- Interview by
- Jonah Walters
On August 21, 1971, California correctional officers shot and killed twenty-nine-year-old George Jackson in the yard of San Quentin prison, in the course of an event that killed two other incarcerated people and three correctional officers. Jackson, who had been locked up since the age of twenty-one, was one of the most recognized political leaders in the California prison system at the time.
The struggle between imprisoned black militants and prison authorities intensified dramatically in the early 1970s. As sociologist Brittany Friedman’s research shows, George Jackson and others had founded the Black Guerilla Family, a revolutionary cadre-building organization that aimed to be the prison arm of the Black Power movement, just the year before, following the killing of the imprisoned black militant W. L. Nolen on January 13, 1970.
Nolen, widely respected by other prisoners for his intelligence and political leadership, had been gunned down in the yard at Soledad State Prison after correctional officers engineered a confrontation with Nazi prisoners. A few months later, the officers responsible were acquitted by a grand jury, and a different Soledad officer was killed in apparent retaliation. Jackson and two other black militants were charged with the officer’s murder, despite a dearth of evidence against them.
Known as the Soledad Brothers, the accused men received an outpouring of support from beyond the prison walls, but they suffered torture and threats in state custody. On August 21, 1971, while being held at San Quentin before trial, George Jackson was himself gunned down in the prison yard like his mentor, W. L. Nolen, before him. His co-defendants in the murder case were acquitted the next year, with one juror saying, “everyone who testified against them was bought.”
Although the Black Guerilla Family has faded from national prominence, evidence suggests the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) still views the group as a unique threat to prison order. The CDCR continues to identify and “validate” suspected black militants as Black Guerilla Family (BGF) members, isolating them in “secure housing units” that recall the brutal “Adjustment Centers” of the mid-twentieth century. Many suspected BGF members “are targeted solely because of their interest in the writings of George Jackson or because of their political ideology,” according to a 2012 law review paper.
Earlier this month, Jacobin’s Jonah Walters spoke with Brittany Friedman, a sociologist whose current book project — Born in Blood: Death Work, White Power, and the Rise of the Black Guerilla Family — musters copious archival research and detailed interviews with BGF founders and early members to challenge the official state narrative of the organization.
In this interview, Friedman discusses California’s systematic efforts to neutralize black militant prisoners during the 1950s and 1960s, the origins of the Black Guerilla Family, and what the history of white backlash in prison can teach us about the rise of mass incarceration.
How did you come to this research?
I’ve always had an interest in collective behavior and organizations, and especially how people organize themselves in groups to make sense of and respond to violence. The literature on that topic coming from criminology and criminal justice often seeks to understand such collective behavior under the heading “gangs.” Even some sociologists and other social scientists adopt this view from the outset, without critically investigating the origin of organizations to get at the root and process by which they emerge and develop. Approaching collective behavior with a blanket “gang” framing uncritically reflects the state narrative, which consequently functions as a way to justify state repression and systemic violence, most often against communities of color.
In looking at the Black Guerilla Family, I wanted to excavate the state narrative — to turn the critical gaze onto the state. To do this, I needed to combine a diverse range of archival documents with interviews. I wanted to talk to the people who founded the organization, and ask them how they saw themselves, that era, and the conditions that led to their forming the BGF. I did life history interviews, which showed the arc of life experiences before prison, combined with the conditions they endured while incarcerated, which collectively contributed to their organizing in California prisons.
Most scholars date the beginning of mass incarceration to the 1970s, after the passage of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act in 1968. But your story starts in the period immediately before that, in the 1950s and 1960s, when the California Department of Corrections (CDC) began segregating black militants in “Adjustment Centers.”
Why do you locate the beginnings of your story there?
Yes, the incarceration of Black people rose significantly in the 1990s, but it can be easy to forget, for example, that as early as 1960, Black men were five times as likely as white men to be incarcerated.
If we emphasize systemic white backlash against the Black freedom struggle as a decisive factor for the development of mass incarceration, then we have to shift our timeline to when different branches of law enforcement begin systematically implementing policies to repress Black political activity, and showcase how this expanded the capacity of the carceral state before 1968.
I’ve found evidence from institutional records that the systematic effort to eliminate the Black freedom movement, in terms of rolling out protocols to identify, track, and neutralize Black militants while in prison and after their release, began as early as the late 1950s in California, possibly sooner.
