Black August: An Introduction
Black August is an African (Black) institution that is commemorated annually to honor the contributions of our African freedom fighters who sacrificed in order to strike blows against the U.S. capitalist empire on behalf of the African masses. Originally, Black August evolved to commemorate the courageous effort by 17 year Johnathan Jackson in August of 1970 to lead an uprising in a Marin County, California, U.S., courthouse to free his older brother, the legendary political prisoner George Jackson, from incarceration. Inspired by the gallant, yet unsuccessful effort by Johnathan, William Christmas, James McClain, and Ruchell “Cinque” Magee, and appalled by the overwhelmingly violent response by the state to the Marin County courthouse uprising, people everywhere began to deem August as the month to honor those fallen comrades who fought back against the system. The state’s violent assassination of George Jackson in August 1971 further cemented Black August as an institution dedicated to our freedom fighters who paid a price for standing up for our dignity.
Black August has since evolved beyond just the events of August 1970 and 1971, to express a broader statement about the entire mass incarceration system and its systemic oppression against African and other oppressed communities. This is an extremely positive manifestation because mass incarceration is a perfect reflection of how the capitalist system moves to systemically repress entire segments of the population, but it remains important to remember the origins of Black August.
Ruchell Magee, a participant in the August 1970 shootout in Marin, remains incarcerated 50 plus years later. As the longest held in a series of unjustly held political prisoners within the U.S., Magee continues to represent a strong symbol of the importance of Black August for African and other revolutionaries in 2021 and beyond. The Black Panther Party, Black Liberation Army, and other African liberation organizations produced George Jackson, Johnathan Jackson, Ruchell Magee, and many others who are incarcerated throughout the U.S. today. Those organizations and the individuals who participated within them represent our fight against the U.S. capitalist empire because we know that this empire was built and is maintained on the backs of Africa, African people, and all of humanity. With this knowledge, compromise with capitalism, or a place at the master’s table, is non-negotiable for genuine revolutionaries.
It is this understanding that should help us always remember that the brave soldiers who we commemorate every Black August are our actual freedom fighters (not the misdirected persons who sign up to participate in the U.S. mercenary armed forces). It’s also this reality that should always keep us grounded in the fact that it is our responsibility to continue the struggle that our incarcerated warriors made significant contributions towards.
The current state of our political prisoners
The recent deaths of Romaine ‘Chip’ Fitzgerald and Sanyika Shakur, aka Monster Kody Scott, has brought to the forefront the reality of the overwhelming neglect of our revolutionary freedom fighters behind prison walls. Despite the insistence that the enthusiasm around depictions Black Power on the big screen will translate ‘on the ground’, there has been no significant prioritizing of political prisoners outside of the main bodies of organizations that have done this work decade after decade. How is it that many of us are so willing to engage revolutionary ideas but dismiss the revolutionaries who pushed those ideas into praxis? Black August cements that question as not only important but critical in how we come to understand our collective liberation.
Political prisoners or politicized prisoners are prisoners of the war waged against the poor and colonized. What is the first request made in war? The return of our soldiers. Political prisoners are not only last, if mentioned at all, in the calls for justice but increasingly they are de-prioritized during Black August. There are over 100 prisoners in the US who have refused to become a victim of injustice, organized, and consciously/physically fought back. Any movement unable or refusing to recognize and support those who have helped and continue to help build our movement is not to be taken seriously.
How can a people justify calls for liberation while the people who attempt(ed) to get us there are left with insufficient or virtually no support when they are captured and kidnapped by the state?
Currently, there are a number of our veteran soldiers aging out behind the walls. While Ruchell Magee remains the longest held, Sundiata Acoli, Dr Mutulu Shakur, Mumia Abu Jamal, Russell ‘Maroon’ Shoatz, Kamau Sadiki, and Jamil Al Amin are just a few of our elders held captive with serious health issues ranging from cancer to congestive heart failure to an almost complete loss of vision. Supporters of these elders are advocating for the tactical use of compassionate release. Compassionate release would allow for them to be returned to us and receive a better chance at healthcare as opposed to dying in jail.
