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