Rita "Bo" Brown drives a tow truck—a massive tow truck—for 40-plus hours a week. With the rest of her time, she organizes, mainly for prisoners’ rights and freedom for lesbian political prisoners. Back in the day, Brown was a bank-robbing, jail-breaking, capitalist-terrorizing revolutionary. In the early ‘70s, when the U.S. imperial war machine was wracked with what hopefuls perceived to be its death throes, Brown and a small group of radicals in the Pacific Northwest formed the George Jackson Brigade to do what they could to help the process along.Rita "Bo" Brown drives a tow truck—a massive tow truck—for 40-plus hours a week. With the rest of her time, she organizes, mainly for prisoners’ rights and freedom for lesbian political prisoners. Back in the day, Brown was a bank-robbing, jail-breaking, capitalist-terrorizing revolutionary. In the early ‘70s, when the U.S. imperial war machine was wracked with what hopefuls perceived to be its death throes, Brown and a small group of radicals in the Pacific Northwest formed the George Jackson Brigade to do what they could to help the process along.
Brown is one of several hundred activists across the country who did their time in the ‘60s and ‘70s, either in prison or in underground insurrectionary activities, and who remain active today on the front lines of struggle for social change.
Bo’s specialty was bank-robbing ("expropriations"), a necessity for underground living. Bo was known as "The Gentleman Bankrobber" because she was so nice to the tellers and because, with a little help from a costume shop, she had law enforcement looking for a man for almost two years. Brown estimates that she participated in seventeen Brigade actions—from bombings to jail breaks—before she was finally arrested. When asked about the Brigade’s goals, Brown quickly replies: "The overthrow of the United States government. That was everybody’s goal at that time. To build a new world, a better world, this shit wasn’t workin’. Too many people were getting messed over. People were starvin’, people were being neglected. Medical care was shit. Same things that we’re talking about now."
Once They’ve Got You,
They Never Let You Go
So what do former urban guerrillas do in the decidedly un-revolutionary ‘90s? First off, they work. Ed Mead, another former George Jackson Brigade member, served 18 years in prison after his arrest following a shoot-out in an overly ambitious bank robbery in the Seattle suburb of Tukwila on January 23, 1976. He’s fifty-six and can expect close to nothing from social security when he retires. While incarcerated, he fought for prisoners’ access to computers and learned enough to start his own computer repair shop in Seattle upon his release in October of 1993. He moved to the Bay Area in March of 1997 for a higher paying job designing software in the Noe Valley, with the purpose of working as long and hard as he could.
But beyond survival, many veterans of earlier periods of radicalism are still actively fighting for social justice. A sizeable number—including Brown and Mead—choose to continue chipping away at the most blatantly repressive institution in society: the criminal justice system.
"I think that imprisonment has a way of remaining with you all of your life," says Angela Davis. Davis did sixteen months in both New York City and the Marin County jails on persecutorial charges of kidnapping, murder and conspiracy. The charges stemmed from an August, 1970 shootout in which Jonothan Jackson—the brother of famed black prison revolutionary and the Brigade’s namesake, George Jackson—was killed at the Marin County Courthouse in an attempt to free his brother by taking hostages.
Now a professor at the History of Consciousness program at the University of California at Santa Cruz, Davis was a driving force behind Critical Resistance, an anti-law and order strategy session that took place on the UC Berkeley campus in September of 1998. She is working on at least two books on prisons.
"In the aftermath of my own imprisonment I just couldn’t make the memories go away," says Davis. She adds: "In a sense, this is my life’s work."
Other veterans of ‘60s and ‘70s foment have had the same experience: they couldn’t avoid the prison system if they tried. Brown states: "It seems that ever since I became a little politically aware I’ve either been in prisons or fighting against them."
Regarding support work for political prisoners, Brown knows she’s just returning a favor. As she told Free Radio Berkeley in 1997, "In all my years inside, there was never a period of more than several weeks when I didn’t at least have people sending me stamps and letters . . . I know that people don’t have to be left alone and isolated. People don’t have to be forgotten in those pits. We know how to do it—because it was done for me and I owe my community much for that."
Janine Bertram, who served four and a half years for being the Brigade’s post-bank robbery get-away gal, now lives in Washington, D.C. and is active in prison reform. She gives her reasons for continued activism as opposition to the way in which prisons have become the government’s tool of choice for dealing with the urban poor and adds that she thinks "the worst conditions that exist in this country exist in institutions—prisons, mental hospitals, nursing homes. I lived in a prison. I saw what it does to people. I can’t imagine not trying to change that after experiencing it."
Mead feels somewhat guilty about his level of activism today. "If there’s one thing I regret at age 56," he laments, "it’s that I don’t have an antagonistic relationship with the FBI." He maintains the website for California Prison Focus, and he and his wife were instrumental in getting a parole date for Mark Cook, the last imprisoned George Jackson Brigade member, but Mead still feels it’s not enough. He recently finished his own parole and, freed from the stipulation that he have no contact with other convicts or ex-convicts, his activist efforts will surely increase.
