“The enemy can never be driven out by words alone, no matter how sound the argument. Nor can the enemy be driven out by force alone. But words of truth and justice, fully backed by armed power, will certainly drive the enemy out. When right and might are on the same side, what enemy can hold out?”
- Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Matigari (1987)
Writing from his cell in Soledad prison in 1970 George Jackson delivered a threat to his captors: “…the monster they’ve engendered in me will return to torment its maker, from the grave, the pit, the profoundest pit. Hurl me into the next existence, the descent into hell won’t turn me. I’ll crawl back to dog his trail forever.” In the event of his death George desired “something to remain, to torment his ass, to haunt him….” On August 21st of ’71 he is indeed gunned-down by a correctional officer during an escape attempt from San Quentin’s Adjustment Center. Four years later in the Pacific Northwest an ex-convict and his politico comrade decide it is past time to fulfill the wishes of Comrade George.
Ed Mead was politicized in the McNeil Island Penitentiary in the late ‘60s, where he was serving time for a pharmacy burglary (guilty) and an escape attempt from jail (innocent). He eagerly followed the developments of the U.S. anti-war movement, as its demands crescendoed in tandem with the increasing destruction being inflicted on North Vietnam. When he came out of prison he gravitated to those who advocated revolution at home to dissolve imperialism abroad. The path forward was clear: the Left needed to deliver on its angry rhetoric. In ‘74 he visited San Francisco to try to find the Symbionese Liberation Army. Instead he found the New World Liberation Front and they taught him how to make bombs.
Upon returning to Seattle Ed joined with his good friend Bruce Seidel, a graduate school drop-out from Illinois also doing prison work in Seattle, to push their politics into practice. As a declaration of intent they call themselves “The George Jackson Brigade” to deliver on the promise of the hyper-militant Panther Lieutenant, now deceased. The first bombing they claim is of the Washington Department of Corrections in Olympia.
The second is of the Capitol Hill Safeway. It is spectacularly careless and widely denounced. Ed placed a pipebomb in a 50-pound bag of dog food and set it to go off during store hours. A co-conspirator phoned in a warning to the wrong branch of the chain (which didn’t stop the writers of the accompanying communique from denouncing the police for their inaction in notifying customers!). Several customers suffer minor wounds. It is difficult even for people sympathetic to direct action to see in this one any credible support for the epic struggle of the United Farm Workers. Nor does it promote sympathy for Ralph “Po” Ford, a member of a nascent cell of the NWLF (with no ties to the SF chapter) who died at the same Safeway three days earlier when his poorly constructed bomb detonated in his hands.
This organization of men is conscious enough to know that they can’t continue without women. Ed and Bruce query two prominent members of the Seattle prisoner support community: Rita Brown, a working class ex-convict from southern Oregon, and Tammy [last name withheld], a college-educated local. Brown and are co-founders of Women Out Now, which facilitates community involvement in Purdy, Washington’s new women’s prison. The two are lovers who live in a dyke collective on Capitol Hill. Rita and Tammy were interested in joining the Brigade, but tie their membership to the Brigade apologizing for the fucked up Safeway action. When the Brigade does apologize – “This action was wrong because we brought violence and terror into a poor neighborhood…” – it is the first group of urban guerrillas in the United States to do so.
As the Brigade progresses two other ex-convict prison activists are drawn into the circle: Bruce and Ed’s housemate and fellow Washington State Prisoners Union member John Sherman and CONvention organizer Mark Cook.
Ed and John first meet in McNeil Island Penitentiary. They met again working at the Boeing plant in South Seattle, where John – a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party - was clandestinely assigned to organize workers. At the time individuals who joined the RCP were issued a rifle; John grew impatient with the other members of the organization when it became clear that they didn’t intend to use theirs’.
While imprisoned at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Cook collaborated on an underground prisoner-produced newsletter, The Bomb, which agitated for expanding prisoners’ civil rights. With others he pushed for and won a (pretty) democratic self-governing body for prisoners and founded a chapter of the Black Panther Party. After his release he began organizing CONvention, an annual conference of prison activists. He supports the Brigade because he deems above-ground and underground work equally important.
Practiced criminals, Brigade members had knocked off liquor stores to get money for their activities. The robberies were a fair amount of work and risk for little reward. Instead, they want to secure a chunk of money to give them some breathing room to plan actions and to travel, so as to orient themselves in relation to other radicals around the country. So they planned a bank robbery that will get not just the take from the drawers but that of the vault. Their effort, on January 23, 1976 in the small South Seattle suburb of Tukwila, gets Bruce killed, John shot in the face, and both Ed and John captured. The cops came in shooting, which Brigade members hadn’t anticipated. Bruce’s death adds a new weight of responsibility to Brigade members and an unwillingness to let go of the project, because of the dramatic cost one of their own had already paid.
From this point everything accelerates. John’s repeated visits to Harborview Hospital to have his face put back together presents an opportunity to free him. The Brigade acts on it. “I’m taking your prisoner,” the cop accompanying Sherman is informed, with a gun in his back. The officer reaches for his keys to comply, but, unfortunately, the keys are next to his gun and his movement is misunderstood. Cook shoots him in the stomach. Cook is picked up a few days later, accused of being involved. He spends the next three decades in prison. Before this action the Brigade was more or less on the offensive: for the next year they are on the defensive.
