The RW Interview: Luis Talamantez

San Quentin:
Links in the Chain

From the murder of George Jackson to the Criminalization of youth in the '90s

Revolutionary Worker #969, August 16, 1998

The RW recently had the opportunity to interview Luis Talamantez and other former members of the San Quentin 6. Luis spoke about the assassination of revolutionary political prisoner George Jackson by California prison authorities, the historical events that led to the case of the San Quentin 6, and the implications for the struggle today. He also spoke to the RW about his activities as a prison rights activist with the Pelican Bay Information Project and California Prison Focus.

RW: How did the case of the San Quentin 6 come about?

LT: My name is Bato. George Jackson gave me the name Bato, a name I honor, a name I exchange with all my comrades who are all batos to me because the legacy of Comrade George Jackson lives on. I'm one of the original San Quentin 6 trial defendants, political prisoners in a case that goes back about 25 years now. My co-defendants and comrades were Sundiata (Willie) Tate, David Johnson, Larry Spain, Hugo Pinnell and the late Fleeta Drumgo.

Our case grew out of the assassination of George Jackson at San Quentin. We were present, though out of seeing range, when he was slain by fascist San Quentin prison guards. We can't really speak about the San Quentin 6 without speaking about George Jackson and the Soledad Brothers. We would also have to speak about the Marin County shoot out on August 7, 1970, when George's younger brother Jonathan was slain by San Quentin guards during an attempt to free the Soledad Brothers. This was a whole era of prison struggle, of resistance by the imprisoned class. The struggles took place in a historical context that we identified with. I've had the privilege of knowing my comrades-in-arms, prisoners who became revolutionary through the process of indoctrination by people like comrade George Jackson, Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara and Malcolm X. George Jackson taught us a lot.

Leadership was provided for us by comrade George Jackson. We were all incarcerated within what was then called Mad Adjustment Center at San Quentin. By the way, it was the first SHU or Security Housing Unit in the country. It was established in California based on the concept of sensory deprivation, of complete isolation, of round the clock surveillance, of political retaliation and punishment for political beliefs. It all started right here in California and within the San Quentin cell block that was called the MAD Adjustment Center, and then was spread to other parts of the country.

On August 21, 1971, after an uprising by the prisoners against our brutal living conditions on the first tier of the MAD adjustment center, George Jackson fled from the doorway of the MAD adjustment center into the open to prevent being surrounded, isolated, and killed within the cell block facility. He chose and went for freedom and he died along the black asphalt alleyway called Utility Road. He was slain on this black asphalt on that Saturday afternoon. I theorize he was assassinated after being found still alive. Other people have their own opinion, but I theorize that the trajectory of the single bullet that hit George Jackson on that day was completely aerodynamically impossible. George Jackson was shot down in the back. He was shot from the north block catwalk which is about 30 feet off the ground and that runs along one side of the north block. From that catwalk, a sharp shooter guard took aim and shot George Jackson. That guard's own admittance was that the bullet ricocheted off the black asphalt, went up and nicked George's heel, hit him in the buttocks and then somehow hit him in the head and killed him.

The state prosecutorial experts theorize that George Jackson died through a strange, ricochet trajectory bullet that took a complete right angle turn in flight to have accomplished this feat. From my memory, from what I've heard, from what I've thought about these last 25 years, I would say that George Jackson was finished off on the ground. I still have fresh recollections in my mind of the chalk outlined figure, with his hand outstretched, that was left on the black asphalt after the removal of his body. That imprint has stayed in my mind over the years and I have accepted that that was where he fell. I have not accepted that that's where he fell dead, but where he fell wounded and was finished off. Subsequently, I learned from one of my comrades who had a better view that eventful day, that George had fell elsewhere and was dragged onto the asphalt.

George Jackson had long been marked for death by the prison system and by the government's counter-intelligence program or COINTELPRO during an age when revolutionary leadership and fighters around the country and around the world, both outside and inside prison, were being assassinated. These were the years when there was an active government effort to eliminate leadership. It happened with AIM [American Indian Movement], with the Panthers, with the Puerto Rican freedom fighters. COINTELPRO never went away and still surveils today.

Six of us were randomly selected out of 26 prisoners who were freed from our cells on August 21, 1971. The authorities called us the Prison Half Dozen, well-baked revolutionaries suspected as the instigators, the perpetrators, co-conspirators, of a big plot to escape and blow up the world. Because in their minds, they had so exaggerated and overblown about who George Jackson was and the vanguard movement he stood for, that they thought of giant fantasies about what George Jackson would have been possible of had he lived.

I was acquitted after the lengthy San Quentin 6 trial which ran from 1972 to 1976. The trial itself lasted 18 months and was considered the longest up to that time. Three were found guilty and three of us were acquitted. I was acquitted and released eight days later, on August 20, 1976. I came to live in San Francisco.

RW: What drew you back to becoming a prisoners' rights activist?