Luis Talamantez, co-founder of what has become the human rights group, California Prison Focus, was one of twenty-seven prisoners in the infamous San Quentin Adjustment on August 21, 1971, the day George Jackson was murdered in an escape attempt that was likely encouraged by the prison administration so that Jackson would be gunned down. He was then one of six prisoners, known as the San Quentin Six, who were charged with the murders of guards and prisoners that took place that morning. (Talamantez was eventually acquitted). Talamantez maintains deep ties to the women and men still in prison, but doesn’t have the luxury of remaining inactive for a different reason: he’s a two-strike offender. "In a sense, the criminal justice system still controls my life," he says. "The work I do is also out of a struggle for self-preservation."
Keeping the Home Fires Burning Brown’s activities provide an illustration of the amount of work some of the ‘70s veterans are engaged in. In 1987, Brown co-founded the Out of Control Lesbian Committee to Support Women Political Prisoners, a group of queer women that continues to educate around and send support to women imprisoned for radical armed activities in the ‘70s and ‘80s. She was also involved in the Jericho ’98 Campaign to Free Political Prisoners and Prisoners of War and sat on two Critical Resistance subcommittees. The Norma Jean Croy Support Committee, of which Brown was a prime organizer, met its goal of freeing Croy, a wrongfully imprisoned Native woman who won her freedom after 19 years. Brown also directed and produced Shasta Woman, a video about Croy’s case.
Brown feels the work she and other steadfast radicals have done has laid the groundwork and maintained the infrastructure for the current resurgence of prison activism. "We’re the steady plodders. My best work in the last twenty years has been grassroots stuff. What Out of Control is really excellent at is grassroots work in the lesbian and broader gay community around women political prisoners—the reality of political prisoners, the reality of women in prison. We’ve done a lot of outreach and work, and I think that’s reflected in the level of general knowledge in our community."
Hindsight yields no consensus on the armed experience. "Americans are a very violent people, as a nation, with a very violent history," says Jonas Raskin, a professor of Communications Studies at Sonoma State University at Santa Rosa, who was a "fellow traveler" with the Weatherman (although usually referred to as the Weathermen, later called the "Weather Underground"). "People like identifying with outlaws. But if you have people on the sidelines cheering, that’s not really what you want. You want people to be doing things wherever they are."
The Weatherman was formed in the late ‘60s by members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) who wanted an immediate end to the war in Vietnam, as well the broader goal of revolutionary change. Their philosophy was captured moderately well by Weatherperson Bernardine Dohrn’s impatient declaration, "The best thing that we can be doing for ourselves, as well as for the (Black) Panthers and the revolutionary black liberation struggle, is to build a fucking white revolutionary movement."
The Weatherman saw taking some of the heat as the best way to aid other domestic and foreign liberation struggles. They were also quick to write off the American working-class as hopelessly reactionary and strike more-radical-than-thou postures with fellow members of the New Left who didn’t immediately (or in some cases ever) embrace their politics or tactics. The momentum of the group was depleted by the mid-‘70s.
"My experience with the Weather Underground was that they didn’t really allow for people, wherever they were, to do some kind of political activity, whatever was appropriate for the situation," says Jonas Raskin. "They wanted everybody to drop out and leave institutions and be guerrillas. In a total war I suppose that happens. [But] it wasn’t a revolutionary situation. It wasn’t total war."
Mead and Brown are still staunch supporters of armed struggle (Brown keeps several stuffed gorillas in her car. "My favorite animal," she confides, chuckling.) They also both respect their own pasts. Though Mead sometimes sounds as if he is speaking disparagingly about his years as a member of TUG (The Urban Guerrillas), it’s because the costs of the activity were so high while so little was visibly won. The Brigade’s losses include the death of Bruce Seidel, an early Brigade member and Mead’s most beloved friend. (Seidel was killed on January 23, 1976, in the same bank robbery in which Mead was arrested. After police shot Seidel twice, they left him to drown in his own blood before finally taking him to a hospital an hour later). Of the six Brigade members that were eventually apprehended, none were able to have children or steady family lives. And Mark Cook, the only black member of the Brigade, remains in prison in Washington state for his involvement in the March 10, 1976 jailbreak of Brigade member John Sherman, in which Sherman’s guard was shot in the chest as he reached for his gun.
But were the Brigade’s actions a mistake? "Fuck it," says one activist who was in Watts during the tumultuous ‘60s. "We thought the revolution was coming. So we were wrong. Is that such a big deal?"
"One of my favorite quotes from Lenin goes, ’Be as radical as reality itself,’ says Alexander Cockburn, frequent columnist to The Nation. "So you look at reality, you make your estimates, and you’ve got to be radical."
Former Brigade member Bertram has moved away from her earlier brand of militancy. "When I was an urban guerilla I was really impressed by Che [Guevara]’s quote, ‘The true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love.’ But I don’t think we were. Not internally. There was an absolute love of the people, and an absolute commitment to fighting capitalism and fighting injustice. But we were angry and we weren’t loving."
