Warriors Not Victims: George Jackson and Fay Stender

Huey Newton and Fay Stender. Photo: Ilka Hartmann.

“All my life I’ve done exactly what I wanted to do just when I wanted, no more, perhaps less sometimes, but never more, which explains why I had to be jailed.”

– – George Jackson, 1970


Her name and her reputation are now largely forgotten, but in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Fay Stender had real clout in the world of prison law. She also garnered heaps of media attention. As an attorney with an instinct for combat in the courtroom, and white skin to shield her from the worst verbal abuse handed out by judges and district attorneys, she used her privilege to aid those less privileged than she.

But she also knew that her clout and her privilege had limits. For every prisoner she helped, there were dozens of others, she recognized, who never received adequate legal defense and spent their lives behind bars. Even many of those that she did help in the courtroom, including Huey Newton, the co-founder with Bobby Seale of the Black Panther Party, and George Jackson, the author of Soledad Brother, didn’t live long, comfortable lives.

In 1989 Newton was shot and killed on a street in Oakland, California by an African American on parole from prison. Jackson was shot and killed by a prison guard in 1971 in the yard at San Quentin during an abortive attempt to escape that he had planned for months with the help of allies outside.

In 1979, a man who apparently belonged to the Black Guerilla Family shot and wounded Fay Stender in her Berkeley home. Paralyzed from the waist down, she took her own life in 1980 in Hong Kong.

Regent Press has just published a new comprehensive biography about her—Call Me Phaedra: The Life and Times of Movement Lawyer Fay Stender. It sells for $29.95 and has dozens of photos, plus footnotes and an extensive bibliography that includes books like Jo Durden-Smith’s Who Killed George Jackson? (1976).

Diligently researched and carefully written by a longtime San Francisco Bay area lawyer and judge, Phaedra examines Stender’s personal life and her professional career that often overlapped.

She was Jewish and observed religious holidays. For many years, she was married to the lawyer, Marvin Stender. They had two children. After their divorce, he remarried while she enjoyed romantic relationships with women.

Author Lise Pearlman admires Stender and acknowledges her legacy. She points out that every year the California Women Lawyers Association gives an award to “a feminist attorney who, like Fay Stender, is committed to the representation of women, disadvantaged groups and unpopular causes.”

Pearlman also scolds Stender because she allowed her heart to rule her head and thereby violated the boundaries that would have kept her at arm’s length from her clients, especially Newton and Jackson, both of whom admired her and also fired her. As Jackson himself pointed out, she came from “the other side of the tracks.” Real fraternization was impossible.

Pearlman cites Charles Garry, who also defended Newton in court and who believed that “emotional involvement was an impediment to effective lawyer.” Those are Garry’s, not Pearlman’s, words.

It was one thing for a white male lawyer like Garry to empathize with and defend Newton, another for a white female lawyer to become infatuated, as Stender seems to have done, with Jackson.

Pearlman also believes that Stender should have learned from the example of Beverly Axelrod, a white woman lawyer, who helped Eldridge Cleaver publish his book, Soul on Ice and also win his release from prison. Then he dropped her and married an African American woman.

In the heat of the moment, with lives and human freedom at stake, Stender didn’t have the benefit of hindsight.

Pearlman describes her as “the hottest movement lawyer in the country” at a time when white activists and black prisoners made common cause to unmask the brutality of the American prison system and seek justice for individual men and women locked up behind bars.

Jackson described San Quentin as “Dachau.”

In the late 1960s and the early 1970s, there were dozens of hot movement lawyers, from San Francisco and Chicago and New York: Michael Kennedy, Dennis Cunningham, William Kunstler, Gerry Lefcourt and Leonard Weinglass. In that same era, there were women such as Bernardine Dohrn, Eleanor Stein and Kathy Boudin­—daughter of famed lefty lawyer, Leonard Boudin—who might have practiced law, but instead joined the Weather Underground and engaged in clandestine activity.

Unlike them, Stender didn’t abandon the law as a profession, though she bent the rules. Under the watchful eye of prison authorities, she delivered a letter from Newton to Jackson in which he wanted to know if she belonged to the Communist Party (CP). She didn’t, though she had friends close to the CP.

Stender helped edit and then publish Jackson’s letters in a mass-market paperback edition that became a bestseller. But she also refused to help Jackson escape from San Quentin. That refusal prompted the invasion of her Berkeley home. Stender’s assailant forced her to sit at her desk and write, “I, Fay Stender, admit I betrayed George Jackson and the Prison Movement when they needed me most.”

She did as she was told, though she insisted, “I will write this because you have a gun, but it is not true.”

Pearlman argues that San Quentin authorities knew of Jackson’s plans to escape and could have avoided the “blood bath” that took place. She places the bulk of the blame for the violence on prison guards, but she doesn’t exonerate Jackson. Indeed, she talks about his “death wish.” She also describes Stender as a “tragic heroine” akin to Phaedra, the figure from Greek mythology who committed suicide.

