If We Must Die
Part V of It Makes A Long Time Man Feel Bad
Few things in Prison occur in private. It is an environment almost without internal secrets. The pressure that was being applied to break George Jackson was well-known within San Quentin and throughout the California penal system. Equally well known was the fact that Jackson had not been broken, and more importantly, that he had not had his capacity to reason and to love destroyed in self-defense.
As this sequence of action and reaction was common knowledge among prisoners, so was it becoming better understood by Jackson's family. Largely, this understanding was the result of George Jackson's growing respect and empathy for his father as George himself became more aware of the contours of the cauldron in which Robert Jackson had been immersed. This empathy and respect is reflected in the change of tone in Jackson's letters to his father. Gone is the assumption of superiority that had characterized much of the correspondence he sent to his father while Jackson was undergoing his purgation. Instead, Jackson's tone has mellowed, acquiring an understated assurance.
Perhaps even more important than the change in Jackson's tone towards his father was the evidence of his desire to save his brother Jonathon from the same forced dive that George Jackson and his father--each in his own way--had had to take. Highly aware that he did not and might never have children of his own, Jackson worked hard at passing the benefit of his experience to Jonathon, and took a pride in his brother's development that was more fatherly than brotherly.
Yet this rapprochement between Jackson and his family had no effect upon the actions and attitudes with which he had to deal inside the joint. In August, 1968, after he had been refused a transfer out of San Quentin, Jackson wrote to his mother:
It is clear that they are not going to give me a chance. You were right, that is exactly what they fear. Just because I want to be my black self, mentally healthy, and because I look anyone who addresses me in the eye, they feel that I may start a riot anytime. I've stopped more trouble here than any other black in the system.
However, in November of 1968, George Jackson was given a chance--or what was supposed to be a chance--when he was transferred back to Soledad. In his book, he says that during his 1968 appearance before the Adult Authority he was given a parole date, but that three days later he discovered the date was just another false promise. Instead, he was to be assigned to Soledad where, in the words of his prison record, Jackson would have "an opportunity to prepare himself for release."
In Soledad Brother, Jackson asserts that he was given to understand that his transfer to Soledad was not simply an "opportunity," but came with the promise of parole if he would accumulate six months of clean time.
In Soledad, Jackson fulfilled his part of the deal, but, "When the June 1969 appearance finally took place different people were on the board panel. No one could find any reference to the promises made to me by an earlier board. I was denied for another full year."
The June 1969 denial was not as accidental as it might appear. In November of 1966, Ronald Reagan had been elected Governor of California on a platform that called for the cessation of the coddling of criminals and a reduction of expenditures. As governor, Reagan slashed the prison system's budget so severely that most of the upper echelon correctional officials resigned. As he did with the state college system when many of its administrators quit in protest over budget cuts, Reagan filled these vacated slots in the Department of Corrections with men who were more willing to accept his dictates and shared his political prejudices.
Moreover, when he became governor, Reagan obtained the power of appointing the Adult Authority. Instituted during the governorship of Earl Warren in an effort to extend the integrated professional-operated system of the Youth Authority to older inmates, the Adult Authority has had its power and scope reduced as a result of lobbying efforts of members of the "treat 'em rough" school of penology. Originally an independent agency, the Authority has been absorbed into the Department of Corrections; however, the Authority still retains the crucial power to grant parole.
The Authority board is composed or nine members who serve staggered terms, formerly of three but now four years in duration.
As the terms of the members of the Authority expired, Reagan appointed men who shared his political convictions to the board. Less than two years after Reagan became governor, the number of men released on parole had declined more than ten per cent.
Currently, the Authority is composed exclusively of Reagan appointees, all of whom are former officers of the law. They include a retired FBI supervisor and two police chiefs--one of whom was one of the first to order his men to "shoot to kill" in civil disruptions.
Little exercise of the imagination is required to visualize the reaction men like this would have had to the notations in Jackson's record characterizing him as a violent self-avowed communist.
Thus, George Jackson, if he had not been so before, was undeniably a political prisoner after June of 1969. However, he was also doing some political imprisoning of his own, for his survival caught the prison system in the snare of a Hobson's choice. Released from the joint, Jackson would have presented a substantial challenge to the maintainence of "law and order" on the outside. But retained in custody with his will and spirit unbroken, Jackson presented the same threat to the standing order of the prison system. By example and communication, Jackson could continue to expose the irrationality of the system--as it functions inside and outside the joint, and inside and outside America--to his fellow prisoners. Moreover, he could continue to prove to them the power that just one man who is dedicated to being himself, to staying emotionally healthy and rational, and to facing up to anyone who addresses him can have in Max Row, Soledad, in Watts, or in Angola. Such a demonstration by Jackson would make his continued confinement a Pyrrhic victory for Reagan and his appointees, for though they would still have George Jackson behind bars, they could not help but release numerous members of his growing vanguard.