Black August must be used to build recognition that this is one of the more important struggles for revolutionary-minded people to engage. This significant disconnect speaks to a fracture in organizing among Africans that does not allow for the understanding that political prisoners are created daily. In the ongoing fight against global and domestic imperialism, Africans are being trapped within the confines of the prison industrial complex creating a newer era of political prisoners to potentially age out and die behind the walls as we are observing now.
The current state of Black August
As already mentioned, the scope of Black August has continued to expand over the years. Many use the month to reflect on the Nat Turner Rebellion, the Fugitive Slave Law Convention, the founding of the Underground Railroad, Emancipation of Caribbean Islands, the March on Washington, and the births of Marcus Garvey and Fred Hampton. Even Mumia Abu Jamal has remarked that “In many ways, Black August (at least in the West) begins in Haiti”, referring to the Haitian Revolution, which also famously began on a “sweaty, steaming night in August”. As revolutionaries, however, we are keenly aware of how co-optation in the US works. Therefore, as we attempt to engage more people in the tradition of Black August, we must remain steadfast in centering the struggle of political prisoners during this month.
This past April, a group of inmates at the Justice Center in downtown St. Louis left their cells and sparked an uprising to draw attention to how long prisoners are there awaiting trial. Videos went viral on social media showing prisoners on all sides of the prison, way up in the sky, breaking windows and starting fires, chanting “We need help”, and “We want court dates.” Just two months before, those same prisoners occupied an entire floor of the prison for seven hours. Like prisoners across the country, they too, were demonstrating for their right to protective equipment against the coronavirus pandemic.
Without a doubt, the failure of the US government to protect our family members in jails and prisons against COVID-19 has sparked a new wave of prison activism that must be acknowledged. It must be acknowledged because this means that there is a growing cadre of politicized prisoners who we should be engaging and lending our support to. From within and outside, organizations like Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, remind us that the commemoration of Black August is not held in isolation by those of us who walk “freely” on the streets of the US empire. The heart of Black August organization still remains behind bars.
August 21st and September 9th, are the official dates for the National Shut ‘Em Down demonstrations. All who are able are encouraged to come together and protest in the spirit of abolition at your local jail, prison or ICE facility. As prisoners prepare to strike again this year, Jailhouse Lawyers Speak is raising funds for organizers taking on the risk of these actions around the country, and dealing with the consequences after.
We must also uplift the 2018 National Prison Strike Demands developed by prisoners across the country, which can be read in full here.
Forward Ever, Backwards Never
The existence of Black August as an institution proves that African people in the United States have a revolutionary political legacy that exists independently of and in open opposition to this empire that exploits, oppresses, and colonizes us. It shows that far from being content with a simple ‘seat at the table,’ we have pursued strategies for liberation that center our own inalienable right to self-determination – producing our own heroes, our own strategies, our own histories of survival and struggle. We are not American citizens but rather a nation of maroons, runaways, healers, warriors – AFRICANS – who have been engaged in an uncompromising fight for freedom for hundreds of years on this land and beyond.
It is essential that we understand Black August as not just a time of personal reflection and discipline but also a time to uplift that legacy of independent revolutionary African struggle. We must recommit ourselves – not just for one month but daily – to the struggle for the liberation of our people while understanding, honoring, and learning from those that sacrificed everything so that we could live to fight today. We must always honor and learn from the memories of our fallen while we fight like hell for the freedom of those – like Sundiata Acoli, Mumia Abu Jamal, Imam Jamil al-Amin, Rev Joy Powell, Dr Mutulu Shakur, Russell ‘Maroon’ Shoatz, Joseph Bowen, Veronza Bowers, Kamau Sadiki, Keith Davis Jr, Josh Williams, and many thousands more – who are still held captive by our enemies for the so-called crime of fighting for our people to be free.
To be African, in the United Snakes or in any part of the world, means to be born into an existential struggle for liberation that began many hundreds of years before any of us living today were born. That began the very first moment the very first European colonizer set foot on the shores of our homeland with the intent to loot, kill, enslave, and destroy. Black August reminds us that centuries after those footsteps, we are still not a free people. Black August also reminds us that with collective dedication, organization, and revolutionary struggle forward, we will be a free people again.