Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Monday, August 21, 2006

George Jackson, Black Revolutionary (1941-1971)

Thirty five years ago today, on 21 August 1971 George Jackson was gunned down in the prison yard at San Quentin prison in what officials described as an escape attempt. In 1960, when only eighteen, George Jackson was jailed ostensibly for stealing 70 dollars. As the black Marxist writer Walter Rodney put it, 'He was given a sentence of one year to life because he was black, and he was kept incarcerated for years under the most dehumanizing conditions because he discovered that blackness need not be a badge of servility but rather could be a banner for uncompromising revolutionary struggle. He was murdered because he was doing too much to pass this attitude on to fellow prisoners. George Jackson was political prisoner and a black freedom fighter. He died at the hands of the enemy.'

The best introduction to his life are the powerful and fierce letters he wrote from various US prisons, collected in Soledad Brother, which track his political radicalisation inside as the civil rights, anti-Vietnam War and Black Power movements erupted outside. He linked up with these movements from inside, joining the Black Panthers. His murder at the hands of the US State sparked a series of riots across the US prison system, and culminating in the Attica prison riot of September 1971. Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States takes up the story:

'The most direct effect of the George Jackson murder was the rebellion at Attica prison in September 1971-a rebellion that came from long, deep grievances, but that was raised to boiling point by the news about George Jackson. Attica was surrounded by a 30-foot wall, 2 feet thick, with fourteen gun towers. Fifty-four percent of the inmates were black; 100 percent of the guards were white. Prisoners spent fourteen to sixteen hours a day in their cells, their mail was read, their reading material restricted, their visits from families conducted through a mesh screen, their medical care disgraceful, their parole system inequitable, racism everywhere. How perceptive the prison administration was about these conditions can be measured by the comment of the superintendent of Attica, Vincent Mancusi, when the uprising began: "Why are they destroying their home?"

...The official report on the Attica uprising tells how an inmate instructed sociology class there became a forum for ideas about change. Then there was a series of organized protest efforts, and in July an inmate manifesto setting forth a series of moderate demands, after which "tensions at Attica had continued to mount," culminating in a day of protest over the killing of George Jackson at San Quentin, during which few inmates ate at lunch and dinner and many wore black armbands.
On September 9, 1971, a series of conflicts between prisoners and guards ended with a group of inmates breaking through a gate with a defective weld and taking over one of the four prison yards, with forty guards as hostages. Then followed five days in which the prisoners set up a remarkable community in the yard. A group of citizen-observers, invited by the prisoners, included New York Times columnist Tom Wicker, who wrote (A Time to Die): "The racial harmony that prevailed among the prisoners-it was absolutely astonishing.... That prison yard was the first place I have ever seen where there was no racism." One black prisoner later said: "I never thought whites could really get it on.... But I can't tell you what the yard was like, I actually cried it was so close, everyone so together. ..."
After five days, the state lost patience. Governor Nelson Rockefeller approved a military attack on the prison (see Cinda Firestone's stunning film Attica). National Guardsmen, prison guards, and local police went in with automatic rifles, carbines, and submachine guns in a full-scale assault on the prisoners, who had no firearms. Thirty-one prisoners were killed. The first stories given the press by prison authorities said that nine guards held hostage had their throats slashed by the prisoners during the attack. The official autopsies almost immediately showed this to be false: the nine guards died in the same hail of bullets that killed the prisoners.'
Yet despite this massacre, other prisoners were inspired to organise.

As for Jackson, this extract from his prison letters dated April 17 1970, give some idea of the mind the US state had to stop working - and perhaps are still of some relevance today as Bush and Blair declare they are at war with 'extremism':

'I am an extremist. I call for extreme measures to solve extreme problems. Where face and freedom are concerned I do not use or prescribe half measures. To me life without control over the determining factors is not worth the effort of drawing breath. Without self determination I am extremely displeased. International capitalism cannot be destroyed without the extremes of struggle.'

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At 8:43 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a crock of total bullshit-"Jackson killed at the hands of the enemy." What of the correctional officers killed at the hands of Jackson and his partners? Had Stephen Bingham not chosen to smuggle the weapon into the visiting room, your "revolutionary" would have died an old man instead of taking a bullet through the top of his sick ass.

At 12:00 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You obviously don't know your history. Rockefeller or his sharp shooters to take out everybody, guards included and your saying that jackson is the vilan. You should really do your research before making ignorant comments.

At 10:33 pm, Blogger Unknown said...

The struggle still continues for us.....
George Jackson was a brilliant man. Long live his sprit. And may we never forget our brothas and sistas in lock down...

Uhuru SASA!!!
Free ALL Political Prisoners NOW!!!


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