LT: Nothing drew me back. I was never entirely released by the grip of the prison system. It still controls my life because I am a two-strike ex-felon. The state can third-strike me by manipulation. So the work I do is mostly for the class struggle, but there is also an element of self preservation. A lot of our ex-prisoner members realize that things are getting worse now not only for people inside prisons, but also for those in our communities where they are three-striking youngsters and sending them up for life. We are leading a vanguard movement of families against three strikes. Families independently are organizing. They call themselves collectively "Families Against 3 Strikes." It is very encouraging that there is a grass roots movement coming about through a critical need, a vital emerging need, a need of life and death in many cases, of survival in Third World communities which today are decimated by mass imprisonments. The prison population in California stands at 163,000 and over 100,000 are people of color. One thousand prisoners a month are going into the California prison system. Many of them are being violated for the third strike. Many are being violated in what has become the merry-go-round of recidivism. Eighty percent of all prisoners that are released return to prison in a vicious cycle that is kept going by the power structure. It is profitable. The prison industrial complex has manipulated legislative acts in collusion with law enforcement and a gullible public to make sure that the operation continues in the trafficking of lives.

RW: What kind of changes, what kind of struggle did you have to go through to become a revolutionary prisoner at that time?

LT: Let me say that being revolutionary takes a lifting of one's consciousness and values above personal incentives--to one of total behavior adjustment against exploitation, aggression, self aggrandizement. To become a revolutionary is a slow process. But we need to accelerate that process among the prison class today, which is severely afflicted by lack of revolutionary awareness and activity.

For myself, I was a ward of the state at 12 years old. I developed a certain code of behavior of live and let live, and later, a code of solidarity, mutual assistance and self-help. As your consciousness grows over a period of years, somewhere along the line, you come to a certain basic conclusion in reference to things, and one was the ideology of class warfare. When you realize that you are of a separate under-privileged class, you realize there are other class mates similarly situated as yourself, and that the oppressor oppresses all the oppressed. You realize members of this class come in different shapes, forms, and colors, orientation. You develop your revolutionary set of values, of priorities, and you struggle to be a revolutionary and to maintain a revolutionary perspective. You struggle to not succumb to internal strife, victimization, exploitation, internal warfare, internal genocide among your own class. You understand that the class must be strong to withstand the onslaught of the oppression within which you are being kept, and which is your everyday reality. You see these things as you resist injustice and question the way things are, i.e. as your revolutionary activities and consciousness develop.

RW: What inspires you to continue struggling today?

LT: I am inspired today as I was then, by prisoners that I have known and have felt a life bond with. One prisoner who I hold really dear to my heart is Louie Lopez, who for 20 years was a solid cross cultural comrade, proud of his own Mexican heritage. Louie Lopez who I knew, and Sundiata also knew since juvenile hall, youth authority days, is typical of so many of the struggling prisoners today. On Father's Day 1996 when he died, part of me died with him. As one of the 26 prisoners freed on August 21, 1971 at San Quentin, Louie Lopez stood with us, struggled with us and also bore witness to the death of George Jackson.

Louie Lopez, whose death could have been my own, keeps me struggling. He should never have died in the abject state he did. He was given no treatment despite complaints and attempts to have medical attention given to him. The Pelican Bay Information Project visited him and monitored his case for a number of years while he was at Pelican Bay. He always gave me the fist salute. We knew who we were and we knew in our hearts we had come on the revolutionary road together as prisoners and we would stand and die together.

I speak of Louie Lopez because he was an example even when he was being set upon and beaten by the guards. He was never quiet, he resisted under stress and punishment. He made the rest of us strong even though he stood in chains. We rallied to each other, we embraced each other, we supported each other. I want to pay tribute to my comrade, my friend who died after being transferred from Pelican Bay to Corcoran. He was never told until the last month of his life that he contracted bone cancer. He had complained about aching bones--which a lot of prisoners today complain about--aching bones, soreness, weakness, that abject state when there's no exercise, no sunlight, within the tomb of Pelican Bay. Prisoners never get out in fresh open air but are kept in their cells, temperatures sometimes up to 90 degrees during the summer. A month after he died, a letter from him reached me via another prisoner, scribbled by a very weak hand. It said "Here is the last information I have for you. There has been a number of cell extractions this month. I heard the buzzer go off, extraction team buzzer go off so many times I have laid here and I have counted and I have written it down." It showed his dedication that even while he was dying he tried to let me know what was taking place within the bowels of the prison, to assist me in the work of monitoring the abuses there.

RW: Can you talk more about your work today with the Pelican Bay Information Project (PBIP) and California Prison Focus (CPF)?

LT: Pelican Bay, a super-maximum security prison, opened in 1989. Ruchell Magee and Hugo Penell were on the first bus sent there. Hugo and others have told us that it is an institution where violence is a standard policy used to do bodily harm to prisoners, and as a means of control by the guards.

Pelican Bay Information Project was formed by family members who came to us and pleaded their case to have their loved ones included in securing visitation rights to the prison. Other organizations like the Prisoner's Rights Union, more recently Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, National Lawyers Guild, Prison Law Office, Criminal Justice Consortium Elements, ACLU, and a lot of others came together recognizing the emergency need for a group to form in response to brutality at Pelican Bay. Thus we were born out of necessity to fight the injustice being inflicted on our community and our loved ones.

