The George Jackson Brigade and organising behind bars – book review of Lumpen by Ed Mead

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‘The first duty of a captured revolutionary is to escape; barring that, the second is to transform the prisons from instruments of repression into schools of liberation and revolution.’ (p205)

Lumpen is the autobiography of former US prisoner Ed Mead, who served 18 years for his part in a 1976 bank robbery committed by the George Jackson Brigade (GJB). GJB was an armed propaganda unit named after political prisoner George Jackson who was murdered by guards in San Quentin prison in 1971, which was active in Seattle in the mid-1970s. 

The book takes us through Ed’s life in extensive detail, with the first 100 pages dedicated to his growing up in California, Washington State, Alaska and elsewhere in the US, as his poor white family moved to find work.  His life was harsh and gritty but it was not this which politicised him as, despite some sympathy for the even poorer indigenous Alaskans, his horizons were limited to survival and the pursuit of accessible pleasures.  

What changed his consciousness was prison. Imprisoned initially for various petty crimes, which escalated in seriousness, he became a ‘jailhouse lawyer’ filing appeal writs and other complaints both for himself and, as he grew more successful, for others. However, even this was in the first instance simply a more complex survival tactic until, while serving five years in the United States Penitentiary at McNeil Island, he came into contact with political prisoners, incarcerated for a wide range of activities relating in some way or other to the Vietnam War.

Ed explains how some of these political prisoners filed a writ against the federal prison system entitled ‘The Genocide Complaint‘, which ‘detailed the destructive nature of prisons for both inmates and their families and presented alternatives that would be possible under socialism’. Ed and the other jailhouse lawyers laughed at this legal suit which could never succeed but he quickly realised then that legal success was not the main aim and that the complaint was a mobilising tool for ‘organizing support for prisoners on the street’. (p138) 

A work strike followed in the prison, during which ‘hundreds of people (including actress Jane Fonda and folk singer Pete Seeger) demonstrated on the Steilacoom dock in support of the striking prisoners’ and the prisoners inside set fires and threw paint-bombs. (p141) 

In this atmosphere Ed began to read political literature. First anarchism, which he swiftly dismissed: ‘Anarchists, I discovered, could never be more than liberals (even when they’re armed liberals) as their philosophy itself is just a form of liberalism’ (p143).  Then, first through reading Trotskyist publications, then The Communist Manifesto and other works by Marx and Engels, followed by Lenin and Mao, he and a fellow prisoner following a similar path became convinced Marxist-Leninists.   Of course, ‘this process did not take place all at once… this wasn’t like finding Jesus!  - but rather a lengthy and painstaking study that was coupled with what we believed was sound political practice.  It was a process that took several years, and even today I’m still seeking to understand the complexities of Marxist theory.’ (p144) 

Released from prison in 1972 and convinced that the revolution would take place in the US within five years, Ed immediately became involved in political organising, with a focus on prisoner solidarity, but also in response to the continuing war in Vietnam, as well as to police brutality and racism. There was a palpable sense of political urgency in which ‘the same old marching in circles wasn’t going to get the job done’ (p173).  From showpiece use of incendiary devices as part of public demonstrations, Ed and a group of comrades moved on to an actual solidarity bombing of a racist white construction company in solidarity with the struggle of Seattle black workers’ union the United Construction Workers.

GJB then came into being as a small group of armed revolutionaries, inspired that ‘Fidel Castro started the Cuban revolution by landing on the shores of Cuba…with only twenty-six men, and that with only a nine-person Armed Propaganda Unit, Ho Chi Minh had built a Vietnamese movement that ousted the Japanese, the French and finally the American imperialists’. Many similar groups were springing up across the US at the time and GJB hoped that ‘these units would multiply, eventually joining together to help smash the existing State and sweep the bourgeoisie from power.’ (p186) 

Easy as it now may be to look on this as hopeless naivety, we should remember that in the late 1960s and early 1970s the US state itself did seriously fear that revolution would sweep it from power, prompting it to set in motion massive surveillance, undercover operations and overt terror in order to smash organisations like the Black Panther Party.

