Angela Davis & Ruchell Magee: Of love and money and the shoot-out at Marin
SAN RAFAEL, California — This is what it means to be well off in California. It has nothing to do with driving the right car or living in the right kind of house or receiving the right invitations and answering them the right way. Being well off in California means sun and space, a tender ideology, and plenty of padding so the crowded people and the criminals — especially the criminals — can’t possibly intrude.
This metaphor of class and space seems most apparent to me whenever I come west from New York, where crowding is endemic and the same fumes strangle all. In Marin, the hills roll and tumble like a calm Van Gogh, and the sun shines in calculated brightness, and I’m left feeling as though I’ve been living with a pair of sooty windows for eyes. Marin is full of good places to get stoned in; easy to feel transformed amid all that sequestered ease. And though these places are accessible by freeway — even by bus — you seldom see a man who isn’t living well on the street. The niggers of Marin are country hippies. They stay, for the most part, in their own wooded enclaves, and they too are busy being well off.
I’ve often wondered why crowded people don’t come pouring down from the slopes of San Francisco, and out of the baked Chicano flats? Why not a general invasion of the green zone — even for a day? But it seems to be part of the deal that crowded people stay put. The country protects itself from the city, and soon the city becomes an idea, like ecology, to be studied and directed and reformed by remote control. Crowded people are acknowledged with bumper stickers and benefits, and its sympathy for the devil as long as they keep their distance. But whenever a crowded man passes through, it makes a little niche. Sometimes it makes a hole, an explosive hole in the green shield. Some of the padding gets ripped away, and then the cops come in. And you can always tell how serious tbe rip is by how long it takes the locals to settle down to being mellow again.
Last August 7, a young man with tawny skin walked into the Marin County Civic Center with three guns inside his coat. He walked into court. He said, “This is it.” He gave the guns away. Three crowded men held them over five country people: the judge, the assistant district attorney, and three female jurors. They walked into the sunlight. They climbed inside a yellow van. They started the motor up. There was some confusion. The Judge died in his robes. The young man died in his tawny skin. Two convicts died in their courtroom fatigues. The jurors lived. The young D. A. lived, his spine severed. The third con, shot bad in the stomach, lived to be accused.
And that evening the people of Marin took to their happy trails to find that someone had ripped a nasty hole in the shield. Since then, they have lived with these apprehensions: that the hole is only a beginning, that there are more moths in the closet than camphor can kill, and that. by some genetic quirk, the moths have developed a taste for silk.
The Civic Center of Marin must be the most mellow courthouse in the world. There is no rhetoric in its function or its design. It sits nestled in the sunny side of a hill a few green miles from San Rafael, a concrete cylinder in pink and blue and gold. To reach its gates you pass through landscaped gardens and clusters of trees in bloom. A smell of sweet manure hangs over the lawn, a smell of tended earth. Inside, there are sub-tropical gardens under plastic arches open to the sky, and the floors are earthen red, and the bathrooms smell faintly of evergreen.
“Beauty is the moving cause of nearly every issue worth the civilization we have,” Frank Lloyd Wright told the people of Marin back in 1957, when he first presented his plans for the new Civic Center. Seldom has one man’s sense of beauty been more insidiously applied. In this Hall of Justice, form absolves function; everything possible has been done to detoxify the business of dispensing punishment. Bureaus and offices sit off the main arcade like booths at a bazaar. There is a lending library on the top floor and a cafeteria on the third. Hidden springs and fountains along the terraces. An exhibit of paintings by local artists on the walls. Even those who have the most to fear from this building have contributed (though not by choice) to its success. Every piece of walnut furniture in every court or office has been carved and polished by an inmate at the California pens.
Jacques Ellul tells us one difference between fascism and the technological state is that fascism is visible. If this is so, Wright must be counted among the architects of the current tyranny, in which dominance is intangible, even to those who rule. His Civic Center is a graceful cabana of slopes and arches. Every detail, from door knobs to ceiling fixtures, is a fully realized curve. Every structural chord has been resolved. There are no flags or emblems within the building, no quotes from Jefferson in raised letters over the door. These symbols of a punitive past have given way to a lushness so profound that it seems impossible to equate the power in its purpose with the beauty in its line. You walk down its corridors filled with a sense of fluid harmony. I am gentle, smiling, curving like these walls, pink and earthy and at ease.
