by The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey
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David General Johnson, a former political prisoner, played a major role in the California Prison Movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s. He is here to talk about the assassination of his comrade and co-defendant in the San Quentin 6 case, Hugo “Yogi” Pinell.
M.O.I. JR: Can you tell the people a little bit about the history of your comrade, your friend, your brother Hugo “Yogi” Pinell? Who was Hugo “Yogi” Pinell before the San Quentin 6 case?
David Johnson: Well, he was a soldier of the people. He defended Black prisoners against racist attacks and also he stood up for the rights of prisoners. And when I speak about the rights of prisoners, I am speaking about their basic human rights because civil rights are fleeting – they change with the time – but human rights are steadfast; they don’t change.
People have basic human rights that need to be respected and that’s what Yogi was about, ensuring that our rights as human beings were defended.
He was a soldier of the people. He defended Black prisoners against racist attacks and also he stood up for the rights of prisoners.
M.O.I. JR: Can you talk a little bit about the connection that you and Hugo Pinell had in the California prison system with brothers like Comrade George Jackson as well as others and how that led up to the San Quentin 6 case?
David Johnson: Well, Yogi, George – you know, I came after them. They were already a part of the prison movement when I came into the prison. George will be considered the theoretician and tactician of the movement, but I always considered Yogi as the heart and spirit because of his spirit. He was a warm, loving and spirited brother.
I had read a lot about Che Guevara and his writings, and I always looked at Yogi as embodying the same spirit and principles that Che Guevara was about.
M.O.I. JR: Can you talk a little about the San Quentin 6 case? Who was George Jackson and why was he assassinated? Why was he a threat to the California prison system and the system in general? And what happened Aug. 21, 1971?
David Johnson: Well, you have to talk about the times and conditions that existed at that time. And one of the things that was happening is a lot of Black prisoners were being killed and set up to be killed by guards manipulating the situation.
Jan. 13 was the day when everything exploded, when the guards in Soledad Prison assassinated three brothers on the prison yard. Well, before they put those brothers on the yard – and that was the first time that yard had been used – they knew that there was going to be a racial confrontation on that yard.
A lot of Black prisoners were being killed and set up to be killed by guards manipulating the situation.
And when they put them out there, the only prisoners that got shot were the Black prisoners, and one of the racists who instigated the whole thing got wounded, but he got wounded as a result of the ricochet because they weren’t really shooting at him. They were shooting at the Black prisoners.
And as a result of that, when the court ruled that the killing of those prisoners was justifiable homicide, a guard got killed in Soledad, and George, Fleeta and John Cruchette got charged with that. And they became known as the Soledad Brothers.
Like I said, Soledad exploded. There was an administrator that was killed, there was another guard that was killed, and Yogi got charged with one of those killings, the killing of the guard he went to trial for.
But like I said, every prisoner in the California prison system, when that scene went down – even the racists – knew that was a setup. So throughout this system, things started happening. A guard was killed in Soledad, and I think a group of brothers was charged with that and there were known as Soledad 7.
Every prisoner in the California prison system, when that scene went down – even the racists – knew that was a setup.
And an administrator got killed by two White prisoners, and that was kind of swept under the rug, but they got convicted of that. But Yogi, the Soledad Brothers and the Soledad 7, they got a lot of press as a result of what took place in these situations. What really happened was, a new word, a new thing, came into existence, and that was retaliation for what was happening to prisoners of color.
M.O.I. JR: Aug. 21, 1971?
David Johnson: OK, in that situation, George was manipulated into a situation where they could take the opportunity to assassinate him, but in the process three guards and two White inmates got killed. So to cover up George’s assassination, six of us got charged with trying to escape, possession of explosives and weapons, and conspiracy, and we became known as the San Quentin 6.
It silenced a voice, a spokesman, who was exposing the brutality and the corrupt nature of the system. And George’s voice became very vocal and international. So people in society at large started to see the injustices that were taking place in these institutions.
M.O.I. JR: So that people can understand the importance of George Jackson, can you tell us a little about his concept and the prison movement’s concept of the New Man?
David Johnson: Well, one of the things George made a point of expressing to society at large was the transformation of prison mentality from one involved in criminal activities to a more revolutionary consciousness where when brothers leave prisons, or prisoners in general leave, they can go back to their communities and become assets as opposed to becoming predators and exploiters.
M.O.I. JR: Now, switching back to Hugo Pinell, Hugo Pinell was assassinated Aug. 12, 2015. He was in solitary confinement for decades upon decades, some say the longest held prisoner in California history who was held in solitary confinement.
There was an agreement to end hostilities between different organizations and formations within the prison that was making a lot of leeway, and Hugo Pinell is and was a huge symbol to Black prisoners and prisoners who were fighting politically on the side of the oppressed. What do you think about the assassination? What came to mind when you heard that they assassinated your comrade?
Hugo Pinell is and was a huge symbol to Black prisoners and prisoners who were fighting politically on the side of the oppressed.
David Johnson: What came to mind is this: Racist prisoners don’t respect prison unity. There was an agreement in existence at the time to end all hostilities. But there again, it was an agreement that was not honored by racist White prisoners.
They took advantage of the situation in collusion with prison guards because prison guards hated Yogi. So in collusion with prison guards, they took advantage of the situation and they assassinated Yogi.
They took advantage of the situation in collusion with prison guards because prison guards hated Yogi and they assassinated Yogi.
Theoretically, that would have been enough to destroy the unity that existed, but I guess you could say the more progressive elements in the system were struggling very hard to maintain that unity. And one of the things about that kind of unity is that it poses a threat to the prison administration – because with unity, prisoners can fight for their rights, and everybody will be on the same page in terms of fighting for justice and respect for their basic human rights.
If you destroy that unity and create conflict among that group, then it can be used as justification not to honor civil litigation that was brought against the prison system.
M.O.I. JR: David Johnson, do you have any further comments that you would like to leave with the people about Hugo Pinell as well as the assassination of Hugo Pinell?
David Johnson: I think the thing of significance is that it is not so much about Yogi, or Hugo. The focus should be on what he was about. And he was about humanizing a system that is geared and designed to dehumanize people. And people in society at large should be concerned about what goes on in those institutions.
It is just a reflection of what you see going on in society today, like the racism that exists in universities. You hear about Missouri and then you start hearing about other people taking up the banner. Then you start hearing about people at other universities becoming vocal and outspoken about the systematic racism that exists in their institutions.
He was about humanizing a system that is geared and designed to dehumanize people.
In prisons, it’s more intensified, but it’s all part and parcel of the same institutionalized racist conditions that are established by racists – an instrument to maintain control. And nobody wants to see a loved one or family member going into an institution and being turned into some kind of monster as a result of the conditions that exist in those institutions.
People want to see their people come out to be better human beings, more productive members of society. And as long as those conditions exist in prisons as they do, that is not going to happen. So it is in the interest of society to be concerned about what goes on in those institutions.
M.O.I. JR: I just also want to acknowledge that Hugo Pinell was of African-Nicaraguan descent and you yourself are of African-Puerto Rican descent, so it just proves the connection that African and Brown people have been forging in connecting to fight this monster that has been oppressing both groups.
David Johnson: Correct, what we stood for was in defending the rights of all oppressed people – Black, Brown, White, Indian and all oppressed people – that was our concern: to change the conditions that created and caused the oppression that exists.
The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’” and “Unfinished Business: Block Reportin’ 2” and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe” and “Block Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, at www.blockreportradio.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.