August 21, 2009

George Jackson

September 23, 1941 - August 21, 1971
"We can only be repressed if we stop thinking and stop fighting."

Stanley "Tookie" Williams, former Crips leader turned prison anti-gang activist, was strapped to a chair and killed by the state of California in late 2005. His appeal for clemency had been denied by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who cited Tookie's one-time dedication to fellow prisoner of conscience George Jackson as "a significant indicator that Williams is not reformed and that he still sees violence and lawlessness as a legitimate means to address societal problems." Jeff Chang's assertion that "Tookie [died] for George Jackson's sins" (see the link above) is fitting--even though Williams spent his time in prison working tirelessly to end gang violence in black working-class communities, his veneration of revolutionaries like Jackson was enough to bring the guillotine down upon him.

I read Jackson's 1971 manifesto Blood in My Eye a few months after Tookie's death, and I immediately saw why the state would want to cast Jackson as a bearer of "violence and lawlessness." The book is, in essence, the American transliteration of guerrilla warfare stratagems written by folks like Che Guevara and Mao Zedong--the reimagination of the metropole as the epicenter of the American revolution, a blueprint for the forceful uprising of an indignant underground army. Jackson was killed 38 years ago today (well, yesterday) as the result of an alleged prison riot--according to officials, he was hiding a pistol in his afro. To this day, however, details are hazy and many people speculate that his assassination was an act of silencing him--that is, the very enactment of state violence that Jackson himself sought to overturn.

I have my own disagreements with Blood in My Eye, similar to the ones rife in Jackson's Black Panther Party around the time of his death. Famously, in that same year Eldridge Cleaver split from the leadership to amass such an armed underground cabal, the Black Liberation Army, while co-founder Huey Newton continued to develop his communitarian visions of popular self-determination within black (and oppressed) communities. I am perhaps more attuned to Newton's ideas, but I cannot help but stand in awe of Jackson's force. Blood in My Eye infuses a haunting beauty into the specter of an America crumbling from the fury of the dispossessed, burgeoning with the details of how such an internal war might be won. Violent it is, but lawless? Jackson may have wanted to dance in the flames of the cityscape, but only since he had already bore witness to the "law" as it was--he was jailed indefinitely for stealing $70, and he died for trying to envision, and actualize, a new legal order that didn't serve primarily to contain the indigent.

Tookie and Jackson may seem divergent in the messages they spread while incarcerated; the former worked to deter young black men from joining gangs, while the latter sought to reallocate capital through armed resistance. But they share an intertwined destiny--the state killed them both, in the very same prison--and perhaps this illuminates their similarities. From behind bars, both men sought to transform the operative potential of black youth, redirecting them from gang warfare to a deeper project of social transformation--one that dared to question the very sanctity of the prison system and its enduring presence in poor communities of color. The two sought peace by different means, but they both died for the crime of thinking outside the box (or cell).

Blood in My Eye remains one of my favorite books to this day--not because I believe in his prescriptions, but rather because it's an inspiring and painful glimpse into the final words (it was completed days before his death) of a man with the boot to his neck, clawing viciously for air. Jackson has been long gone, but his writings have remained for the posterity of critical thinkers who have wept in gratitude for his temerity to speak the unspeakable. We may never know his suffering, but we owe it to him to preserve the part of him that remains.

The body evanescent, the spirit eternal. Rest In Power.