The Legacy of George Jackson

“The ultimate expression of law is not order — it’s prison… The law and everything that interlocks with it was constructed for poor desperate people.” –George Jackson

If Vladimir Lenin believed that prisons are universities for revolutionaries then George Jackson is the physical embodiment of that belief. While certainly an oppressive state can breed creativity, literary activism is its own form of resistance. In Jackson’s case, he forged a liberation movement from a space of captivity. 

Arrested on presumably false charges based on dubious evidence for a $70 robbery at a gas station at age 18, Jackson pled guilty in exchange for a light sentence in the county jail. Due to his past run-ins with the law and his poor working class status, Jackson received a court-appointed attorney who advised him to take the guilty plea. Jackson was given an intermediate sentence of one year to life. Jackson was sentenced without given a definite duration of his imprisonment. 

Jackson served seven and a half years of his sentence in solitary confinement. In the twenty-three and a half hours he spent alone in his cell each day, Jackson became the ruling class’s worst nightmare, educating himself in Marxist-Leninist theory and thought as well as Black revolutionaries like Malcolm X and Kwame Nkrumah. He particularly appreciated Mao Zedong, leaning towards Maoism. He read vigorously to comprehend and dissect violent systematic oppressions, maintaining a political consciousness under the most intense state policing. 

In 1966, Jackson co-founded the Black Guerilla Family (BGF), a political entity based on anti-racist class analysis and struggle, with W.L. Nolen and George “Big Jake” Lewis. Bonded by the criminalization of their youth and intermediate sentencing, they rebelled against prison authority and the repression and exploitation behind prison walls. They understood that the prison system was a mere extension of the slave system. 

While in prison, the Oakland chapter of the Black Panther Party appointed Jackson as “field marshal” and he was tasked with recruiting more prisoners. Jackson led study groups on Marx and Mao’s works, organized sit-ins against segregated cafeterias and taught martial arts to other inmates to fight back, not just against racist prisoners, but the ever-present, abusive prison guards too. 

Throughout the 1960s, Jackson wrote about the consciousness of prisoners. His ability to theorize against violent racist repression behind prison walls resonated with other politicized prisoners, whose existence was under exile and placelessness. In 1969, Jackson wrote, 

“There are still some Blacks here who consider themselves criminals — but not many.

Believe me, my friend, with the time and incentive that these brothers have to read, study, and think, you will find no class or category more aware, more embittered, desperate or dedicated to the ultimate remedy — revolution. The most dedicated, the best of our kind — you’ll find them in the Folsoms, San Quentins and Soledads. They live like there was no tomorrow. And for most of them there isn’t.” 

On January 13th, 1970, Nolan, along with two other men, was shot to death by a correctional officer after a [staged] prison yard fight intended to cause racial tension and violence between the BGF and the Aryan brotherhood. Following their deaths, the Judge denied a grand jury investigation of the three murders and no correctional officer or staff was charged for the incident. 

The deaths of three Black politicized prisoners inside prison were ruled “probable justifiable homicide by a public officer in the performance of his duty.” However, Jackson, alongside Fleeta Drumgo and John Cutchette (who would become known as The Soledad Brothers), without any evidence, was charged with the murder of John Mills, a white guard who was thrown over an upper tier in the Y-wing one hour after the ruling. 

A conviction would have meant execution in the gas chamber at San Quentin. It became clear that politicized prisoners were under attack from the state. Jackson formed the Soledad Brothers Defense Committee, which included the now infamous abolitionists, Faye Stender, Georgia Jackson, and Angela Davis, and garnered international attention and support. 

However, the death of his younger brother, 17 year old Johnathan Jackson, on August 7, 1970 was perhaps a greater tragedy than George’s own life being robbed by the criminal (in)justice system. Johnathan was one of four murdered, including the judge, in an attempt to free his older brother (and all prisoners) during a standoff in the Marin County Courthouse after learning of his brother’s condition and treatment in jail. In his book, Soledad Brother, Jackson makes a special dedication to his brother, “The Man-Child”. Soledad Brother, a collection of his writings while incarcerated, sold over 400,000 copies and was purchased at prison canteens across the country.

On August 21, 1971, Jackson was shot and killed by guards at San Quentin State Prison during an alleged armed escape attempt that still remains questionable. “No Black person,” predicted James Baldwin at a large rally in Westminster, “will ever believe that George Jackson died the way they tell us he did.” At the time of his death, Jackson had spent most of his adult life, 11 of his 29 years, behind bars.

Jackson’s last words before his assassination were, “The Dragon has come.” This is said to be a reference to Vietnamese Revolutionary Ho Chi Minh’s poem: “When the prison gates are opened, the real dragon will fly out.” His posthumous manifesto, “Blood in My Eye,” not only provides material and theoretical analysis of the ruling imperialist system, but places his last words in the context of a global struggle against US imperialism and its domestic forms. It also provides strategies for liberation from a Black communist perspective.

