originally published October 14, 2013
Yesterday I delved into a tale of racial tension that went kablooie all over the Marin County Courthouse back in 1970. It centered around a trio of inmates from Soledad Prison who had been transferred to San Quentin on charges of killing John V. Mills, a guard who was – according to the African-American population within the Soledad walls – fostering and encouraging a culture of racial violence. That trio, Fleeta Drumgo, John Clutchette and George Jackson, became known as the Soledad Brothers.
When George’s 17-year-old little brother took a judge and a few other innocents as hostages to demand his freedom, it didn’t help. It didn’t help that the series of events in northern California was polarizing a country that was still waiting for the ink to dry on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and was still light years away from true racial harmony (which, let’s face it, is still just a dream).
But the story of the Soledad Brothers doesn’t end there. Next we have to leap about a year into the future, to August 21, 1971 – three days before the trio was to stand trial for Mills’ murder. This was the day of the San Quentin Six.
George Jackson, whose brother had perished during the botched courthouse kidnapping attempt the year before, had a meeting with Stephen Bingham, his attorney. There are a number of Stephen Binghams that pop up when I did a Google image search, so I’m just going to scrap the notion of trying to figure out which face is the right one, and assume that he looked something like this guy:
Bingham had a briefcase with him, and tucked inside that briefcase was a tape recorder. Standard equipment for a lawyer, except that this one had been hollowed out, its innards replaced with a 9mm pistol with its grip handles removed. There was a metal detector of course, and prison guards searched Bingham’s briefcase before he entered the visiting room, but they went no further than popping open the battery compartment to make sure it was an actual tape recorder.
George Jackson was also strip-searched before entering the meeting. The two sat across a wooden table in full view of the guards, but they weren’t being watched constantly. It’s believed that at some point Bingham slipped the gun to Jackson, who tucked it under his wool cap. The meeting lasted for about fifteen minutes. Bingham left the prison, and Jackson was on his way back to his cell when officer Frank DeLeon noticed something that resembled a pencil sticking out from Jackson’s hair.
It was no pencil.
Jackson pulled the modified weapon free of its afro-holster and aimed it at the guards, instructing them all to lie down on the floor. One guard was told to open up all 34 cells on the first floor, and along with the flick of that switch came an explosion of violence. The prisoners had the upper hand – in particular the black prisoners – and this was going to get three shades beyond ugly.
The guards were taken hostage, as were two white inmates. What specifically happened amid that flurry of adrenaline lies beyond an easy summation. In the end the death toll was six, including those two inmates and a trio of guards. The rest of the guards were stabbed, shot, beaten, or a mix of all three, though they survived. At one point Jackson and his buddy Johnny Spain found the keys to the doors of the ‘Adjustment Center’ (this was their oddly-titled wing of the prison, typically a final stop for those inmates awaiting an appointment with the gas chamber). They were ready to make a run for the wall.
Long story short – they didn’t make it.
A bullet went through George Jackson’s foot, then another through his skull. Johnny Spain dropped to his knees and gave up. What had first been contained to the San Quentin Adjustment Center had now set off a swarm of alarms, and the rest of the prison staff quickly pulled the situation under control. Six men – which would have been seven had Jackson survived – were to stand trial for the violence and killings.
Fleeta Drumgo, the other Soledad Brother who was wrapped up in the San Quentin affair, was acquitted of all charges, and was also found not guilty for the Mills murder in Soledad that had landed the trio in San Quentin. He was released from prison in 1976 and shot by an unknown assailant three years later. David Johnson was found guilty of one assault charge. Hugo Pinell was charged for slashing the throats (non-fatally) of two guards, and remains in prison. Willie Tate was freed on bail. Luis Talamantez was also found not guilty. Only Johnny Spain was convicted of any murders that day – a conviction that was later overturned.
So was this all a matter of black prisoners reacting in the most bonehead of ways to oppression by a white-run prison system? Should George Jackson and his compatriots shoulder all the blame? Or was there something more sinister afoot?
The defense attorneys at the trial of the San Quentin Six – the longest trial in California’s history at the time – claimed the whole thing was a conspiracy. Some still believe that Jackson had actually been given the gun by guard Urbano Rubico so that prison guards would have an excuse to kill him. They call it a ‘political assassination’. Black Panther co-founder Huey P. Newton claims that Jackson had been trying to save his fellow inmates from being massacred by the guards at Soledad, and that Jackson’s death was motivated by a desire to quash what the authorities perceived as revolutionary activity.
It’s possible of course – those who really know the gritty details of that day are either long gone or not talking. But three days prior to the riot and escape attempt, George Jackson had altered his will, stating that the bulk of his legal defense fund (which had ballooned thanks to the generous wallets of left-leaning rich folks) to the Black Panther Party. This seems to suggest that George knew that he was going to be rolling the dice on his future.
It was an ugly chapter in American penal history. But it’s one worth remembering, especially since our prisons today are still ground zero for racial conflict and violence. George Jackson and his little brother Jonathan can be seen through the lens of martyrdom or through the lens of unrepentant criminalism, depending on how you wish to interpret what they did.
Just like most revolutionaries.