Last December, in okaying the execution of Stan Tookie Williams, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger went out of his way to smear a whole history of Black struggle against racism. Schwarzenegger’s statement denying clemency claimed that Stan’s record of turning his life around must be a lie–because Stan identified with Black revolutionaries of the past and present, dedicating his autobiography to a number.
The most abuse of all was heaped on George Jackson–whose inclusion in Stan’s dedication “is a significant indicator that Williams is not reformed,” read Schwarzenegger’s statement.
Jackson, author of the widely read prison memoir Soledad Brother, had been thrown in jail for a petty robbery, and became a revolutionary behind bars. He was murdered in August 1971 by guards at San Quentin prison in an alleged “escape attempt.”
STEPHEN BINGHAM, one of several lawyers working with Jackson, was accused of being part of the escape plot. Bingham fled the country and lived in exile until 1984. When he returned, he was acquitted of all charges related to the “escape.” Today, he is a welfare rights attorney in San Francisco.
Allen: COULD YOU tell us something about the life of George Jackson?
Bingham: GEORGE GREW up in Los Angeles, like many young African Americans, in a hostile urban environment. He was in minor trouble a lot as a teen, and eventually ended up in prison for a gas station holdup.
Min Yee’s book Melancholy History of Soledad Prison explains well what the prison environment that held him until his death was like. George grew politically, unlike so many other inmates, thanks in particular to an older man, W.L. Nolen, who encouraged him to read.
George objected to the apartheid-like conditions in prison–once famously sitting in the front row of the segregated movie room and requiring seven or eight guards to remove him for this Rosa Parks sit-in!
He became a marked man. After the guards at Soledad Prison orchestrated an interracial yard fight and their top sharpshooter killed three Blacks in the yard, a guard was thrown off a tier and killed the night it was learned the county prosecutor would not charge the guards for the three killings. Weeks later, George and two other inmates, Fleeta Drumgo and John Cluchette, were charged with the guard’s murder.
While the “Soledad Brothers” were awaiting trial, George came to the attention of Faye Stender of the National Lawyers Guild Prison Project. His letters to her and to his family became the central part of the book Soledad Brother that gained international prominence and brought enormous and unwanted attention on conditions inside California’s prisons.
These unjust conditions are like mushrooms: they grown best in the dark. Because George was the obvious catalyst for this public spotlight, he became Enemy No. 1 to the California Department of Corrections.
Allen: Were you surprised that Schwarzenegger specifically highlighted Jackson in the Stan Tookie Williams case?
Bingham: I was frankly surprised that the governor made such an explicit point about George in his clemency denial for Stan Tookie Williams.
I suspect the governor himself was relatively clueless about who George was, as he was winning bodybuilding contests in the 1970s and beginning his decidedly unpolitical acting career. The question is who were the minions in the state Department of Justice (run by top Democcrat Bill Lockyer) or the governor’s office itself who decided it was important to mention Williams’ admiration for George, as well as Nelson Mandela, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Assata Shakur, Geronimo Pratt, Ramona and John Africa, Leonard Peltier and Dhoruba al-Mujahid.
It’s significant that these people of color with highly advanced political agendas–whether you agree with the politics of some of them or not–are clearly viewed as a real threat to our governmental institutions, even though several are still in prison.
That the governor refused clemency in part because Williams admired these people makes his execution one of the most political executions in modern history.
Allen: How did you become involved in progressive politics and working as George Jackson’s lawyer?
Bingham: I grew up in a home with good liberal Democratic Party values in the 1950s, cut my teeth on the civil rights movement of the 1960s (reporting on civil rights issues for my college newspaper, and helping to organize northern student participation in the 1963 Mississippi mock election for Aaron Henry for governor and the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project. As a law student at Berkeley in the late ’60s, I became further radicalized by the growing antiwar movement.
I was not George’s criminal defense lawyer. That was John Thorne. He asked the Bay Area chapter of the National Lawyers Guild for a volunteer lawyer to have some exploratory interviews with George, because he was interested in filing a civil rights lawsuit challenging the conditions of his and others’ detention in the Orwellian-named “Adjustment Center” (AC) at San Quentin State Prison (such a lawsuit was eventually successful). I volunteered.
