by Willie Sundiata Tate
For me Black August means many things. It is the beginning of Haiti’s revolution. It was in August that the first Black indentured servants/slaves landed in Jamestown that began our long journey of horror in what became known as the United States. It is about Nat Turner’s slave uprising and Gabriel Prosser’s attempt at the same.
It is a month of reflection on the losses that we as a people have suffered in that month. It is a month of courageous struggle and sacrifice. It is a month of resistance. It is a month of high elation and extreme sorrow – elation for our resistance, sorrow for our losses.
For me, the three most significant events of August are Jonathan Jackson’s raid on the Marin County Courthouse in 1970, the August 1971 liberation of the San Quentin Adjustment Center by Comrade George Jackson and Nat Turner’s slave uprising.
Jonathan’s “audacity, audacity and more audacity” describes the move of Aug. 7, 1970, in which he liberated William Christmas, James McClain and Ruchell Magee for a short time before being shot dead. Jonathan’s raid was an attempt to free not only those brothers, but in taking hostages he sought to have bargain chips to later trade in for his brother’s freedom.
Of course, it was not just about the freedom of George, but it was also about freeing all George’s comrades. To me, Jonathan is a hero. His heroic act had the impact of making many of us inside even more committed to the struggle and willing to give up our lives to the revolution. His act was totally inspiring!
In my opinion, Nat Turner and George Jackson are forever linked by events that took place 140 years apart. The day that George was shot in the head by prison officials as he laid wounded on the ground just happened to be the same day that Nat Turner began his insurrection.
If Comrade had chosen that day to liberate instead of having it forced upon him by prison officials in their initial attempt to assassinate him, he could not have chosen a better day. They both were about making revolution in their lifetime. Nat sought to end Black slavery by rising up and killing the slave owners, thereby freeing the slaves.
Jonathan Jackson’s heroic act had the impact of making many of us inside even more committed to the struggle and willing to give up our lives to the revolution. His act was totally inspiring!
Comrade George sought to end neo-slavery by educating the people to the evils and inhumanity of a racist, oppressive capitalist system and to show that resistance is always possible as long as you have the will and the courage to do so. He showed that if you could come together, you could do some things; you could make some changes.
He gave his life to the struggle for self-determination, which to him was more important than life itself: “I don’t care how long I live. Over this I have no control, but I do care about what kind of life I live, and I can control this. I may not live but another five minutes, but it will be five minutes definitely on my terms … I’ll never, never trade my self-determination … control over the circumstances that surround my existence is of the first importance to me,” he wrote in “Soledad Brother.”
Comrade hated the capitalist system; he hated how it played workers off against one another and how it turned people against themselves. He knew that those who govern have a responsibility to the rest of us to represent us by providing from the cradle to the grave an “equitable share of wealth and privilege.” “Meaningful social roles, education, medical care, food, shelter and understanding should be guaranteed at birth,” he said.
He knew that wealth, land and resources should be held in common for all. There should not be a hierarchy that stood above us all. In his personal life, George would share with others whatever commissary that he had. He didn’t have to know you. He truly believed in looking out for those who did not have. He was a true example of what a revolutionary “who is guided by true feelings of love” does in practice.
“I don’t care how long I live. Over this I have no control, but I do care about what kind of life I live, and I can control this. I may not live but another five minutes, but it will be five minutes definitely on my terms … I’ll never, never trade my self-determination … control over the circumstances that surround my existence is of the first importance to me.” – George Jackson
Personally, for me it is a time of painful remembrance. The memory of Jonathan Jackson’s raid on Marin County Courthouse is painful. William Christmas I knew personally; I had chopped it up with him on the yard at San Quentin on several occasions. On the morning of his death, as he was in the foyer area, I joked with him and he didn’t respond. This was not like him. Later on, I realized that he most likely had something heavier on his mind. I personally knew Ruchell Magee, who still languishes in a California prison 42 years later.
