Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson

Soledad brother

After a recommendation from a friend, I recently finished reading Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson. In 1960, George Jackson was charged for the theft of $70 from a petrol station. After receiving some very bad legal advice, he pleaded guilty to the charge and was given a ‘one year to life’ sentence to be served in the maximum security San Quentin prison. In prison, Jackson was subjected to racist abuse, assault and provocation from prison guard and inmate alike; assaults for which he was often punished just as harshly as his attackers – or more so – for simply defending himself. Of the ten years he spent in prison, seven were spent in solitary confinement. Every year Jackson would come up for parole, and every year he would be denied release.

The disproportionate sentencing, brutalisation and racist abuse Jackson suffered in prison radicalised him. After meeting Huey Newton, he became a member of the Black Panther Party and a revolutionary Marxist. He spent his solitary days in prison reading voraciously and throughout his letters, he extols the virtues of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Mao Tse-Tung, Lenin and Trotsky. In this time, he also became acquainted with prominent intellectual, civil rights activist, and member of the Communist Party, Angela Davis.

Ten years after his incarceration, Jackson was moved to Soledad prison where a racially motivated fight broke out in the exercise yard. Three of the black convicts in the fight were shot dead by a white prison guard wielding an automatic weapon. Despite the gratuitous response to the violence, the prison guard was acquitted, and the killing of three black men described as a ‘justified homicide’. Days later, another prison guard was found beaten to death. The prison authorities assumed the murder was an act of retribution for the shooting and Jackson, with two other radical Soledad inmates, were identified – on scant evidence – as the perpetrators of the crime. If found guilty, Jackson and his prison comrades would be given a mandatory death sentence. The three prisoners were moved to solitary confinement in San Quentin. At the same time, a campaign calling for justice for the ‘Soledad brothers’ erupted across the US.

On 7th August, 1970, days after Jackson was transferred back to solitary, his brother Jon, carrying a satchel full of guns, walked into the San Rafael courthouse where a San Quentin prisoner was being tried. Shouting ‘we are the revolutionaries! Free the Soledad brothers by 12.30!’, Jon armed the prisoner and two prisoner witnesses and took five hostages, including the judge and the district attorney. As they made their escape in a transit van, police let loose a volley of shots and Jon, two of the convicts and the judge were all shot dead.

Jackson’s prison letters begin in 1967 and end days after the death of his brother in 1970. From the letters, it’s clear that Jackson’s parents didn’t share his revolutionary politics, and it’s fascinating to read the often frustrated explanations he gives for his outlook. More interesting still are his correspondences with Angela Davis and his lawyer, Fay Stender, which contain political treatise on racism and the prison system alongside discussion of the revolutions in China and Cuba, and the heroic resistance to US imperialism in Vietnam, all of which Jackson clearly admired immensely.

As I read the letters, three points struck me:

1. Jackson saw the transition in the US from black slave to black worker as a transition from one type of slavery to another.

In a letter to Fay Stender, Jackson is most explicit about this:

Slavery is an economic condition. Today’s neoslavery must be defined in terms of economics. The chattel is property, one man exercising the property rights of his established economic order, the other man is that property. The owner can move that property or hold it in one square yard of the earth’s surface; he can let it breed other slaves, or make it breed other slaves; he can sell it, beat it, work it, maim it, fuck it, kill it. But if he wants to keep it and enjoy all of the benefits that property of this kind can render, he must feed it sometimes, he must clothe it against the elements, he must provide a modicum of shelter. Chattel slavery is an economic condition which manifests itself in the total loss or absence of self-determination.

The new slavery, the modern variety of chattel slavery updated to disguise itself, places the victim in a factory or in the case of most blacks in support roles inside and around the factory system (service trades), working for a wage. However, if work cannot be found in or around the factory complex, today’s neoslavery does not allow even for a modicum of food and shelter. You are free – to starve. The sense and meaning of slavery comes through as a result of our ties to the wage. One’s entire day centers around the acquisition of the wage… I think it should be generally accepted that if a man (or woman) works for a wage at a job that he doesn’t enjoy, and I am convinced that no one could enjoy any type of assembly-line work, or plumbing or hod carrying, or any job in the service trades, then he qualifies for this definition of neoslave. The man who owns the factory or shop or business runs your life; you are dependant on this owner. He organises your work, the work upon which your whole life source and style depends. He indirectly determines your whole day. If you don’t make any more wages than you need to live, you are a neoslave. You qualify if you cannot afford to leave California for New York. If you cannot visit Zanzibar, Havana, Peking or even Paris when you get the urge, you are a slave. If you’re held in one spot on this earth because of your economic status, it is just the same as being held in one spot on this earth because you are the owner’s property. Here in the black colony, the pigs still beat and maim us. They murder us and call it justifiable homicide. A brother who had a smoking pipe in his belt was shot in the back of the head. Neoslavery is an economic condition, a small knot of men exercising the property rights of their established economic order, organising and controlling the life style of the slave as if he were in fact property. Succinctly: an economic condition which manifests itself in the total loss or absence of self-determination. Only after this is understood and accepted can we go on to the dialectic that will help us in a remedy’ (Jackson, 1970: 221-2).