GJB, however, was not under surveillance and managed to carry out a significant number of bombings. Although these were always claimed by the brigade, the police did not know who its members were, and might never have done so had it not been for the bank raid, which was carried out to gain funds for more bombings, and which ended in the death of one activist and the imprisonment of Ed and his comrade on the spot, followed by three others who were subsequently rounded up. Even straight after the robbery, the police thought they had arrested some criminals, and might have continued thinking this, had GJB not issued a political statement; this was done with the express purpose of letting the public know that Bruce Seidel, who was shot dead during the raid, was ‘not a criminal but a revolutionary…’ (p205)

Ed was sentenced to a complicated combination of state and federal punishments, including two consecutive life sentences, but began serving them still fully confident that either the revolution would liberate him or he would escape.  In the meantime, he set his mind to organising within prison and spent the whole of what turned out in the end to be an 18-year term behind bars, doing so using all the means at his disposal.

Although Lumpen gives us an inspirational look at the possibilities of political organising behind bars, it does not romanticise imprisonment or prisoners. A substantial part of the activity which Ed and his comrades were involved in during the first part of his sentence related to preventing prisoner-on-prisoner rape via education, agitation and direct action, and the book contains frequent descriptions of the need to be armed and vigilant at all times, especially as ‘reactionary prisoners are always the administration’s first line of defence’ (p305). 

The book contains lots of detail about work-strikes and prison protests, some more successful than others. Throughout his time in prison Ed took every opportunity to organise with others, whether those opportunities appeared to be directly revolutionary or ostensibly liberal. Although the prison system in which he was incarcerated was brutal and he spent years in segregation units or being transported to federal prisons in distant parts of the country, including the notorious USP Marion, prior to its total lockdown, there were always opportunities to do something to confront the system.

In addition to detail of what was actually organised, there is plenty of discussion about how best this should be done. The book’s 12th chapter ‘Big Red Redux & Marion’ contains detailed analysis of the ‘four main organizing trends in the nation’s prisons, represented by four different organizations’. It is not possible to repeat all this here but the chapter, and indeed the book, is useful reading for anyone organising around the prison struggle, even in today’s much less revolutionary and far more heavily policed circumstances. And some of the questions dealt with relate not just to prison struggle, but to political work in general, with a later chapter addressing the question ‘should I be working to build cadre or a mass organization?’  (p298), as well as that of whether we ‘talk about communism and socialism in our organizing work’ or refrain from doing so ‘because that alienates people’. Ed’s view is that ‘to pull our punches on this is to underestimate and devalue people’s intelligence. They need to see the goal we are fighting to achieve at every step along the way. They need to understand how a more sane social order could be organized and how it would be of benefit to all of humanity’ (p305).

He wrote to and for numerous political publications, as well as producing his own Red Dragon newsletter, using whatever internal or external typing, copying and distributing mechanisms were available. In addition Ed corresponded with a copious number of activists, supporters and organisations around the world, including between 1990 and his release in 1993, with Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!

Lumpen concludes in the present day, with an account of Ed’s involvement in solidarity activity around the 2015 California and Georgia prison protests. The author, now 73 and suffering from advanced lung cancer,  ends on a positive note, encouraging prison readers to become class conscious and all of us to study Marxism – ‘the science of Revolution – of global class war’.

This book is easy reading but is not short and at times there is perhaps a bit too much detail for those not already well-versed in the subject matter.   It is strongly recommended to anyone with an interest in US political struggles of 1970s or prison solidarity at any time. 

Lumpen – the autobiography of Ed Mead

Kersplebedeb Publishing https://www.leftwingbooks.net/

Published 2015, 360 pages, ISBN: 978-1-894946-78-0, Price $US20 

Nicki Jameson