By Douglas Perry
April 4th, 2015
Bryan Burrough made his name with “Public Enemies,” his bestselling 2004 retelling of the FBI’s pursuit of John Dillinger and other outlaws during the Great Depression. Johnny Depp starred in the movie version.
Now Burrough is back with the story of another FBI war, this one 40 years later. “Days of Rage” chronicles the anti-government revolutionary groups of the 1970s that grew out of the Vietnam War protests and Civil Rights Movement. You remember: The Weather Underground, the Black Panthers, FALN. It’s a big book (548 pages), and it tells fascinating stories.
It also leaves one out.
Burrough admits this right off, in a footnote on page 4. “Probably the most important underground group not chronicled in this book is the George Jackson Brigade, which robbed at least seven banks and detonated twenty pipe bombs in the Pacific Northwest between March 1975 and December 1977,” he writes.
You’ve probably never heard of the George Jackson
Brigade. Even if you were in the Northwest in the 1970s when they were
robbing Oregon banks, you still might have missed their exploits.
“The FBI ordered a news blackout on the Brigade,” says Daniel Burton-Rose, author of the excellent “Guerrilla USA: The George Jackson Brigade and the Anticapitalist Underground of the 1970s.” The reason: the FBI recognized that media coverage was exactly what the radicals wanted.
“It wasn’t a Leninist attempt to seize state power,” Burton-Rose says of the Brigade’s aims. “It was armed propaganda.”
The George Jackson Brigade — named after a member of the Black Panthers who was killed during a 1971 San Quentin prison-escape attempt — sought a new economic order, better treatment of prisoners, the end of police brutality, and gender and racial equality. The group had members of different races, sexes and sexual identities, and most of them were ex-cons.
The Seattle-based Brigade began its terror campaign in the spring of 1975 with the bombing of Washington state corrections offices in Olympia. They followed that attack with bombings of a Safeway store, a Puget Sound Power & Light substation, a federal Bureau of Indian Affairs office and a few banks. One of their members was killed while storming a bank, and the outfit later wounded a police officer. By the summer of 1976, law enforcement was in hot pursuit, and so the Brigade decamped for Oregon, where they went on a new crime spree, this one focused on putting money in their pockets.
The group robbed the Western Bank in Coos Bay on June 8; the Carter National Bank in Ashland on July 8; the Oregon Bank in Medford on Aug. 1; the First State Bank of Oregon in Portland on Oct. 28; the U.S. National Bank of Oregon in Portland on Jan. 4, 1977; and the U.S. National Bank of Oregon in Wilsonville on February 7, 1977.
The Brigade’s survivors all were eventually apprehended and convicted.
In “Days of Rage,” Burrough notes how unreal the ’70s radical-underground era now feels.
“Imagine if this happened today: Hundreds of young Americans — white, black and Hispanic — disappear from their everyday lives and secretly form urban guerrilla groups. Dedicated to confronting the government and righting society’s wrongs, they smuggle bombs into skyscrapers and federal buildings and detonate them from coast to coast.”
It does indeed seem fantastical, seeing as American society is now more conformist and largely united in the effort to defeat worldwide Islamic terrorism. And yet it happened — and it wasn’t so long ago. Most of the radical underground’s participants are still with us, only recently retired from unassuming jobs in education or even in the government they once sought to overthrow.
George Jackson Brigade members were all long ago released from prison. They mostly live in California and Washington state.
The news blackout in the 1970s isn’t necessarily the reason most of us don’t know about the Brigade. The blackout, after all, was rather porous: The Oregonian extensively covered the Portland court appearances of Brigade member and Oregon native Rita Brown in 1978, for example. (The Oregon Arts Commission is presently helping fund the making of a documentary about Brown, who now lives in the Bay Area.)
The Brigade wanted publicity for its causes, but that proved hard to come by. The group didn’t have the beautiful Bernardine Dohrn (Weather Underground) or the charismatic Eldridge Cleaver (The Black Panthers) in its ranks. And geography worked against it. The Weather Underground’s biggest bang came in New York City, the media capital of the world. The Panthers were based in the Bay Area, home to the Summer of Love. But, for most Americans in the 1970s, the Pacific Northwest was still Nowheresville — the frontier.
Plus, the Brigade, which never topped seven members, was distinctly different than other homegrown revolutionary groups of the era.
“It came out of the prison-rights movement, instead of the antiwar or civil-rights movements,” Burton-Rose says.
One of the group’s leaders, Ed Mead, spent much of the 1960s in prison for armed robbery and other crimes. Another, John Sherman, was a former dockyard worker who ended up in prison in 1968 after using a bad check to buy a car. Mead and Sherman met at McNeil Island Penitentiary in Washington.
They heard about “the Movement” going on outside their prison walls and wanted to be a part of it. “There was a macho element of, ‘When I get out of prison, I’ll show people what I can do,'” says Burton-Rose. “There was a sense of catching up for lost time.”
