Living Out Loud

The Road to Hell


A Trip to the Library

I did it to myself, I suppose. A while back, for a treat, I took a trip downtown, to the Big Library, as opposed to the smaller, local one I normally use. I like to go the library with specific intent. I carry with me a list of books gleaned from recently read reviews. Sometimes I have a list of authors I've been reading so that I might find their other works. Not to be rigid, I remain open to the off chance I might see something eye catching and in turn thought provoking. The Big Library has succumbed to the old video store metaphor and instituted a "New Release" section. That day, glaring at me from the shelf was George Jackson, the Head Soledad Brother, convict, killer, best-selling author, dead 53 years this summer. I had to get it.


The name of the book is "The Road to Hell". It's by Paul Liberatore. The book is about two men, Jackson and Steve Bingham, the white, New Left attorney, who remained a fugitive for 14 years after Jackson was killed in an abortive, murderous, suicidal escape attempt using a smuggled 9mm automatic inside of San Quentin. The gun surfaced minutes after a meeting between Jackson and Bingham in a private visiting room. Bingham was the logical suspect.


I read the book in turmoil. I take too much pride in my left-wing views and wish at times I had been of age so as to join the outspoken, radical, New Left of the 60s.  Then, my other personality asserts itself. I spent my twenties working in a prison, aware that we have a fucked-up criminal justice system but also aware that there are people you better be glad are locked up. With whom could I sympathize? I am (or was) the man, a pig, in George Jackson's world and yet myself a despiser of the smug system which builds more prisons than schools? 


The book gives solid biographical information on Jackson and Bingham. They were white and black. One matriculated at prep school and Yale, the other in reform school and Soledad. The author, Liberatore, excels as he lays out the story, capturing the heady radicalism of the time without being seduced by it. 

 George Jackson

George Jackson was convicted at age 18 of robbing a gas station of $70. It was his third serious offense and he was sentenced to a 1 year -Life sentence. While in prison he became increasingly militant and discovered he had a real talent for one thing, writing. He became famous for a collection of his letters published as "Soledad Brother." His world started to crumble in 1969 when he and two other inmates were accused of killing a guard. His younger brother was killed when he supplied weapons to convicts who were at the courthouse to testify at a trial involving Angela Davis.  A famous photograph was taken of one of them aiming a pistol at a judges head during this incident which ended with the judges death as well as that of Jackson's brother. Less than a year later, on the eve of his trial, Jackson was killed. During the events surrounding his death, two guards and two white inmates died with their throats cut. Jackson killed another guard by shooting him in the head as he knelt on a bed. Liberatore skillfully explains the relationship between Jackson, The Black Panthers, and the white radical movement centered in Berkely.

 Steve Bingham

Steve Bingham was a member of that movement. From a wealthy East Coast family (his grandfather discovered Machu Pichu in the Andes) he had an impeccable leftist background. Bingham spent the Freedom Summer of 1964 in Mississippi. He served in the Peace Corps in Africa for two years after graduating from law school. His entire legal career prior to his flight was spent in public and private agencies for the poor and underprivileged. He was radical enough to make two clandestine trips to Cuba and to assist in the takeover of part of the Berkely campus. 


Liberatore does a great job reporting on the events of the shootout. He deftly follows Bingham's trail out of the US to Europe. The next 14 years of Bingham's life are covered in detail. The story reaches its climax when Bingham returns to the US to surrender and face trial.


I finished this book at 2:20 am. Not once did I nod off, nor did I require coffee to maintain the stamina needed for this long start to finish literary marathon. If you have any remote interest in the radical politics of the era, this book is for you. If you have any interest in American crime and punishment, this book is for you. If you like good writing, this book is for you.