A young black man gunned down by law enforcement. His body is then left outside for four hours. The shocking gore of the situation sparks countless protests around the country calling for an end to racism. Meanwhile, popular attention to the incident prompts investigations into the young man killed, leading some critics to suggest that his working-class background and alleged criminal activities somehow make his death justifiable.
It is not the last month in Ferguson, Missouri. It is not Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, Roshad McIntosh or any of the other unarmed black men killed by police in recent weeks — though it could be. It is San Quentin, California, in the year 1971. His name was George Jackson. Though more than four decades have gone by since he was killed, his life and death signal the ways in which this country's macabre routine of police violence against young black men and women has become institutionalized throughout the criminal justice system.
With Jackson, as with the others, the deaths marked not just the tragic end of a young life but also the bizarre beginnings of speculation about the character of the deceased. Jackson, an activist and bestselling author, was killed at California’s San Quentin prison on Aug. 21, 1971, by two guards who fired down at him as he ran toward the wall surrounding the prison after a 30-minute takeover of a solitary confinement unit. Unlike the unarmed youth killed by police, Jackson did have a gun on him when he was killed. Yet the circumstances surrounding his death remain mysterious, including how he managed to get his hands on a gun. How he managed to acquire it in the confines of what was then one of California's toughest prisons remains a mystery, especially since authorities kept changing their story about the caliber of the gun and its origins. Was it smuggled in or did he wrest it from a guard who was about to kill him?
One thing is clear: Jackson's intransigence and the open-ended questions that surround his death make him a relevant figure in the age of mass incarceration and rampant police violence. His place in history has been secured largely according to one’s political perspective. To some he is a martyr of political injustice, like Sacco and Vanzetti a half-century before him. Every year, thousands of college students meet George Jackson as an author, someone whose raw eloquence captures the prison experience like few others. And to others, Jackson is an exaggerated bad guy, famous for being infamous and a hustler to the end.
Depending on your outlook, Jackson is some combination of these. But he is also something else: a specter haunting the American criminal justice system, a trenchant critic even from the grave. Whether as boogeyman, hero or martyr, George Jackson remains prominent in prison America. Indeed, if the 1953 execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg was the dystopic expression of Cold War anxieties, the 1971 killing of George Jackson marked the onset of a new era of mass incarceration and the hyper-policing that sustains it.
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When George Jackson went to prison in 1960, there were 200,000 people in prisons around the country. When he published "Soledad Brother" in 1970, the rate of imprisonment was the lowest it had been in 20 years, with 96 out of every 100,000 Americans in prison. When he was killed in San Quentin in 1971, there were 300,000 people incarcerated, a rate of about 200 per 100,000 people.
Three decades later, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger refused to stay the execution of Stanley Tookie Williams because the Crips co-founder had dedicated one of his anti-violence books to George Jackson and other well-known black activists (proving, Schwarzenegger said in a statement at the time, that Williams had not been rehabilitated), one in 100 American adults is in prison — approximately 2.3 million people. As of 2011 one in 34 adults, more than 7 million people, is under some form of correctional supervision: prison, parole or probation. Five percent of the world’s population, the United States imprisons 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.
Such staggering and lopsided rates of incarceration devastate whole communities, as the families of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride and so many others can attest: Not only does mass incarceration break up families but it promotes punitive and preemptive policing of black life.
The captives in this prison nation are a lot like George Jackson: Many of them are poor or working-class young men of color who run afoul of the law. Jackson was convicted at 18 for his role in a $70 gas station robbery. The judge pointed to Jackson’s previous arrests — for theft, assault and other high jinks carried out as a teenager — as justification for sentencing him to serve one year to life in prison. It was the kind of stringently vague sentence that postwar justices, especially in California, used to compel “good behavior.”
In Jackson, and in so many others, it had the opposite effect. He remained defiant. He protested the pervasive racism and segregation of California’s prison system in organized and informal ways. He organized a sit-in against a segregated prison cafeteria and taught prisoners martial arts to fight back against attack by the guards. In 11 years in captivity, Jackson spent long stretches of time in solitary confinement for his obstinacy. He wrote eloquently of the racism he experienced in prison and earned the admiration of prisoners around the country — especially other black prisoners in a time that saw American prisons become increasingly disparate in terms of racial composition and then grow exponentially in size, producing stark inequalities that render the criminal justice system the vanguard site of American racism.
George Jackson became so well known as a dissident in the California prison system that he was appointed a field marshal in the Black Panther Party and tasked with recruiting more prisoners to its ranks. He became the figurehead of a political and intellectual movement located in American prisons. He captured the ways that people in prison were active participants in the social movements of his day. "There are still some blacks here who consider themselves criminals — but not many. Believe me, my friend, with the time and incentive that these brothers have to read, study, and think, you will find no class or category more aware, more embittered, desperate, or dedicated to the ultimate remedy — revolution. The most dedicated, the best of our kind — you’ll find them in the Folsoms, San Quentins, and Soledads. They live like there was no tomorrow. And for most of them there isn’t.”
Jackson was charismatic and intelligent, strong and soft-spoken. According to many who knew him, he was easy to talk to and quick with a smile, at least among friends. To them, he was generous with his time, knowledge and what little resources he had. He taught interested fellow prisoners Marxism and martial arts. He retained a hard edge among competitors and antagonists, especially guards, but also some fellow prisoners. But his influence — and what prison administrators have always loathed -- owes to his persuasive intellect, political commitments and anti-authoritarian defiance.
