CRIMINAL, REVOLUTIONARY, MURDERER, ICON? ON THE ANNIVERSARY OF GEORGE JACKSON’S DEATH, THE ANSWER DEPENDS ON WHO YOU ASK.
Fifty years ago, George Jackson, 28, was fatally wounded by a guard at San Quentin State Prison. Today his name, and the story of how he and five others were killed in a single day of violence, continues to reverberate in unsettled opinions throughout the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and beyond.
No matter whose story is told, August 21, 1971, the day Jackson was killed, is still the CDCR and San Quentin’s bloodiest day. His death at the 169-year-old prison has been described by the state as an escape attempt went awry. It was a day that also led to the deaths of correctional officers Jere P. Graham, 39, Frank DeLeon, 44, and Paul Krasenes, 52; and prisoners Ronald Kane, 28, and John Lynn, 29.
Jackson’s name generates dissimilar inferences, depending on whose narrative is read. The state’s official police, prosecution, prison and political storylines paint a picture of a criminal, cop killer, gang leader, militant, revolutionary, Black Panther and Marxist-Leninist.
Countless prisoners, Blacks in particular, revere Jackson as an author, activist, theoretician, tactician, comrade, political prisoner, voice of resistance, and the symbol of Black manhood; one whose political ideology exists in a perpetual stage of expansion.
The disagreement extends to his death itself: Was he justifiably killed as a hostage taker trying to escape the prison? Or was he murdered? Without question, prisoners and guards were killed. Five decades later the mantras “Black Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” have dominated public discourse, leaving us as divided as ever, and still no closer to the truth.
Agreement on who Jackson was and what he stood for, and what happened on that day in 1971 and why, may never come. But that may not matter because finally, after decades, many people on both sides of that debate have ultimately recognized Jackson’s essential points: the evils of racism, and the need for prison reform.
Jackson’s death sparked a movement on both sides, creating a confluence, where revolution met rehabilitation, unwittingly. But it’s still a work in progress.
Who Was George Jackson?
In 1960, at the age of 18, George Lester Jackson was unknown to the state prison system and much of the world. He was arrested in Los Angeles as an accomplice in a gas station robbery of $70. Although there was little evidence of his guilt, on the advice of his court-appointed attorney Jackson pleaded guilty to the charge in exchange for a light sentence in county jail. The judge sentenced him to one year to life in state prison, which placed his sentence in the hands of the Adult Authority—the parole board at the time. Jackson spent the next 10 years in prison, seven and a half of those in solitary confinement.
“To me, Jackson was just another inmate,” said Mike Loftin, 74, in an interview for this story. “He was an incarcerated felon.” Loftin was a prison guard who started his career at San Quentin in 1966 and retired after 32 years. He said Jackson was his tier tender in Carson section. “He wasn’t that militant back then. Then they transferred him to Soledad.”
“Jackson first began studying radical political theorists, including Karl Marx and
Frantz Fanon…under the supervision of another African American prisoner, W.L. Nolen, who ran a reading group for prisoners,” Keramet Reiter wrote in her book 23/7: Pelican Bay Prison and the Rise of Long-Term Solitary Confinement. “Nolen, Jackson, and other members of the reading group were ultimately affiliated with the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF), which was founded sometime between 1966 and 1971. According to its followers, the BGF is a revolutionary political organization; according to prison officials, it is a prison gang.”
While in isolation at Soledad prison, Jackson studied law, history, political theory and other subjects—a common practice among Black prisoners of his era. Jackson led political education classes with other Black prisoners to further their knowledge. These classes, according to legal scholar Azadeh Zohrabi, led to the formation of the BGF.
“I met Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Engels, and Mao when I entered prison, and they redeemed me,” Jackson wrote in his best-selling book, Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson. “I met black guerrillas, George ‘Big Jake’ Lewis, and James Carr, W.L. Nolen, Bill Christmas, Torry Gibson and many, many others.” Their goal was to transform “the black criminal mentality into a black revolutionary mentality,” Jackson wrote. Because of that, he and others were “subjected to years of the most vicious reactionary violence by the state.”
Violence by — and Against — the State
At San Quentin, Loftin said, Jackson “wasn’t treated any different than anyone else.” But the former guard also acknowledged, “We didn’t have all that militant stuff going on.” Then came the Black Panther Party, he said.
