[Ppnews] The assassination of George Jackson

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Aug 21 08:56:27 EDT 2006

A story from this week's San Francisco Bay View on the 35th anniversary

The assassination of George Jackson

Lawyer and political activist Stephen Bingham remembers
George Jackson's funeral

Black Panther archivist Bill Jennings, in his 
report, “George Jackson Funeral,” at 
writes: “When the (church) doors opened, and we 
stepped outside with the body, I saw that the 
crowd had grown tremendously. There were people 
on rooftops, hanging from telephone poles and 
filling the streets. Everyone raised their fists 
in the air and chanted ‘Long Live George 
Jackson.’ It was a sight that could set a fire in 
your heart.” - Photo: Stephen Shames

Last December, in okaying the execution of Stan 
Tookie Williams, California Gov. Arnold 
Schwarzenegger went out of his way to smear a 
whole history of Black struggle against racism. 
The most abuse of all was heaped on George 
Jackson – whose inclusion in Stan’s dedication 
“is a significant indicator that Williams is not 
reformed,” read Schwarzenegger’s statement.

Jackson, author of the widely read prison memoir 
“Soledad Brother,” had been thrown in jail for a 
petty robbery, and became a revolutionary behind 
bars. He was murdered in August 1971 by guards at 
San Quentin prison in an alleged “escape attempt.”

Stephen Bingham, one of several lawyers working 
with Jackson, was accused of being part of the 
escape plot. He spoke to Socialist Worker’s Joe 
Allen about George Jackson’s legacy – and his own fight for justice.

Joe Allen: Could you tell us something about the life of George Jackson?

Stephen Bingham: George grew up in Los Angeles – 
like many young African Americans, in a hostile 
urban environment. He was in minor trouble a lot 
as a teen and eventually ended up in prison for a gas station holdup.

Min Yee’s book “Melancholy History of Soledad 
Prison” explains well what the prison environment 
that held him until his death was like.

George objected to the apartheid-like conditions 
in prison – once famously sitting in the front 
row of the segregated movie room and requiring 
seven or eight guards to remove him for this Rosa Parks sit-in!

He became a marked man. After the guards at 
Soledad Prison orchestrated an interracial yard 
fight and their top sharpshooter killed three 
Blacks in the yard, a guard was thrown off a tier 
and killed. Weeks later, George and two other 
inmates, Fleeta Drumgo and John Clutchette, were 
charged with the guard’s murder.

While the “Soledad Brothers” were awaiting trial, 
George came to the attention of Faye Stender of 
the National Lawyers Guild Prison Project. His 
letters to her and to his family became the 
central part of the book “Soledad Brother” that 
gained international prominence and brought 
enormous and unwanted attention on conditions inside California’s prisons.

Joe Allen: Were you surprised that Schwarzenegger 
specifically highlighted Jackson in the Stan Tookie Williams case?

Stephen Bingham: I was frankly surprised that the 
governor made such an explicit point about George 
in his clemency denial for Stan Tookie Williams.

I suspect the governor himself was relatively 
clueless about who George was. The question is 
who were the minions in the state department or 
the governor’s office itself who decided it was 
important to mention Williams’ admiration for 
George, as well as Nelson Mandela, Angela Davis, 
Malcolm X, Assata Shakur, Geronimo Pratt, Ramona 
and John Africa, Leonard Peltier and Dhoruba bin-Wahad.

That the governor refused clemency in part 
because Williams admired these people makes his 
execution one of the most political executions in modern history.

Joe Allen: How did you become involved in 
progressive politics and working as George Jackson’s lawyer?

Stephen Bingham: I grew up in a home with good 
liberal Democratic Party values in the 1950s, cut 
my teeth on the civil rights movement of the 
1960s reporting on civil rights issues for my 
college newspaper. As a law student at Berkeley 
in the late ‘60s, I became further radicalized by the growing antiwar movement.

I was not George’s criminal defense lawyer. That 
was John Thorne. He asked the Bay Area chapter of 
the National Lawyers Guild for a volunteer lawyer 
to have some exploratory interviews with George, 
because he was interested in filing a civil 
rights lawsuit challenging the conditions of his 
and others’ detention in the Orwellian-named 
“Adjustment Center” (AC) at San Quentin State 
Prison (such a lawsuit was eventually successful). I volunteered.

Joe Allen: The state of California contends that 
George was killed during an “escape attempt” in 
1971. Can tell you us something about the circumstances of his death?

Stephen Bingham: The state claimed that on a 
visit to George on Aug. 21, 1971, I somehow was 
able to smuggle a huge 9-mm Astra gun and a wig 
in to George, who allegedly then walked back to 
the AC after undergoing at least two strip 
searches, where he had to “spread his cheeks” and 
run his fingers through his hair to control for smuggling.

The state says he was able to gain control of the 
AC. Three guards and three inmates, including 
George, were killed in his “escape” attempt.

As I said above, I’m certain George was targeted. 
We know from the trial discovery that George was 
a key target of the FBI’s Counterintelligence 
Program (Cointelpro), but we were never given any documents.

It’s clear to me that his responsibility in 
bringing international attention to prison 
conditions in California brought on him the wrath 
of the California Department of Corrections. 
This, together with his designation as Field 
Marshal of the Black Panther Party, certainly put him in their crosshairs.

Joe Allen: The government also argued that you 
were part of his “escape attempt.” But much later 
in 1986, you were acquitted of all charges. Can you talk about that?

Stephen Bingham: I fled for my life in 1971, 
convinced I would be killed by jail guards if I 
surrendered then. State prison authorities never 
properly investigated what happened on Aug. 21. 
Many key people who could have possibly shed 
light on the events of that day were never 
interviewed. The crime scene was scrubbed clean 
before any independent investigators were permitted inside.

It was clearly a setup, all the more frightening 
politically because it sent a very scary message 
to political lawyers: Don’t get involved. And in 
fact, the event had a very chilling effect on 
prison work by lawyers throughout the country for 
many years. It’s interesting but sad that the 
conviction of Lynne Stewart may have a similar effect today. Hopefully not.

I lived in Europe, mostly France, for the next 13 
years, returned in 1984 and was acquitted in 1986.

Joe Allen: What type of legal work do you do today?

Stephen Bingham: I work for Bay Area Legal Aid, 
which provides civil legal help to poor people 
(housing evictions, health access, family law for 
domestic violence survivors, public benefits). My 
specialty is welfare law, making sure that those 
who are entitled to welfare benefits get it.

I also direct a Legal Barriers to Employment 
Project, helping those on welfare with a myriad 
of legal issues making it hard to get or keep a 
job – e.g., suspended drivers licenses, criminal 
records, credit issues, defaulted student loans.

Joe Allen: What is the legacy of George Jackson that we should remember today?

Stephen Bingham: The legacy of George today is 
the ever-present need to have the courage to 
boldly confront injustice wherever we find it – 
whether it’s based on race, sexual preference, 
national origin, disability or any of the other 
irrational them -vs.-us distinctions that have 
made the world a sometimes ugly place.

We must remain one with the people and realize 
that because many who are oppressed still 
identify with the oppressor, much of today’s work 
is helping to change consciousness.

© Copyright Stephen Bingham. This story was first 
published March 3, 2006, in Socialist Worker, at 

The Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 863-9977
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