“One day, I looked at myself. I didn’t see myself as a criminal but as a radical,” Mead told a Seattle Times reporter in 1976. “I stepped over a line.”
The Brigade’s members struggled at first to figure out their purpose and approach.
“We clearly realize that our attacks must be discriminate and both serve and educate the everyday person,” the group wrote in a public “communiqué” after bombing a Washington state Safeway. “We also realize that as the contradictions heighten it becomes harder and harder to be passive and innocent bystanders in a war zone.” It was signed, “Love and Struggle, The George Jackson Brigade.”
Burton-Rose says the Brigade was part of the “second wave” of counterculture revolutionary groups. The first wave was led by middle-class wannabe revolutionaries and had a middle-class approach. “When they did hurt people, like the Weather Underground with the Townhouse explosion (that killed three of their own members), it was by accident,” Burton-Rose says.
“With the second wave, which was more working-class, people were much less symbolic in their actions.”
That is, they expected blood to be spilled — and not just their own.
Brigade members such as ex-convicts Mead, Sherman and Mark Cook were militant Marxists who embraced Mao and Ho Chi Minh rather than communist utopianism. This ideology “romanticized violence and tasked prisoners with being the vanguard of revolution,” Burton-Rose says.
The Brigade, he points out, “was pretty callous about hurting other people.”
“I decided that the way you stop (the police) from using hollow-nosed bullets is to use hollow-nosed bullets in your own gun,” Mead told a reporter.
“I thought that, with the bombings, maybe we were
setting an example, by being true to what we believed, by being a voice
to those who were voiceless,” Sherman later said.
Others in the group had their own, unique agendas.
Brown, a lesbian who spent time in prison for possession of stolen mail before joining the Brigade, said she was fighting the “sickness of capitalism-imperialism,” The Oregonian reported. She also said that the prisoner-rights movement “was always the most important in my life.”
member, Janine Bertram, was a fairly typical social activist before
becoming radicalized. In the early ’70s, she had founded the Association
of Seattle Prostitutes to promote “the rights of a group whose members
often tangle with the law and don’t often win.”
Brigade member Bruce Seidel was a University of Washington student who edited a radical newspaper.
The FBI agents who tracked the Brigade believed the group’s “power to the people” ideology was a scam, that these self-proclaimed radicals were nothing more than violent thieves playing for public sympathy and support. “It was all a lot of left-wing drivel,” agent Richard Mathers told the Seattle Times years later. “They were hoodlums.”
At the time, however, the FBI accepted that the Brigade was motivated by politics.
“GJB is essentially a revolutionary group who are directing their bombs and rhetoric toward correctional institutions, corporations (Safeway Markets), public utilities (Seattle City Light) and were recently involved in a local bank robbery on 1/23/76, in which an alleged member of the GJB was killed at the scene,” an internal FBI memo stated. “Bombing of Safeway was protest of the ‘criminal exploitation’ by Safeway of farm workers, store clerks, and the general public.”
That January 1976 robbery of the Pacific National Bank of Washington in the Seattle suburb of Tukwila was a disaster. Sherman, Mead and Seidel pulled ski masks over their faces and walked into the bank to “expropriate” its cash for the cause. It ended with Seidel bleeding out on the marble floor. Mead and Sherman were captured and arrested. Sherman had been shot in the jaw.
Six weeks later, Cook and another Brigade member freed Sherman in a daring “rescue” operation as Sherman was being transferred from a medical facility to jail. One of them shot Sherman’s guard, Virgil Johnson, in the stomach. Johnson would survive the attack. Cook was arrested the next day. The rest of the Brigade headed for Oregon, where they began a new crime spree and tried to find someplace safe to hideout.
They robbed banks in Oregon, they wrote in an open letter, because “there can be no revolution without money — for weapons, explosives, survival, organizing, printing, etc. The people are poor. We will make the ruling class pay for its own destruction by expropriating our funds from them and their banks.”
Conscious of the need to get their side of the story out there, they publicly critiqued their failings during the Tukwila bank robbery, offering an unusual combination of incisive analysis and the kind of self-delusion common to true believers. They wrote in the open letter:
“We have so far identified the following tactical criticisms of the Tukwila action: 1) We were unprepared for the level of violence that the pigs were willing to bring down on us and the innocent people in the bank. We should have had better combat training. 2) We waited too long to open fire on the pigs. We should have fired without hesitation on the first pig to arrive.
Failure to do this allowed the police to murder our comrade while he was trying to surrender, and endangered everyone in the bank. 3) A silent alarm was tripped when we removed all of the money from a teller’s drawer. When the phone began to ring to authenticate the alarm, our comrades should have split immediately with whatever they had in their hands. Instead, they stayed to clean out the safe. 4) Our comrades across the street should have had more firepower than they did. We had an enormous tactical advantage which we were unable to exploit because it took so long to bring the superior firepower that we did have into action. 5) Our getaway route was excellent. Comrades were able to remain in the area, firing on the pigs until the three comrades inside the bank were taken into custody, and still get away clean. Overall, this action failed because we were not prepared to meet police terrorism with a sufficient level of revolutionary violence.”