Of course, the jail is a mite less lush. But even here, all that is possible has been done to spare the rod from those who live outside. Like the rest of the Civic Center, it is functionally invisible. There are no bars because no cell contains a window; only nubbly concrete walls, painted tan. The rooftop exercise yard (four walls with wire strung across the top) is invisible from the ground. The prison has its own lobby, its own elevators, and its own video surveillance system. Each prisoner may be observed on closed circuit television. Each courtroom contains a corridor which leads directly to the cell block, so that suspects may be transferred in complete isolation.
(It is the state’s determination to isolate its criminals from its citizens which facilitated the shoot-out itself. Louis P. Mountanos, the sheriff of Marin, claims he gave his guards orders not to open fire on the yellow van. Apparently, radio signals were crossed and the order never reached those guards who had been assigned to the case from San Quentin, where the three convicts were serving time. It was those guards, indoctrinated to prevent fugitives from escaping into the community, even when they hold hostages. who opened fire on the van.)
In Marin, each prisoner lives in isolated neutrality. He is denied the privilege of impact, either as an individual or as a class. No one can see him or hear him or feel him unless the state consents. Or unless the prisoner breaks the shield.
Cat bops into court carrying three guns. One sawed-off, all right on! “This is it,” he says. Defiling the presumption of immunity (Lenny Bruce used to call that “pissing on the velvet”). Judge and jurors, jive D. A., marched under the intemperate eyes of reporters, tourists, and pigs. Through the parking lot. Into the yellow van. BAM. BAMBAM.
“Christmas put his left arm around me and in his right hand he had a gun pointed at me and two flares, but he said they were dynamite.
“I believed everything he said and he had the gun pointed at my head and he kind of ducked behind me as we left the court room.
“In the truck, the judge, he was sitting in the right rear corner, he said he was sorry us jurors had to go through what we had to go through. And I was thinking, not out loud but to myself, well, if you’re going to torture me, just shoot me now. I don’t want to be tortured.
“Seconds later, the shotgun blast killed Judge Haley.
“And you know what? When I got home, there was a tooth in my hair and some glass in the tooth.
“This was my first experience on a jury, and believe me, my last.”
— from the San Francisco Examiner, August 16, 1970
Things have changed since the shoot-out. The Marin County Civic Center now looks like a luxury liner doubling as a battleship. Guards and bailiffs are armed; one judge admits to carrying a gun under his robes. A row of bars has been constructed along the corridor which runs beside the courtrooms. Employees and visitors are pat-searched and passed through a metal-detector at the gates. Townspeople can no longer return their library books in the slot outside the Hall of Justice. And reporters who wish to cover trials within the building must be especially accredited by the county, a process which involves being photographed and fingerprinted, one finger at a time.
There has been talk among the more intemperate of staging trials involving convicted felons behind prison walls. ”It is time to rise up, people of Marin,” writes Mrs. D. C. Ely, in the Independent-Journal of San Rafael. “Why can’t we have a small but attractive court area or room inside the walls of all our penal institutions for felons who have stabbed or abused other unfortunates inside the walls of said institutions? The courtroom could be well aired, sunny, and even a few potted plants may help the morale of all present.”
Since the shooting, and the bombing which demolished a courtroom last October, every visitor to the Civic Center has had some inkling of what it means to live under guard. The people who work inside the building seem bewildered by all that has happened to them since August 7. Of course there is security in a metal-detector and an armed guard, but the fact remains: if you need to be protected, you need to feel afraid.
The District Attorney, Bruce Bales, seems uneasy at his desk, surrounded by golf and tennis trophies, a stunning view of the Pacific to his right. He is a small man with a face like an earnest airedale, easy to like and even to believe. As he sat talking to me two weeks ago, I felt as though I had come up against a man whose moral precepts simply could not encompass politics outside the voting booth, or violence outside the arena of crime.
“I don’t understand why people are calling this a political trial,” he told me. “From what I’ve seen and studied, a political trial is when someone is put on trial for holding certain political beliefs, and that’s far from the case here. Nowhere in the indictment is anyone charged with being a Communist.”
