Day 652: Shots Fired – The Marin County Courthouse Incident

originally published October 13, 2013

It wasn’t so long ago we lived in a world in which people fought with one another based on the color of their skin, rather than the political actions of their preferred party. What follows is an ugly story of racism turned to desperation. It’s a blunt reminder of some of the smarmiest depths of our human potential, manifested in frantic action. Racial equality was law, but it wasn’t even close to the norm. It was ugly.

It’s a story of stabbings, kidnappings, and a guy named Opie. Staged fights and inmates with nothing to lose. One guy loses a testicle. It would be difficult to turn this tale into a Movie of the Week because finding the humanity, or any sense of a feel-good happy ending would be tough.

But the events of what would come to be known as the Marin County Courthouse Incident need to be told, to be remembered. If nothing else, someone with a say in the matter needs to ensure this doesn’t happen again. It all starts in 1969 with a guy named W.L. Nolen.

Nolen was an inmate at Soledad Prison in California. He, like many others around him, felt the guards were taking steps to ensure the racial tension at the prison remained skull-scrapingly high. Things like leaving certain cells unlocked to allow groups of white prisoners to beat up on black prisoners, or the filing of false disciplinary reports. Superintendent Cletus J. Harris was named as the responsible party. Nolen claimed he feared for his life.

He had a right to be. On January 13, 1970, corrections officer Opie G. Miller shot three black prisoners – including Nolen – during the course of a brawl in the exercise yard. Officials later said it appeared to be a racial battle between prisoners. Opie drew his weapon, gave a shout and blew a whistle, but never uttered a verbal warning to anyone. The only damage incurred by a white prisoner was when Billy D. Harris lost a testicle.

Three dead and one de-balled. But were Opie and his crew of guards acting inappropriately?

Inmates claimed the guards specifically blocked anyone from helping the wounded inmates to the hospital. The three shooting victims just lay there, bleeding out, for twenty minutes. Inmate Thomas Meneweather tried to help a wounded inmate and found himself staring down the barrel of a guard’s gun.

The next day, thirteen African-American inmates launched a hunger strike, insisting that someone investigate Opie’s actions. There was an investigation, but a jury (all white, of course) acquitted Opie of any wrong-doing. Not one black inmate who witnessed the carnage was called to testify.

Three days later, prison guard John Vincent Mills was beaten, dragged up three flights of stairs and tossed over the railing to his death. Three inmates were charged with the murder: Fleeta Drumgo, John Clutchette, and George Jackson. They were sent to San Quentin to await trial.

The trio became known collectively as the Soledad Brothers.

On August 7, 1970, a man named Jonathan Jackson (George’s little brother) wandered into the Marin County Hall of Justice. He sat quietly in the spectator seats while Judge Harold Haley was presiding over the trial of James McClain, who was accused of stabbing a prison guard in an unrelated incident. Jackson slipped a pistol from his satchel and tossed it to McClain. He then slipped a carbine out from under his raincoat, and shit was on.

Court officials and jurors were instructed to lie down on the floor. Fellow San Quentin inmate Ruchel Magee, who was slated to be a witness in McClain’s trial, joined in next, as did another inmate, William A. Christmas (apparently his actual name). They taped a sawed-off shotgun under Judge Haley’s chin, wrapped up four more hostages in piano wire, and began walking through the courthouse halls. Police were there, but no one was ready to light the proverbial stick of dynamite by stepping in and interfering with the situation.

The group had one demand. The Soledad Brothers were to be released by 12:30 on that day. Upon exiting the courtroom a few shots were fired, but no one lost their cool. The judge was an easy goner if things got ugly, so the police allowed the kidnappers and hostages to enter a Ford panel van and drive away. They were headed for a radio station, where they planned to reveal the despicable racist conditions in Soledad Prison, and hopefully enlighten the public on the horrors that were invisible outside the prison walls.

They never got there.

The police set up a roadblock just outside the civic center, and brought the van to a halt. According to most witnesses, the cops then opened fire on the van, sparking the shootout that no one wanted to see. With the flick of Jonathan Jackson’s finger, Judge Haley’s head was vaporized by the shotgun. Jackson, along with his fellow kidnappers, James McClain and William Christmas, were dead. Ruchel Magee was seriously injured. Two of the other four hostages were also wounded – juror Maria Graham caught a slug in the arm and Deputy District Attorney Gary Thomas took one in the back, condemning him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

With so many bodies, was there anyone left to blame?

The authorities went after activist and one-time leader of the Communist Party USA Angela Davis. The guns brought into the courtroom by Jackson were registered to her name, more than slightly implicating her in the whole affair. She slipped into hiding, and was able to evade authorities until she was brought down in New York in October. She was charged as an accomplice to kidnapping, conspiracy and homicide. The following year she was found not guilty on all counts.

Ruchell Magee made a full recovery, and plead guilty for his part in the whole mess. He later tried to revoke his plea, but he was handed a life sentence. He’s still there. A trio of parents whose kids died in Soledad – including Addie Nolen, the mother of W.L. Nolen – filed a $1.2 million lawsuit against Opie G. Miller for the deaths of their children. I wish I knew how that suit turned out.

But what about George Jackson and the rest of the Soledad Brothers? For that story – and it’s a good one – you’ll have to tune in tomorrow.

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