The letter then addressed the later rescue of Sherman.
“In the course of the escape raid it became necessary to shoot the police officer guarding Sherman,” the communiqué continued. “We did not shoot officer Johnson in retaliation for Bruce’s murder. In fact, it was our intention to avoid shooting him. He was shot because he failed to cooperate as fully as possible with the comrade who was assigned to him. One of the many lessons we learned from Tukwila is that we cannot afford to give the police any slack when confronting them. While we don’t particularly want to shoot police, we don’t particularly care either. We will shoot without hesitation any police officer who endangers us.”
This “we don’t particularly care” attitude about shooting police officers did not gin up the public support they had expected. But they didn’t back away from it.
“I try to avoid using the word ‘terrorist,’ because it’s a word that’s used to shut down analysis rather than enhance it,” says Burton-Rose. “But in the case of the Brigade, they referred to themselves as terrorists.” He says they embraced the Ho Chi Minh saying, “When the prison doors are opened, the real dragon will fly out.”
In Creating a Movement With Teeth, a documentary history of the group, the ex-convicts in the George Jackson Brigade say their actions were both a result and an extension of their years behind bars.
“We get out (of prison) and we don’t distinguish between cops and prison guards,” Cook said of the group’s attitude toward the police. “It took me years to understand that cops and prison guards weren’t the same. When you first get out you just see them as guards and it’s easy for ex-prisoners to get together and deal with them like we’re still in prison.”
In short, they were out of prison but still viewed themselves as prisoners.
“It is minimum-security to us,” Brown said.
“Our leash is a little longer,” added Mead.
Brigade members admired the California-based Symbionese Liberation Army, famed for kidnapping heiress Patty Hearst and led by ex-con Donald DeFreeze.
Despite their string of successful bank robberies, the Brigade would soon come to an end in Oregon. On the run, they were down to four members: Sherman, Brown, Bertram and Therese Coupez.
Hoping in vain for outside help in slipping into the radical underground, which didn’t really exist anymore, they did their best to build up their worker-rights, “people power” bona fides.
They backed a machinists’ strike against car dealers in Burien, Wash. In an open letter, they encouraged strike supporters to put sugar in the gas tanks of cars on the dealers’ lots and break windows at dealerships. “Use bricks, slingshots, small arms, etc. Slash their tires too!” They recommended putting superglue in the locks of buildings and cars. “This is easy and it works great!”
“An attack against one of us is an attack against all of us!” they wrote. “The bosses need us, but we don’t need the bosses!”
In November 1977, the FBI arrested Brown, which only cemented the Brigade’s reputation as a collection of dangerous thugs. The Associated Press reported that in the house where Brown was staying, the FBI discovered a list of individuals the Brigade wanted to kidnap, including Washington Gov. Dixy Lee Ray.
The FBI refused to confirm there was a kidnap list “because we don’t want to give the George Jackson Brigade people any more publicity. That’s what they’re after,” said District Director John Reed. “We’re not calling it a list. We’re issuing a disclaimer that any list exists.”
Law enforcement prepared for another escape attempt. When Brown was brought into the U.S. Courthouse in Portland for the first time, officers took up positions around every entrance to the building, “just in case there were lots of visitors suddenly,” U.S. Marshall Wallace Bowen deadpanned.
No one tried to break Brown out of custody. “Ms. Brown, clad in brown corduroy jeans and a brown, striped sweater, waived reading of federal grand jury indictments returned earlier this year in Portland accusing her of five counts of bank robbery and two of felonious possession of a firearm,” The Oregonian reported. She would accept a deal from the prosecution and plead guilty.
Sherman and the two other remaining Brigade members soon were captured, too. Their revolution ended with a whimper, not a bang. Which might be one of the reasons Burrough decided to bypass the group in his otherwise comprehensive history of the era’s radical underground. The drama came early on, then quickly petered out.
Still, even in defeat, the Brigade remained defiant. “The rich are becoming richer and fewer,” The Oregonian quoted Brown as saying at her sentencing hearing in 1978.
“The poor, she said, can continue to ‘live in fear of the state and its ever-growing police forces,’ or they can choose to fight back. ‘I have chosen to fight back, to resist,’ she declared.”
U.S. District Judge Robert C. Belloni sentenced Brown to 25 years in prison for bank robbery.
Now that the Brigade was behind bars and not seeking help to keep going, area radicals came out to support them. About 75 people packed the Portland courtroom for Brown’s sentencing. They chanted, “The people united will never be defeated.”
Editorialized The Oregonian: “Judge Belloni let the demonstrators vent their feelings without interruption, undoubtedly saving time, trouble and money by not taking legal notice of them. The whole episode seems to demonstrate the uselessness, the aimlessness of the out-of-step minds that drive persons such as Rita Brown to back away from society and bury themselves in a prison cell for 25 years.”