In January 1970, W.L. Nolen and two other Black prisoners were killed at Soledad by the “notoriously racist correctional officer Opie G. Miller,” Zohrabi wrote in a 2012 publication of the Hastings Race & Poverty Law Journal. After the district attorney declared Nolen’s death “justified homicide,” correctional officer John V. Mills was beaten by prisoners at Soledad and thrown from the third tier in a cellblock on January 16, 1970. Jackson was housed in that block. “Despite the lack of any physical evidence, Jackson and two other Black inmates, John Clutchette and Fleeta Drumgo, were indicted for killing Mills,” Zohrabi wrote.
The book If They Come in the Morning, edited by Angela Davis, asserts, “Deputy Superintendent William Black stated, ‘We believe that the death of Officer Mills was reprisal for the death of the three Black inmates.’ And, as if to balance some score being kept, prison officials proceeded to find three Black suspects who, they said, had killed Mills.”
And so began the case of the Soledad Brothers. The case and his best-selling book brought Jackson notoriety. Because of the publicity, the venue was changed from Monterey County, California, where Soledad prison was located, to Marin County. The change led to Jackson’s move to San Quentin, where he awaited trial in the prison’s Adjustment Center.
By this time, Jackson had caught the attention of authorities higher than those who operated California’s prisons. His activities were being tracked at the national level. Documents released through the Freedom of Information Act reveal FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was in continuous communication with the Bureau’s field office in San Francisco regarding the Soledad Brothers.
A Courthouse Shooting
Jonathan Jackson was killed in 1970, a year before his brother, George. At age 17, the younger Jackson attempted to free his brother from prison. His plan was to free other San Quentin prisoners and take hostages at the Marin County courthouse on August 7, 1970; and then “negotiate the release of his brother,” according to U.C. Berkeley professor William J. Drummond in his book Prison Truth.
“Armed with three guns registered in the name of author and former UCLA professor Angela Y. Davis, Jonathan Jackson attempted to flee the courtroom after seizing the judge, an assistant district attorney, and some jurors.”
AFTER DECADES, MANY PEOPLE ON BOTH SIDES OF THAT DEBATE HAVE ULTIMATELY RECOGNIZED JACKSON’S ESSENTIAL POINTS: THE EVILS OF RACISM, AND THE NEED FOR PRISON REFORM.
The Marin County Sheriff gave an order not to fire on the getaway vehicle. However, San Quentin prison guards disregarded the order and fired a barrage of bullets into the van. Four men died in the shootout, including young Jonathan and Superior Court Judge Harold Haley. Inmates James McClain and William Christmas were also killed. The only prisoner to survive was Ruchell Cinque Magee, who is in prison, now in his 58th year.
“Understand that San Quentin has a no-hostage policy,” said Loftin.
“To the Man-Child,” George wrote of his brother in Soledad Brother. “Tall, evil, graceful, bright-eyed, black man-child—Jonathan Peter Jackson—who died August 7, 1970, courage in one hand, assault rifle in the other; my brother, comrade, friend—the true revolutionary, the Black communist guerrilla in the highest state of development, he died on the trigger, scourge of the unrighteous, soldier of the people.”
A Turning Point
Bobby Jackson (no relation to George), now 75, arrived at San Quentin on August 7, 1970. He’d just gotten off a bus in front of the prison, which is where receiving and release was back then. At the time, he was a 25-year-old Vietnam War veteran who saw combat in Da Nang in 1965 and 1966.
“I was one of the youngest guys here at that time,” he said in an interview on prison grounds. As Bobby Jackson was waiting to be processed, another prisoner in chains on his way to court turned and looked at him.
“We had a connection,” said Jackson. “It was like he was saying to me, ‘This is my last go round,’ like he was saying, ‘I’m doing this for you.’ ” That prisoner, Jackson said, turned out to be one of the men killed in the Marin County courthouse incident. (He cannot recall whether it was McClain or Christmas.) “That was a traumatic time for me,” he said. “That changed my whole life; my whole perspective.”
“That was a turning point,” said Jackson. “I became more conscious of who I was. I realized I was part of a group—like I’m part of this.” He said he was just an ex-Marine from Santa Ana, California, who’d been sent to Vietnam at age 19. His parents had always taught him to do the right thing. “I wasn’t really Black conscious,” he said.
Jackson said while in Vietnam, two military police were looking for another Black soldier in his tent. The MPs asked him and the other Blacks if they’d seen that “nigger.” Jackson protested the use of that word and became confrontational. No one else supported him or showed solidarity. Instead, they turned their backs on him. He said that incident was the reason he could relate to the Blacks’ struggle at San Quentin. “I developed that commonness with the movement.”