Remembering Aug. 21, 1971, when Comrade George Jackson had his life snuffed out, is painful. To know that prison officials got away with murder on that day and have never paid any dues for the crime that they committed against one of our greatest teachers, resisters and leaders is painful. In fact, in court they lied about how he died, thereby covering up his murder.
It was a day of brutal beatings and nigger callings, of lying naked on the grass while hogtied. It was a day of extreme humiliation, of being forced to crawl on one’s elbows and knees, and listening to prison guards singing songs about “George Jackson laying arotting in his grave.” I am sure that Nat Turner experienced worse as he waited to be hanged.
It was also a day of vengeance, where prisoners took revenge against their tormentors, prison guards, slaying three of them along with two trustees, who unfortunately were in the wrong place at the wrong time. I am sorry for them.
To know that prison officials got away with murder on that day and have never paid any dues for the crime that they committed against one of our greatest teachers, resisters and leaders is painful.
Out of the events of that day, six prisoners, Hugo Pinell, Fleeta Drumgo, Luis Talamantez, David Johnson, Johnny Spain and Willie Sundiata Tate were singled out for punishment by the state and became known as the San Quentin Six. In 1971, legal proceeding were initiated against the six.
On Aug. 12, 1976, our trial ended with acquittals for three of us. David Johnson and Hugo Pinell were convicted of assaults. Johnny Spain was convicted of conspiracy to murder. Johnny was released many years ago.
It is only Hugo who remains locked down in the SHU at Pelican Bay. We all faced assaults by prison staff, but none of us faced the kind of torture on a daily basis that Hugo Pinell suffered. That brother had clubs stuck up his ass and was assaulted as he travelled back and forth from San Quentin to court in Salinas, California, where he was a defendant on another case.
Hugo knows what pain is. Sometimes, after he returned from court, he would have blood dripping from his face and, occasionally, there would be a tear in his eyes. He never complained. He silently pushed on. He was and is a soldier. But it is time for him to come home. Other than prison medical personnel or prison guards, he hasn’t touched another human being since 1976.
In a letter written in 2007, Hugo says, “As you know, I haven’t had a contact visit since December 1970.” He says further, “My point is that, with this isolation and with the board having so much juice, my situation is deeper because they can keep using more BS to say I’m not suitable for release. Thus I’m really doing life without (the possibility of parole) even though my time was completed long ago.”
This brother wrote this after he had already done 43 years. At present he has been locked up 47 years. Speaking on his conditions of confinement, he says: “In the SHUs, you can’t have much of anything. More importantly, you can’t have contact visits, period! In 2009 I was given a 15-year denial … I would be bullshitting you if I didn’t admit this hurt. It has hurt me all along, especially not being able to touch mom, grandmom and others.”
The recent hunger strikes in the segregation units of several California prisons was an attempt to address some of the issues that Hugo has spoken of in many of his letters. The sensory deprivation, as you can see from Hugo’s words, clearly is one of the worst things that you can do to another human being. It is considered inhumane by international standards.
How can this continue to happen in the US of A? It is just the same as when police in our inner cities decide to murder innocent people without due process of a trial. This happens throughout the US of A and has been condemned internationally. How many cops have served time for such murders? It is almost unheard of.
The sensory deprivation, as you can see from Hugo’s words, clearly is one of the worst things that you can do to another human being. It is considered inhumane by international standards. How can this continue to happen in the US of A?
The criminal justice system is biased against us and all people of color as well as the poor. In today’s atmosphere, where working and poor people are catching hell all over the landscape, it is interesting that those on the very bottom of society – prisoners – are rising up, being fed up with living a torturous existence and trying to do something about it.
It is only fitting that we who are also suffering stand up and fight against those who want to hold us down while profiteering off the sweat of the working class. The downtrodden will rise and so will working class and poor people.
Willie Sundiata Tate can be reached at email@example.com.