A glance at the George Jackson Brigade and its legacy of prison activism

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Mark Cook, Janine Bertram, and Ed Mead at the Northwest Film Forum in 2018 — Image courtesy of Revolutionary Audiobooks YouTube
Mark Cook, Janine Bertram, and Ed Mead at the Northwest Film Forum in 2018 — Image courtesy of Revolutionary Audiobooks YouTube

The SGN's younger readers might have missed the George Jackson Brigade. It was one of the infamous "urban guerilla" groups active in the United States in the 1970s, but the Pacific Northwest-based group was unique in that most of its membership was Queer — a mix of communists and anarchists whose ultimate goal was allegedly to replace the United States government with a more collectivist form of rule.

Obviously the brigade never made it that far. One of its members, Bruce Seidel, was killed by police while robbing a bank in Tukwila in 1976. Five more had been arrested, charged, and imprisoned by 1978. Despite many of them being given multiple life sentences, by the turn of the century most had been released without much fanfare, and their public presence since then has been less militant, though some remain active in leftist movements.

Why look back at a group that blew things up, stole money, and had gun fights with police in the streets? Partly because it's a lesser-known piece of the Pacific Northwest's Queer history, and partly because readers who are old enough to remember the 70s may have been offered only a limited narrative. Above all, many of the problems facing Seattle, the nation, and the Queer community today are the same problems cited in the GJB's fiery communiques to media outlets and police almost half a century ago.

A clipping from The Oregonian on the GJB — Image courtesy of The Oregonian Archives  

At the time, articles in the Seattle Daily Times were quick to point out that the group was radical even among leftists. They rarely touched on the leftist community's actual concerns, however, even while interviewing them about the brigade's attacks.

Even just last year, a story on KIRO News Radio talked past the living members of the GJB, as if they weren't alive today to speak about their experiences (though whether or not they would want to talk with KIRO is another matter). In fact, the KIRO story instead quoted John Arthur Wilson, the author of the aforementioned Times pieces.

KIRO did mention the specific reasons for each of the brigade's bombings — solidarity with prisoners and unions, mostly — and noted that in most of the incidents, no one was injured. The radio story did not mention that targeting property and not people was the brigade's stated intent.

"It wasn't a Leninist attempt to seize state power," says Daniel Burton-Rose, author of Guerilla USA: The George Jackson Brigade and the Anticapitalist Underground of the 1970s. "It was armed propaganda," though he also notes that the brigade was "pretty callous about hurting other people," particularly police officers, two of whom brigade members seriously injured during shootouts.

That's why "the FBI ordered a news blackout on the brigade," Burton-Rose says — to take away their platform. And not long after the GJB dissolved, news about the AIDS crisis was far more pressing for Queer journalism.

The brigade marches on
Media coverage of the GJB never entirely stopped, however, and neither did the surviving members. Leaving out the revolutionary lingo of the group's media communiques ("bourgeoisie," "ruling class," and the like), one of the brigade's chief points of contention was the prison system, which many of them had experience with even before they became underground revolutionaries.

Former brigade member Mark Cook was interviewed by the Seattle Weekly in 2000, when he was still in prison and on the verge of being granted parole. He was the last of the arrested "brigadiers" to be released, which apparently didn't surprise him.

"It's something that we all understood — that I would be the last one out, just because I'm Black," he told the Weekly from the Airway Heights Correctional Center. He was 62 years old at the time.

In a video prepared for the parole board, Cook said, "I still believe in the philosophy of the working class looking out for the working class, but I don't think that violence is going to get people jobs. Violence is something I would avoid and counsel against. I'll stand on the sidelines."

While in Walla Walla State Prison, Cook organized a chapter of the Black Panthers, launched the PIVOT program to connect former prisoners with employers, and organized CONvention, an annual seminar for prisoners, crime victims, judges, lawyers, and social workers to discuss issues in the justice system.

Along with the late Bruce Seidel, Ed Mead was one of the earliest members of the GJB. He was arrested on the same day Seidel was killed. In Walla Walla, he organized Men Against Sexism, a group of Trans, Queer, and BIPOC people who worked within Washington State's prisons to dismantle the rampant rape culture there.

In 2021, Mead wrote an article for the San Francisco Bay View, a national newspaper oriented around Black Americans, in which he spoke of how the prison system had changed over the decades — which actions had made lasting improvements, and which ones hadn't. He claimed that the Prison Lives Matter movement would be the next to carry the torch of prison reform and abolition.

The SGN on the return of Ed Mead and Bo Brown — Image courtesy of SGN Archives  

GJB member Rita "Bo" Brown, an Oregon-born Butch Lesbian who was known as the "Gentleman Bank Robber" for her polite way of demanding funds from tellers, died in 2021 of complications from dementia — but not before contributing to a biographical documentary in 2017, and to a great number of prisoner advocacy organizations like Critical Resistance.

Brown told Burton-Rose in Guerilla USA that the leftist groups in the 60s and 70s were hardly welcoming to Queer people.

"The Seattle Liberation Coalition, an umbrella group of Left-oriented organizations in the city which had come out of the anti-war movement, couldn't say the word 'lesbian,'" Brown said. "They could not say the word 'lesbian,' in anything that they said, and any position they took. They could barely say 'women.'"

A pamphlet from supporters of the George Jackson Brigade, from Creating a Movement with Teeth — Image courtesy of libcom.org  

A little under half of the gang got back together at the Northwest Film Forum in 2018. Cook, Mead, and Janine Bertram answered questions from the audience after a screening of Cozy Cuddly, Armed and Dangerous, a documentary about the group.

"The question of next steps is an interesting one," Bertram said. "It's not something for me to answer, because I'm 67 years old and don't have much time on the planet left. . . . Conditions are very different now than they were when we were underground."

"One thing that can be done . . . is the demand to end slavery," Mead said. "To modify the 13th Amendment so as slavery will no longer exist inside the nation's prisons."

"We believe in class consciousness," Cook added. "That's a long way to go, to get prisoners to believe this, but that's what we're gonna struggle to do."