- Ruchell Cinque Magee (from radio interview with Killu Nyasha, "Freedom is a Constant Struggle", KPFA-FM (12 Aug. 1995)
If you were asked to name the longest held political prisoner in the United States, what would your answer be?
Most would probably reply "Geronimo ji jaga (Pratt)" [Geronimo was granted a new trial on 29 May, 1997 by Santa Ana Superior Court, and released June 10], "Sundiata Acoli" or "Sekou Odinga" - all three members of the Black Panther Party or soldiers of the Black Liberation Army, who have been encaged for their political beliefs or principled actions for decades. Some would point to Lakota leader, Leonard Peltier, who struggled for the freedom of Native peoples, thereby incurring the enmity of the US government, who framed him in a 1975 double murder trial. Those answers would be good guesses, for all of these men have spent hellified years in state and federal dungeons, but here's a man who has spent more.
Ruchell C. Magee arrived in Los Angeles, California in 1963, and wasn't in town for six months before he and a cousin, Leroy, were arrested on the improbable charges of kidnap and robbery, after a fight with a man over a woman and a $10 bag of marijuana. Magee, in a slam-dunk "trial", was swiftly convicted and swifter still sentenced to life.
Magee, politicized in those years, took the name of the African freedom fighter, Cinque, who, with his fellow captives seized control of the slave ship, the Amistad, and tried to sail back to Africa. Like his ancient namesake, Cinque would also fight for his freedom from legalized slavery, and for seven long years he filed writ after writ, learning what he calls "guerrilla law," honing it as a tool for liberation of himself and his fellow captives. But California courts, which could care less about the alleged "rights" of a young Black man like Magee, dismissed his petitions willy-nilly.
In August 1970, Magee appeared as a witness in the assault trial of James McClain, a man charged with assaulting a guard after San Quentin guards murdered a Black prisoner, Fred Billingsley. McClain, defending himself, presented imprisoned witnesses to expose the racist and repressive nature of prisons. In the midst of Magee's testimony, a seventeen year old Black man with a huge Afro hairdo, burst into the courtroom, heavily armed.
Jonathan Jackson shouted "Freeze!" Tossing weapons to McClain, William Christmas, and a startled Magee, who given his seven year hell where no judge knew the meaning of justice, joined the rebellion on the spot. The four rebels took the judge, the DA and three jurors hostage, and headed for a radio station where they were going to air the wretched prison conditions to the world, as well as demand the immediate release of a group of political prisoners, known as the Soledad Brothers (these were John Clutchette, Fleeta Drumgo, and Jonathan's oldest brother, George). While the men did not hurt any of their hostages, they did not reckon on the state's ruthlessness.
Before the men could get their van out of the court house parking lot, prison guards and sheriffs opened furious fire on the vehicle, killing Christmas, Jackson, McClain as well as the judge. The DA was permanently paralyzed by gun fire. Miraculously, the jurors emerged relatively unscratched, although Magee, seriously wounded by gunfire, was found unconscious.
Magee, who was the only Black survivor of what has come to be called The August 7th Rebellion, would awaken to learn he was charged with murder, kidnapping and conspiracy, and further, he would have a co-defendant, a University of California Philosophy professor and friend of Soledad Brother George L. Jackson, named Angela Davis, who faced identical charges.
By trial time the cases were severed, with Angela garnering massive support leading to her 1972 acquittal on all charges.
Magee's trial did not garner such broad support, yet he boldly advanced the position that as his imprisonment was itself illegal, and a form of unjustifiable slavery, he had the inherent right to escape such slavery, an historical echo of the position taken by the original Cinque and his fellow captives, who took over a Spanish slave ship, killed the crew (except for the pilot) and tried to sail back to Africa. The pilot surreptitiously steered the Amistad to the US coast, and when the vessel was seized by the US, Spain sought their return to slavery in Cuba. Using natural and international law principles, US courts, decided their captives had every right to resist slavery and fight for their freedom.
Unfortunately, Magee's jury didn't agree, although it did acquit on at least one kidnapping charge. The court dismissed on the murder charge, and Magee has been battling for his freedom ever since.
That he is still fighting is a tribute to a truly remarkable man, a man who knows what slavery is, and more importantly, what freedom means.
Cinque's supporters have organized the Ruchell Magee Defense Fund, PO Box 8306, South Bend, IN 46660-8306 (e-mail email@example.com).
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