By Judy Greenspan
Published Aug 14, 2011 10:28 PM
The revolutionary movements abroad for national liberation and the rebellions in major urban cities in this country in the 1960s inspired a revolutionary development within the prisoners’ movement that rocked the foundations of the most repressive apparatus of the state. California’s Pelican Bay prisoners are continuing that struggle today.
This summer is the 40th anniversary of the 1971 assassination of George Jackson, a revolutionary Black leader of the struggles of California prisoners and also of the Attica Rebellion, a massive protest against the dehumanization and torture of prisoners in a New York state prison. These two events inspired the growth of the prisoners’ rights movement.
Prison authorities reacted with the proliferation of security housing units — a 23-hour-a-day lockdown for prisoners who dare to challenge the torture and brutality of the inhumane prison system.
George Jackson & the Soledad Brothers
“I could be killed tomorrow but there ... would be two to three hundred people to take my place,” said George Jackson. (Interviews with Karen Wald, May 16 and June 29, 1971)
Jackson was serving a one-year-to-life sentence in the California prisons for stealing $70 from a gas station in Los Angeles. He spent much of his time inside reading the texts of revolutionary leaders, including Mao Zedong, Kwame Nkrumah, Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap. He patiently explained his revolutionary thoughts to other prisoners.
On Jan. 13, 1970, prison guards fired into the prison yard at Soledad Prison after a fistfight broke out, killing three Black prisoners. A group of prisoners organized a hunger strike demanding justice. Three days later, the guards were exonerated in court, and within a half-hour of the court ruling, a guard was beaten and thrown from a yard tower to his death.
Jackson and two other prisoners, Fleeta Drumgo and John W. Clutchette, were charged with first-degree murder. The three men became known as the Soledad Brothers. Their case gave rise to a broad movement of support on behalf of Jackson and the other prisoners.
Six months later, when George Jackson was being brought into the Marin County Courthouse with a group of prisoners, his younger brother, Jonathan Jackson, was killed, along with two prisoners and a judge, after engineering a failed attempt to force the freedom of the Soledad Brothers.
George Jackson was assassinated by prison guards on Aug. 21, 1971, shortly after being brought to San Quentin’s Adjustment Center maximum-security unit. Prison officials claimed Jackson had a pistol hidden in his Afro.
By this time, Jackson was a “marked man.” He had already written and published “Soledad Brother,” dedicated to his brother Jonathan, which was a scathing indictment of the racist prison system. The book was widely read both inside and outside the prisons.
Jackson had fought off his attackers and opened the unit’s cell doors, freeing 26 prisoners. This uprising lasted less than 30 minutes when Jackson was shot in the back by prison guards. Six prisoners charged with participating in this uprising became known as the San Quentin Six.
Attica Rebellion in September
Jackson’s assassination ignited a wave of protests inside and outside prisons. A large hunger strike at New York state’s Attica Prison precipitated a wave of anger and organizing that led to the prisoner uprising and takeover of that prison on Sept. 9, 1971, by more than 1,000 prisoners.
“We are men, we are not beasts, and we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such. ... What was happening here is but the sound or the fury of those who are oppressed,” said L.D. Barkley, one of the leaders of the Attica rebellion, as he introduced the list of demands.
The Attica Manifesto of demands included an immediate end to the pitting of one race against another by the prison administration, an end to the racial discrimination against Brown and Black prisoners by the parole board, the right to union membership and higher wages while working in the prison, and an end to the segregation of prisoners from the mainline population because of their political beliefs.
A People’s Central Committee of Black, Puerto Rican, Native and white prisoners was formed during the Attica Rebellion. Prisoners invited a group of observers to come to the prison to witness the prison takeover and to negotiate on their behalf with the prison administration. Tom Soto, a leader of Workers World Party and a founder of the Prisoners Solidarity Committee, received such an invitation and went to Attica. Moving testimonies by this united group of prisoners were heard around the world.
Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, true to his ruling-class heritage, refused to negotiate and instead unleashed a brutal and barbarous assault by an army of police, sheriffs and National Guard that killed 43 people and wounded more than 150. Frank ‘Big Black’ Smith, a leader of the rebellion who lived, called the attack, “cold-blooded premeditated murder.”
Pelican Bay hunger strike
This year’s heroic hunger strike by prisoners in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison Security Housing Unit against the torture of these isolation chambers has also inspired a rebirth of protests by prisoners and their supporters outside.
This three-week strike, which began July 1, took a tremendous toll on the health and welfare of these incredibly courageous prisoners, who were joined in solidarity hunger strikes by thousands of other prisoners, former prisoners and family members throughout California and around the country. The prisoners’ demands were simple: stop the torture of the lockdown units, stop indefinite SHU terms, and allow prisoners more visitation, adequate nutrition and access to mail and phone privileges.
The strike ended on July 20 when the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation agreed to “accede to a few small requests immediately ... in support of their assurance that all of our issues will receive real attention,” according to a statement issued by Short Corridor Collective, a representative of the Pelican Bay hunger strike leaders.
California SHU prisoners have issued an alert that they may be forced to resume their protest because CDCR is not moving to remedy even the smallest of their grievances. Family members, former prisoner organizers and other supporters are mobilizing to attend a California State Assembly Public Safety Committee hearing about the prisoners’ demands on Aug. 23 at the state Capitol.
In 1942, the revered revolutionary leader of the Vietnamese struggle against colonialism, Ho Chi Minh, wrote in his prison diary, “When the prison doors are opened, the real dragon will fly out.”
This year we remember the slogans: “Attica is all of us!” “Long live the spirit of George and Jonathan Jackson!” “Stop the torture at Pelican Bay and all lockdown prisons!”
Some information for this article came from the CD “Prisons on Fire: George Jackson, Attica & Black Liberation,” produced by Anita Johnson and Claude Marks in 2001 and available from Freedom Archives.