Bank robberies in Oregon follow, with Rita – now known as “Bo” – presenting herself in drag and acting as the triggerperson. Her girlfriend, Janine Bertram, who she got together with after she and Tammy split and John and Tammy hooked up, joined the small group underground and became the designated getaway driver.
By the fall of ’77 the Brigade felt strong enough to head back to the Seattle area. They bombed the Capitol Complex in Olympia, committed several bombings in support of the local auto workers union and the striking prisoners at Walla Walla, and one against Mercedes Benz in retaliation for the murders of three Red Army Faction members in Stammheim prison in West Germany.
Rita is captured November 3 ‘77. Afterwards the Brigade is definitely on the run. On March 21st, ’78, Janine, John and Tammy are arrested at a Tacoma burger joint. The flyer printed as the last communique in this pamphlet on Easter Sunday of ’78 and signed by “the rest of us”, is bluster. There were no “rest of us”, just some support people who wished for the police to be disquieted.
The Brigade is both a product of its times and exceptional. In a period when the movement (anti-imperialist, prisoners’ rights, feminist and queer liberation) was dividing along political, racial and gender lines, the George Jackson Brigade was striking for its diversity. Out of seven members five were queer or bisexual (in Seidel’s case, he was moving in this direction before Death clipped his wings). Four were ex-convicts (and soon to be convicts again). Three members were women, one member black. College-educated intellectuals worked equally with underclass theoreticians. As Bo and Janine put it in a poem published in the International Women’s Day communique “dykes niggers cons… a collection of oppressed people turning inside out with action.”
Armed opposition to the policies of the U.S. government in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s is generally presented by media and police as coming from two organizations: Weatherman (later the Weather Underground Organization) if the practitioners were white, and the Black Panther Party (followed by the Black Liberation Army) if they were black. The media is comfortable with this categorization because it’s simple; the police because single organizations are easier to deal with than a multiplicity. In reality there was a groundswell of armed protest against the U.S. government from ’65 into the early ‘70s (Scanlan’s suppressed issue on armed struggle in the United States provides the best documentation of this phenomena).
The organizing principal of the Brigade was the imperative to create “a movement with teeth.” The Brigade saw armed struggle as an integral component of an effective mass movement. In the oft-quoted words of George Jackson “…any serious organizing of people must carry with it from the start a potential threat of revolutionary violence” [Blood in my Eye, 1972 p. 67]. It was an element they deemed too often absent: they aimed to correct the imbalance.
Though they committed propaganda of the deed and physical attacks against infrastructure many of the activities they exhort people to engage in are calmingly doable. In the Capitol Hill Safeway Bombing communique they present their vision of what it would take “to force Safeway out of the Capitol Hill Community”:
“All that is required is the will to do so. Using a coordination of both peaceful and violent tactics, people educate and build toward a winning strategy. Progressive forces would have to reach out beyond themselves; talking to people at bus stops, going door to door asking people about their daily lives and their problems. A program should be developed and implemented around their grievances.”
In “Bust the Bosses” their pleas get rowdier, but remain on the continuum that today is called “diversity of tactics”:
1. Don’t cross a picket line for any reason!…
2. Tie up the dealers’ phones! Call in as a concerned person and complain, or call from a phone booth and leave the line hanging.
3. Put sugar in the gas tanks of dealers’ new cars, or potatoes in the tailpipes!...
4. Break the dealers’ windows! Use bricks, slingshots, small arms, etc. Slash their tires too!
5. Lock the bosses out! Put super glue in any and all locks of buildings or cars. (This is easy and it works great!)
Similarly in their “Open Letter to Jailers Spellman and Waldt” they asked people to make phone calls to local prisoncrats urging the improvement of conditions of confinement at King County Jail. They include a tacit personal threat to Spellman and Waldt by providing their addresses and asking people to “stop by their homes and discuss these demands with them”. Too impatient to maintain the questionable subtlety of this suggestion – #3 – their #6 is “Sabotage Spellman and Waldt’s offices, homes, cars, etc.” #8, for good measure, reads “Sabotage (Superglue for example) any and all ruling class institutions (banks, supermarkets, insurance companies, etc.) and their capital equipment until these demands are met.”
The document concludes “If [these measures] are taken up by enough of us, they would mean a hundred times more than any bomb.”
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Daniel Burton Rose is the author, with Janine Bertram, Bo Brown, Mark Cook and Ed Mead, of the forthcoming book Guerrilla USA: The Life and Times of the George Jackson Brigade (2005). Thanks to Alicia and Trinh for typing in the communiques.
These communiqués come from people’s personal papers (including those contributed to Arm The Spirit; Dragon, a Bay Area paper that specialized in covering domestic armed struggle in the U.S. and The Sunfighter, a publication of the Washington State Prisoners Union; and the FBI’s file on the Brigade (#105-295956).
Spelling Errors and punctuation are presented as in the originals with corrective clarifications given in brackets ([ ]).
We’re looking for copies of The Angry Turkey (which Ed and Bruce published a few issues of in the early ‘70s in Seattle), The Bomb, and The Sunfighter. Any information about these publications will be welcome. You can contact us at:
George Jackson Brigade
(Donations are necessary for the continuance of this project. They’re tax-deductible. Please make out checks to “Prison Activist Resource Center” with “GJBIP” on the memo line.)
"At the very least, revolution should be interesting" --M.F. Beal, Amazon One