Soledad Brothers

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For the blues-rock trio, see Soledad Brothers (band).

The Soledad Brothers were three African-American inmates charged with the murder of a white prison guard, John Vincent Mills at California's Soledad Prison on January 16, 1970.[1] George Jackson, Fleeta Drumgoole, and John Clutchette were said to have murdered Mills in retaliation for the shooting deaths of three black prisoners during a prison fight in the exercise yard three days prior by another guard, Opie G. Miller.

Soledad Prison[edit]

George Jackson met W.L. Nolen through the Black Panther Party in Soledad State Prison in 1969. They were transferred together to the O Wing, along with Drumgoole and Clutchette, which was considered the worst part of the adjustment center of which Max Row is a part. According to Jackson, in the O Wing "the strongest hold out no more than a couple of weeks. It destroys the logical processes of the mind, a man’s thoughts become completely disorganized. The noise, madness streaming from every throat, frustrated sounds from the bars, metallic sounds from the walls, the steel trays, the iron beds bolted to the wall, the hollow sounds from a cast-iron sink or toilet. The smells, the human waste thrown at us, unwashed bodies, the rotten food. When a white con leaves here he's ruined for life. No black leaves Max Row walking. Either he leaves on the mat wagon or he leaves crawling licking at the pig’s feet.”[2]

What can be verified is that the prison conditions for the inmates were strict, rarely being allowed to leave their cell without first being handcuffed and belted or having the cuffs chained to their waists as well as being subjected to thorough skin searches and random searches through and destroying of personal effects.[citation needed] In Jackson’s letters from the prison he describes the attitude of the staff toward the convicts as both defensive and hostile, apparently out of pure malevolence. His account of life at the prison was believed by some, and was used by the Soledad Brothers Defense Committee.[citation needed]

Prison yard riot[edit]

On January 13, 1970, 14 black inmates and 2 white inmates from the maximum-security section of Soledad Prison were released into a recreation yard. It had been several months since they were last released into the yard.[3][4] The black prisoners were ordered to the far end of the yard, while the white prisoners remained near the center of the yard.[4] Officer Opie G. Miller, an expert marksman armed with a rifle, watched over the inmates from a guard tower 13 feet (4 m) above the yard.[4] A fist fight ensued and Miller opened fire on the prisoners below. No warning shot was fired. Three black inmates were killed in the shooting: W.L. Nolen and Cleveland Edwards died in the yard, while Alvin Miller died in the prison hospital a few hours later. A white inmate, Billy D. Harris, was wounded in the groin by Miller's fourth shot, and ended up losing a testicle.[4] In a letter from June 10, 1970, George Jackson described the scene as seeing three of his brothers having been “murdered [...] by a pig shooting from 30 feet above their heads with a military rifle.” [2]

Following the incident, thirteen black prisoners began a hunger strike in the hopes of securing an investigation.[5] On January 16, 1970, a Monterey County grand jury convened, then exonerated Miller in the deaths of Nolen, Edwards, and Miller with a ruling of "justifiable homicide". No black inmates were permitted to testify, including those who had been in the recreation yard during the shooting. In Soledad Prison, inmates heard the grand jury's ruling on the prison radio.[4] Thirty minutes later, John V. Mills was found dying in another maximum-security wing of the prison, having been beaten and thrown from a third-floor tier of Y Wing, George Jackson's cellblock, to the television room below. On February 14, 1970, after an investigation into Mills' death by prison officials, George Lester Jackson, Fleeta Drumgoole and John Wesley Clutchette were indicted by the Monterey County grand jury for first-degree murder.[4]

Soledad Brothers Defense Committee[edit]

The Soledad Brothers Defense Committee was formed by Fay Stender to assist in publicizing the case and raising funds to defend Jackson, Drumgoole, and Clutchette. Among the several celebrities, writers, and left-wing political activists that supported the SBDC and their cause were Julian Bond, Kay Boyle, Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Noam Chomsky, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Tom Hayden, William Kunstler, Jessica Mitford, Linus Pauling, Pete Seeger, Benjamin Spock, and Angela Davis.[6][7][8] In June 1970, California State Senator Mervyn Dymally and the California Legislative Black Caucus pursued an investigation of Soledad Prison and released a report that tried to legitimize the Committee and give it some credibility. Public reaction was mixed.[9] By the middle of that month, Davis was leading the movement.[9] Stender also arranged the publication of Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson, which was to contain various letters written by Jackson while in prison detailing his time spent in the prison throughout the trial.

Jonathan Jackson's attempt to free the Soledad Brothers[edit]

On August 7, 1970, George Jackson's seventeen-year-old brother Jonathan held up a courtroom during the trial of prisoner James McClain, charged at the time with the attempted stabbing of a Soledad guard at the Marin County Civic Center. Jonathan Jackson, after having armed McClain, temporarily freed three San Quentin prisoners, and took Superior Court Judge Harold Haley, Deputy District Attorney Gary Thomas, and three women on the jury hostage to secure the freedom of the "Soledad Brothers". Jackson, McClain, Haley, and a prisoner named William Christmas were killed as they attempted to drive away from the courthouse. Haley died due to the discharge of a sawed-off shotgun that had been fastened to his neck with adhesive tape by the abductors. Thomas, prisoner Ruchell Magee, and one of the jurors were wounded.[10] Two days after his brother's death, in George Jackson's last letter in his collection of letters written while in prison, he wrote a letter to his deceased brother, signing it:

"Cold and calm though.
'All right, gentlemen, I'm taking over now.' [nb 1]
Revolution, George"[2]

Angela Davis, who purchased the guns used in the escape attempt, was later tried on several charges in connection with the escape. A jury found her not guilty on murder, kidnapping and criminal conspiracy charges.[11]

San Quentin Six[edit]