Call Me Phaedra is dark and even morose at times, though it’s hard to imagine how anyone could have written an upbeat book about Stender, Newton and Jackson, a chaste and yet erotic ménage à trois if ever there was one in the annals of American jurisprudence.

If you want a less dark and less depressing view of Jackson read Jessica Mitford’s “A Talk With George Jackson” that was published in The New York Times Sunday Book Review on June 13, 1971, two months before he was shot and killed. Mitford noted that Jackson had “the bearing of an athlete” and that when he greeted her at San Quentin his face was “wreathed in smiles.”

Mitford portrays Jackson as a writer, an intellectual and a voracious reader who enjoyed the books of W. E. B. Du Bois, Richard Wright and James Baldwin as well as Wilhelm Reich and Frederick Engels.

To appreciate Jackson as a writer and a thinker who had psychological as well as sociological insights, one ought to read, or reread Soledad Brother. In a letter to his editor, Greg Armstrong in 1970, he offered a vivid self-portrait in which he concluded, “All my life I’ve done exactly what I wanted to do just when I wanted, no more, perhaps less sometimes, but never more, which explains why I had to be jailed.”

Jackson added a quotation from Rousseau: “Man was born free. But everywhere he is in chain,” which touched him to the core of his being. Jackson had no illusions about himself, the American prison system or the judicial system, either.

By 1969, when he was just 28-years-old, he realized that he would never be released from prison and that if he wanted a taste of freedom outside the walls of San Quentin he would have to engineer his own escape. Originally arrested in 1960 for robbing a gas station of seventy dollars, he confessed and received a sentence of one year to life. Later, he was accused of murdering a prison guard. He died before he went on trial for that murder.

Did he have a “death wish” as Pearlman writes, or did he wish for freedom?

Jackson was an oddly ambivalent and paradoxical soul and knew it, too. In a letter to Stender dated March 5, 1970 he wrote that his “image” of her “elates me in one sense and infuriates me in another.” They were very close and yet also very far apart.

In his letters, Jackson appears as an African American existentialist and guerilla who adopted the anarchist tactic of the General Strike as a political weapon. Always on permanent strike, and always in rebellion against authority and authorities, he worked as little as possible, though he adhered to his vocation as an “extremist,” as he called himself.

In a long letter dated April 17, 1970, he explained to Stender, who was a workaholic, “I certainly don’t like to work. No one could honestly enjoy the monotony of an assembly line.” A firm believer in automation, he added, “I’m all for the machines taking over in every sector of the economy where they can be applied.”

In several letters, he allows that he’s “not a very nice person.” That may have been, but a reader would be wise to view Jackson though the eyes of the French author and ex-con, Jean Genet, who wrote the introduction to Soledad Brother and who noted that Jackson was writing “a mythical image of himself and of his life in order to project himself into glory with the help of a combat weapon (his book) and of a love poem.”

Like Cleaver and Newton, Jackson came to believe his own myth. During his attempted escape from San Quentin, he was armed with a 9 mm automatic pistol that had been smuggled inside.

“The Dragon has come,” he said shortly before he was shot and killed. The image of the dragon comes from a poem that Ho Chi Minh wrote while in prison. Ho’s line reads, “When the prison doors are opened the real dragon will fly out.” The 9 mm pistol is now in the San Quentin Museum in San Rafael, California.

Alcatraz, once a federal prison, is a popular tourist destination.

When Pearlman told Fay’s ex-husband, Marvin, that she wanted to write about Fay’s “career,” he replied, “It’s about time,” and handed her a box of files from the attic. Marvin Stender might not be entirely pleased with Phaedra. After all, the book wanders from Fay’s career to her personal life and her marriage to Marvin that had remarkable longevity, though it was stretched to the breaking point.

Pearlman’s biography accords Fay the recognition she deserves as a seminal criminal defense lawyer at a pivotal moment in the history of the California prison system that in 1970 incarcerated 24,000 men. Today, there are more than five times that number behind bars.

If there are George Jacksons in San Quentin today, it’s unlikely they have the kind of legal representation that Fay Stender offered the Soledad Brother and that’s more urgently needed now than ever before.

Phaedra does not definitely answer the question that the British author and film maker, Jo Durden-Smith, asked in the title and the contents of his 1976 book, Who Killed George Jackson?” Still Pearlman’s book places a lot of convincing evidence at the feet of prison system and the San Quentin guards who were on duty August 21, 1971, two weeks before more than a thousand prisoners rebelled at Attica in Upstate New York.

“Who killed George Jackson?” Pearlman asked during a recent phone conversation. She replied,“That’s the big question.”

Pearlman added that we might now remember that Jackson “saw himself as a warrior, not as a victim.” Much the same holds true for Fay Stender.

Book release and party, Saturday June 9, 2018, 5 to 6:30 p.m, Laurel Bookstore, 1423 Broadway, Oakland, California, www.laurelbookstore.com

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.