Jo Durden-Smith, ‘Who Killed George Jackson?’ (11/08/76)

At the time of his death at San Quentin Prison on August 21, 1971, George Jackson, a 29-year-old black convict, was serving his eleventh year of a one-­to-life sentence for robbery, and facing trial, along with two other black prisoners, for the January, 1970, murder of a guard at Soledad Prison. Jackson had also achieved great fame. His book of prison letters, Soledad Brother, published in the fall of 1970, had been called “one of the finest pieces of black writing ever to be printed…the most important single volume from a black since The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”

It was a typical notice, and a fair one. The response to Jackson’s book was translated into political support for Jack­son and his co-defendants (together, they became known as the Soledad Brothers). Always, the fund-raisings and rallies held across America and in Europe focused on Jackson.

Yet back in California Jackson’s fame was neither so simple nor so salutary. He attracted many who were eager to aid in his legal defense, but also those who were willing to kill for him, and more who would not kill for him, but who promised that they would. He attracted as well those who wanted to kill him. State and local police intelligence agencies had infiltrated the Black Panthers, prison reform and legal defense groups working with Jackson: they had knowledge of many of the plots and conspiracies discussed by some of Jackson’s supporters: plots to break Jackson out of prison or to begin revolutionary warfare. Sometimes intelligence agents attempted to take those plots over; to turn plots hatched for Jackson’s benefit against him; to make him a conspirator in his own murder.

Out of these murky events has come an extraordinary book: Who Killed George Jackson? (Knopf), by Jo Durden-Smith, a brilliant portrayal of radical, police, and prison politics in California—but not because it offers any easy answers, or even many hard ones. “It’s not only a question of what the facts are,” Durden-Smith said in a recent interview in San Francisco. “It’s also a question of who owns them.” But it is not even exactly a question of facts at all. Durden-Smith came to California, he says, with the idea that “All I had to do…to write my small piece of history was to find the facts buried in the piles of conflicting evidence.” What he found instead of immutable facts were hazy symbolic figures and tangible murders: murders committed by those symbolic figures, or murders of them. It is an almost classic detective story. It has the disturbing complexity of motives and masks of a spy thriller by John Le Carre or Joseph Hone, and the emotional anchor—the commitment of the detective to the mystery he has determined to crack—of the best work of Raymond Chandler or Ross MacDonald. It is first-rate political history—and political criticism—that is distinguished by intellectual clarity and a freedom from cant. It is a book of martyrs, but a book of martyrs that is also an unrelieved record of bad faith, self-deception, and betrayal. And it is, perhaps most interestingly, an act of owning up by Durden-Smith him­self, an English filmmaker and journalist who, frustrated by the sterility and smugness of the London Left in the late sixties and seventies, found himself drawn into an “imaginary relationship” with George Jackson. Durden-Smith was not the only one. For George Jackson was not only a convict, and not merely a famous writer. George Jackson was the last great hero of a long political rebellion that—beginning in the late fifties, and perhaps reaching peak with the Paris revolt of 1968 and the American anti-war movement of the late sixties—marked a turning point in our history; as has been said of the failed revolutions of 1848, it was a turning point in history when history refused to turn.

In 1970, when Jackson’s name first gained currency among radicals and liberals, left-wing politics in America were deepening in intensity and desperation even as their field of action was shrinking. Radicals felt trapped by their ever-increasing knowledge of the institutional injustices of American life—and by hidden doubts about their own efficacy and purity. And so, as has happened before in such situations, changes took place. The idea of “a correct line” began to replace thought; discipline to replace inventiveness and expression; symbolic actions and fantasies of terror to replace attempts to organize communities and groups: and secret cells to replace public mass movements.

