A prisoner, a man confined, in Soledad Prison, Salinas, California, is subject to "skin searches" at any time, at the guard's discretion. Like so many prison "procedures" it is designed not for security, but to break the inmate's spirit, to make him docile, obedient, easy to handle, "rehabilitated."
On January 13, 1969, fifteen prisoners were skin searched and ordered out to the special exercise yard of Soledad Prison. Guards, I believe, do not walk with the prisoners in the yard. Instead the prisoners are overseen by tower guards, who, from the high towers at the corners of the yard, look down at the prisoners through the sights of automatic rifles. This day, January 13, a fight broke out between a white and a black inmate. The tower guard began to fire at the black inmates walking in the yard. He fired four shots, and three men were killed. (One white prisoner was hit in the groin by a ricocheting bullet.) A black man shouted to the guard that he wanted to take one of the wounded to the hospital, but the guard gestured with his rifle, telling him to stay away. The wounded convict, shot in the leg, bled to death on the concrete floor of the exercise yard. In letters that were written long before this "incident," George Jackson tells us that he always stays near the wall in the exercise yard, to have some cover when the firing starts; for when the firing starts at Soledad it is always blacks who are killed.
Three days later, January 16, a Monterey County Grand Jury exonerated the guard, calling his action justifiable homicide. A half hour after the finding of the grand jury was announced on the prison radio a white guard, not the same guard who had killed the men, was found beaten to death. Six days later three black convicts were charged with his murder. They are Fleeta Drumgo, John Cluchette and George Jackson, called "The Soledad Brothers." Attorneys for The Soledad Brothers say these inmates were charged not because of any evidence connecting them with the beating, but because they had previously been identified by the prison authorities as black militants, men who refuse to bend, to become docile, to betray other inmates, to be subservient, to be rehabilitated.
"George is a living legend throughout the prison system....George has rejected even the possibility of getting out of prison because he refuses to violate his own integrity or the integrity of his fellow inmates. He refuses to compromise in any way to gain personal privilege. George is a true revolutionary."-Huey P. Newton
IF GEORGE JACKSON had not been charged with murder I would not have had the opportunity to read his letters. Not that his letters are of interest as a curio, a souvenir of the shooting; none of their importance derives from the shooting or the guard's death or his trial. But we would have never known of George Jackson if he had not been unjustly accused, if he had not become a cause , if his life as an inmate had not by a grotesque nexus of circumstances put him in touch with well connected white lawyers and prominent movement figures like Angela Davis. George Jackson would have been the correspondent of his parents, writing them beautiful, heartrending, repetitive, crystalline, extraordinary letters that they do not seem to understand or value. For until the time of his "prominence" he had no other correspondents, no other contact "outside."
His letters display the steel of his integrity, his refusal to concede the prison, the prison system, any power over him, over his- we have no word for it any more-his soul. He refuses to sit in the black section of the T. V. room. He refuses to be broken by solitary, by being kept caged twenty-three-and-a-half hours a day in an eight foot cell. He refuses, literally, to eat shit-for the white inmates in charge of food mix urine, feces and ground glass into the black inmates' dinner. He refuses to pretend to the parole board that he has become a "good boy." He refuses to hide his feelings about prison and those in authority from the eyes of the censor of his letters. He refuses to lie to his parents, to tell them that he believes in their white god, their subservience, that he will bend as they want to the overwhelming oppression of white society. The letters are grim, determined, their only humor an irony about failings. They are composed in a style that is all steel, spare, hard, the kind of style one imagines that comes from being always menaced, from knowing that you may die any minute-a blow from behind from another inmate, a shot from a guard's rifle-from knowing that your "privilege" of writing letters may be revoked at the guard's discretion, that you may drop without a trace into the cesspool of the prison system, of the hole, isolation, solitary. It is the style of guerilla field diaries. If George Jackson had not been the sort of man, honest, uncompromising and brilliant, that his letters reveal him to be, he would not have been considered a trouble-maker by the prison authorities; his letters would not be worth reading and he would not have been charged with murder.
"...when I was accused of robbing a gas station of seventy dollars I accepted a deal-I agreed to confess and spare the county court costs in return for a light county jail sentence. I confessed but when time came for sentencing they tossed me into the penitentiary with one to life. That was 1960. I was eighteen years old. I've been here ever since. I met Marx Lenin, Trotsky, Engels, and Mao when I entered prison and they redeemed me."