Main article: San Quentin Six

On August 21, 1971, days before his trial in the guard's killing, the 29-year-old Jackson launched a riot at San Quentin with a 9 mm pistol. There is various controversy over the course of events of the obtaining of the firearm and who supplied it but it is believed that Stephen Bingham, the attorney who replaced Stender[nb 2], visited Jackson. With him he carried the pistol and an Afro wig. He gave the wig to Jackson to hide the gun in but as he was leaving the gun protruded from the wig and Jackson was asked to show the object. Having been discovered and gun in hand, he released an entire floor of prisoners from the maximum-security wing, crying, "This is it, gentlemen, the Dragon has come!" In the ensuing melee, three guards were killed, as were two prisoners suspected of being snitches, before George Jackson rushed out into the yard where he was shot and killed by a guard. The connection with Angela Davis was strengthened when a .38 caliber revolver was reportedly found in the hand of George Jackson at the scene of his death and was allegedly registered to Davis. Jackson's death was promptly labeled a setup by prison authorities, who supposedly saw his power as a threat to their control. Inconsistencies in the stories, although common among eyewitnesses in many crimes, were used to fuel the controversy and helped to set off an uprising at Attica Correctional Facility in New York three weeks later. Bingham was acquitted in 1986 after emerging from hiding to stand trial.[citation needed]

Trial[edit]

In San Francisco, proceedings were held in the Department 21 courtroom on the third floor of the Hall of Justice, the same courtroom in which Ruchell Magee would later be tried on charges related to the murder of Judge Haley.[13][14] Spectators, including the press, were separated from the proceedings by a $15,000 floor-to-ceiling barrier constructed of metal, wood, and bullet-proof glass.[13][nb 3] Throughout the trial, there were attempts to annul the proceedings on technicalities. There were complaints on behalf of the defendants that they were not informed of the scheduled court hearing, specifically in a letter from George Jackson on June 13, 1970. They also claimed the court report stated that 1-48 pages of the testimony were recorded and they were only given 1-46 pages of testimony.[2] After Jackson’s death, on March 27, 1972, the two surviving Soledad Brothers—Clutchette and Drumgoole—were acquitted by a San Francisco jury of the original charges of murdering a prison guard on the grounds that the state had failed to completely prove its case.[15] For many supporters, the Soledad Brothers were victims of a vast prison conspiracy.[citation needed] They further believe the yard riot was triggered to intensify racial tensions and incriminate several leaders of reform groups such as George Jackson and W.L. Nolen and their affiliation with the Black Panther Party.[citation needed]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ The final words Jonathan Jackson used in the San Rafael courthouse.[2]
  2. ^ Eight years after George Jackson's death, Fay Stender was shot in 1979, allegedly by a member of the Black Guerilla Family for not supporting Jackson's militarist politics. She suffered severe injuries that led to her paralysis. Stender committed suicide in May, 1980.[12]
  3. ^ The barrier was also reported to be soundproof, thereby requiring a public address system so that spectators could hear the proceedings.[13]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Prison Guard Is Beaten to Death". Beaver County Times. January 17, 1970. Retrieved August 14, 2010. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Jackson, George (1970). Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson. Toronto, Canada: Longmans Canada Limited. ISBN 978-0698103474. 
  3. ^ Hatfield, Lary (January 7, 1985). "Last vestiges of radical movement will go on trial in Bingham case". The Day (New London, Connecticut: The Day Publishing Company). pp. 1–4. Retrieved July 15, 2011. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f Aptheker, Bettina (1969). The Morning Breaks: The Trial of Angela Davis. Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-8014-8597-5. 
  5. ^ "Negro Prisoners Begin Hunger Strike in Bid for Investigation". The Bulletin. January 15, 1970. Retrieved August 11, 2010. 
  6. ^ Andrews, Lori (1999) [1996]. Black Power, White Blood: The Life and Times of Johnny Spain. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. p. 130. ISBN 9781566397506. 
  7. ^ Bernstein, Lee (2010). "The Age of Jackson: George Jackson and the Radical Critique of Incarceration". America is the Prison: Arts and Politics in Prison in the 1970s. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 9780807871171. Retrieved July 12, 2011. 
  8. ^ Scott, Austin (October 18, 1970). "New Rebellion Brewing Inside Nation's Prisons". The Tuscaloosa News (Tuscaloosa, Alabama). AP. Retrieved July 13, 2011. 
  9. ^ a b Aptheker, B. (1999). The Morning Breaks: The Trial of Angela Davis. Cornell University Press. ISBN 9780801485978. Retrieved April 13, 2015. 
  10. ^ "Justice: A Bad Week for the Good Guys". TIME. August 1970. Retrieved June 4, 2008. 
  11. ^ Caldwell. Earl. "Angela Davis Acquitted on All Charges", The New York Times, June 5, 1972.<
  12. ^ James, Joy. Imprisoned Intellectuals: America's Political Prisoners Write on Life, Liberation, and Rebellion. New York, New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc. pp. 86-87; ISBN 978-0742520271.
  13. ^ a b c Streeter, Harold V. (August 29, 1971). "'Soledad Brothers' Conflict Incites 11 Violent Deaths" (PDF). San Francisco Examiner (San Francisco, California). Retrieved July 21, 2010. 
  14. ^ Streeter, Harold V. (August 18, 1972). "Magee Trial – Dullsville Revisited" (pdf). San Francisco, California. Retrieved July 21, 2010. 
  15. ^ "Acquit Soledad Brothers", Pacific Stars and Stripes, March 29, 1972, p1

Further reading[edit]

  • Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson (1970). ISBN 1-55652-230-4
  • Min S Yee. The Melancholy History of Soledad Prison; In Which a Utopian Scheme Turns Bedlam (1973). ISBN 0-06-129800-X