As the field of action narrowed, so did the left’s view of America. The perfect microcosm of America, it was accepted—the ideal worst case—was to be found in its prisons. Thus, radical efforts were directed at the prisons, and a remarkable paradox developed: As prisoners, especially black prisoners, came to look to the radical groups outside as a means of personal and political salvation, radicals outside began to look to the prisoners for the same rewards. But it was a dangerous paradox. because each side wanted from the other something it lacked the ability to deliver. The prisoners wanted power over the prisons, and, ultimately, freedom; the radicals wanted a revolution in the prisons that would finally begin the revolution itself.

George Jackson symbolized, and overshadowed, this crucial shift in politics and perception; he became to some a figure of almost religious force, a man who might, by the strength of his own personality, absorb the failures and weaknesses of the left, and magically transform them into victory—or, short of that, into a kind of personal justification for those who had remained pure. Speaking for himself, Durden-Smith defines Jack­son as he was seen by many as the seventies began: “I came to think of him not just as a hero…but as something more personal: a wholly admirable man, a standard. However variable we were, Jackson was real, a fixed point, something to hold on to. He had made himself his own man. He was the way he sounded. Few could say as much.” When Durden­-Smith arrived here early in 1972 to investigate the question of Jackson’s death, the story as he and most others knew it was as follows.

A petty thief and small-time gun­man—eighteen years old and a three-time loser—George Jackson entered California’s prisons in 1960. Repeatedly turned down by the Adult Authority—the parole board—and disciplined with years of solitary confinement, he attempted to make political sense of his life. He read economics, political theory, and revolutionary and third world history. Convict life in California prisons was a round-robin war between racist gangs of whites, Mexican-Americans and blacks; Jackson came to understand that the convicts’ racism served the interests of the keepers, and he took steps—small, brave, risky steps—to educate and organize convicts across racial lines, not against each other, but against the guards, the wardens, and the government.

Prison authorities perceived Jackson’s actions as the worst sort of threat to the prison system itself. Partly in response to the rising political self-consciousness of many of the convicts, guards at Soledad Prison, where Jackson was incarcerated, set up a confrontation between feuding black and Chicano prisoners early in 1970. In the prison exercise yard, the anticipated fight broke out, and a guard, primed for the trouble, shot three black prisoners, all of whom later died. The guard was soon cleared by a grand jury; in short order, a guard in the maximum security ward, uninvolved in the killings in the yard, was killed in revenge. Jack­son and two other black convicts were charged with the murder. The possibility that Jackson was being framed for his politics was more than credible; a defense committee was set up, and support ranged far beyond California. White radicals, and the Black Panther Party, began to shift their activities from the streets to the prisons.

On August 7, Jackson’s seventeen-­year-old brother, Jonathan, entered the Marin County Courthouse, armed three black convicts, and took five hostages, who were to be held against the release of the Soledad Brothers—who had by that time been transferred to nearby San Quentin prison to await their trial. In the shooting that followed, Jonathan Jackson, two of the convicts and one hostage—a judge—were killed. Two months later, Jackson’s book appeared, dedicated to his brother. Jackson immediately became a world figure.

A little more than a year after his brother died, and shortly before his trial was to begin, Jackson, armed with a gun, broke out of the maximum security ward of San Quentin and into the prison exercise yard. He was shot and killed by a guard. Three guards and two white convict trustees were found dead in the ward from which Jackson had run. Prison authorities announced that a visitor, white radical attorney Stephen Bingham (who disappeared the night of August 21, and who has since surfaced only once, in 1974, when he announced through a reporter that he was living secretly in Canada), had smuggled the gun to Jackson, and that Jackson had been attempting to escape, this explanation did not fit the evidence, which included, among many anomalies, a gun too big to have been hidden without either detection or connivance by the guards. Jackson’s supporters claimed he had been set up, and assassinated.

Who Killed George Jackson? begins with “History as Fiction,” a frankly nov­elistic reconstruction of the events that took place at San Quentin on August 21, based in the main on grand jury testimony, most of it from prison guards. It is, in other words, essentially the state’s case—here, Jackson pulls the smuggled gun and initiates the carnage—as it was assembled for use against the six convicts who were charged, along with Stephen Bingham, with murder, conspiracy, and other crimes related to the deaths of August 21.

