Black August: Beyond 34 Years of Resistance

Jonathan Jackson Disarms Guard Marin County Courthouse Slave Rebellion
Seventeen-year-old Jonathan Jackson – his beloved big brother George called him Man-child – disarms a guard during the Marin County Courthouse Slave Rebellion on Aug. 7, 1970.

AFRICANGLOBE – When the concept of Black August manifested in 1979, many thought it was simply a focus group protest growing out of the avoidable death of Khatari Gaulden on Aug. 1, 1978, in the San Quentin prison infirmary. Survival for Africans in California’s prison population of 20,000 inmates had to that point been recognized by some as a bit more than problematic.

The term NHI or “No Humans Involved” was the casual administrative response to what was characteristic of any African-involved death, that being their disproportionate nature in the extreme. This peculiar death toll had been addressed most vigorously inside the prison system by an awakening conscious element forming over the previous two decades and leading into the end of the ‘70s.

More than a few noteworthy individuals stood firm against the oppressive actions and policies of a totally arbitrary and unchecked prison environment operating outside the influence and even the awareness of most people in society. The ‘60s and ‘70s saw many of those individuals executed in one set-up or another that got rid of what the state termed “so-called revolutionaries.”

This was in essence the Black Prison Movement. There was nothing remotely romantic about the time or how we survived what those known and unknown did not, and some few of us still have the scars to prove it.

We rallied to the call of one who saw clearly the nature of the beast and the unceremonious lifelong commitment it would take to simply keep the hounds at bay, not win the war. After Comrade and the Man-Child were taken from us, many retired to other pursuits. Some fell into hedonistic trances that exist to this day, while others frankly lost the will to fight on for any reason.

For those of us left standing firm, the prevailing onslaught felt as though oppression was our peculiar domain. The state decided to concentrate a special portion for the bear we called wonderful one. This one became the symbol of the state’s concentrated hate for surviving that particularly gruesome day that took the life of their most consistent target, Comrade.

In 1971, the state prison system began implementing policies and practices designed to establish and maintain a death grip on the prison population. New programs were created to categorize all inmates into departments for specific handling.

The immediate outcome was that African Americans in particular and politically conscious individuals in general were screened and placed into designated hot zones throughout the more actively violent prisons in the system. Administrative Segregation was the classification used for this highly selective housing.

Into this already provocative setting some of California’s most predatory racists were added to insure constant strife and separation. Africans were now under both physical and mental attack 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Prison guards and sometimes a friend or two from the streets would dress up in their hooded KKK outfits and conduct a midnight klan interrogation on someone from their blacklist. This was always done after hours of general movement and so was not common knowledge to most inmates.

These beatings were quite as thorough as those handed out in daylight hours but with that added directly racist intent. The food and water were as often as not drugged or fouled in some way that led to long periods of starvation and unified protest.

Once again those in power devised horrific methods of maintaining the façade of control. Individual inmates were singled out for demonstrations of absolute authority by gassing and beating them senseless with the flat side of axe handles so as not to break bones unintentionally.

The C-10 gas and other forms of noxious poison had been outlawed by world governments but were openly used in California prisons. The moon gun was a construct that heated the gas with an open flame and emitted an other-worldly noise that let you know they were coming. There was no real way to prepare because the gas permeated your skin as well as your lungs.

One sustained puff from the moon gun and you were immediately convulsed on the floor vomiting, urinating, defecating and crying like a baby while all of your muscles danced as if they had a mind of their own. The moon gun devastated the intended target and unfortunately all of the cells on that side of the unit and tickled a few throats around the corner of the cell block. The intended victim was dragged off and reminded where he was over and over again until he was considered apologetic and then hidden in the infirmary for a few days.

Selected individuals from those who remained enduring the slowly vanishing odor and effects of the gas were moved into the stark isolation cells in the lower depths of the cell block. These cells consisted of a solid concrete block for a bed and depending on how much of an example they wanted to make out of you, there was sometimes a ragged blanket.

There was a sink and a six inch hole in the center of the floor that was your toilet. Stepping into that hole in the absolute darkness was not a pleasant experience and sometimes resulted in serious injury. They of course controlled the working of both the sink and wide open toilet from outside. You could go for days without the toilet being flushed and by now we all know what those fumes will do to your health in a confined space.

The truly unfortunate captive was given one meal a day through a thick iron door that when closed left you in complete darkness with only the sounds of you and the creatures that scurried unseen around you. Your meal consisted of a glass of water and what some called jupe balls. They combined all of the meals of the day, including dessert, into a loaf and you were given a slice. Jupe balls supposedly met the daily nutrition requirement for California prisoners.

Due to the effects of long term confinement in these concrete boxes, where quite often you were left naked and doused with water, sometimes ultimately resulting in death, courts ruled that holding men in these confines for more than 10 consecutive days was unlawful. When they were actually concerned about being caught, the subject of their enjoyment was simply removed from isolation for 24 hours and then returned without even changing paperwork.

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