Black August celebrates the history of African American resistance and the legacy of freedom fighters. The month-long observance honors the lives of those who have struggled for African American liberation and brings attention to the deaths of political prisoners and victims of state-sanctioned violence. 

This is not another Black History Month but part of an ongoing critique of the prison-industrial complex with the hope of abolition. Consequently, participants are invited to study, reflect, plan, and commit to working towards liberation for people racialized and minoritized as Black. Black August also highlights the struggles against colonialism, capitalism, and white supremacy.

This, in turn, calls attention to key moments in history. The Haitian Revolution, the Nat Turner Rebellion, the Fugitive Slave Law Convention, the Watts Uprising, and the March on Washington all occurred in August. 

Occurring on August 5, the riverboat dock brawl in Montgomery, Alabama, where co- captain of the Harriott II Damien Pickett was physically assaulted by several European Americans will likely be added to the list. In his written deposition, Pickett said he “hung on for dear life.”

Before we joined a chorus to say their names, observers of Black August remembered the life and gruesome death of Emmett Till. The 14-year-old was murdered in Money, Mississippi on August 28, 1955. His murderers were tried by an “all-white” jury and acquitted.

Black August has its origin in California’s prisons and began after the deaths of two brothers, Jonathan and George Jackson, in the 1970s. James Queally and Paige St. John wrote extensively about the circumstances surrounding the two brothers’ deaths for the L.A. Times.

Their deaths brought attention to the tense relationship between the state and its prisoners. Seventeen-year-old Jonathan was killed during a shootout on August 7, 1970, where he had hoped to negotiate for the release of his brother by taking several hostages, including a judge. George was later shot to death by San Quentin prison guards on August 21,1971. “No Black person will ever believe George Jackson died the way they tell us he did,” James Baldwin famously wrote.

Before his death, George wrote letters to his younger brother Jonathan, his parents, and others, sharing his growing awareness of systemic racism in America’s prison system and evidence of personal development. When he was eighteen years old, he was accused of stealing $70 from a gas station. His lawyer encouraged him to plead guilty, arguing that he would get a lighter sentence. 

Instead, George was given an indeterminate sentence of one year to life in prison.  Denied parole repeatedly, George was almost certain that he would never be free. Today, cases like his are a part of discussions about the school-to-prison pipeline and incarceration as punishment versus rehabilitation. 

“Settle your quarrels, come together, understand the reality of our situation, understand that fascism is already here, that people are already dying who could be saved, that generations more will live poor butchered half-lives if you fail to act. Do what must be done, discover your humanity and your love in revolution,” George Jackson wrote in Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson.

Conversations continue regarding the hyper-surveillance of African American communities, the rate of arrests for those racialized as Black compared to other groups and the escalation of violence for minor traffic violations when it involves an African American motorist. There has been an increased focus on holding police departments accountable that are suspected of covering up incidents of police brutality or perpetuating a culture that hides it. Benjamin Crump, a trial lawyer, has gained national notoriety due to his work around civil rights and wrongful death lawsuits.

“The nature of the criminal justice system has changed. It is no longer primarily concerned with the prevention and punishment of crime, but rather with the management and control of the dispossessed,” Michelle Alexander wrote in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. 

In 2021, the Center for Constitutional Rights, an advocacy group, offered its sixth edition of the Jailhouse Lawyer’s Handbook, “a free resource designed to help incarcerated people assert their constitutional rights and hold prison officials accountable.” The organization is “proud to be part of a rich legacy of inside-outside organizing to transform material conditions and build a world of collective safety without prisons, surveillance, and police.”

Maybe you’ll add this handbook to your summer reading list and after reading it, be empowered to join in the resistance against the prison industrial complex. But you likely won’t be celebrated for it.

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