Thus, as Robert Jackson was doomed if he were to remove the mask of conformity behind which he tried to hide his blackness and was doomed if he did not, so was the fate of the California prison system seemingly sealed by Robert Jackson's son. However, the system was still dealing, and the ace of trump was still in the deck.
On February of 1970, George Jackson and two other black inmates--Fleeta Drumgo and John Cluchette--were charged with the murder of John Mills, a white, 26-year-old guard at Soledad. Mills's death occurred less than a week after another white guard, O.G. Miller, shot three inmates to death, allegedly in an effort to prevent a race riot in the small exercise yard for Adjustment Center cons at Soledad. All three of the cons Miller killed were black. all three had been classified by prison authorities as militants.
The official announcement of the indictment of Jackson, Drumgo and Cluchette was characterized by the same blend of drama and inconsistency that was later to mark the reports on Attica. According to the reports, when a guard discovered the dead body of John Mills, who allegedly had been beaten with his own flashlight until his face was partially fleshless and then dropped from a three-flight catwalk, he also found a note lying beside the battered corpse. The note read: "One down, two to go."
The implication of the note was that Mills had been killed in an act of revenge. To substantiate their charge that revenge was the motive, prison officials described Jackson. Drumgo and Cluchette in term freighted with references to their potential savagery. The officials claimed that Jackson was known as "Karate Jackson." The monicker was false. Jackson had never carried such an alias. Prison officials later claimed never to have said he did.
Moreover, according to some of the earlier reports. Mills had been killed in a part of the joint into which Jackson was not even allowed at the time.
Whether George Jackson was guilty of murder in the death of John Mills is, like the issue of his guilt in the $70 robbery that sent him to prison for one to life, a question without a legal answer. Just as Jackson's confession to the $70 caper prevented the case from going to court, so did his death deny him a trial by jury.
There were and are many who contend that Jackson was being framed for his political views in the Soledad case, just as he has been railroaded into a life sentence ten years before because his ignorance of the law, his poverty, race and previous record marked him expendable. Many of those who claim that Jackson is innocent question the possibility that he could have received--or that Drumgo and Cluchette will receive--a fair trial. It would have been in Jackson's case--and will be in the case of the other two Soledad Brothers--too easy for California officials to manipulate and confect incriminating evidence. Potential defense witnesses could be intimidate by the threat of prolonged confinement if they testify.
Nonetheless the question of Jackson's guilt remains, alleged evil being no more interrable than the actual evil that men do. The answer lies in motivation: To be sure it is possible that Jackson could have killed Mills--but would he?
Homocide, particularly the killing of another human with one's own hand, is always the product of intense and usually uncontrolled emotion. Something or the accumulation of many things strikes so deeply as to summon the ultimate response.
According to the train of thought underlining officials statements about Mills's death, Jackson's motive was revenge. He killed Mills in an attempt to force the system to atone for the deaths of the three black inmates it had killed three days before.
Clearly, there was a component of Jackson's character capable of producing such a reaction. However, it seems highly improbable that the death of the three inmates constituted a situation that could evoke such a response from him. Vulnerable men die, and in the joint, all men are vulnerable. Jackson, as highly aware as he was of his vulnerability, knew this to be the fundamental clause of existence. He once wrote, "The payment for life is death."
Black men, in the yard or on the block, tend to die more easily. Too easily, Jackson often asserted. As it goes in the game, they are always doubly vulnerable. George Jackson often wrote of the necessity of changing this condition. He felt it was imperative that black people become die-hards, going slow and taking as many recognized enemies out with them as possible. He took this as a personal responsibility and trained his mind and body to fulfill it. He expected other black cons to do the same and was willing to help them.
John Mills was a fish. Twenty-six years-old, he had been working as a guard for less than a year. During that time, he had done little more than put in time. Perhaps because he recognized that as a guard he was no less imprisoned than the cons he oversaw, and that most of them were older, bigger, more experience prisoners than he, Mills had acted with tolerance when he had acted at all.
Not all prison guards are like John Mills.
