After watching the documentary, Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, I felt compelled to learn more about George Jackson and his August 21, 1971 failed escape attempt from San Quinten State Prison in California. Paul Liberatore’s thoroughly researched, yet very accessible, The Road to Hell, explains far more than what happened that tragic day when six people died incredibly violent deaths.
A considerable segment of the book describes the intriguing lives of George Jackson and Stephen Bingham. The former struggled as a defiant, young man who engaged in street crime and then developed into a political revolutionary during his prolonged incarceration. In contrast, the latter enjoyed a very comfortable middle class upbringing that afforded him the ability to pursue a law degree and work on social justice issues such as civil rights. Despite these very different experiences, both individuals evolved into committed activists who were steadfast in their beliefs. Their lives are forever intertwined because Bingham served on Jackson’s legal team and authorities accused him of smuggling a gun into the prison to assist Jackson’s escape from the facility.
In addition to the range of interviews conducted by the author, a major strength of this narrative is how it provides historical context for those who might not be too familiar with the more radical politics and activism characteristic of that time period. Liberatore strikes the proper balance with the level of detail so as to not overwhelm you with tangential information that would distract from the central focus. His explanation of other related, major events (e.g. George’s brother Jonathan Jackson’s failed attempt to free James McClain from jail) along with connections to notable civil rights figures (e.g. Huey Newton) and groups (e.g. Black Panthers) illustrates the movement’s internal conflicts. Some of the information revealed is rather disturbing.
While it’s impossible for any story to be exhaustive, I feel a number of important questions emerge that really need to be investigated much further. What did Jonathan Jackson and Angela Davis argue about prior to the incident at the Marin County Hall of Justice on August 7, 1970 that left Jonathan and three other people dead? Why did Vanita Anderson abruptly leave the Black Panthers and Bay Area after George Jackson’s death when she had accompanied Bingham to San Quinten on August 21? Also, why didn’t she face charges? How did the FBI miss Bingham’s return visits to the United States (note: he fled to Europe following the massacre)? Did someone associated with George Jackson, the Black Guerilla Family, or the Black Panthers order the vicious attack on the prosecutor’s wife in Bingham’s trial? Perhaps the people who know the answers aren’t willing to come forward.
None of us can imagine George Jackson’s mindset the day his life ended. Did he really believe that he could escape confinement or did he consciously choose to make this his last act of rebellion against a system riddled with injustice? We will never know his final thoughts. That said, Liberatore’s work helps us better understand an intense protest era where some activists resorted to desperate measures in an effort to combat perceived wrongs in our society.