4 September 2015

Unbroken and Unbowed Fighter for the Oppressed

Hugo Pinell Assassinated

Class-war prisoner Hugo Pinell was a marked man. Since the late 1960s when he emerged as a leader of the prisoners’ rights movement together with his mentor and comrade, George Jackson, Pinell was on the hit list of the state and its sadistic prison guards. Brutalized and tortured, the target of repeated assassination attempts, Pinell was held in solitary confinement for more than 40 years. But he would not be broken. Despite being locked in a tiny cell for 23 hours a day, Pinell continued to struggle against the horrors of America’s prisons. In 2011 and 2013 he joined thousands of other inmates in hunger strikes against the dehumanizing torture of solitary confinement. The hunger strikes were initiated by prisoners in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at California’s notorious Pelican Bay “supermax” prison where Pinell had been locked up since 1990.

In late July, Pinell, aged 71, was released into the general prison population at California State Prison-Sacramento (aka New Folsom). Two weeks later, on August 12, he was killed in the prison yard, allegedly stabbed to death by two inmates. Whoever wielded the knife it was his jailers who wanted him dead. Prison guards gloated on social media over Pinell’s murder while the capitalist rulers’ hired pens and media mouthpieces slandered him as a “notorious killer.”

Pinell was the last member of the San Quentin 6 still in prison. The six were framed up on charges stemming from the prison upheaval sparked by the assassination of Black Panther Party member George Jackson by guards in August 1971. In a statement honoring their fallen comrade Pinell, three members of the San Quentin 6—Willie Tate, Luis Talamantez and David Johnson—wrote: “We must expose those who under the cover of law orchestrated and allowed this murderous act to take place.” We stand with them in protesting Pinell’s murder, seeking to expose the state forces that stand behind it and honoring his unbreakable courage and commitment to the struggle against the barbarism of the American prison system. We also share the sorrow and tremendous sense of loss felt by Pinell’s mother Marina whose love preserved him, his daughter Allegra and the rest of his family.

Since 1986, Pinell, affectionately known as “Yogi Bear,” was a recipient of the Partisan Defense Committee’s monthly stipends to those imprisoned for fighting against the brutal class exploitation and racial oppression that define capitalist rule. Not an act of charity but of solidarity, the purpose of the PDC stipend program is to keep the cause of these prisoners alive outside the prison walls. In his greetings to the 2009 annual PDC Holiday Appeal for Class-War Prisoners, Pinell wrote:

“In February 2010 it will be 45 years in the California Department of Corrections (CDC) on an original sentence of 18 months! My S.Q. 6 assault conviction has become a ‘buried alive sentence’ and, as unjust and brutal their actions, let me remain positive and reassuring over the great lessons and experiences in my journey. I came in a juvenile delinquent, a common criminal. Thanks to Beautiful People, i awakened, i have grown and transformed into a humble freedom Servant.... Your care and solidarity has provided me with extra strength and drive to keep on pushing and evolving and i hope that my company has served you well.”

The killing of Hugo Pinell is a blow to all fighters against racial injustice and oppression. At the same time, his story has many lessons to carry that battle forward.

A Fighter Forged in a Prison Inferno

Born in Nicaragua, Pinell moved to the U.S. when he was 12 years old. In 1964, at just 19, he was accused of raping a white woman, a charge he always adamantly denied. Despite his innocence, Pinell’s mother was pressured into believing that if he didn’t plead guilty he would be sentenced to death. Promised eligibility for parole after six months of a three-year sentence, Pinell copped a plea. When he got to prison, however, he learned that his sentence was three years to life.

Amid the degradation of prison life, Pinell was introduced to the politics of the radical struggles for black rights by militant black prisoner W.L. Nolen in 1967. As Pinell wrote in a letter to a friend: “Most of us were very young, doing short sentences (supposedly), had been through the gladiator stations, Tracy and Soledad, and the time and place was right for self-change...to join the liberation movement we had to understand the meaning of liberate and, to embark, on a commitment to freedom, we had to do away with old ways, old habits, f----d up mentality, the club, homeboy set mentality and attitude.”

