Our ultimate oppression - the case of my friend Popeye Jackson

Chapter 67


Only when the system meets organized resistance does it come down on you hard. Countless black leaders have been gunned down by police in their own homes. Even liberals like Rev. Ben Chavis from Wilmington, North Carolina, are severely oppressed. Here he is telling me about it: "We were attacked by the Klan, a number of us were shot. One of our student leaders, 17 years old, was killed. We tried to organize against racism in the schools and started to run people for office from my church. There are no elected black officials in the county, which is 50% black. They couldn't drive us out through fear and violence, so they decided to stop the movement by using courts and prisons. We were indicted on five felony charges from conspiracy to murder. The 10 of us were sentenced to a total of 282 years in prison, and I received a 34 year sentence."
Partly as a result of my book a strong campaign for his release was started in Europe. Later Ben Chavis became Executive Director of the NAACP. But 34 years is a rather mild sentence in America. Others have received more than 1.000 years in prison. (In Denmark it is rare that anybody serves longer than eight years).



And this too is a mild sentence compared to the one my best friend in California - Popeye Jackson - eventually got.

When I met Popeye I had reached the end of my journey. As a vagabond I loved the freedom to lose myself in the individual person, and naively believed that I could keep myself free of racism. But now I began to feel that my vagabonding had been a privileged white flight like so many others.  I had taken thousands of pictures, but increasingly felt that I was just exploiting the suffering with my camera and it was beginning to make me sick.



While I had been taking pictures, dozens of my friends had gone off to prison - friends who had acted in protest against the system, many of them without thinking about it - while I had just been thinking and photographing without acting. Whether my escape had been on the highway or into the pictures, I had nevertheless been an integrated part of the system. The more I had come to love America, the more difficult it was to remain a silent observer to its self-destruction. I wanted increasingly to help change it.



I felt that I was exploiting the suffering with my camera and sensed my own growing racism. It is not pleasant to discover negative thinking in oneself, but racism is not a voluntary matter. So rather than feeling ashamed, my racism made me feel part of America and I wanted to help change the country I had come to love by becoming actively anti-racist.
Though I had come to see everyone as a victim, I knew that we eventually have to take responsibility for our crimes.



Therefore I put my camera away and began to work with Popeye. Popeye proved to me that also the victim is more than just a victim and capable of offering resistance. Popeye, who was proud of his lower ghetto background and always dressed in typical hustler fashion, was for me the personification of the underclass with all its openness, violence, sexism, beautiful culture, generosity - all the things we in Europe consider stereotypically American. Popeye had himself been on a long journey. He was only 10 years old the first time he went to jail and had since spent more than 19 years in prison. During the long confinement Popeye grew politically aware began organizing the other inmates into the United Prisoners Union. He felt that it is only possible to escape the ghetto though a collective struggle against a racist system.



Popeye's influence on the prison inmates increased and I was told that the police had tried to get him back in prison by planting dope in his car just as on occasion they had threatened him with death. Working in the Union we became closer and closer bound to each other. When he saw the big holes in my shoes, he one day gave me a pair of boots without a word. Though I had stopped photographing, he persuaded me to smuggle the camera inside the prison and take these pictures for the prison paper. Here it made a deep impression on me to see how Popeye constantly tried to organize the inmates under these inhuman conditions that stifled all private life, and where the system used almost any means to break people down.



Exactly because I was totally paralyzed myself in these surroundings, it made an indelibly strong impression on me to see how Popeye got the other inmates to read political literature even though it was impossible to imagine how anyone could read in this ominous noise and constant fear. Many inmates told me that Popeye had made a similar impression on them, because he was not a "fake intellectual revolutionary," but clearly one of their own.


Although an extremely promising organizer, Popeye was naturally not without severe human failings that disturbed many of the volunteers in our group, particularly the women. They had learned a lesson from the naive left of the 60's, which had romantically embraced all kinds of rapists as the "avant garde of the revolution." Some of them left our group because of Popeye's sexism. I had severe clashes with them over these issues, because I after my own ghettoization felt that their views were just another form of racism - a modern up-to-date radical way of saying: I don't like the product of our oppression. "If you think a man can come out of 300 years of slavery and 19 years of prison as an angel, you are fools. Even Martin Luther King was sexist, Coretta says today. If you think that a man should be denied a powerful leadership role until he in every respect lives up to white liberal norms, then you are as powerful an enemy of affirmative action as the worst Southern racist. If you turn your backs on Popeye now, then it is not their racism which forces him back into a ghetto, but yours," I said. Having myself ended up in the sexist trap, I was a great defender of Popeye. But thereby I was also betraying him: just as whites do not put enough pressure on each other's racism, I and the other men in the group did not try to change Popeye's sexism, if only to allow him to be a more powerful organizer.