What I found most impressive about this quotation is the way in which Jackson clearly ties legal and civil rights to economic rights. The precondition for liberty is freedom from wage-slavery. Without it, you only have the freedom ‘to starve’.

2. The struggle against racism is also a struggle against imperialism.

In the same letter to Stender, Jackson vehemently argues that the police are just one tool for preserving the privilege of a capitalist class. He writes:

‘[The police are] protecting the unnatural right of a few men to own the means of all our subsistence. The pig is protecting the right of a few private individuals to own public property!! The pig is merely the gun, the tool, a mentally inanimate utensil. It is necessary to destroy the gun, but destroying the gun and sparing the hand that holds it will forever relegate us to a defensive action, hold our revolution in the doldrums, ultimately defeat us… Spare the hand that holds the gun and it will simply fashion another. The Viet soldier has attacked and destroyed the pigs and their guns, but this alone has not solved their problems. If the Cong could get to the factories and the people who own and organise them, the war would end in a few months. All wars would end. The pigs who have descended upon the Vietnamese colony are the same who have come down on us. They come in all colours, though they are mainly white. Culturally (or anticulturally), they have the same background and the same mentality. They have the same intent: to preserve the economically depressed areas of the world as secondary markets and sources of cheap raw materials (Jackson, 1970: 223).’

The class that the police protect is – importantly – an international class. The police and army protect the same privileged interests across the globe. It’s for this reason that Jackson points to the importance of supporting all international resistance to these forces that would ‘preserve the economically depressed areas of the world [in which the majority of people are Black] as secondary markets and sources of cheap raw materials’:

‘The Chinese have aided every anticolonial movement that has occurred since they were succesful in their own, particularly the ones in Africa. They have offered us in the Amerikan colonies any and all support that we require, from hand grenades to H-bombs. Some of us would deny these wonderful and righteous people. I accept their assistance in our struggle with our mutual enemy. I accept and appreciate any love that we can build out of our relation in crisis. I’ll never, never allow my enemy to turn my mind or hand against them. The Yankee dog that proposes to me that I should join him in containing the freedom of a Vietnamese or a Chinese brother of the revolution is going to get spat on. I don’t care how much he has to offer in the way of short-term material benefits.

‘We must establish a true internationalism with other anti-colonial peoples. Then we will be on the road of the true revolutionary. Only then can we expect to be able to seize the power that is rightfully ours, the power to control the circumstances of our day-to-day lives (Jackson, 1970: 234).’

Jackson is startling uncompromising and strident in connecting the struggle against racism to the struggle against colonial oppression. Indeed, elsewhere in Soledad Brother he speaks approvingly of Martin Luther King’s later opposition to the war in Vietnam. Interestingly, too, he hints at the ‘short-term material benefits’ colonial oppression brings not only to the privileged interests – what we would call the 1% today – but also to the people populating the heartlands of US and European imperialism. For Jackson, the struggle against racist police repression at home is the same struggle against colonial oppression abroad.

3. Jackson’s views on the political role of women became more and more progressive over time

In the early letters, Jackson denies women any political agency. His letters to his mother on the subject of women and politics exhibit a conservative, paternalistic sexism. However, it’s clear that his correspondences with both Stender and Davis – with whom he exchanges some of his sharpest political commentary – seem to play an important role in changing this attitude. In a letter to an anonymous ‘Z’, who led one of the committees demanding justice for the Soledad brothers, Jackson tentatively writes:

‘But I’ve gone through some changes since then, I saw and read about Angie Davis and some other females of our kind , and I realised that perhaps it was possible that this country has produced some females like those of Cuba or Vietnam (Jackson, 1970: 242)’.

Later, in a letter to Angela Davis, he is most explicit in acknowledging the role of women on the Left:

‘In our last communication I made a statement about women, and their part in revolutionary culture. It wasn’t a clear statement. I meant to return to it but was diverted. I understand exactly what the women’s role should be. The very same as the man’s. Intellectually, there is very little difference between male and female. The differences we see in bourgeois society are all conditioned and artificial (Jackson, 1970: 262).’