After doing nearly ten years of time in the joints of California, George Jackson had established a balance to his life. Four months before John Mills became the first guard to die in Soledad since it was built in 1952, George Jackson wrote to his brother Jonathon:
I add five words to my vocabulary each day...right after breakfast each morning when I have forty-five minutes to kill, It's not enough time for anything else and since I don't want to waste any time. I work on words. It is by words that we convey our thoughts, and bend people to our will.
Would a man with such control over his inner life, a long time man's feel for time, and a committed man's disdain for waste have killed John Mills? Would he have killed Mills when the real focus of vengence, O.G. Miller, was still alive in Soledad? Moreover, would the death of three more inmates have driven Jackson out of the firm balance of his reason to the irrationality of revenge?
Certainly there is at least a reasonable doubt. If George Jackson did kill Mills, he applied ultimate means to achieve a far less satisfying end. However, in charging Jackson with the murder of Mills, the California prison system was placing itself in the position to reap an ultimate solution to one of its problems.
California statute 4500 dictates the death sentence for any lifer convicted of assault on a correctional official. If Jackson was convicted he would have paid with his life for the death of John Mills. An eye for an eye, a life for a life, the vengeful justice of the Old Testament, yet more than justice would have been served if George Jackson had gone to the gas chamber--if, in fact, justice would have been served by his execution. His death at the hands of due process would have resolved the dilemma with which his life confronted the prison system.
If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
We had been talking generally about prisons when the news of Jackson's death got to us. After not saying anything for awhile, Fred said "George Jackson was the most rational man I ever knew."
So begins a sonnet by the black poet Claude McKay. Although the poem was first published in 1922, it embodies much of George Jackson's attitude towards his imminent death during the last 18 months of his life. During that period, Jackson was confined first in the maximum security block of Soledad and then, after obtaining a change of venue that transferred his trial from Monterey to Marin County, in the Adjustment Center at San Quentin. Held in close confinement in prison, chained when he was taken out to appear in court. Jackson became less of a prisoner during this time than he had ever been before.
His letters are a measure of his release. They reveal a sense of increasing strength drawn both from the support that the outside community was giving him and from his own reaffirmation of his usefulness as a member of the prison vanguard. Thus, rather than losing his sense of purpose and direction under the strain of his escalated confinement, Jackson came to see and express himself with an inspired power:
I don't want to die and leave a few sad songs and a hump in the ground as my only monument. I want to leave a world that is liberated from trash, pollution, nation-states, nation-state wars and armies, from pomp, bigotry, parochialism, a thousand different brands of untruth, and licentious usurious economics.
I am an extremist. I call for extreme measures to solve extreme problems. Where face and freedom are concerned I do not use or prescribe half measures. To me life without control over the determining factors is not worth the effort of drawing breath. Without self-determination I am extremely displeased.
Concurrent with this sense of increasing strength was Jackson's realization of the importance and validity of the love of persons as well as that of people. Since many of the people who became involved with the Soledad Defense Committee were women as was one of Jackson's lawyers. Fay Stender, he had his first opportunity to come in contact with a number of intelligent and committed women. This contact provoked him to reassess some of his beliefs:
I thought of individual relationships as a flight from the existential reality of individual responsibility to the whole, to the people. I considered it selfish to look for same individual to touch and hold and understand, because all my time belonged to all of the people...people who (especially in the joint) looked for another individual to relate to, instead of the people's struggle--full time, (were) lonely, (were) weak.
But I've gone through some changes since then, I saw and read about Angie Davis and some other females of our kind...The look of love from a rebel breed--I like it. I'm weak.
Eventually, Jackson met and corresponded with Angela Davis. In her, he came to see himself--his past and his future--with a new slant. His past, the years that he had spent in the joint, was not the prelude to a danse macabre as it had sometimes seemed, but rather the first steps in a courtship: "Every time I've opened my mouth, assumed my battle stance, I was trying in effect to say I love you, African--African woman...If my enemies, your enemies, prove stronger at least I want them to know that they have made one righteous African man extremely angry. And that they have strained the patience of a righteous and loyal people to the utmost."
Jackson envisioned that after he was cleared of the Soledad charge--he repeatedly said that he would be--he and Angela Davis would become a revolutionary Mr. and Mrs., bound to each other by their dedication to the people's struggle and their own private alliance.
However, Jonathon Jackson did not believe that this common outlaw arrangement could ever be consumated. He did not believe that his brother would ever leave prison alive. He was right, but he himself died in the parking lot of the San Rafael courthouse.