Policymakers in other states wrote letters to California prison officials asking for their advice on how to handle Black militant prisoners. I liken it to COINTELPRO behind bars, with the Adjustment Center becoming a key site of political repression and a model for the rise of supermax prisons such as Pelican Bay, which now serve as symbols of US mass incarceration.
Also, prisons are politically porous. The political mobilization of the Civil Rights Movement and the larger Black freedom struggle wasn’t just present within California prisons — there was a continuum between the prison, as an institution of control, and the community in struggle on the outside.
How did the CDC repress black militants during that period?
My book shows how California created Adjustment Centers in the early 1950s to contain and rehabilitate those who they called “problem inmates,” or people exhibiting what prison authorities categorized as psychotic behavior. People served indeterminate sentences in solitary confinement in the Adjustment Center. They were forced to stay there until they were, supposedly, “adjusted.”
At the same time, top prison officials were also concerned with a notable increase in Black prisoners connected to the Black freedom movement. Very quickly, there was a shift: the problem was no longer those they deemed “psychotic inmates,” but rather self-described Black militants.
I detail how in the late 1950s, the CDC implemented a formal protocol to identify Black militants and place them in the Adjustment Center. Evidence suggests the Nation of Islam was the first organization to be systematically targeted in this way, but the CDC expanded this protocol as a blanket policy for all Black militants a few years later.
But formal policies such as this were not enough to silence Black militants in prison. We know from the writing of imprisoned Black intellectuals, such as George Jackson, that the Adjustment Center was a site of extreme degradation that Black militants transformed through political education. The shared experience of torturous conditions in the Adjustment Center came to promote a culture of solidarity among Black militant prisoners.
The Department of Corrections saw early on that segregation and solitary confinement alone could not squash the movement. They pursued what I would call extralegal strategies, as well, including correctional officers aligning with and encouraging violence from white supremacist prisoners toward Black militant prisoners.
This became quite effective, I would argue, precisely because it existed outside the official policies designed to track and isolate Black militants. And, as you would imagine, it was incredibly effective at instilling terror and immobilizing their political activity.
How did white correctional officers and white supremacist prisoners collaborate in this repression, and how can we understand that kind of reactionary racial solidarity?
White supremacist prisoner groups were incredibly active during that time period. Nazi and biker cliques began to merge with one another, in part because they saw the rise in Black prisoners, especially those aligned with the Black freedom movement, as especially threatening and in need of elimination. In the 1960s, correctional officers came to see these cliques (which would later consolidate into the Aryan Brotherhood) as allies in the same fight.
It’s true that one of the main sources of fear [for prison officials and correctional officers] was that Black prisoners were at the center of trying to mobilize prisoners as one class, across racial and ethnic boundaries. But this alignment between white correctional officers and white prisoners wasn’t just about enforcing the color line.
It was also about their joint pleasure in seeing attempts to revolt against white supremacy squashed. We have to think about it as a kind of solidarity around the collective administration of degradation and getting away with it. Ritualized boundaries between Black and white intensify the level of cruelty. I think there is something pleasuresome about joint degradation focused on race that goes hand in hand with enforcing the color line in prison.
Much of the current conversation about prisons focuses on disparate rates of incarceration. But there’s less attention on the disparate severity of punishment meted out by correctional authorities against black prisoners. Can you talk about how California’s racist punishment regime contributed to the emergence of the Black Guerilla Family?
The disproportionate use of solitary confinement is key. It was the main formal strategy the Department of Corrections used, and it became a site of torture for those who were sent there for their political beliefs — significantly, prior to any major disturbances that we would associate with threat identification. In the 1950s and ’60s, the Adjustment Center became a catchall for everyone labeled a political threat, and this allowed for layers upon layers of violence.
In my interviews, cofounders of the Black Guerilla Family described being beaten in Adjustment Centers relentlessly. They described correctional officers allowing white prisoners to engage in abusive acts, ranging from degradation in the form of spitting and using racial slurs to physical violence, often while officers watched or laughed. This context became key for the emergence of the Black Guerilla Family as an act of Black political survival in the face of what I call in the book “white above all.”
A catalyst for the merging of Black militant cliques into the Black Guerilla Family as an organization was the murder of W. L. Nolen on January 13, 1970, through what the founders viewed as blatant collusion between correctional officers and white supremacist prisoners. And if Nolen could be targeted, they felt that it was only a matter of time before each person would meet a similar fate. The people I interviewed described it to me as a “do-or-die moment” for their political consciousness.