THE BULK of these letters, starting from 1964 when George Jackson was twenty-two, are to his mother and father. They are repetitive, heartbreaking letters, and perhaps the easiest entry for the white student into George Jackson's world. Here Jackson is wrestling with his parents, trying to make them understand his evolving convictions, to make them see through the pretence of white capitalist society, of the Christian lie of forbearance, meek sufferance of wrongs, the conditioning that has led them to shift the blame for the social and economic failure not on the white capitalist society that has rejected them but upon themselves. It is as if no step in the development of his consciousness were worth taking unless his parents can understand it and take it also. Over and over they disappoint him: they are embarrassed with him before his younger brother Jonathan; they even, one terrible time, tell the prison authorities that they're afraid he might be "dangerous to himself." He breaks off correspondence with them in anger, only to begin again, to explain once more our America to these black Americans. He writes in anger and in love, angry at their refusal to see, to become what he wants them to become-proud and defiant-angry at the society that has broken them and keeps them down. Loving them always, his parents, tied to them by a fierce protective love that will not give them up. Something in him, perhaps, is them and he must convince not only them but himself.
In the beginning there is nothing for him but his family. Having seen through the lie of America he cannot yet imagine a change or a people as an agent of change, can imagine only going some where else, escaping America and even America's colored. His politics at first are obscure, perhaps he plans a robbery, a big one in the image of the big robbers who rule America, escaping with the swag and taking his parents and brother with him. His parents are to him here as "the people" to the revolutionary he will become; they must be convinced, so that they can sanction what he does.
The analysis of America which George Jackson develops in his letters is not remarkable or unique or seminal. It is important because it is his own far more than most ideas will ever be our own. There are signs I know in the visiting rooms of prisons that say Do Not Give the Prisoners Anything. And no one ever does. What they know they must work out for themselves. There is no Black Panther newspaper in Soledad. For all George Jackson knows he is the only Marxist in America. He must create himself. Just as at this time he practices disciplining his hunger (he goes for weeks eating two slices of bread a day); his need for human companionship (he practices no speaking so that he will be able to bear solitary); his anger, his hope (he has been turned down every year for parole, no matter what his conduct); so also he is sharpening his ideas, making them firm, by himself . You feel his will in his words as he makes each new idea his own.
He could not have faith perhaps in the people outside, the black people, until he is firm in himself. In the autobiographical letter he provided for his publisher he says, "I could play the criminal aspects of my life down some, but then it wouldn't be me." He has to understand the social roots of his criminality, not to forgive himself but to know who he is, what he is capable of becoming: "Did I colonize kidnap make war on myself, and neglect myself, steal my identity, and then being reduced to nothing, invent a competitive economy knowing I cannot compete?" He is then ready for the transformation of the last letters, for his "meeting" with the Panthers, with the idea of a revolution that transcends color. He corresponds with Angela Davis, he gives his lawyer short lectures on American racism and the prison system, he sees the existence of men and women who are his equals, and the possibility of love. And by finding the movement to which he could join his talents his separation from it becomes more terrible. He becomes, for the first time, imprisoned.
GEORGE JACKSON is serving what is technically already a life sentence. If he is found guilty of the guard's murder he mandatorily receives the death penalty. George Jackson is not likely to receive a fair trial. The state has control of the prisoners it will choose to designate as witnesses for its case. It has freedom to offer them paroles, or just extra cigarettes, better cells, more food, a diminution of the daily pain. Its witnesses are likely to tell the story the state wishes.
Jonathan Jackson was George's younger brother, seven years old when George went to prison. That he might be spared the Catholic education, the delusive and debilitating colonist's education George himself received is one of the chief concerns of George's letters to his parents. On August 7 Jonathan went into the spectators section of the courtroom in Marin County carrying a black satchel. When the judge came in he took a gun from the satchel, pointed it at Judge Haley, and said, "All right, gentlemen, I'm taking over now." He handed another gun to the defendant, James D. McLain. McLain had a guard remove his handcuffs. He turned to the jury: "I have been unjustly accused, I want to be a free man." Jonathan armed two other convicts who were there as witnesses. They took five hostages including the judge. On the way out of the courtroom Jonathan said, "Free the Soledad Brothers by 12:30 tomorrow."
As their car pulled out of the parking lot guards opened fire. Jonathan Jackson, James McLain, a black man named William Christmas and the judge were killed.
August 9, 1970
Real Date, 2 days A.D.
We reckon all time in the future from the day of the man-child's death.
Man-child, black man-child with submachine gun in hand, he was free for a while. I guess that's more than most of us can expect.
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- "an ox for the people to ride"!!!
Go over all the letters I've sent you, any reference to Georgia being less than a perfect revolutionary's mama must be removed. Do it now! I want no possibility of anyone misunderstanding her as I did. She didn't cry a tear. She is, as I am, very proud. She read two things into his rage, love and loyalty.
I can't go any further, it would just be a love story about the baddest brother this world has had the privilege to meet, and it's just not popular or safe-to say I love him.
Cold and calm though, "All right, gentlemen, I'm taking over now."