"Soledad Brother" gathered a series of Jackson's letters over a six-year period, mostly to his parents as well as his attorney and other supporters. Edited to emphasize his political evolution amid the indignities of confinement, the book cataloged growing sentiments of black radicalism by the time it appeared in 1970. Because California rules at the time limited prisoner letters to the front and back of a piece of paper, Jackson's take on economic theory, inner-city politics, the decolonization of the African continent, and prison conditions come in short staccato bursts. He turns the bleak world of confinement into a site of transformation and possibility, a poignant meditation on freedom. His authorial voice was steeped in the mysticism and hard-hitting critiques of W.E.B. Du Bois, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. "Soledad Brother" repeatedly celebrates the life of the mind amid the constraints of confinement. “I must follow my mind,” he wrote in one letter. “There is no turning back from awareness. If I were to alter my step now, I would always hate myself. … I would die as most of us blacks have died over the last few centuries, without having lived.”
Jackson’s obdurate stance has made him a permanent foe of prison administrators, who fear that his words will incite rebellion. This is especially true in California. Officials there so fear the writings of its most famous prisoner that even now his books, both his incendiary and posthumously published text "Blood in my Eye," as well as "Soledad Brother," are verboten from state prisons. Possession of his writings could land a prisoner in indefinite solitary confinement on suspicion of gang membership, itself a punishable offense in California's sprawling prison system.
It is not just the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation that has taken this narrative to heart. Indeed, Jackson’s name remains part of the lexicon of bad prisoners. In an April 2014 New Yorker article on corruption inside the Baltimore City Detention Center, attorney and legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin described Jackson as the misogynistic inspiration for a drug ring some prisoners and female guards had allegedly established in the jail. The cabal called itself the Black Guerrilla Family. The original BGF, which still exists though officially forbidden, began in California prisons in the 1970s by black prisoners seeking a mechanism to continue Jackson’s brand of militancy. The Maryland BGF, meanwhile, began in 2007; it has little more connection to the original organization than the contemporary Tea Party does to the 18th century civil disobedience in Boston Harbor. Historical allusions are a standard currency in politics, with no fixed exchange rate. The malleability of such symbols shows only that they have an enduring political impact. It says nothing of the circumstances or accuracy in which their usage gets deployed.
In other venues, though, Jackson remains a hero. In the month after Jackson’s death, many figures praised him as the latest slain soothsayer in an era of martyred black leaders. Author James Baldwin, who had spoken on Jackson's behalf at a large rally in Westminster months earlier, predicted that “no black person will believe George Jackson died the way [prison officials] say he did.” In an elegy to “a man I really loved,” Bob Dylan sang that authorities hated him “because he was just too real.” And Roger Wilkins, former assistant attorney general turned journalist, said Jackson “saved his soul and lost his life.” In Attica, a New York prison far away from San Quentin, men launched a silent fast to commemorate Jackson’s life and mourn his death. Three weeks later, they staged what would become the most significant prison rebellion in American history.
This depiction of Jackson — defiant, loving and intelligent, a righteous people’s warrior and permanent foil to the cruel machinations of a racist and dehumanizing system — continues to circulate in American prisons. In many ways, Jackson has become a role model for many black men in prison. The San Francisco Bay View, an African American newspaper well read among prisoners throughout the country, includes frequent references to quotes by, and drawings of, George Jackson — often by imprisoned authors themselves. Many prisoners still seek out Jackson’s writings, despite the threat of reprisal. In Jackson, they find a courageous example of survival: a self-educated man fueled by passion for justice to transcend the brutal confinements of his surroundings.
Jackson’s enduring salience owes to his prophetic description of the violence that constitutes imprisonment. His death remains so unsettling because he so adeptly diagnosed the problems of excessive policing and punishment. His life and death offer a sober assessment of the problems that arise when blackness gets defined through criminality: mass incarceration and militarized policing are the most extreme results now on display.
Jackson and other dissident prisoners were the canaries in the coal mine of our prison nation: Their experience being aggressively policed, excessively sentenced and brutally treated in prison has become the norm. The elements that made his case so noteworthy in 1971 — the long sentence for a petty crime, the indefinite use of solitary confinement — are now almost too mundane to be newsworthy.
As long as the United States continues to police, imprison and kill so many young black men and women, George Jackson will remain a figure whose story needs to be told. What French philosopher Voltaire wrote about the existence of God in the 18th century is just as apt to the ongoing presence of George Jackson in the 21st: If he didn’t exist it would be necessary to create him. Because there was never a consensus about the meaning of his life, Jackson’s death remains a source of contention. He remains a hero or villain to any who need one.
The unprecedented scale and scope of the American criminal justice system from police to prisons, the debates about whether George Jackson or Michael Brown or anyone else slain by law enforcement were “angels” — suggests that we will need heroes and villains for some time to come.
The continued circulation of his books and his image offers another lesson: George Jackson shows that however plentiful or powerful, the criminal justice system is not invincible. It, too, can be breached, remade, undone. The popularity and tragic necessity of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag among contemporary racial justice advocates suggests how much work we have yet to do. Only when we address the root causes of state violence will George Jackson’s spirit, like those of so many other slain black youth, be laid to rest.
Dan Berger is the author, most recently, of "Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era." He is an assistant professor of comparative ethnic studies at the University of Washington Bothell. Follow him @authordanberger or www.danberger.org.