Jackson confesses that his previous ‘statement about women… wasn’t a clear statement’. Reading the letters, I was struck by what it was Davis had said to him to make him reverse the sentiment he had expressed in previous letters. This is one of the most frustrating aspects of the book – although the reader has access to all Jackson’s letters, this is not true of those to whom his letters are addressed. Most of the time, this is not a problem – it’s easy to guess to what criticism or comment Jackson is responding. However, in the letters between Jackson and Davis particularly, the style seems more dialogical and it would’ve been interesting to see how the political differences between one of America’s foremost black feminists and the prisoner-turned-political radical were debated. I don’t see this as a criticism of the book exactly (it would be a much more lengthy volume if the other letters were included!), but a testament to how engaging the letters are.

Soledad Brother deserves to be read by all those on the left today (and beyond!). Although it was published over forty years ago, Jackson’s style is clear and he eloquently and engagingly illustrates some of the core ideas of the revolutionary left at the same time as he engages with the key political questions of the late 60s and his own life-and-death struggle with the US prison system. Reading the letters certainly gave fresh impetus to my own thinking. In the year after the book was published, Jackson was shot dead in an alleged attempt at escape from San Quentin. At 28 years old, Jackson was an incisive and engaging political thinker. His death was both a human tragedy and a blow to the Left, who lost a symbol of clear and uncompromising resistance to illegitimate power.

Jackson, G. (1970) Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson. London: Penguin


Why “Fund Education, Not War” is important

One of the best political groups to come out of the University of Sheffield in a long time is the Fund Education, Not War campaign. The massive breadth and depth of support the group has garnered – there were just over eighty people present at the launch event, and around twenty people regularly attend the open organising meetings – is impressive. The campaign has brought together activists involved in societies like Amnesty International, Ethical and Environmental Committee, CND, Stop the War Coalition and the Palestine Society (and more). The diversity of the campaign, and the number of activists involved, is an inspiration.

But this isn’t the principle reason that Fund Education, Not War is important.

The government has spun a crisis of investment into a crisis of public debt. The deficit in Britain is overwhelmingly a symptom of a decline in private investment. Unable to guarantee profits in the turbulence following the 2008 crash, the private sector stopped investing, the economy ceased to grow and tax receipts declined, punching a hole in the public finances.

As cuts devastate the public sector and higher education, private companies now register a return to record profits, yet still refuse to invest. The government has hiked fees for students to a massive £9000 at the same time as it has said that it will reduce corporation tax to a meagre 23% by 2015. It is rebalancing the economy even further away from wages, towards profits – from maintaining the living standards of the 99%, to increasing the living standards of the 1%. Justified by a hysterical cry to cut the deficit – a cry to cure the symptom, not the disease – the government is rushing to restore profitability at the expense of the majority.

As it is on the national stage, so it is on the international stage. The clarion call of “profits first” echoes across the globe at the same time as Western politicians – aided by the media – beat a march to further war in the Middle East.

It is has become a cliché that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were fought for oil. This makes it no less true. Similarly, it’s no accident that at a time of global economic crisis in which profits are at stake, the oldest imperial powers renew a vicious assault on the Middle East, from their attempts to turn the tide of revolution in Tunisia, then Egypt, to the recent “humanitarian” intervention in Libya, the results of which have been catastrophic.

Having installed a puppet government which has already capitulated to the economic needs of Western big business, all concern for human rights has been abandoned. As Tawergha is emptied of its Black population, as Black people are beaten and forced into cages and as the government signs the extra-judicial executions of those it arbitrarily deems to be the agents of Gaddafi, the advocates of liberal interventionism now turn their eyes to Syria and Iran, ignoring the abuses of the rebels they supported, whilst loudly condemning the human rights abuses of those they do not.

This ideological capriciousness is a function of the real motive for military and political intervention – the bolstering of a political superstructure that sanctions the easy extraction of profits from the region.

It is our military that has facilitated the creation of this superstructure, partly funded by the redirection of funds from Higher Education into military spending. Although many on the political Right bemoan the underfunding of “defence”, the government’s special reserves – reserves only ever used for war – have increased. To maintain its position of military power, the government proposes spending hundreds of billions on the Trident missile system. Money once used to educate the 99% is now being used to subsidise military adventures designed to benefit the 1%.

Perversely, it is the arms companies profiting from the wars fought by western governments who step into the funding breach. A recent Fund Education, Not War FAQ points out that the University of Sheffield has taken over £41 million from arms companies.