A Fugitive is Caught—and Acquitted
After Davis’ alleged role in what some have called the Courthouse Slave Rebellion, “a warrant was issued for her arrest in California and, as she declined to surrender under the circumstances then prevailing, she was designated as the FBI’s ‘most wanted fugitive,’ ” according to the book Agents of Repression by Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall. “Davis was head of the Soledad Brothers Defense Committee and an increasingly effective spokesperson for the movement as a whole,” they wrote.
Loftin, the former guard, believes Davis, an outspoken member of the Communist Party, had a big influence on George Jackson. “She’s the one who got in his head,” Loftin said.
She was apprehended two months later in New York City, and faced charges that, for a time, could have sent her to the gas chamber. (According to a New York Times report, Davis was granted bail in February 1972, five days after the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional.) The call by millions around the world went out to “Free Angela Davis Now!” On June 4, 1972, she was acquitted of all charges.
The courthouse incident may have foretold George Jackson’s demise. In his final book, Blood in My Eye, published posthumously, he wrote: “I’m in a unique political position. I have a very nearly closed future, and since I have always been inclined to get disturbed over organized injustice or terrorist practice against the innocents—wherever—I can now say just about what I want (I’ve always done just about that), without fear or self-exposure. I can only be executed once.”
Another Violent Day
Two days before George Jackson’s trial for the killing of Mills at Soledad prison, he was shot and killed by a guard in a gun tower inside San Quentin for allegedly using a gun and trying to escape.
Jackson’s controversial death, and the other killings 50 years ago, rocked guards and prisoners at San Quentin. Bobby Jackson was housed in San Quentin’s Donner section. He recalled his housing assignment on the fifth tier in cell 5-D-46. “I’d just left the old hospital,” he said. “All kinds of confusion was going on. Everybody knew something was going on.” He said a local radio station broadcast the news about something happening at San Quentin.
Bobby Jackson said the night following George Jackson’s killing, everybody was talking about it, “especially the Blacks.” He remembers San Quentin was locked down for about two and a half weeks. “It was like the world was ending.” There was talk of retaliation among every group on the yard (Blacks, Whites and Mexicans).
History can sometimes overlook the fact that three officers were murdered the day Jackson was killed. But the names Graham, DeLeon and Krasenes have not been forgotten.
Robert Ayers Jr.
“I knew Frank DeLeon well,” former San Quentin warden Robert Ayers Jr. wrote in an email for this story. Ayers began his career as a correctional officer with the then California Department of Corrections on January 24, 1968. Decades later he became warden. When he worked as a rank-and-file officer, he knew all the staff who were killed. Of DeLeon, Ayers wrote, “We worked together frequently in Visiting, on the Main Yard, and in housing units.” His contact with Paul Krasenes was limited. “My memory of him is he was a somewhat gruff ‘old timer.’ I also had limited contact with Jere Graham. My only real recollection of him is his nickname was ‘Barabbas.’ ”
Ayers wrote that when the violence took place in the AC, “I had just returned home from (Army Reserve) annual training that day and heard the news on TV that afternoon. I went to San Quentin Sunday to do what I could. The Watch Sergeant said he didn’t know if he could pay me, but I insisted on working…To this day I still don’t know if I got paid.”
“Jere Graham was my best friend,” said Loftin. “I was sitting at a bar in downtown San Rafael, awaiting for Jere to get off work so I could have a beer with him.” Loftin said he was at the Gold Clown bar when his father, who was a watch commander at San Quentin, called there to tell him Graham was dead, and to stay there.
At the time, Loftin said he felt “anger.” Hearing the news about his friend, “I had a few more beers. I had no idea what was even going on. It wasn’t until later that I found out. Several guards had their throats cut.” At least one survived. CDCR records show that DeLeon was shot. Loftin said Sergeant McCray, who worked in the Adjustment Center, played dead in order to survive.
“I worked for Sgt. Ken McCray in the hospital and in the East Block,” Ayers wrote.
Watani Stiner had a different view of the day. Stiner was convicted for conspiracy to commit murder of Black Panthers Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter and Jonathan Huggins at UCLA in 1969. He was incarcerated at San Quentin and recalled the day of Jackson’s death in 1971.
Stiner was 23 years old at the time. “I was conversing with a small group on the upper yard, under the shed near the North Block chow hall,” Stiner wrote in an email for this story. “We were discussing a recently released film, Shaft.
“We heard two shots followed by a series of whistles,” Stiner wrote. “While standing under the upper yard shed, just outside the north block chow hall, I saw someone running down the ramp near the Adjustment Center.”