The San Rafael incident--regardless of whether it was an appropriate tactic--illustrates the loyalty George Jackson was able to inspire. Though most of the coverage given to it by the Establishment media focused upon the bloodshed that resulted from Jonathon Jackson's cool arrogance. George Jackson, his mother, and people who knew the specifics of the case or were themselves prisoners were struck more by the motive than the result of the action.
Although the San Rafael incident failed to free George Jackson and the other Soledad Brothers, it did rivet national attention on their case and on George Jackson as a man. Through this attention Jackson's reputation among prisoners spread through the joints across the country.
The publication of Soledad Brother, which has now sold over 300,000 copies plus Jackson's affiliation with the Panthers served to make him even more widely known. Though his writings are prohibited reading material in many joints, copies of his work are smuggled in. Many of the younger cons read him before they came to the joint and informed older inmates about him. As a result, George Jackson became well known in the joints outside California as he had become inside the state as one of the most remarkable of the rational and unbroken.
The news spread quickly through the crowd in Will Rogers Park. Most seemed stunned by it; a few moved in a deeply intimate way. But the celebration continued. It was late on an August Saturday afternoon in Watts, and the news was that George Jackson was dead.
The celebration was the sixth Watts Festival, held annually during the six days in August that Watts burned in 1965. Around the park, people shook their heads or stood silent for a moment. A woman whose baby had been crying, cried herself when she heard. But the celebration continued. George Jackson had been in the joint for five years when Watts burned in '65. He became five years further removed from here by the time he died. George Jackson was dead, but tonight was Jazz Night, and Miles Davis would be playing.
By chance, I had met a man earlier that afternoon who had done time in Quentin while Jackson was there. We had been talking generally about prisons when the news of Jackson's death got to us. After not saying anything for awhile, Fred said, "George Jackson was the most rational man I ever knew."
That statement was the fountain of his disbelief. He had known Jackson in the cauldron of the joint, and had observed his responses. To believe that Jackson would have tried to escape from the Adjustment Center was an act of faith, a willful suspension of disbelief that Fred was not willing to perform.
Fred was not alone in his reluctance, but perhaps that day in Will Rogers Park he almost was.
We talked about the Adjustment Center in San Quentin, and Fred explained how it was a prison inside a prison, enriched by its own wall that was manned by armed guards. Even if Jackson could have somehow scaled that first wall, he would only have made it back to the main yard and would still have another wall between himself and the free soil of Point San Quentin. "Two chances," Fred said, "Slim and none."
This was all that was known then: George Jackson had been killed, allegedly while trying to escape. None of the rest of the fantastic story' which the officials would weave was at this point revealed. All one had were the bare essentials, and from then on one had to decide whether George Jackson were capable of the futile irrationality with which he was being charged.
Fred did not think so, but perhaps Fred was wrong. Perhaps Jackson did come to share the belief that had driven his brother to attempting to kidnap a judge. Perhaps, Jackson had arranged to have the gun and wig smuggled in.
Yet if this was what did happen, what drove Jackson to it? If he did die in an escape effort, then his statement in a letter written two days after Jonathon died applies to himself as well:
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"!!
Regardless of how he actually died, George Jackson's death did eventually evoke a response. The response did not come in Watts, but at Attica. There, men knew the pressures that had been applied to break Jackson, for they also lived with them. There, there was a man--perhaps several--who had written in his notebook the lines from Claude McKay's poem quoted above.
George Jackson's death proved the premise of "If We Must Die:" that is, that if they want to get you, they will. Perhaps for the men at Attica, that was one proof too many to be ignored.
Few men have probably been so misunderstood as George Jackson, and few events have been as misinterpreted as Attica. Partially, this stems from the complexity inherent in Jackson's own character and in the characters of the men at Attica. But much of the misunderstanding seems to come from the assumption that Jackson or the Attica revolt are novel combustions without historical precedent.
Characteristic of this assumption was a segment from Time Magazine's article on Attica. The segment said that the more militant prisoners at Attica "passed around clandestine writings of their own; among them was a poem written by an unknown prisoner, crude but touching in its would-be heroic style." In an insert, Time printed the first stanza of this "would-be heroic" find:
If we must die, let it not be like hogs.
Hunted and penned in an unglorious spot.
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs.
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
It all just tends to make a long time man feel bad.
Copyright 1971 by Anthony Hill