Sociologist Brittany Friedman on the Rise and Endurance of Political Organizing by Black PrisonersHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, California, prisons, Mass Incarceration, Black radicalism, George Jackson
Brittany Friedman is an assistant professor of sociology at Rutgers University. She is at work on the book Born in Blood: Death Work, White Power, and the Rise of the Black Guerilla Family, under contract with the University of North Carolina Press.
Jonah Walters is a researcher at Jacobin and a graduate student in geography at Rutgers University.
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.
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.