Loftin, the guard, noted, “Back in the day, all we had were whistles.”
Stiner recalled a chaotic scene. “Guards were running all around, down to the lower yard and toward the AC building. Several guards quickly lined the gun rail and aimed their rifles down on us,” Stiner said. “They were screaming: ‘Bury your faces in the ground or get shot — NOW!’ ” Of that fateful day, Stiner wrote, “Guards rounded up every prisoner they classified and thought to be a ‘Black revolutionary.’” Stiner was a member of the US organization, considered by some as rivals of the Black Panther Party. “We were immediately placed in the ‘hole’ (anywhere from six to 18 months).”
“In the prison system we were seeing a rise in Black inmates viewing themselves as ‘political prisoners,’ a view fostered and supported by activists in the community,” Ayers wrote. “I recall a great deal of distrust between many staff and Black inmates. There had been several fatal assaults on staff throughout CDC.”
Ayers wrote that immediately following August 21, several of the prison’s staff resigned but some returned to work after a few days. “Their issue was rage rather than fear.”
“At the time,” Stiner wrote, “I equated Jackson’s struggle, sacrifice and his martyrdom in the same category as Nat Turner,” a slave who led a revolt 140 years earlier. Their rebellions had a coincidental starting point: August 21, 1971 for Jackson and August 21, 1831, for Turner. “Jackson (in my mind at the time) was a defiant revolutionary killed on the prison plantation,” Stiner added. “There were chants in the hole: ‘The dragon is free!’ And ‘Funerals on both sides.’ ”
The Killing of George Jackson
George Jackson was shot outside San Quentin’s Adjustment Center. He is alleged to have possessed a gun. Prison officials maintain the weapon and a wig were smuggled into the prison for Jackson by his civil attorney, Stephen Bingham, who brought legal papers in for his client to review.
Prisoners had control of the AC when Lieutenant Dick Nelson arrived on his day off. “He took a weapon onto San Quentin grounds to take back the AC,” said Loftin. It was said to be a Thompson submachine gun, “just to let them know he was there and serious.”
According to Loftin, the prisoners yelled, “We’ve got hostages.” But Nelson “let out another burst” from the Tommy gun, Loftin said. “If San Quentin ever had a hero, it was Dick Nelson.”
“It was something I had to do,” Nelson said in a 2020 Inside CDCR interview, posted on the department’s website. “I still honor and recognize the correctional officer who walks the cell block (and) walks into danger every day. Those young men and women…are the real heroes in this business. I take pride in defending and protecting the line officer…That’s how I’d like to be remembered.”
“Nothing but Turmoil”
“I don’t believe that (George Jackson) had a gun concealed in his hair,” said Gerard Trent Jr., 76. Now in his 51st year of continuous incarceration, he arrived at San Quentin on April 11, 1971, nearly four months before the killings. “Also, I have never met anyone that even thought it was possible for him to do so.”
Trent said he was on the upper yard in front of the canteen when he and other prisoners were all told to get down when they heard gunshots. “That was a time when gunshots seemed routine,” he said. “For a while, days, there was nothing but turmoil.
THROUGH OUR DEAD, WE’RE WARNED THAT EACH OF US HAS BEEN CHARGED WITH THE RESPONSIBILITY TO OBSERVE OUR PAST TRANSGRESSIONS, AND EACH OTHER’S.
“The general thought and feelings were George had been executed, and the inmate population began to brace themselves for the retaliation that everyone knew was coming,” said Trent. “Let me be clear, the majority of guards were not taking part in the executing of that violence against some (prisoners).”
Loftin, the former guard, has a similar memory. “After the incident, the convicts were on their best behavior because they knew we were pissed off,” said Loftin. He said guards tore up cells. “Someone could have said good morning, and if it was taken the wrong way—” He let the words hang, indicating a potentially dire confrontation.
Ayers concurred. “My memories of the week or so immediately following 8/21 are a bit haunting,” he wrote. “Staff took out their anger on virtually all inmates.” Retaliatory cell searches were routine. “When inmates questioned why their property was being thrown away they were unceremoniously taken to (the hole).” He wrote about feeling “quite guilty” for how he treated several prisoners. To remedy the role he played in the retribution, Ayers attended their disciplinary hearings “and told the committee (which) inmate didn’t do anything wrong and shouldn’t suffer any consequences.”
Trent wants to remember George Jackson as a powerful advocate for Black people—a courageous stance that brought him powerful enemies.
