From CAPTIVE NATION: BLACK PRISON ORGANIZING IN THE CIVIL RIGHTS ERA by Dan Berger. Copyright © 2014 The University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu
The late 1970s was a hard time for black prison organizing. What were once perceived as extreme forms of imprisonment — punishment and isolation without end — were becoming the norm of confinement. Even the limited physical movement that had been possible a decade earlier was becoming more difficult, while the conflict between guards and dissident prisoners had not subsided. In short, conditions inside had become increasingly volatile. On the outside, many organizations that had been focused on prisoner issues had splintered or disappeared. Although there was no shortage of either outrage or organizing, fewer people were paying attention to what was happening in prisons. Several organizations that had worked to improve prison conditions during much of the preceding two decades had folded or moved on to other areas of activism. The remaining organizations were smaller and often governed by a sense of scarcity that prevented coalitions from forming or lasting.
Further, many organizations lacked the capacity to deal with the traumas faced by currently and formerly incarcerated people. Years of witnessing, experiencing, and fearing violence took a toll on people. After spending most of their adult — and in some cases their juvenile — lives incarcerated, some people faced steep challenges in life on the other side of prison walls. They saw cities declining and a Left ill equipped to handle people in crisis. Economic recession, urban redevelopment, and a growing ideology of privatization meant that the government offered fewer resources to help people in need.
The combination of these factors made the late 1970s a time of bloody transition for prison organizing. In California, a series of violent episodes resulted in the deaths of several leading figures and severely weakened the prison movement. Wounded and with a shrinking sense of possibility, black prison organizing survived by prioritizing survival strategies. The use of nationalism increased as a way of maintaining a larger worldview as the immediate surroundings became more constricted.
Black prison organizing always referred simultaneously to conditions in prison and conditions in the world outside of prison. The prison defined their efforts, and this dialectic solidified the nationalist mantra of self-reliance: prisoners needed to look out for one another because American institutions had proven themselves hostile to black survival. Prisoners needed to use whatever resources were at their disposal, especially education and physical self-discipline, to bolster their political resolve. “We begin with ourselves,with study and practice,” Atiba Shanna wrote in his outline for rebuilding the prison movement. Similar sentiments appeared in New Afrikan prison papers: as prisoners grappled with an expanding and increasingly repressive prison system, they argued that any hope for change lay in perfecting themselves — their physical care, intellectual acumen, and cultural proficiency — while simultaneously confronting the government. Such sentiments provided a left-wing gloss on the emerging conservative rhetoric of “personal responsibility” rather than government stewardship, even if such personal discipline was offered as a necessary step to rebuild a radical challenge to the state.
Prison organizing continued to experiment with this outward-looking form of self-reliance in the form of Black August, a solemn holiday invented by California prisoners inspired by George Jackson. Black August emerged at a moment of transition, and prisoners hoped it would be the start of a new era of activism. Though it did not catalyze a new mass movement, it ushered in a new era of prison organizing during which a culture of prison radicalism continued despite an increasingly repressive environment.
Prisoners had attempted similar endeavors, among them the Black Solidarity Day protest held by prisoners in Auburn, New York, on November 2, 1970. Black August was a new effort, merging historical memory with the prison realities of the late 1970s. Isolation and containment were the watchwords of late 1970s penal discipline as prison authorities tried to limit prisoners’ contact with each other in hopes of eliminating their organizing. But violence against prisoners sparked their organizing, and such violence continued, both from guards and between rival prison gangs. An economic downturn and the growing law-and-order climate led to overcrowding in many prisons. In addition, the elimination of educational programs, the use of prison-wide lockdowns, and the spread of isolation units further atomized and frustrated prisoners. The conflagrations that emerged from these conditions displayed less political overtones than earlier protests and therefore tended to be less threatening to the institution itself. In both California and New York, black prisoners faced growing violence from neo-Nazi gangs. At Eastern New York Correctional Facility in Napanoch, several guards were active members of the Ku Klux Klan. The entrenchment of the racist Right inside American prisons contributed to the growing violence: at San Quentin, scores of attacks during the 1970s had led the prison system to experiment with institution-wide lockdowns.
