WAlthough the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement has raised the profile of holidays like Juneteenth and Black History Month, there is a significant black celebration that remains on the fringes of American popular consciousness. Black August is a month-long commemoration dedicated to freedom fighters lost in the struggle for the liberation of black people, especially those who were killed by American authorities or who perished behind bars.
Black August celebrants regard the crimes committed by some of these revolutionaries as acts of war against a system already at war with them. With the release of films like Shaka King’s biopic of murdered Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton and data showing that large numbers of Americans now view individual acts of police violence as part of a more racist system broad, the politics and culture behind Black August are becoming more and more mainstream. If the new generations of Americans can understand the war that has been waged against black radicals, and against black Americans as a whole, they should honor Black August by demanding the release of radicals still imprisoned in a racist system.
Black radicals within the California prison system created Black August in 1979. Although it partially commemorates events like Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion against slavery and the start of the Haitian Revolution, it primarily honors the legacy of black freedom fighters who were imprisoned or killed in the 20th century while working for the revolution in the United States.
On August 1, 1978, Jeffrey Khatari Gaulden, a black radical imprisoned since 1967 for assault with a deadly weapon, was seriously injured during a football match at San Quentin State Prison. Prison staff did not provide emergency care quickly enough and Gaulden died in what witnesses considered preventable death. His death was the immediate impetus for the creation of Black August, but the tradition was also created to celebrate other black radicals of the 1970s such as the Jackson brothers.
Jackson’s older brother, George Jackson, was a Marxist-Leninist theorist and organizer who was killed by guards while leading a prison uprising. Young Jackson, Jonathan Jackson, was shot dead while attempting to kidnap a judge and prosecutor from a California courthouse. Other revolutionaries that Black August sought to honor included WL Nolen, a comrade of George Jackson who was killed by guards after being caught in a prison brawl between black leftists and neo-Nazis. Two other black men were also shot dead in the same incident.
Mama Ayanna Mashama, founding member of the Black August organizing committee, explained how participants observed the first Black August:
… The brothers did not listen to the radio or watch television, moreover, they did not eat or drink anything from sunrise to sunset; and boisterous and boisterous behavior was not allowed …
Today, the tradition – propagated by one of Mashama’s other organizations, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement – is celebrated inside and outside prisons. Observers engage in reflection, political education, physical exercise, and other ways to sharpen their bodies and minds to honor the work of those who came before them. But Black August is also an opportunity to intensify the struggle for the release of detainees whom many activists and organizers consider to be political prisoners.
Mumia Abu Jamal, often referred to simply as Mumia, is one of America’s best-known black political prisoners, but far from the last still behind bars. Mumia is a journalist and former Black Panther convicted of the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia policeman. The evidence and testimony against him has long been disputed, and an international movement has grown in his defense. The movement has challenged his original death sentence and continues to fight for the end of his current life sentence. Many organizations, such as the Coalition for the Abolition of Death by Incarceration, regard the life sentences of Mumia and other imprisoned radicals as long, prolonged and deliberately cruel de facto death sentences.
Russell “Maroon” Shoatz, another former Black Panther, was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1972 after being convicted of murdering a police officer. He spent 22 years of his imprisonment in solitary confinement, sitting in a small cell for 23 hours a day, with lights shining above him at all times.
A third former Panther, Albert Woodfox, was released in 2016 from a Louisiana prison after spending 43 years in solitary confinement. While these sentences may seem fair for the alleged crimes, trying them without thinking about the context in which the prisoners were held would do reality itself a disservice.
It is easy for Americans to understand and support black revolutionaries in other contexts, whether foreign or cinematic. Nelson Mandela, for example, is revered by many Americans. Yet Mandela was hardly different from his American counterparts. He co-founded uMkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), an armed group that engaged in bombing campaigns and targeted attacks across South Africa, killing dozens of police, soldiers and civilians in the process. Despite the efforts of the U.S. government, which has attempted to support South Africa’s apartheid government for much of its history, most Americans now understand that the regime was indefensibly based on segregation and violence. racial.
How difficult is it to understand the same thing for the United States for most if not all of the 20th century? George Jackson witnessed the murder of his friend by prison guards for the crime of fighting white supremacists. Mumia had long been the target of the Philadelphia Police Department for her reporting on Move, a left-wing black organization with a complex in the city. A few years after Mumia’s arrest, Philadelphia police dropped explosives on the move, killing 11 people, including five children. The Black Panther Party was harassed, infiltrated and attacked, and law enforcement officers murdered one of the Panthers’ early leaders, 19-year-old Fred Hampton, as he slept in his bed.
These imprisoned rulers were striving to build a better society for their people at a time when their friends and compatriots were being murdered in their homes. And it is inhuman to let former radicals who are now elderly and sick die behind bars so many decades after being initially convicted.
Yet this is not a problem only for black seniors; a new generation of black political prisoners, like Joshua Williams, are languishing in prison cells for the crime of engaging in resistance against the modern state of mass incarceration and police violence, a system that has enabled police to evade responsibility for the murder of 12 years. old Tamir Rice in a park and Aiyana Stanley-Jones, seven, as she slept in bed. Williams, arrested at 18, received eight years in prison for setting fire in and around a convenience store as he protested the death of Antonio Martin, an 18-year-old black gunman killed by a Missouri police officer a few months after Williams protested the murder of Mike Brown by another Missouri police officer.
In the same way that mainstream America tended to embrace black art while rejecting black people, mainstream American culture belatedly adopted the iconography and achievements of black radicals while letting them die. As Levi’s celebrates Black Power with a line of denim jackets, Democrats emulate a style popularized by black radicals, and Beyoncé’s Black Panthers-themed Super Bowl lingers in the public imagination, we have to face it. the truth.
Black radicals have helped clarify the reality of the systemic and direct violence of the American state, and for that clarity the nation owes such figures as Soundiata Acoli, Joseph Brown, Veronza Bowers, Mutulu Shakur, Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin , Ed Poindexter, Fred Burton and many others their freedom.