Durden-Smith writes that his presentation of what can probably be called the official version of the case is “fictional in two senses: imaginary rather than real, and unproven rather than true.” Durden-Smith doubts—and will later contradict—a good deal of the story as he tells it here, but he does not shrink from it. He uses a stark, direct narrative voice, and because the reader knows the climax to which each small detail of the day is leading, the flat tone of the writing causes the tension inherent in each incident to build, until the final explosion seems implicit in the most ordinary and trivial of the encounters described. The result is the kind of dramatic momentum that forces a reader to suspend disbelief or even doubt, and I think one must assume that is what Durden-Smith is aiming for. He wants his narrative to convince, but not quite in the sense of leading the reader to accept it as “the facts.” Rather, the specificity of violence—of each of the six killings—is to be impressed on one’s mind, and impressed deeply. The graphic, second-by-second nature of the descriptions is meant to ensure that as the story develops, no reader, regardless of his or her point of view, will be able to disguise these deaths in the politics that led to them—or that have since been called forth, by those on all sides, to justify them. Before seeking answers to crucial factual questions—Where did the gun come from? How many guns were there? (Save for those in watchtowers, prison guards are not permitted to carry firearms.) If a gun was passed to Jackson, was it meant to be inoperative?—and scores more—Dur­den-Smith files a refusal to smooth over a horror that in itself creates a different sort of fact. He is suggesting that there is a way in which a recognition of that horror must precede, and outlast, whatever other facts may eventually be found.

How and why six men came to be killed at San Quentin on August 21 may be disputed; the fact that they were killed cannot be. This may seem obvious; Durden-Smith’s primary argument throughout his book is that in the world in which these events took place, it was not. (Just this spring, one could read in Mother Jones, the new slick-paper left-wing magazine, that, “People may argue over what—if any—crimes the SLA committed.”) Durden-Smith writes at the close of his study that when he stepped into the case, the deaths it encompassed—there are at least eighteen—were not real to him; he begins by establishing the premises of their reality. With cold, physical detail, he puts back into death the sting one’s politics can rob from it.soledadWhatever picture one has of who George Jackson was and of what happened on the day he died, that picture is to be collapsed by “History as Fact,” the product of Durden-Smith’s investigations in California. Here the reader enters an underworld. The principal figures of the case emerge wearing masks, and then, turning half out of the light, change faces, and finally slip away altogether. Some are dead and some have vanished. Each actor is real, each played a part and each made a connection without which the event could not have occurred. Each knows more—or less—than he or she has told. But all the actors take shape as the creation of their own fantasies, and of the fantasies of those who knew them, who seek to protect them, or who seek revenge upon them.

As the actors circle Jackson, a new landscape begins to come into view; the actors are as much Jackson’s invention as he is theirs. They are white radicals, Black Panthers, informers, the police and their agents—and sometimes a single actor may be all of them at once. We meet, for example, Vanita Anderson, a black woman who was, in the early seventies, associated with a particularly militaristic faction of the Black Panthers, and with Jackson’s defense. According to witnesses and other evidence, it was she who accompanied Stephen Bingham to San Quentin, and handed him the tape recorder in which, the state contended, a gun was hidden. So says the state; yet Anderson was never called to testify. Durden-Smith interviews her in Houston; she is vague, nervous and a little desperate. He has no shortage of stories about her, not to mention fantasies and suppositions of his own. He tries to test them. Was she a courier for an attempt by the Panthers to break Jackson out? A police agent meant to set up Bingham, or Jackson, or the two of them together? An unknowing patsy in either plan, or, worse, in both? As he does with every crucial participant in the case, Durden-Smith traces Ander­son’s biography (Who Killed George Jackson? is, among other things, a beautifully handled study of the many different roads to radicalism and revolution that in the sixties opened up for whites and blacks)—perhaps the clue is there. But the truth is more confusing, and more disturbing. The woman at San Quentin seems very likely not to have been Vanita Anderson at all, but a white woman carrying Anderson’s identification, and made up as a black—a young radical, involved with the prison movement, with conflicting loyalties among various convicts, who has since disappeared. It is doubtful that Stephen Bing­ham had any idea of who she was. Did Anderson? Did Jackson? Were these actors Jackson’s creation, or was he, in terms of the actions they may have led him to take, theirs? Did Jackson mastermind a plot that was taken over by the police, or did the police, through their agents among Jackson’s following, create a plot Jackson eagerly accepted? Who invented whom?

