Prison has been and continues to be used in the United States disproportionately against African-Americans. Just as today the absurdly disproportionately high rates of imprisonment of young black men is a significant issue in voting rights, so the civil rights movement in the 1960s brought a new focus to prison issues and their affect on African-Americans.
The Nation of Islam, whose most famous spokesperson was Malcolm X, gave a particular emphasis to prison recruitment, which is how Malcolm became a Muslim and a part of the group. (He left the group after becoming more acquainted with mainstream Islam; the Nation of Islam's explicit racism made it an heretical sect in most Muslims' eyes.)
George Jackson was a young black man who became radicalized in San Quentin prison. California at that time had a sentencing law calling "indeterminate sentencing," which gave judges and prison officials enormous discretion over how long a prisoner could be held. It was originally instituted as a prison reform policy, but turned into a terribly abusive practice in case like Jackson's. As Marine notes, at the time of his death, Jackson "had spent 10 years in prison - seven of them in solitary confinement - for stealing $70.20."
Jackson was killed on August 21, 1971, in an escape attempt from San Quentin prison.
But most significantly, George Jackson, and the death of George Jackson at the age of 29, affects every citizen to this day because he was, more than any other person, most responsible for the politicization of the incarcerated. Even today, with the obscene percentage of minorities that are jailed in relation to their white counterparts, it remains true that for many, their only real education comes behind bars. And when they re-enter society - yes, America, some of these people actually do get out - they are changed: educated, politically aware and, understandably, very, very angry.Marine's version of George Jackson's political education/self-education is more-or-less contemptuous, but gives a basic concept:
Jackson soaked it all up, watched and read as the New Left emerged, embracing whatever bastardized version of Marxism, Leninism and/or Maoism was in vogue that week. Unlike those concerned more about fashion than substance, Jackson went to the source material, negotiating through the less-than-scintillating, if illuminating, works of the great political theorists themselves.George Jackson was a member of the Black Panthers, whose perspective had also been shaped by the prison experience of leaders like Eldridge Cleaver.
Then, George Jackson added his own twist on the Revolution. Just as Lenin had goosed Marx by figuring a vanguard can manipulate the science of communism, and Mao altered the status quo by using peasants as opposed to workers to lead his revolution, Jackson's idea was that it was America's prisoners who would be the vanguard, the driving force, of the revolution.
George Jackson's case also made philosophy professor Angela Davis famous, or infamous, depending on one's perspective. She was tried and acquitted on charges of having assisted a desperate attempt by George's younger brother Jonathan to free George. As Marine recounts:
Those who may make the association between Jackson's name and the revolutionary struggle of the late 1960s and early 1970s often think of him as the man holding onto the end of a shotgun that was taped around the neck of a terrified judge - an image forever frozen in time in one of the most famous news photographs in history. That was James McClain, freed (briefly) by George's 17-year-old brother, Jonathan, who smuggled guns into a Marin County courtroom in an ill-fated attempt to trade hostages for his older brother.He quotes Davis in his 2001 article on George Jackson's death:
"George Jackson was murdered," said Angela Davis, now 57, and teaching in Santa Cruz, as she expressed a commonly held belief about what may have happened 30 years ago. "But it's the classic story: you can kill the man, but you can't kill the ideas."The History Is A Weapon website provides the text online of George Jackson's 1970 Soledad Brother. The same site has the text of an interview with him, Remembering the Real Dragon- An Interview with George Jackson May 16 and June 29, 1971.
Stripped of the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist theories that adorned much of his writing, what Jackson did that was perceived as so incredibly dangerous was teach.
"He broke down the structures of the prison gangs as they were organized at the time and re-built them around politics instead of petty criminal activities such as loan-sharking and extortion," said Davis, a former Communist Party member whose love for Jackson, as expressed in the couples' correspondence, was used unsuccessfully by prosecutors in an attempt to provide motivation for what they said was her part in the Marin County courthouse bloodshed that left four dead. Tried for murder, Davis was acquitted.
"The last thing those in power wanted was an organized underclass, ready to fight for revolution," said Davis. "George tried to teach anyone who would listen, regardless of race, that The Man wanted division, wanted prisoners at each others' throats. He scared people to death, as well he should have."
Bob Dylan did a song commemorating him, "George Jackson," which Joan Baez covers in this version:
George Jackson was a charismatic figure whose words and militant resistance resonated with many who felt some of the genuine desperation that someone in his position must have felt. It's easy enough to pick out passages from the linked material from him that sound simplistic and narrow. But then he was working in the toughest kind of environment against what were unquestionable overwhelming odds. One doesn't have to idolize him or approve of the execution of the prison guards described in Craig Marine's article to recognize that the anger, despair and radical rejection of peaceful and legal methods of fighting white racism and the institutions that sustained it did resonate with a non-trivial number of African-Americans circa 1970.
And it resonates in negative sense perhaps even more heavily today with the aging whites who take FOX News to be an actual news source. Take, for instance, this one paragraph from the interview linked above in which Jackson says:
You know, guerrilla war is not simply a matter of tactics and technique. It's not just questions of hit-and-run or terrorism. It's a matter of proving to the established order that it simply can't sustain itself, that there is no possible way for them to win by utilizing the means of force available to them. We have to prove that wars are won by human beings, and not by mechanical devices. We've got to show that in the end they can't resist us. And we will! We're going to do it. There's never going to ever be a moment's peace for anyone associated with the establishment any place where I'm at, or where any of my comrades are at. But we're going to need coordination, we're going to need help. And right now, that help should come in the form of education. It's critical to teach the people out there how important it is to destroy the function of the prison within the society. That, and to show them in concrete terms that the war is on - right now! - and that in that sense we really aren't any different than the Vietnamese, or the Cubans, or the Algerians, or any of the other revolutionary peoples of the world.This is how a lot of Republicans think of Barack Obama, who is routinely described on websites and broadcasts and e-mail chain letters that are generally regarded by Republicans as sensible (if a bit edgy) as an America-hating Kenyan Communist Nazi Marxist Islamist atheist anticolonialist extremist.
A large portion of the Republican Party base, which means a significant number of American whites generally, are stuck in 1969, their fears haunted by images of guys like George Jackson, an army of ghosts waiting to leap out at them from any black person they encounter. Included the President of the United States.
And who says Americans have no sense of history?
Tags: angela davis, black power,
civil rights movement, confederate heritage month 2014, george jackson, white racism