Outside the prison an effective campaign was started to get Popeye released, and at long last he was freed. We threw a big "back in the world" party for him. Popeye had often warned me against FBI-infiltrators among the members of the Union. Having always trusted anybody I met in my vagabonding, I took his warnings lightly as normal ghetto paranoia. For some reason I had difficulty imagining anybody I knew being secret police. Therefore it totally knocked me out to experience the terror the system utilized against Popeye's union and to realize that one of my friends whom I had most faith in indeed was from the secret police.



It was Sara Jane Moore, who was a bit older than the others, and whom we thought was a nice, sympathetic, although slightly confused, housewife from the suburbs It therefore shocked us when suddenly in the newspapers she openly confessed that she was a spy for the FBI, but now had pangs of conscience because during our work she had been converted to Popeye's views. Two months later she was close to changing world history, when she attempted to shoot President Ford seen here in the limousine on Union Square. She had such terrible torment over what she had brought about by her FBI work that she wanted to get revenge on the FBI by assassinating the very head of the system, as she said.



So what had happened between these two episodes, which could throw her so off balance? Saturday night, a couple of days after our party, Popeye was scheduled to come over to select the prison pictures for our paper. He called up, however, and said he didn't have time as he had a meeting with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. We arranged that I should come to the meeting later in the evening and drive home with him. Only two hours beforehand I got a phone call asking me not to go home with Popeye. If I had not received that phone call, I would not have been in a position to watch the news next evening:




"Good Evening, this is the Sunday edition of the eleven o'clock Eyewitness News. The San Francisco Police continue their investigation into the execution-style slaying of prison reformer Popeye Jackson, who was head of the United Prisoners Union. Jackson was sitting in a car with Sally Voye, a school teacher from Vallejo, when the shooting took place 2:45 Sunday morning. Police say they died immediately.



- Now, like many of you I love dogs. I am concerned about them. That's why I feed my dogs Alpo. Because meat is a dog's natural food. That's what they love most. And Alpo's meat dinner has beef products that are really good for them. Not a speck of cereal. Not a better dog food in the world.



(Police): Reports indicate that the killer first fired a shot that smashed a window of the car. The first bullet hit Miss Voye and then Jackson. The gunman was not there to rob the people. Wallets were intact.
This sounds like an execution-style slaying?
- You could call it that. We're working on that as a possible theory. We have to rule out robbery.



- Police say a number of people went to their windows when they heard the shots. Police will begin questioning them tomorrow to find the killer.



- Here's how it starts. You see someone take that first mouth-watering bite and you've just got to get a taste for yourself. In this world there's only one fried chicken that always tastes so finger lickin' good: And you've got to say HEY! It's a Kentucky Fried Chicken day!"



Although it was my best friend I saw lying in a pool of blood on TV only a few hours after I myself would have driven home with him on that disastrous night, I was unable to cry the first four days - so unreal did it all seem to me in this peculiar American mixture of dog food and fried chicken commercials. Our system of oppression can do anything totally unimpeded, for it is capable of making us forget in the next instant what we have just seen.



Not until the funeral did it dawn on me what had happened and I totally broke down in tears. Then I had also come to realize that Sally, whom I liked so much, who worked with ghetto kids and prisoners though she was from the safe suburbs, and who even had tried to work on Popeye's sexism - then it dawned on me that this fantastic woman had also been murdered for no other reason than that she would have been a witness to the assassination. And naturally I also knew what my destiny would have been if I had been with them that night.



Here is Sally seen with Popeye a few days before their murder. he assassin has not been found, but now when Sara Jane Moore has been sentenced to life and in an interview with Playboy has given her harrowing account of her work for the FBI and how the FBI began threatening her life when they realized she was being converted to Popeye's ideas, few of us have any doubts. Popeye had often warned me of ex-convicts who could have struck special early release deals with police. But Popeye was never afraid of dying and the San Francisco Chronicle later revealed that police previously had threatened to kill him.



 In his last article, which he wrote while I was with him in prison, he said: "We ought not to fear death. We are the convicted class and only through revolution can we win our freedom and the freedom of all oppressed people in the world." At the funeral his many union workers and prison friends - Indians, blacks, Chicanos and whites - kissed him farewell, while others will only be able to get "back in the world" to see his tomb a generation from now. His mother, who every single week during the 19 years had brought him cake in prison, suffered a total breakdown in front of the coffin.