FENW started from the premise that a moral commitment to human life means that Universities should not be taking money from arms companies that make weapons designed to kill thousands of people. It was an alliance of people united in attempting to stop the watering down of the Students’ Union policy against the University of Sheffield’s dealings with the arms trade. It has subsequently expanded into a critique of the system which produces the University’s reliance on arms companies for funding.

The strength and vibrancy of the campaign is in this embryonic, but nevertheless valuable, critique. In bringing the peace movement into dialogue with the anti-cuts movement, the campaign is one of the most exciting in which I’ve had the pleasure to be involved. The lesson inhering in this success is that broad, united front campaigns are created by taking hold of the immediate political problem of the day and using it to illuminate a broader understanding of the system that produces it. As one famous Bolshevik wrote:

Every question “runs in a vicious circle” because political life as a whole is an endless chain consisting of an infinite number of links. The whole art of politics lies in finding and taking as firm a grip as we can of the link that is least likely to be struck from our hands, the one that is most important at the given moment, the one that most of all guarantees its possessor the possession of the whole chain.

FENW is important and exciting because it is beginning to grasp that chain and use it to pull a not insignificant number of students to its cause.

Coup Attempt in Ecuador Defeated

I recieved this update from VSC on the situation in Ecuador last night:

Initial reports today inform that sections of the Ecuadorean Police are staging street demonstrations, ostensibly for economic demands but in reality trying to subvert the legal order, including through trying to occupy the National Parliament. Additionally, in open revolt against the government, some police officers have taken illegal control over their police stations.

There are also reports that members of the Quito army barracks in the capital city occupied these barracks in open mutiny against the government. In response, President Rafael Correa went to the barracks to talk to the rebels and was attacked by CS gas which exploded near his face. The President is now in the hospital of the Quito Regiment, with minor concussions but well. The armed forces have him under their control in the Quito barracks.

In a clearly orchestrated action of open rebellion, members of the armed forces also took control and closed the Mariscal Antonio José de Sucre airport.

In response to these developments, on live TV through TELESUR at about 18 hrs (GMT) President Rafael Correa said: “It’s a coup d’etat, a conspiracy organised by the opposition.” President Correa hinted that UNASUR was likely to hold an emergency meeting to defend the democratic order that is under threat in Ecuador and also said that police officers supportive of the revolt were trying to get to his hospital room to attack him. He added that he was standing firm in the defence of the democratic order in Ecuador and there was no way he would capitulate, and that he could only lose his life.

The Foreign Affairs minister has called upon people to march to the hospital to protect the life of the President. Mass demonstrations are now taking place in the whole of Ecuador in support of the legitimate and democratically-elected government of President Correa. People are currently congregating around the Quito barracks hospital to protect the President.

President Correa and his government have won every single democratic election since his election in 2006. The government has expanded democracy and implemented policies to redistribute income to the poor, benefiting millions of people hitherto socially excluded. The country has also had a new constitution overwhelmingly approved at a national referendum, which is deemed to be one of the greenest and most progressive constitutions in the world.

Venezuela Solidarity Campaign

Thankfully, the coup has since been defeated:

The military has freed Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa and the attempted coup in Ecaudor against the elected government is over. Troops loyal to Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa have freed him from the military hospital where he was previously held hostage by right-wing coup police. Five troops were injured during the rescue operation but no soldier was killed.

Thousands of people gathered in Quito in support of the president and against the coup. Once released, Correa addressed a large number of triumphant supporters gathered at the Plaza of Independence in Quito chanting: “El pueblo unido jamás… será vencido!” (“The people united will never be defeated!”).

“What loyalty, what support! This will serve as an example for those who want to stop the revolution not through the ballot box but with weapons,” said President Correa.

Additionally, Ecuador’s police commander General Freddy Martinez has now resigned. About 50 people, including Ecuador’s Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino, were injured on Thursday during clashes between the rebel police and supporters of the Ecuadoran president.

Support for Correa has been strong internationally and regionally, with the Organization of American States making a strong statement and heads of state of members of UNASUR had planned on travelling to Ecuador if necessary. Hugo Chavez, the Venezulean president, described the unrest as “an effort to overthrow President Correa,” adding that “together with the people of Latin America and the Caribbean we will be vigilant and standing in solidarity [with Correa] in this historic moment.”

Venezuela Solidarity Campaign

The defeat of the coup should be celebrated. However, it’s also an alarming reminder that the social progress made in Latin America by the tide of Leftist governments needs our solidarity.