In tandem with Muntaqim’s appeal to the United Nations, prison activists held demonstrations at the gates of San Quentin starting in 1977. The organizers chose August to commemorate Jackson’s heroism and death. In 1977 and 1978, the protests were held on or around August 21, and the organization sponsoring the march called itself the August 21 Coalition. The prisoners’ demands on behalf of which the demonstrators petitioned included access to media through which prison conditions could be exposed. The coalition staged numerous large demonstrations at the gates of San Quentin, bringing together a range of groups — including, on at least one occasion, members of the Peoples Temple prior to their move to (and subsequent mass suicide in) Guyana.
The August 21 demonstrations and what became Black August constituted attempts by prison activists to rebuild the political thrust of antiprison protest in the context of bleak internecine battles. Between 1977 and 1979, the California prison population increased, while a series of shootings wounded or felled a handful of noteworthy activists. On April 27, 1977, San Quentin 6 member Willie Sundiata Tate was severely wounded and Earl Satcher was killed in a shootout outside a San Francisco food co-op. Satcher, a veteran of the California prison system, had founded an ostensibly radical group called Tribal Thumb after his release. While several sincere activists were attracted to the group, Satcher used it to advance his own interests with a certain cruelty. A member of Tribal Thumb had been convicted for shooting and killing progressive schoolteacher Sally Voye and UPU organizer Popeye Jackson while the pair sat in a parked car in San Francisco in the early morning hours of June 2, 1975. Satcher apparently wanted to kill Tate as part of a forced takeover of the co-op board for personal financial gain.
On May 28, 1979, in a shocking act of violence, three people entered attorney Fay Stender’s house in the middle of the night. They forced her at gunpoint to write a confession proclaiming that she had “abandoned George Jackson in his time of need” and then shot her six times. She survived, paralyzed and in considerable pain. She took her own life a year later. Several attorneys who had been close to the prison movement, many of them members of the NLG, distanced themselves from certain prisoner cases after the attack on Stender, and some completely severed their ties to the prison movement.
In November 1979, Fleeta Drumgo was gunned down on an Oakland street. Drumgo had been exonerated in two of the biggest cases of the era, the Soledad Brothers and the San Quentin 6, but had difficulty returning to life outside of prison. After his release, he sabotaged many of his friendships through manipulative behavior, and his death apparently resulted from a drug deal gone wrong, although some observers allege that he was killed deliberately. Together, these shootings had a chilling effect on the California prison movement precisely when it was most needed to confront the rising tide of mass incarceration.
By 1979, then, dissident prisoners were isolated in prison and at greater remove from outsiders. As a result, they turned inward to maintain a political trajectory that seemed to be slipping away. Black August was said to commemorate the martyrs of the California prison movement, all of whom died in August: George and Jonathan Jackson, William Christmas, James McClain, and Jeffrey Khatari Gaulden, who died at San Quentin on August 1, 1978. Gaulden was a comrade of Jackson’s and a leading figure in the prison military formation Jackson started, the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF).
Gaulden had been imprisoned since 1967, part of the generation of prisoners who became revolutionaries during their confinement. The records of California’s prison movement contain few references to him before his death, though he was well known among Bay Area prison activists and well respected among other men of color in the California prison system. Gaulden, like George Jackson and Hugo Pinell, was a student and friend of W. L. Nolen; also like them, he mentored younger prisoners in developing a political worldview. Like Nolen but unlike Jackson, he was charismatic in a behind-the-scenes way that allowed him to establish a base of organizing inside prisons and become a thorn in the sides of administrators without receiving substantial public notoriety. In May 1972, he was convicted of killing a civilian laundry worker at Folsom the previous September, allegedly in response to Jackson’s death. The incident occurred just after Gaulden had been released from the Adjustment Center, and he was returned there after his conviction. Gaulden’s letters appeared in a pamphlet published by Inez Williams, Fleeta Drumgo’s mother, in an attempt to raise support for men imprisoned in the San Quentin AC.
At the beginning of August 1978, the thirty-two-year-old Gaulden was playing football on the cramped Adjustment Center yard with nine other prisoners. According to Shujaa Graham, a friend of Gaulden’s who was on the yard that day, someone pushed Gaulden too hard, and he hit his head and fell to the ground. As the other prisoners clamored for medical attention for him, guards cleared the yard one person at a time, searching everyone individually, leaving Gaulden bleeding from the head. By the time the other prisoners were cleared and taken back to their cells, Gaulden was dead.