Barbara Lehman served eight years as a member of the United Freedom Front, which fought apartheid and US-sponsored murder of revolutionaries in Central America in the ‘80s. She’s now an activist in Boston. "I don’t necessarily think bombing things is the best way to change the world," she says, and believes there’s no simple blueprint for achieving radical social change. She also notes the alleged crimes of she and her co-defendants—four of whom are still in prison serving very long sentences—were nothing compared to what they were fighting against. "Everything we did was a teardrop in the fucking ocean compared to what they were doing," she says passionately.
With characteristic level-headedness, Brown points out that "If you haven’t done this your whole life—which of course none of us have—and there ain’t really no schools, then it’s all guess work. Actually, if you reflect on it, it’s amazing how so few people has such an impact." She cites one example of a tangible victory. Prisoners in Walla Walla—Washington state’s most notorious maximum-security prison—were in the process of staging the longest prison strike in the history of the state. Though the strike regularly received front-page coverage in the mainstream media, a prisoner was never interviewed in the forty-plus days of the strike, and their reasons for striking were never seriously discussed. So the Brigade placed two bombs in safe deposit boxes in two different branches of the Rainier National Bank, in the affluent Seattle suburb of Bellevue. Rainier National Bank had an interlocking directorate with the Seattle Times. In their accompanying communique, the Brigade stated that they would continue to bomb Rainier until the Times learned to balance their journalism. The next day, the Times interviewed a prisoner, and the conditions at Walla Walla were revealed to be so brutal and medieval that the warden of 25 years was soon fired, as was the head of the Department of Corrections. (None of the several old-timers at the Seattle Times who were contacted for this article had sufficient recall or inclination to offer any additional information.)
A Striking Tenacity
As so many of their movement compatriots burned out, retreated to academia, or got straight jobs, many of the former guerrillas simply kept organizing. For Brown, an irrepressible butch, activities included sitting down all the tomboys in the Alderson, West Virginia federal women’s prison and talking to them about why they felt they needed to beat their girlfriends to keep them. She asked whether they wanted to replicate the violence they’d experienced earlier in their lives, in their own relationships. While at Alderson, Brown, a successful "jailhouse lawyer," succeeded in intimidating the administration into changing the policy that permitted male guards to watch female prisoners bathe. "We had a hootch (improvised prison alcohol) party after we won that one," Brown recalls brightly.
Ed Mead was arrested relatively early in the Brigade’s trajectory, so he spent much of his organizing time behind bars. In his close to twenty-year sentence, Mead led work strikes, filed petitions, and generally did his best to fan the flames of discontent wherever he went. This made him something of a scourge to prison administrators, who bounced him through state and federal penal systems, moving him along whenever his organizing efforts began to bear fruit.
One of his more notable efforts was Men Against Sexism (MAS), a group of "tough faggots" who forcibly stopped the buying and selling of prisoners by prisoners for the purpose of sexual exploitation in Walla Walla. During the group’s zenith in 1978, MAS proved so effective that a feminine male prisoner could wear a dress around without threat of violence. MAS backed up their work with homemade grenades, single-shot rifles, and a willingness to die to stop prisoner-on-prisoner rape. "Of all the political work that I’ve done," says Mead, Men Against Sexism is what I’m most proud of. (The group effectively disbanded after a foiled escape attempt in 1978 involving Mead, several other prisoners and an array of homemade weapons.)
Mead created a lasting legacy in 1990 (while still imprisoned) when he started Prison Legal News (PLN), a monthly magazine with a deceptively dry legal cover that helps ease it past prison censors. [Prisoner’s reading materials are routinely subjected to rigorous and often fickle censorship that frequently turns away political material while allowing an unimpeded flow of pornography-ed.] Mead co-founded the magazine with Paul Wright, a politicized prisoner incarcerated for murder, and after Mead was released in October of ’93, his friend Dan Pens filled his spot. Prison Legal News has never skipped a month, and now has a circulation of more than 3,000.
In a law-and-order nation that’s increasingly defining itself against "the criminal," many of the ‘70s veterans have seen their worst fears confirmed. "The poor have gotten poorer, the rich have gotten richer. The prisons are getting fuller," says Brown. "I think they crushed and killed and put down a lot of people. And then they kind of brainwashed a generation or two there."
"Things were so bad then that I was willing to risk death or imprisonment rather than exist under those circumstances," says Mead. "Things are way worse now."
Ida McCray Robinson is another now middle-aged revolutionary. In an act of what she now calls "adventurism," she and her then-partner—a member of the Republic of New Africa—hijacked a plane to Cuba in 1972. She stayed in Cuba for four years, and lived as a fugitive for another twelve. She was captured in the U.S. in the mid-‘80s and served nine years at the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, California.
Robinson now heads Families with a Future, a program that works to keep imprisoned mothers connected to children the government decides to place (often as a punitive measure) in foster care programs. She, like many other longhaul activists, is working to expand the nuggets of good discernible in the current state of affairs. As she puts it, "I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t have hope."