Again and again, disappearances turn into murders, and actions that were once only rumors—or apparently spontaneous, suicidal gestures—appear as overlapping conspiracies well out of anyone’s control. The betrayals become more tenuous—those who caused Jackson to believe his following was more prepared to act than it was laid the tracks for Jackson’s own schemes, schemes that would help to bring about his death—and more ominous. In one of the most intriguing episodes of the story, Durden-Smith finds that in order to escape, Jackson directed two men he trusted most—Fred Bennett, a Black Panther, and James Carr, Jackson’s closest friend—to recruit and train a secret army. They did so; after several full-scale military missions were aborted, Bennett—almost certainly a police agent—was executed, most probably by Carr. The remnants of the army began to smuggle material into San Quentin; unbeknownst to Jackson, the material was fake. Then the word went out among the Bay Area left that Carr—by that time in jail on assault charges growing out of a fight at one of Jackson’s court hearings, and, as an ex-con and a parole violator, facing life in prison—was himself an agent. Even Jackson began to suspect him—Carr had been “bad-jacketed.” But by whom?

The “bad-jacketing” technique, well known in prisons where guards are adept at turning members of a group against each other, also creates a pressure point. When a man is abandoned by his comrades because of a rumor slipped into the prison grapevine, when suspicion and rancor suddenly replace old loyalties, it is easier to turn him into the stoolie…The man feels cheated and threatened. His loyalties come to reflect the new status thrust upon him by the word put out about him. He abandons those who have abandoned him, becomes the enemy of those who have assumed him, without proof, to be one.

Such is the state of mind one must adopt to follow the tale Durden-Smith is telling. Reading, one wonders just how this state of mind applied to Carr. Was he vulnerable to such pressure? Did it matter, if others thought he was? Did Carr purposely arrange his own arrest at Jackson’s court hearing, to get himself out of the way before the plots he had entered broke open? Or did he, as a man still loyal to Jackson, subconsciously act to remove himself from an affair he had helped to create, but that he dimly understood he could not control?

Carr survived Jackson—by nine months. Out of jail and living quietly in San Jose, he was shot and killed one morning by two hired gunmen. They were caught and sent to prison with their silence intact. The territory staked out by Jackson had been inherited—by white radicals training in terrorism; by the Black Panthers, with whom Jackson had been a Field Marshal; by Angela Davis, who had been in love with Jackson, and who was, at the time of Carr’s death, facing trial for conspiracy in Jonathan Jackson’s raid; by undercover agents, intelligence operatives; by prison guards and prison administrators; by Carr; by Durden-Smith, the investigator. The life of each inheritor very possibly depended on his ability to protect his piece of the legacy: to protect it from those who sought to claim it, or from those who, like Durden-Smith, sought to trace its source. When Durden-Smith arrived in California before Carr’s death, it had not occurred to him that his case would still be seeking victims, that its resolution was still up for grabs.

Durden-Smith came to California to prove that Jackson had been assassinated by San Quentin guards and by the police; to a significant degree, he does prove that. But he also found out much that he did not want to know: that as a convict Jackson fought not only for control over the destiny of his people but for control over prison rackets; that Jackson had foreknowledge of his brother’s suicidal raid—that in fact, he planned it: that while he was framed by the state in terms of the evidence it planned to use against him, Jackson did commit the murder with which he was charged. For Jackson’s mask was certainly as carefully made as anyone’s.