Gaulden had helped initiate the holiday that later honored him. Several prisoners had discussed trying to launch something that would combine radical politics and spiritual sustenance — something more permanent, if less tangible, than campaigns regarding individual cases that could keep the horrors of incarceration front and center on the outside. These prisoners wanted to unite the different threads of black radicalism circulating in prison — those coming from revolutionary political organizations such as the Black Panthers and Black Liberation Army as well as those developed through other sanctioned or illicit organizations.
The development of Black August is inseparable from the Black Guerrilla Family. With its direct connection to George Jackson, the BGF took up the mantle of the prison movement in the 1970s, and for many people, the BGF became synonymous with the prison movement happening inside. The BGF’s roots lie in loose affiliations of black prisoners dating back to the 1960s. Nolen called this network the Black Mafia; it later went by the names of the Capone Gang and the Wolf Pack, although some within this network of prisoners claim never to have heard or used such names.
Around 1967 and at the urging of George Jackson and William Christmas, among others, these associations became far more political. After his brother’s bloody death, Jackson changed the name to the August 7th Guerrilla Movement and reemphasized his goal of uniting the militant prisoners within the California prison system through Marxist theory and urban guerrilla warfare. Jackson had also used the term “Black Guerrilla Family,” and after his death, the name stuck. As with so much of prison politics, the BGF was as much an idea, a way to categorize a certain orientation of black prisoners, as a functional organization. It combined revolutionary nationalist politics with the do-or-die mentality found in many unsanctioned prison organizations.
The decline of socialist organizations such as the Black Panther Party left an absence that was filled by heterodox groupings that combined politics and predatory behavior. More than groups such as the Aryan Brotherhood, Crips, or Mexican Mafia, the BGF began in prison and never had a large corollary structure outside of prison. The California prison system facilitated such entities by dividing prisoners by race and stoking racial hostilities inside its facilities. The BGF saw itself as the heir to a legacy of black liberationist dissent. Dorsey Nunn went to prison at nineteen and was incarcerated throughout much of the 1970s. Functionally illiterate at the time, he “learned to read from the BGF… . And if you didn’t know a word you ask your homeboy, your comrade, and say ‘Hey man! What is this word, what does it mean?’ And it was rewarding to have a homeboy who started out after you come and ask you and be blessed and privileged enough to teach him.” According to Nunn, the BGF was one of several organized political entities in the California prison system that held largely covert political education classes.
Gangs often combined some measure of political critique with their involvement in the illicit economy. The BGF’s political orientation was more pronounced than that of other prisoner groups, although its political foundations always competed with the criminal elements that provided its material foundations. Here again, the prison was not so far removed from what was happening on the streets. The circumstances that gave rise to the Crips in the streets of South Central Los Angeles in the mid-1970s — a toxic combination of limited jobs and growing police and interpersonal violence in the decaying metropolitan center — gave rise to the BGF in the cells of San Quentin. Geographer Mike Davis called the Los Angeles gangs the “bastard offspring of the Panthers’ former charisma, filling the void left by the LAPD SWAT teams.” To the extent that the BGF’s origins can be traced back to Jackson and Nolen, however, its emergence signaled an earlier, parallel origin to the “organized abandonment” of black communities that made such informal associations a central mode of organization in urban ghettoes. These conditions of extreme confinement increasingly became the political reference points for a new generation of prisoners without the hopeful energy of decolonization and a political order openly responsive to popular demands.
The BGF joined the nationalist-inflected politics of early 1970s black prisoners with the emerging dominance of prison gangs, both facilitating and following the changing prison environment. This uneasy balance between political education and criminal activity was a constant source of tension within the BGF, ultimately leading to a split in the organization. The BGF demonstrated some continuity in prison politics from Jackson’s time and was led in the 1970s by his contemporaries. Unlike either prison gangs or street gangs that brought their organizations into the cell block, the BGF began in prison and moved only somewhat onto the street. It was an organization based in the culture of confinement. In the context of institutions that disallowed all organized political activity and fostered divisions among prisoners, groups that retained some capacity for self-defense and physical attack and that combined individual advancement with collective protection stood a better chance of survival than those that did not.