“Sometimes it seems that this whole world
is one big prison yard,
Some of us are prisoners
And some of us are guards.
Ballad of George Jackson,
by Bob Dylan
George Jackson was originally convicted of a $70 gas station heist in his late teens and sentenced to an indeterminate sentence of one year to life. Because of his refusal to bend down and crawl on his knees, so to speak, he never again left the California prison system and was murdered by guards in the yard at San Quentin on August 21, 1971. By that time, George was a member of the Black Panther Party and a revolutionary hero to millions around the world. His book Soledad Brother is still in publication and is remarkable not only for its insights into Jackson’s life and thoughts but also for the emotionally charged writing it contains.
A year before his murder, his brother Jonathan was involved in an attempt to help free George and two other men known as the Soledad Brothers. On August 7, 1970, Jonathan Jackson entered the Marin County Courthouse armed with a submachine gun. He hoped to force the release of the Soledad Brothers. These were three men — his brother George, Fleeta Drumgo, and John Clutchette — who were charged with the murder of two guards at Soledad Prison after a black prisoner who was also a Muslim was killed by guards. Jonathan gave guns to the three prisoners who were present in the court–John McClain, William Christmas, and Ruchell Magee, a jailhouse lawyer who was testifying at the trial of fellow prisoner McClain, whose trial Jonathan interrupted. The three then took the judge, prosecutor and three jurors hostage.
They left the courthouse and placed the hostages in a county van. Before the armed men and their hostages left the courthouse, the Marin County sheriff ordered his men not to shoot. Despite this order, the van was hit by a hail of gunfire from San Quentin prison guards and other law enforcement personnel immediately after it left the court building’s garage. Jackson, Judge Haley, McClain and Christmas were all killed. Magee remains in prison to this day, the sole survivor of this episode in US history.
Today, young black men are incarcerated at a greater rate than twenty years ago when Jackson died. In fact, the US prison system holds a higher percentage of its black population in jail than apartheid South Africa did during its heyday. According to a Justice Department report released on July 28, 2003, that over 10 per cent of black men between the ages of 20 and 39 were incarcerated in 2002. This figure contrasts with 1.2 per cent of non-Latino white males and 2.4 per cent of the Latino male population. Even more revealing are these numbers: the 586,700 black men in prison outnumber both the 436,800 white males and 235,000 Hispanic males. Furthermore, many of our country’s inner city areas where many of these young people live in are under what amounts to a state of siege. Using the excuse of a war on drugs, heavily armed police can arrest virtually anyone they wish and, if they deem it necessary, the police do not hesitate to kill. After all, if they do kill a suspect, chances are they will walk no matter what kind of outcry there is from the public.
Drugs, which when consumed by the current president in his younger days were but youthful indiscretions, continue to be the primary reason people are in custody. One would think that with the percentage of people in the seats of power today who tried marijuana in their youth, there would be a greater tolerance for those people who smoke it today. Yet, when today’s youth consume marijuana in a world much bleaker than that of twenty years ago, calls go out to jail them. In fact, in today’s climate, even those who use pot for medical reasons face the possibility of prison. According to the aforementioned Justice Department report, over half of the current federal prisoners are in prison on drug offenses. This is primarily due to sentencing guidelines that require mandatory minimums on sentences and an accompanying trend among state and county prosecutors to hand many drug cases over to federal prosecutors, usually under pressure from the feds. Indeed, a friend of mine just recently finished serving a ten-year sentence for LSD possession with intent to distribute (1st offense) because she was tried in federal court instead of by the state of California. If similar cases are any indication, she would probably have received some kind of supervised probation if she hadn’t been turned over to the Feds after refusing to turn in her friends. It’s not that drugs are not a problem, mind you, but the greater problem is a government and society whose solution to such problems is to take actions that would be illegal if they were committed by a civilian.
It was George Jackson’s belief that prisons are but the latest form of slavery. The scenario is pretty much the same: primarily poor people of color live in inhuman conditions providing forced labor for the state and private industry. The Nazis did the same thing in their prison camps, which is why Jackson often finished his letters to friends and family with the farewell, “From Dachau, with love.” It is not enough for us on the outside to merely protest the imprisonment of prisoners in other countries, we must also examine the role we play in maintaining the so-called justice system at home.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org