Like many others, Durden-Smith had understood George Jackson as a man “who was the way he sounded.” Freedom from hypocrisy was an ideal central to the struggle; yet in the politics of Jackson’s death, this ideal was itself a mask, to be drawn over a world in which no one was, or dared to be, as he or she seemed—a world in which to be the way one sounded meant only that one did not say who one was. And it is with knowledge of this sort—with Durden­-Smith’s uncomfortable truths about Jackson, and with the climate of terror and uncertainty that is the shroud of the entire case—that another “fact,” like the primary fact of horror, takes over the story. That fact is an unshakable feeling of menace, and after a time it comes to supersede the myriad of smaller and more tangible facts out of which the story itself is made.

Much of the information in Who Killed George Jackson? is not new. A good deal of it parallels the disconnected account given by Gregory Armstrong, Jackson’s editor, in The Dragon Has Come (Armstrong was the first to establish that Jackson killed the guard at Soledad); I think Durden-Smith’s perspective owes more than a little to the extremely sophisticated political analysis that closes James Carr’s posthumously published autobiography, Bad. There is much to criticize. Durden­-Smith claims, more than once, that as a convict Jackson raped and killed other prisoners, and that to a great extent Soledad Brother was not of his making; these assertions may be true, but with no real evidence to support them, assertions are all they are, and that is not good enough. The book ends with a call for “a politics of feeling,” but it is never clear what this might be.

Durden-Smith’s book is a piece of—and, without lapsing into facile metaphorical pretensions, often speaks for—a political adventure, sometimes brave and sometimes corrupt, that was played out over much of the world. It is also, of course, very much a California story, but not simply because the story took place here: Tales of horror, acted out in what the rest of the country often likes to call either “paradise” or “the future at work,” say a good deal more about California, or America in general, than Californians or Americans are willing or able to hear. Violent crime in California, like violent crime in most of urban America, is routine, but in the last years it has also tended increasingly to the bizarre. Politics and race have been at the source of some of the most terrifying crimes; some of the strangest have occurred a long way from the city, as if the most benign parts of the countryside offer the richest fields for demonology. San Francisco’s unsolved Zodiac killings and its black-against-white Zebra killings; the Manson atrocities; the mass murder of more than a score of migrant workers, for which Juan Corona was convicted; the frenzy of mass murders in the quiet vacation area of Santa Cruz, where Jackson’s secret army trained, and where Fred Bennett’s body was burned down to fragments of bone; Jonathan Jackson’s assault in Marin; the assassination of Marcus Foster and the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army; and, only months ago, the Chowchilla, kidnapping—these events do not mesh with the assumptions that underlie the daily life of those of us who live in California as readily as we presume street crime does the daily life of those who live in New York. But if these events—and George Jackson’s death is another—are deeply rooted in the imperatives of California life, either as expressions of secret, shared longings, or as the worst subversions of those longings, how are we who live in California—or any Americans who look to California for a crucial version of the life this country has to offer—to understand our connections to these events? In California, horror is soon absorbed by the smooth contours of the landscape; there is nothing Gothic here. Once glimpsed, the connections between the bizarre and the normal are almost impossible to sustain.

Confronted with an event such as Jackson’s death, one inhabits a kind of limbo; one is unable to unravel the politics from the murders, from a lot of murders. Perhaps those who do not in­habit the killing ground find that separation easier to make, and to live out; but perhaps such a separation only cre­ates another limbo, a crueler falsehood. As I thought back over what I had read, I remembered a conversation Durden-­Smith speaks of having overheard at a meeting called by a London Communist Party group seeking to raise funds for Jackson’s defense. The long line of martyred heroes, from Sacco and Vanzetti to the Rosenbergs, was called forth: the implication seemed to be “that though the struggle went on, the causes were not quite what they had been.”


New West, November 8, 1976


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