When prison guards inflamed racial hostility between prisoners at Soledad in the summer of 1969, Nolen launched civil rights lawsuits against the warden, the California Department of Corrections and several of the guards. In January 1970, the guards orchestrated a melee between black and white prisoners in the yard. A prison guard sharpshooter in the tower gunned down Nolen and two of his comrades. Pinell was among the first to file a legal protest against the Department of Corrections for this bloodbath.

After the guard who killed Nolen and the two others was exonerated on the grounds of “justifiable homicide,” prisoners erupted in outrage. A white guard was killed and George Jackson, Fleeta Drumgo and John Cluchette were framed up on murder charges. Their case, which exposed the sadistic brutality directed against black prisoners, including a series of murders of militants, became widely known with the publication of George Jackson’s prison letters in the book Soledad Brother (1970). Pinell refused an offer of early parole promised if he gave false testimony against George Jackson.

In their struggle against the racist hell of “life” inside prison, Pinell, Jackson and others reflected the mass social struggles that were taking place outside, from the Black Power movement to the protests against the Vietnam War. At the same time, their institutional concentration and extreme oppression provided a material basis for coming to understand such racial injustice from a social rather than individual viewpoint.

Black Panthers, war resisters and other militants provided a transmission belt for radical politics, often an eclectic mixture of Marx and Mao, Lenin and Franz Fanon, into the prisons. Young black and Latino lumpen criminals were inspired to become avowed humanitarians, freedom fighters and revolutionaries with all the contradictions that entailed. As Jackson wrote in Soledad Brother: “I met Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Engels and Mao when I entered prison and they redeemed me.” Together with a deepening political awareness, their lives developed discipline and focus. Jackson and Pinell especially stood out for struggling to overcome the murderous racial hostilities between black and Latino prisoners fomented by the guards to maintain control. The prospect of interracial solidarity evoked particular fear and hatred from the prison masters, who struck back with a vengeance.

Amid the tumultuous social struggles of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the prison guards and their masters did not want George Jackson to get his “day in court,” fearing it could serve as a potential platform for exposing the racist depravity of their prisons. On 21 August 1971, two days before the opening of the Soledad Brothers’ trial, Jackson was gunned down by guards who claimed he was trying to escape. Prisoners were enraged by Jackson’s killing and a melee erupted, in which three guards and two inmate trusties were killed and three other guards wounded.

As a result, Hugo Pinell and five other inmates—the San Quentin 6—were framed up on charges of murder and conspiracy. It was the longest trial in California history, costing millions of dollars. The shackled prisoners were led into court leashed like animals and handcuffed to special chairs bolted to the floor. When the trial ended on 12 August 1976, Pinell and David Johnson were convicted of assault; Johnny Spain was convicted of two counts of murder.

Pinell was killed 39 years to the day after his conviction and three years to the day after the California prisoners’ Agreement to End Hostilities that was coauthored by black, Latino and white inmates, a cause for which Pinell’s decades of struggle were an inspiration.

Prison Guards: The “Worst of the Worst”

Revolts by prisoners against the conditions of their incarceration challenge a key institution of capitalist state repression. Thus, the multiracial 1971 Attica, New York, prison rebellion that was sparked by Jackson’s murder, combined with the prospect of interracial unity exemplified by Jackson and Pinell, drove the state authorities into a murderous rage. Declaring the Attica revolt “a serious threat to the ability of a free government to preserve order,” New York governor Nelson Rockefeller massacred the prisoners as mercilessly as forces hired by his grandfather had murdered striking coal miners in Ludlow, Colorado in 1914.

The same year as the Attica revolt, in the aftermath of the ghetto upheavals of the 1960s, President Richard Nixon launched a “war against crime” that was aimed at black militants and the inner city poor. Two years later, Governor Rockefeller enacted draconian drug laws which became the model for the “war on drugs” that went into high gear in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan, alongside increasing deindustrialization.

