The reviewer, a lawyer, has written on criminal justice and other subjects for The Nation, The Village Voice, and The New York Times Magazine.
On Saturday, Aug. 21, 1971, violence tore through the Adjustment Center, a maximum security isolation block at San Quentin Prison. Within minutes, three guards and three inmates were dead. The only black body was that of George Jackson, a militant revolutionist, the most heralded prisoner in California since Caryl Chessman, and an author with an international following.
"American Saturday," by Clark Howard, a veteran crime writer whose previous efforts include investigations of escape ("Six Against the Rock") and racial killing ("Zebra"), traces the violence to a racial fight among six inmates at Soledad Prison Jan. 13, 1969. Though the group was unarmed and confined to a small auxiliary yard, officer Opie Miller immediately fired into the fracas, killing three blacks and injuring a white. As with every other official in his book, Howard uncritically defends Miller: "It is common practice for wall guards to fire into yards to break up fights." Perhaps in the Gulag. But American prisons customarily attempt to quell small disturbances with loudspeakers, tear gas, riot phalanxes and warning shots before beginning to execute people.
Howard then takes the 12-year-old position that George Jackson, with two other black inmates (none of whom had been involved in the fight), took revenge by seizing another white guard and tossing him off the top of a multi-tiered cell block. On the eve of the "Soledad Brothers" trial in August 1971, Jackson, Howard says, planned to hijack a plane to Algeria, because he "secretly dreaded" doing verbal battle in a courtroom where he thought "he would look like a big dumb nigger." This is not only astonishingly racist but factually thin.
Jackson and his lawyers had long awaited the trial as a media forum in which to broach politics and expose penal injustices (which led supporters to insist that he had been killed to prevent just such an occurrence). Moreover, the surviving Soledad defendants seemed neither dumb nor guilty to an all-white jury that acquitted them of all charges in 1972.
Howard essentially rehashes and expands the official version of the San Quentin incident. According to the authorities, Stephen Bingham, an attorney who disappeared immediately after the incident, smuggled a pistol hidden inside a tape recorder and an Afro wig into an interview with Jackson. The prisoner removed the gun, balanced it on his head beneath the wig, and walked 50 yards under guard to the Adjustment Center. There, the gun was noticed. Jackson then, the story goes, shot a guard, opened the cells, and ordered the shooting of a second guard, and the throats slit of two other officers and two inmates. Running into the yard, he exchanged fire with a tower guard and was killed.
Substantial difficulties always have riddled this story. It seems doubtful that San Quentin's most heavily secured inmate could work with a gun, bullets, wig, and recorder while under the watchful eye of a guard standing a few feet away behind a surveillance window -- unless the prison wanted Jackson to have the weapon, reportedly an Astra automatic over eight inches long. In a famous "pistol and wig experiment," The San Francisco Chronicle found that a professional model could not get the pistol under the type of hair piece involved without a struggle and even then was unable to make it look in any sense natural, keep it from wobbling or walk more than a few feet with the load balanced.
Howard's murky version of the carnage (he never names any killers besides Jackson, though he audaciously blames all the bloodletting on blacks) derives from the deposition of a white career criminal named Allan Mancino. Howard sloughs off the fact that guards roughed up Mancino and shot him in the leg before he made the statement, and that the convict later repudiated it.
Howard also shies from a central controversy in the case, which is whether Jackson was murdered. He simply reports that the prisoner received one gunshot to the lower leg, and that a second bullet entered the base of the spine, broke three ribs, passed through the neck and head and exited the center of the skull. For a shell to turn upwards in a body and cause such wreckage is highly unusual but not impossible. Though Howard typically never mentions it, his information comes from a revised autopsy report issued a month after Jackson's death. The coroner initially found however that the hole in Jackson's skull was an entry wound through which the fatal bullet plunged straight downward -- an apparent execution trajectory. Eric Mann, Jackson's biographer, analyzed the changing reports and concluded that Jackson was stopped but alive after the first bullet. A guard, Mann believed, then delivered a coup de grace to the brain.
Even a decade after Jackson's death, the author maintains that he cannot divulge any sources for fear of risking their lives. Inexplicably, he also refuses to cite documentary evidence save for the Mancino transcript. The effect is to give his writing a bald, uncorroborated feel, compounded by his tendency to contrive lengthy dialogues and equally suspicious interior monologues, particularly when the head is Jackson's.
Howard says that he became obsessed with the man and case upon learning that Jackson and he had grown up a block apart in a West Chicago slum. "Why then, I wondered, did Jackson end up face-down on the San Quentin Yard with a gun guard's bullet in him, while I was now a moderately successful writer of books?"
Howard never answers the question but contents himself with the disdain which a self-made man saves for a loser. To him, Jackson is simply "an inept gas-station stickup man" who lacked enough self-discipline to make parole and cynically played the political card in order to fatten his visitors' list. Howard ignores the voracious autodidact, the powerful but uneven writer, and the revolutionary poised to capsize what he termed "totalitarian Amerika." In truth, after spending his years from 18 to 30 in prison, Jackson no longer knew America well, and had lost the ability to distinguish his own total confinement from free society. Even so, in a different time, the case, the man and his work appealed to wide segments of black and white society, and not simply to "desperate imaginations," as Howard would have it.
Ten years after Jackson's death, the radical wind is blowing from the right, and I suspect that "American Saturday" blew in with it. But perceptive voices on crime from Dostoevsky to Chesterton to Wambaugh often have been tinged with reaction. Politics is not the problem here. A surprising lack of professionalism is.