Academic journal article Social Justice

The San Quentin Six Case: Perspective and Analysis

Academic journal article Social Justice

The San Quentin Six Case: Perspective and Analysis

Article excerpt


On August 12, 1976, almost five years exactly from the day George Jackson was killed (August 21, 1971), a mixed verdict was delivered by the jury after the 16-month-long trial of the San Quentin Six (SQ6). The six black and Latino prisoners--Johnny Larry Spain, Fleeta Drumgo, Willie Tate, David Johnson, Hugo Pinell, and Luis Talamantez--had been accused of having joined revolutionary black convict George Jackson in an escape attempt on that "bloody Saturday" in 1971. Three guards and two inmates (trustees) were killed and three other guards wounded on that day. The six defendants were charged with the five deaths and three assaults. Of the 46 felony charges filed against the SQ6, there were six guilty verdicts. Talamantez, Drumgo, and Tate were exonerated of all charges; Spain was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and of conspiracy to commit murder; Pinell was convicted of two counts of felony assault by a prisoner serving a life term; and Johnson was found guilty of a single charge of assault.

The verdict was only a partial victory because the defendants, their attorneys, and supporters had not only hoped for unanimous acquittals but had also built their legal and political strategy around the contention that there was no escape conspiracy; that in fact the murder of George Jackson was planned and organized by the state; and that conditions in the maximum-security Adjustment Center (AC) at San Quentin were so barbarous that any of the convicts in the AC could have spontaneously committed the slayings and assaults on August 21. The ultimate political goal of the defense team was to focus attention on San Quentin's degrading treatment of prisoners, as well as to bring about an investigation of the events that actually led to George Jackson's death.

In order to understand the significance of, and reasoning behind, the jury's verdict, it is important to investigate the legal and political dynamics of this particular case. But this, in itself, is insufficient because the SQ6 case, while it has many unique features, did not develop in a historical vacuum. Its roots are to be found in the long history of prisoner resistance, the rise of the prison support movement, and the efforts of the state to smash and co-opt this struggle. To summarize the lessons to be drawn from the SQ6 case, then, it is necessary to place it in a much broader political and historical context.

In the late 1960s, as the civil rights, student, and anti-Vietnam War movements led to an upsurge of radical activity throughout the country, the impact of this growing consciousness was being felt inside the prisons of the United States. In part, this was a result of the influx into the prisons of people already politicized to a certain extent. Initially, Muslim organizing inside the penal institutions had the greatest effect on blacks; and even those who didn't subscribe to the religious tenets of the Nation of Islam were impressed by its ability to develop collective discipline. Many other black prisoners were deeply affected by the civil rights struggle and new forms of cultural nationalism. Consequently, civil rights organizers and Black Panthers entering the prison system found a ready constituency. From 1968 to 1971, imprisoned Panthers began to have some impact on the California prison population. Their activities outside the prison had even more effect. Even those black prisoners who didn't understand or agree with the Panthers' ideology admired their attitude and practice of armed self-defense in the streets of the black communities. To a lesser extent, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, and other minorities--who together form the majority in many prisons and jails--were also made more politically aware by the struggles that were going on outside.

Although the white prison population was probably least affected by this intensified class struggle, they were not immune either. The most politicized among them--Vietnam War resisters--were generally confined in federal prisons or military brigs, rather than in state institutions. …

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