Having created the conditions in which more and more black and Latino youth were condemned to joblessness and poverty, the rulers branded them criminal outlaws. By 2010, the prison population in the U.S. was 2.3 million, the majority black and Latino. America came to lead the world in the percentage of its population that is behind bars, with California leading the nation.

Among the biggest beneficiaries were the prison guards. In the past 30 years, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) has grown by a factor of six and their pay more than tripled. The most powerful lobbying force in the state, the CCPOA has poured millions into backing harsher sentencing laws and into measures to defeat attempts to alleviate prison conditions.

The murder of Hugo Pinell came while prisoners have been pursuing a class action suit against California’s notorious solitary confinement torture chambers. The attention drawn to the unspeakable conditions in the SHUs by the courageous prison hunger strikers has already led to some minimal, face-saving measures. Recently some 1,000 prisoners have been released from SHUs into the general prison population. Yet two days after Pinell was assassinated, an Associated Press article proclaimed: “California’s efforts to ease its famously harsh use of solitary confinement are clashing with a bloody reality after an inmate who spent decades alone in a tiny cell was sent back to the general population and killed by fellow inmates within days.”

It’s a win-win for the prison guards: a man they have wanted dead for decades was assassinated and his murder has the additional benefit of potentially preserving their jobs as the SHU overseers. As the San Francisco BayView (14 August) noted in commemorating Pinell:

“He was no threat to other prisoners. It was the guards who loathed him and loath the Agreement to End Hostilities, which he exemplified and set in motion over 40 years ago.

“Did they have him killed to demolish the agreement, to rekindle all-out race riots? Riots are job insurance for guards.”

Abolish the Prisons! For a Socialist America!

The prisons are the concentrated expression of the depravity of American capitalist society. They are a key instrument to coerce, torture and brutalize those whose lives have been deemed worthless by a system rooted in exploitation and racial oppression (or who have fought against that system). It will take nothing short of proletarian socialist revolution to destroy the prisons and sweep away all the barbaric institutions of the capitalist state.

The violence and savagery of the prisons, alongside the social ferment of the time, propelled Hugo Pinell, George Jackson, W.L. Nolen and others to see their oppression as a product of the capitalist system. Even so, as prisoners, they were cut off from the one class that has the social power to eradicate this system, the multiracial working class. However heroic, the prison revolts were a desperate response to desperate conditions. Unlike the New Left and others at the time, we did not enthuse over black and Latino prisoners as the “vanguard” of revolutionary struggle.

In memory of Hugo Pinell, we reiterate what we wrote in “Massacre at Attica,” on the front page of the first issue of Workers Vanguard (October 1971):

“We support the most militant struggle against the state. We only seek to give that struggle the strategic perspectives that will lead to the workers conquering political power....

“The heroic Attica martyrs and George Jackson will long be remembered for their courageous stand against overwhelming odds. It is not the crimes (real or alleged) for which the prisoners were jailed, but the stand they took—rising far above capitalist-imposed ignorance, poverty, brutality and frame-up—for justice and against oppression, that the world’s working people will remember.”

The black, Latino and white cadre of a future revolutionary workers party will learn from and honor Pinell’s legacy. Under the leadership of such a party, the social power of the multiracial working class will be mobilized in the fight for the liberation of all the oppressed and for a workers America, putting the tremendous wealth now held by the tiny class of capitalist exploiters at the service of the many. When the workers rule here and internationally they will begin to lay the material basis for an egalitarian communist society where there will be no need for an apparatus of state repression. The modern instruments of incarceration, torture and death will be placed alongside their medieval complements as relics of a decaying social order that deserved to perish.

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(reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 1073, 4 September 2015)

Workers Vanguard is the newspaper of the Spartacist League with which the Partisan Defense Committee is affiliated.