Hugo remains today completely isolated at the notorious Pelican Bay State Prison. He is one of the few remaining legacies of the struggle on Saturday afternoon, August 21, 1971. Because of our condition, because of the oppression we had felt, because of our political understanding of what was taking place, because of our lengthy prison indoctrination, because of the revolutionary struggles within the prison system that were bringing prisoners together in solidarity and across racial barriers--there wasn't as much aimless and chaotic violence as there is today within the prison system. The leadership in the prisons today are kept completely confined under severe lockdown, not allowed to indoctrinate, gather, communicate or to form any kind of lasting solidarity movements within the prison system. Instead there's an ongoing, active campaign by the state security unit (SSU) to disunite and discommunicate prisoners.

Recently, I received a tape from Hugo Pinell, the last San Quentin 6 still in prison, who is originally from Nicaragua. He has spent 35 continuous years in California's prison system: San Quentin, Folsom, Tehachapi, Corcoran, Pelican Bay. Hugo sends his revolutionary greetings as always, but asks--where is the revolution? Where are the revolutionaries? Why are they silent on my behalf? Should I still believe the people will free me, because I will never submit to the power of the state or to the criminal injustice system which has tried me, found me guilty, has kept me illegally in prison for 35 years. I will never submit to the legal process, court writ, to free me. Only the people can free me. That has been Hugo Pinell's message for years and years to us. He's a voice from within the bowels of an incredible ferocious beast that is swallowing up our children, our families, our neighborhoods, our communities, our working class. Swallowing us up here in California at an incredible rate. And Hugo remains a voice of those hundreds of thousands that are going under and into the prison system where today there is no revolutionary movement yet. Because of this we will struggle to be a voice not only for Hugo but other comrades that are in there: Luis Rodríguez, Paul Red, Fati Carter, youngest brother of the well-known slain Panther Bunchy Carter, Steve Castillo, one of the finest jailhouse lawyers, who has waged a struggle for years within the bowels of hell. These SHU units are where the politically conscious fighters and resisters are kept isolated, away from being able to organize and provide the leadership that is desperately needed in the prisons today.

California Prison Focus, which is an outgrowth of PBIP, has heard from thousands of prisoners similarly situated. Among these are only a few that have learned how to wage a struggle of solidarity, organization and ideology within this monster that holds them. One of my tasks for years as the co-founder and co-director of the PBIP is to serve as a vehicle, to be a voice, to be a bridge, to be a communication facility. We have been responsible in California for the exposure of human rights abuses at several prisons.

For example, the Madrid vs. Gomez case that we undertook five years ago--which proved that state-sanctioned torture is being practiced--highly refined techniques with many punishment features. The events that led to Madrid vs. Gomez occurred in 1993 with the systematic beating of a number of Hispanic prisoners taken out from the SHU at Pelican Bay, who were walked across naked in chains to the infirmary where they were x-rayed against their will, suspected of hiding metallic objects or weapons within their body cavities. They were systematically beaten during the transport to and from, at night, in the rain, completely naked--a chain gang of approximately 24 prisoners who the prison insisted were in a gang formation and planning collective violence, some kind of conspiracy to collectively resist the intimidation and terror of that institution, and rightly so. We encourage prisoners to unite and resist the terror designed to break them. More recently, we helped expose the gladiator fights at Corcoran where prisoners are being openly pitted against each other by a corrupt, degenerate, sadistic, prison guard personnel. This exposure was recently featured on the TV program 60 Minutes.

I recently visited the women's prison at Chowchilla, California which the state boasts as being the biggest women's prison facility in the country. The SHU there is designated as the Pelican Bay for women and is a very heavily insulated area with concrete cubicles, thick plexi-glass separating visitors from heavily chained and manacled prisoners. Upon entering, our investigative team witnessed a shocking incident. A woman prisoner was led in, handcuffed and with a big black pointed canvas hood placed on her head. They stuck her in the room, shut the door, opened the food port or slot, reached in and removed her handcuffs, then made her get down on her knees, unstrapped the restraint hood and left her there. The woman crumbled in tears, misery, wretchedness. She was a young, scrawny, white woman with a smock on her like you see in an insane asylum. The woman never stopped trembling, moving her head around, completely disoriented. When we were getting ready to leave she said, "Please don't go, they are going to put that back on me. I can't stand it. It makes me want to suffocate, to die. They are saying I assaulted an officer because I spit in his face after he had manhandled me." Hooding is a new terror technique employed at many prisons now under the pretext of protecting guards from AIDS if they get spit on.

All this is why the work we do, and other groups do, is so vital. It personally affects me because I have been kept in abject slavery during my prisoner years along with my prison comrades, my codefendants. We were kept heavily chained for six years. I know what it is to be in abject, powerless misery, year round. It will deaden and vegetate you into a non-person.

Today we have to let other people know. We need to organize. We need to try and slow down the complete disintegration of society into one of authoritarian abuse. We need to raise again the ideology of revolutionary struggle because with this situation, only a revolutionary struggle can halt the expansion of the prison industrial complex. Only revolutionary thinking and implementation can abolish all prisons for all time. La lucha continua.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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