The legacy of George Jackson is captured through the continued resistance of prisoners today who, like Jackson, see the prison as not only an extension but an expression of the revolutionary underground ready to be organized. His legacy was captured in the Attica prison rebellion, which led to the modern prisoners’ rights movement. His legacy is captured in the politicized prisoners who’ve gotten out and still defy and challenge the arms of the repressive state, like the New Afrikan Black Panther Party. His legacy is captured in the hearts of incarcerated activists, like Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, and those in the “free world” pushing for revolutionary abolitionism, still organizing against prison violence and unjust penal slavery. 

When George Jackson went to prison in 1960, there were 200,000 people in prisons throughout  the country. As of 2011, The US Dept of Justice reported that one in 34 adults, more than 7 million people, are under some form of correctional supervision (ie prison, parole or probation). The growth of incarceration rates in the United States for more than four decades has evolved in a continued growth of understanding the causes and the consequences of those imprisoned, their families and their communities. 

After the abolition of slavery, through the prisoner leasing system, laws were created that specifically targeted African people and then, once incarcerated, former slave owners would come and (exploit) African people in prison to be slaves again as a source of prison labor. That practice, disguised as reformed “punishment” for crimes committed, has continued well into today. Prisons existence is important for private and public investors and state officials because they profit off of prisoners. 

Prisons continue to be built and filled despite overcrowding, violence, sexual abuse, and other conditions that pose grave risks to prisoner health and safety. The mistreatment of prisoners based on race, sex, gender identity, or disability (and even religion, as we see what’s done to incarcerated Muslims) remains far too common. These have become the acceptable happenstances of jail. 

On August 21, 2018, 47 years after Jackson’s death, imprisoned activists began a national strike in seventeen states for human rights with a list of demands: 

  1. Immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.
  2. An immediate end to prison slavery. All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.
  3. The Prison Litigation Reform Act must be rescinded, allowing imprisoned humans a proper channel to address grievances and violations of their rights.
  4. The Truth in Sentencing Act and the Sentencing Reform Act must be rescinded so that imprisoned humans have a possibility of rehabilitation and parole. No human shall be sentenced to Death by Incarceration or serve any sentence without the possibility of parole.
  5. An immediate end to the racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole denials of Black and brown humans. Black humans shall no longer be denied parole because the victim of the crime was white, which is a particular problem in southern states.
  6. An immediate end to racist gang enhancement laws targeting Black and brown humans.
  7. No imprisoned human shall be denied access to rehabilitation programs at their place of detention because of their label as a violent offender.
  8. State prisons must be funded specifically to offer more rehabilitation services.
  9. Pell grants must be reinstated in all US states and territories.
  10. The voting rights of all confined citizens serving prison sentences, pretrial detainees, and so-called “ex-felons” must be counted. Representation is demanded. All voices count.

The list of demands issued by the imprisoned activists and incarcerated workers, circulated around social media platforms allowing organizers to talk about the demands in different spaces, emphasizing the demands that would resonate with different organizing groups. The prison strike was not only an opportunity for imprisoned activists and incarcerated workers to draw attention to their strife, but also allowed the space for those outside of the prison walls to talk about and engage in abolition centered political education. 

During the two week strike, incarcerated activists and politicized prisoners engaged in hunger strikes and other measures of resistance while facing repression. In solidarity, many on the outside organized teach-ins on prison led resistance, Attica, Black August and the historical context on the existence of prisons. Each action across the country focused on developing a deeper understanding in order to further the cause. It also signaled to authorities that people inside have folks out here that care and support them.

Last year’s prisoner activist led strike, the largest prison strike in US history, offers some important lessons for what is going on now. The prison industrial complex is a system that extends beyond the walls of prisons and/or jails. It extends to policing, electronic monitoring, house arrest and youth jails (juvenile detention centers where children are equally abused and placed in solitary confinement). It also extends to the US immigration system and it’s “detention centers”. 

Incarceration by the state is the equivalent to denial of citizenship rights. The debate of what to call these “detention centers” and how to label them has ignored that the violent, inhumane and deadly treatment people are receiving has been a long standing fixture of the prison industrial complex. Family separation is a distinct feature of the prison system. The prison system has always been a concentration camp. 

The Prison Industrial Complex must be abolished. The disproportionate numbers of Black and brown people in prisons are evidence that the innately racist system is merely, as George Jackson understood, an evolution of slavery. It is not and has not been a humane solvent for “crimes”. Certainly not for marginalized people whose very existence is criminalized. 

Because we are conditioned to believe that punishment is a solvent, that these ‘criminals’ deserve this treatment,  we collectively turn our heads away from what is happening within these prisons, which is now extending into what is happening in migrant camps. All symptoms of the same fascist system Jackson theorized. 

More from this Writer

Erica Caines is a poet, writer and organizer in Baltimore and the DMV. She is an organizing committee member of the anti war coalition, the Black Alliance For Peace as well as an outreach member of the Black centered Ujima People’s Progress Party. Caines founded Liberation Through Reading in 2017 as a way to provide Black children with books that represent them and created the extension, a book club entitled Liberation Through Reading BC, to strengthen political education online and in our communities.