A Botched Jailbreak and Two Dead Black Brothers
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because as America reckons with itself, it can't forget the lives already lost.
By Darryl Robertson
A half-century ago, a high schooler walked into a California courthouse and took four men hostage while an accomplice tapped a sawed-off shotgun to the judge’s chin. The bloody shootout that ensued would leave four dead, another paralyzed and another in prison for life.
Yet while the ill-fated jailbreak was botched, the cauldron of racial animus and prejudiced policing that led to that tragic day reverberates even today. The teenager, Jonathan Jackson, and the older brother he tried to free, George, are among the most unheralded revolutionaries in bloodstained American history. “Their collective story meshes with the needs, fears and demands of Black communities over the last 50 years,” says Joy James, a humanities professor at Williams College in Massachusetts.
The avoidable deaths of two young Black men in the ’70s began a decade earlier, when George was accused of stealing $70 from a gas station in 1960. Despite evidence of his innocence, the then-18-year-old pleaded guilty after being promised a short sentence. Instead he received an “indeterminate sentence” of one year to life. “I agreed to confess and spare the county court costs,” as George wrote in his letters from prison in San Quentin, California, which were compiled in the 1994 book, Soledad Brother.
The civil rights era and the swinging ’60s were raging outside, and men like George were moved behind bars as well. After joining a prison gang, he accumulated six assault charges that earned him a frightening seven years in solitary confinement. He used that time to find comfort in books. “I met Marx, Lenin, Engels and Mao when I entered prison, and they redeemed me,” George recalled.
Newly armed with intellectual critiques of racism, capitalism and state-sanctioned violence, George returned to general population with a mission: to educate and organize his brothers. His writings “resurrect ideas, desperation, political desire and will that most find disturbing,” James adds. His classes on politics drew devoted attendees, with as many as 50 incarcerated men huddled over activist works.
That ethic soon started to spread outside of the classroom. In early 1967, 1,200 San Quentin inmates refused to report to their various prison jobs in protest against abusive treatment by guards. Later that year, 700 inmates staged a hunger strike to protest the food they were served, which was often expired, had an unpleasant odor and wasn’t nutritious or filling.
While his exact role in the 1967 protests remains unclear, George was determined to consolidate his fellow inmates in a struggle against capitalism, which he felt was at the root of Black inequality. It’s not surprising, then, that George was blamed for the strikes, which led to him and a close friend being sent later that year to the infamous Soledad prison in the Salinas Valley, where the two men started a Black Panther Party chapter. When prisoners killed a guard after three Black inmates were shot dead, George once again found himself in the crosshairs — he was accused with three other men, whom revolutionaries called “the Soledad Brothers,” of first-degree murder.
On the outside, George’s brother Jonathan wrestled with the gravity of those injustices — a fact George was aware of. “He’s a little withdrawn, but he is intelligent and loyal, and at that dangerous age where confusion sets in and sends brothers either to the undertaker or to prison,” George wrote, all too presciently.
Which led to that fateful day on Aug. 7, 1970, when Jonathan decided to risk his life for his brother’s freedom. Armed with a shotgun, handguns and an assault rifle, Jonathan invaded the courthouse in Marin County. The scene was chaotic: Jonathan tossed guns to inmate James McClain, who was standing trial, while another Black Panther member from Soledad and a court witness joined them.
Soon they had four hostages: a deputy district attorney, three jurors and Judge Harold J. Haley. As the group entered an elevator, the hostage takers announced that they wanted the Soledad Brothers released by 12:30. Outside the courthouse, they began forcing the hostages into a rented Ford van. Unbeknownst to the revolutionaries, though, authorities were waiting for them at the exit, ready to unload a fusillade of rounds. Jonathan caught the first bullet. The deputy district attorney, Gary Thomas, managed to pick up a gun dropped by one of the inmates and squeezed the trigger.
When the smoke settled, four were dead, including Judge Haley and Jonathan. They weren’t the only victims, however. Political activist Angela Davis was indicted on conspiracy and kidnapping charges after it came out that the guns Jonathan used were registered in her name. (Davis was later acquitted.)
Almost exactly a year later, George would also meet his untimely fate during an alleged prison escape. The details are fuzzy and the account is questionable, as prison officials alleged that George smuggled a gun in, shot a guard and sprinted toward the exits before being shot himself. It’s an all-too-familiar image today: a Black man killed and his innocence or guilt determined by the words of compromised authorities.
- Darryl Robertson, OZY Author Contact Darryl Robertson