“We should never lose sight of who George Jackson was as a man,” Trent said. “Because, when it’s all said and done, the belief and evidence is conclusive, that he fiercely loved his people; and that his people could one day enjoy the freedoms that others notably enjoy. That made George a thorn in the side of many that extended all the way to the office of the U.S. FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover.”
An “Astonishing” Refusal
Stephen Bingham, who represented Jackson in a civil suit against the then-CDC, is probably the last civilian to see George Jackson alive.
Bingham was accused of smuggling a 9mm Astra pistol into the prison for Jackson. “No, I didn’t,” Bingham told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2001. “It seems to me there were enough guns floating around the Adjustment Center that there was no particular need for one more.”
Like Angela Davis a year earlier, Bingham went into hiding and eventually left the United States, after a grand jury indicted him on two counts of murder and one charge of conspiracy. Unlike Davis, who remained a fugitive for barely two months, Bingham lived in Europe for more than a decade before returning to the United States to stand trial, which lasted three months.
“I was acquitted in 1986,” Bingham wrote in an email for this story, adding it is “an acquittal which San Quentin officials astonishingly continue to refuse to recognize in their official SQ publications.”
Trent reiterated that he doesn’t believe the gun allegation ascribed to Bingham. “Neither did a jury of his peers,” he said, “because Mr. Bingham was found ‘not guilty’ on all charges.”
Loftin, the former guard, feels Bingham should not have been acquitted, putting the blame on liberal Marin County. “If you were going to go to trial, Marin County was the place to go,” said Loftin. “I, once again, was under the impression that the justice system failed.”
George Jackson’s Legacy
For 50 years, the state has maintained its version of the accounts on how and why George Jackson was killed. It’s an unambiguous story that blames Bingham and Jackson, but assigns the state and the prison no responsibility. The account contravenes other history.
Given such recalcitrance, there remain two sides to this story about what happened on August 21, 1971. Proponents of each version have not yielded or found common ground. Yet the events of that day still reverberate. And they may finally be helping guide the system to the positive changes so long desired.
“George Jackson, perhaps even more in his death than when he was alive, was a critical spark in the struggle for the Nation’s conscience that led to shining a spotlight on the enormous defects with our criminal justice system and the positive changes which have followed,” Bingham wrote. “Faced with severe challenges after the killing of George on August 21, 1971, and the killings soon after at Attica, the prisoner rights movement has since come back stronger than ever, as evidenced by: the strength of Critical Resistance; the 2013 hunger strike at Pelican Bay which led to a lawsuit resulting in severe restrictions on CDCR’s power to arbitrarily put people in solitary confinement; numerous judicial decisions finding prison conditions unconstitutional; the erosion of support for the death penalty, as states continue to abolish it; the strengthening of the restorative justice movement; and the remarkable election of progressive prosecutors.”
George Jackson’s death certainly echoed in 2020, when Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, bringing renewed attention to the problems of racism and nationwide protests that have wrought many more changes.
“The late ’60s and early ’70s was a volatile period,” wrote Ayers. Citing the Vietnam War, rising racial consciousness and tension, and political turmoil, he wrote, “It was like present day USA.”
In 1951, San Quentin warden Clinton T. Duffy wrote in his book, The San Quentin Story, that “San Quentin is still a prison. Its men are prisoners, controlled, locked up, stripped of their rights as citizens, doing time to pay their debt. Confinement in itself is punishment, whether for a day or forever, but California’s Department of Corrections feels that confinement need not be without hope, or the chance to remake shattered lives.”
Somewhere along the way, that idealistic notion dissipated. Hopelessness set in among many prisoners. Nevertheless, changes have taken place and San Quentin seems to be finding its way back to Duffy’s belief.
Through our dead, we’re warned that each of us has been charged with the responsibility to observe our past transgressions, and each other’s. Today, with all its infamy, San Quentin is no longer the violent penitentiary that many people dredge up from its past.
In the garden chapel area where staff and visitors enter the prison, the American flag flies at a constant half-staff, near the memorial to 10 fallen officers—three of whom fell on that notorious day some prisoners call “Black August.”
And just beyond that area, around a corner on the interfaith chapel, there is a worn-out light from the past that has not been replaced with the others that align the building. Prison folklore has it that Jackson died in that spot.
Fifty years after its bloodiest day, San Quentin is the CDCR’s flagship prison for inmate rehabilitation. Today it vaunts dozens of self-help groups and programs, educational and college courses, vocational training, and more. And every year correctional staff and thousands of outside volunteers come inside the prison from surrounding communities to help men return to their humanity and to the democratic social order on the other side of the wall, hopefully better than they were when they left.