Venezuela and the Media

I recently spoke at a showing of Oliver Stone’s new film, South of the Border, in York. The opening scenes of the film comically highlight the delusional things that are said about Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan President, and the huge American media bias against him and the governing Venezuelan United Socialist Party (PSUV). The media distortions surrounding Venezuelan politics, particularly Hugo Chavez himself, are not just peculiar to Venezuelan and American television, but also the so-called Left/liberal media in Britain. In recent times, the views expressed have been far from the comedic “satire” constituting Stone’s introductory sequence, but supposedly serious critiques of Chavez’s alleged “dismantling” of democratic processes. Unfortunately, these “critiques” are often one-sided or neglect to mention the context to a particular event in Venezuela’s political history. Most interesting, and ideological, is the failure of these reports to accurately represent the relative power of the state, the government and the interests of private capital. Indeed, sometimes these power relations are represented as fantastically inverted.

A paragraph from Francisco Toro’s latest comment piece in the Guardian is a case in point:

The five state TV channels, the dozens of state-backed “community radio” stations and a slew of state newspapers are unembarrassed to act as the propaganda arm of the ruling party, openly campaigning for the ruling party. Meanwhile, people who oppose the government on TV find themselves facing obscure criminal charges and radio stations that broadcast critical content are shut down en masse.

The BBC, to whom Toro links with the words “themselves facing obscure criminal charges”, goes so far as to say the following in relation to the arrest of the businessman, Guillermo Zuloaga:

Mr Zuloaga owns Globovision, the only television channel to remain openly critical of the government.

The suggestion that there is only one television channel that remains “openly critical” of the government is a fantasy. The last report from the European Union on Venezuelan elections said the following:

The Venezuelan media display a great diversity of political opinions. However, considered individually, the main media outlets only exceptionally referred to the various political actors in a manner which could be considered both fair and balanced. Most of the private media tended to offer more space to the views of the political forces critical of the Government, and when expressing their political preferences, they often disregarded basic journalistic principles.

Even the measured words of the EU report to an extent belie the reality. RCTV, one of Venezuela’s largest privately owned networks was instrumental in the coup d’état of 2002. The coup ousted Chavez for a mere 47 hours, until nearly 1 million people marched on the Presidential Palace, many of whom came from the poorest barrios of Caracas, to demand his reinstatement (in 2009, it was my privilege to visit Caracas and meet some of these people). The private media actively militates against Venezuela’s legitimate government – the PSUV (both the Carter institute and EU observers have indicated Venezuelan elections are free and fair). In this respect, one can view the so-called propagandising of the state media as the ideological self-defence of the elected government. Without it, opposition propaganda would hegemonize all public discourse.

Of course, this charged and polarised public sphere is not a desirable feature of Venezuelan political life. However, it is an obvious corollary of the political struggles occurring in Venezuela. Before Chavez’s ascendancy to power, 80% of Venezuelan’s lived in poverty or absolute poverty. Since 1998, the Chavez administration has pulled 2 million people out of poverty and levels of extreme poverty have been cut in half. Extensive social programmes, including the implementation of universal healthcare and an education system free of charge all the way up to, and including, higher education, have also increased the living standards of Venezuela’s poor majority. This radical social agenda has relied heavily on breaking with IMF economic policies and redistributing Venezuela’s oil wealth. Naturally, this has ruptured the Venezuelan political and economic consensus and attracted the ire of elite interests – the same interests controlling Venezuela’s privately owned media networks.

It’s in this respect that Toro’s scathing reference to the ‘community radio stations’ is misleading. The state facilitates the creation of TV and radio stations run by independent groups of Venezuelans. More often than not, these stations broadcast into, and are managed by those living in, the barrios. In this respect, it’s understandable that they have a pro-government bias. The PSUV draws overwhelming support from the barrios, for the reason that Chavez’s social and economic reforms have made the lives of millions of poor Venezuelan’s infinitely better. Support for Chavez is a result of common sense reasoning on behalf of these Venezuelans. To equate the limited broadcast range of these stations, and the interests they represent, with the economic might of the Venezuelan private media is certainly gratuitous.

Venezuela’s polarised public sphere, then, is not a function of a belligerent government, hell bent on turning Venezuela into a dictatorship. The use of state means to publicise the Bolivarian revolution’s extensive achievements is a reaction to the already existing, overwhelmingly hostile media environment. The PSUV and the interests of big capital are in the middle of an ideological war – the former is using its limited propaganda arsenal to defend itself from the media Howitzers of the latter. As in 2002, this struggle can break into open physical conflict (although it is worth noting that this was initiated by the opposition). This is by no means an ideal situation, but it is a reality nonetheless – a reality engendered by the very material antagonism between Venezuela’s poor majority on the one hand, and private, elite interests on the other. Given this political reality the fundamental question – and the 2002 coup indicates this is by no means overly reductive – is: whose side are you on?