Though Black political mobilization long predated this incident, the Black Guerilla Family formally merged with Black militant cliques and established itself as an organization in 1970, not many months after that killing. They positioned themselves as the prison arm of the Black Power movement with the express desire to organize not only for Black freedom, but to continue the revolutionary struggle of uniting incarcerated people across racial and ethnic barriers as one prisoner class with common interests. My book argues it was this consciousness that made the Black Guerilla Family dangerous to the status quo of a prison order dependent upon divide and conquer and white supremacy.
After the incident at San Quentin in 1971 [when George Jackson was killed], there was a serious lockdown of the founders of the organization — essentially an organized campaign to wear them down psychologically and physically.
At the same time, there was an uptick of people who joined the revolutionary struggle, saying that they were “with George [Jackson],” or “with the Black Guerilla Family” because Jackson was a martyr, a symbol of the struggle. On this topic, all of the founders and early members I interviewed said the same thing. They also said that, at that point, there was a group, or subset, of people within the organization that started making more executive decisions, or taking more of an executive role, because the founders were all on lockdown.
How did the Black Guerilla Family change after the early 1970s?
When the organization was solidifying in 1970, participation in the illicit economy was not permitted. Founders had to go through an extensive political education process and various tests, and those kinds of activities were not allowed. George Jackson wrote about it as a kind of personal and political transformation — leaving behind anything that could be explicitly labeled as crime and moving to a revolutionary mentality.
I argue that the BGF began moving toward the illicit economy as a means of survival after the Aryan Brotherhood and the Mexican Mafia declared war on them in the mid-1970s (which may be public knowledge, but I don’t think so). When that happened, the founders and earliest members actually proposed a split, based on ideological concerns and their feeling that the BGF was moving away from its initial founding as a revolutionary organization.
Many other political organizations — not just inside of prison — have engaged in what we would consider explicit criminal behavior as a means of revenue generation or political networking. Participation in the illicit economy becomes a means to an end. That’s how I see the trajectory of the Black Guerilla Family after the mid-1970s. But I think evidence shows that the organization’s original end goal remained at its core post-1974: to free Black prisoners, and also to free prisoners in general from what they saw as the widespread racist repression of the prisoner class that could only be upended with cross-racial coalition building.
Let me also say this: if we label the Black Guerilla Family a violent prison gang, we’re not just ignoring the history and the aftermath of August 21, 1971. We’re also enabling the rewrite of everything that the Department of Corrections did and allowed to be done that created the conditions where Black political organizing became necessary for survival, not only against white supremacist prisoners but against correctional officers as well.
We need to uncover the collective effort to systematically destroy Black militant prisoners, both at the formal level and through extralegal means. If an official distortion of the truth is successful — as facilitated with the help of criminology and criminal justice scholarship — it allows officials to frame political mobilization as terror, without any culpability as to how we arrived at this point. Then, the state can justify the implementation of incredibly repressive policies, such as Security Threat Group classification and isolation schemes, that are long-lasting and disproportionately used against people of color.
I want to end by asking your opinion of the ongoing debate among scholars and anti-prison activists, about which historical factors were decisive for the development of mass incarceration. People on one side emphasize racism and white backlash to the black freedom struggle; others emphasize the extreme weakness of the American welfare state and the penal austerity that developed as voters demanded a political response to violent crime, but state and local politicians were unable to muster resources for anything but expanded punishment.
How does your work contribute to (or challenge) that debate?
The first thing that I’ll say is that the extreme weakness of the American welfare state, and the emergence of what’s been called “penal austerity,” is just not sufficient on its own to explain the full development of mass incarceration.
But we don’t necessarily have to put the two perspectives you described at odds. We can think of the extreme weakness of the American welfare state as the necessary scaffolding that allowed for the political linking of the Black freedom movement with violent crime to be quickly translated into structural changes.
Penal austerity and the weak welfare state might be scaffolding, but to understand the origins of mass incarceration, you need to be looking for a match. You need a match, and you need lighter fluid.
Simply put, we wouldn’t have mass incarceration as we know it without organized racism and white backlash. Lucky for those who participated in it and the institutions that wielded it, this white backlash took place in the context of an incredibly heinous fiscal structure and societal upheaval that allowed for ideological strategies of racial control to be translated into material practices very quickly — and to spread in some ways that were obvious and some ways that were not always readily visible, but which were felt nonetheless as our incarcerated populations exploded and communities were left to pick up the pieces.