Allen: The state of California contends that George was killed during an “escape attempt” in 1971. Can tell you us something about the circumstances of his death?
Bingham: The state claimed that on a visit to George on August 21, 1971, I somehow was able to smuggle a huge 9-mm Astra gun and a wig in to George, who allegedly then walked back to the AC after undergoing at least two strip searches, where he had to “spread his cheeks” and run his fingers through his hair to control for smuggling.
The state says he was able to gain control of the AC. Three guards and three inmates, including George, were killed in his “escape” attempt.
Just to be clear: there’s no way to escape from the AC. It’s a prison within a prison. Guards with rifles on gun rails overlook all possible escape routes.
As I said above, I’m certain George was targeted. We know from the trial discovery that George was a key target of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), but we were never given any documents.
It’s clear to me that his responsibility in bringing international attention to prison conditions in California brought on him the wrath of the California Department of Corrections. This, together with his designation as field marshal of the Black Panther Party, certainly put him in their crosshairs.
Allen: The government also argued that you were part of his “escape attempt,” but much later in 1986, you were acquitted of all charges. Can you talk about that?
Bingham: I fled for my life in 1971, convinced I would be killed by jail guards if I surrendered then. State prison authorities never properly investigated what happened on August 21, conveniently deciding from the very first day that there was only one way the events could have happened, and that I was at the center of it.
Many key people who could have possibly shed light on the events of that day were never interviewed. The crime scene was scrubbed clean before any independent investigators were permitted inside.
It was clearly a set-up, all the more frightening politically because it sent a very scary message to political lawyers: don’t get involved. And in fact, the event had a very chilling effect on prison work by lawyers throughout the country for many years. It’s interesting but sad that the conviction of Lynne Stewart may have a similar effect today. Hopefully not.
I lived in Europe, mostly France, for the next 13 years, returned in 1984 and was acquitted in 1986. My lawyers included Len Weinglass and Paul Harris during the preliminary hearing, and Gerald Schwartzbach and Susan Rutberg as my trial lawyers. A young lawyer Rich Ingram helped throughout.
The jury took almost one week to reach a verdict, systematically reviewing every piece of evidence and the testimony of dozens of witnesses. They were led by a retired schoolteacher who insisted that each juror have the opportunity to comment on each item. No votes were taken until a single vote for acquittal at the end of the week. Queried by the media, several jurors said it was clear that I was not just not guilty, but that I was innocent.
There was wonderful community organizing around my trial, ensuring that at least half of the courtroom seats were filled during the entire three-month trial, no small feat since the trial concerned 15-year-old events not on the front burner of activists’ political work.
Allen: What type of legal work do you do today?
Bingham: I work for Bay Area Legal Aid, which provides civil legal help to poor people (housing evictions, health access, family law for domestic violence survivors, public benefits). My specialty is welfare law, making sure that those who are entitled to welfare benefits (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or TANF, for families and single-adult general assistance) get it.
It’s very challenging work. I am in constant awe that families are somehow able to survive on almost nothing–e.g., $673 for a family of three in California!
I also direct a Legal Barriers to Employment Project, helping those on welfare with a myriad of legal issues making it hard to get or keep a job–e.g., suspended drivers licenses, criminal records, credit issues defaulted student loans.
Allen: What is the legacy of George Jackson that we should remember today?
Bingham: The legacy of George today is the ever-present need to have the courage to boldly confront injustice wherever we find it–whether it’s based on race, sexual preference, national origin, disability or any of the other irrational them-vs.-us distinctions that have made the world a sometimes ugly place.
However, it’s critical that we learn from our mistakes in the past. In the 1960s and ’70s, there were certainly excesses of rhetoric that made organizing difficult, and there were a few individuals who set themselves up as such a militant vanguard that no one had any idea where they were going, let alone interest in following them.
We must remain one with the people and realize that because many who are oppressed still identify with the oppressor, much of today’s work is helping to change consciousness.
During the first visit by a National Lawyers Guild delegation to Cuba in 1970, someone who fought alongside Fidel in the Sierra Maestra said that the Cuban battle was much easier than ours in North America because everyone knew Batista had to go, the only question being how to get rid of him.
Our battle, he said, was much harder: the battle of the mind, to first get people to understand who their oppressors are, and then to motivate them to act to change their condition. That is the struggle that continues today.
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