Normally, Bales himself would be the prosecuting attorney in the trial of Angela Davis and Ruchell Magee, who are charged with conspiring to kidnap and murder Judge Haley. But last December, he withdrew from the case and the state appointed Albert W. Harris, Jr., an assistant attorney general, in his place. Bales was a close friend of the murdered judge — Haley had been his first employer — and remains close to Gary Thomas, his assistant, who was paralyzed during the break and who claims to have shot three of the escapees.
“Judge Haley was a real gentleman. That’s the irony of it. Of all the judges in the county, he was the most courteous. Conscientious in the extreme. He would extend civil rights to everyone, despite rebukes and … oh, things you would never expect to hear inside a courtroom. He was certainly not a tough judge in the sense of piling on punishments. You’d never hear him swear or anything like that. He was a gentleman. Some judges, hell, you can tell if they’re former prosecutors, ’cause they’re tougher than any cop. Or a legal defender if they’re overly lenient. But sitting on the bench, you couldn’t tell what his background was. He was a gentleman. But I’m biased. I really liked the guy.”
The county would breathe easy with a change of venue, though it cannot legally request one. Removing the trial from Marin would save every taxpayer about $20, but more than money is involved. Moving the trial would give the county time to regain its battered equilibrium, to get back, to being mellow again. Bales, too, could use a cooling out. Even now that he has removed himself from the case, reporters monitor his opinions, and every black man in the state knows him as the man who went to New York to bring Angela Davis back.
“I could have tried it,” Bales muses, looking out into his view. “I don’t know. I’m glad I got out. For many reasons. For a long time, I still thought I was gonna do it. I couldn’t have done it impartially, but … I don’t know.”
“Did the shooting change your head around?”
He looks me in the eye for the first and only time.
”We are not alone. We have allies everywhere. We find our comrades wherever in the world we hear the oppressor’s whip. People all over the world are rising up; the tide of revolution is about sweep the shores of America. A picture is worth a thousand words but action is supreme.”
— Huey P. Newton, from his eulogy at the funeral of Jonathan Jackson and William A. Christmas, August 12, 1970
“What of the convicts who died in their attempt to escape, and what of the teenage boy, also killed, who smuggled the guns which made the whole tragic episode possible?
“Surely the Lord God himself challenges us all to say, as Christ did on the cross: ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.‘ “
— from an editorial in the Independent Journal, San Rafael, August 12, 1970
First I show my press card to a guard who checks me off on his list. Then I empty my pockets into a plastic container. Then remove my watch, my ring, my shoes, my belt, and anything else which is likely to show up on a metal-detector. Once through the machine, I stand in the middle of the corridor with my arms and legs spread apart, while a deputy pats my shoulders and pockets and crotch, with a deferential touch not unlike a handshake. I’m reminded of my draft physical, especially the hemorrhoid check, and that prospect is so unpleasant that I flash on being a felon, naked against the wall while pigs patrol my innards and fishermen hold flowers. The fantasy is exciting (you think I’d bring guns in there?) until I realize that I am suspect. The guard searches my hair for weapons. A photographer snaps my picture as I fumble with my belongings, trying to detach my ring from my pen without dropping my shoes. Finally I stagger into court, dragging my belt along the carpet.
The courtroom, like the rest of the building, is sinister in its informality. The judge sits behind a simple wooden desk; you don’t rise when he walks into the room. The defendants, their lawyers, and the prosecutor’s staff are arranged around a semi-circular table which runs the length of the room. The jurors (when there is a jury) sit in nine bucket seats, a short rise above the defense. There is no docket, no banister between the jury and the accused, only a low partition between spectators and officers of the court.
This room seems well equipped to handle a seminar or a minor convocation, but surely not a murder trial, not inside this tepid chamber. Think of the courts in New York. Think of the room where the hearing to extradite Angela Davis took place: high ceiling, Flash Gordon chandeliers, the Honorable Thomas Dickens presiding in his robes, like the driver of some decaying hansom cab. What has happened to our sense of justice as a vengeful father? It has evolved into this verdant baggie, in which the law can only be perceived as an organic process, a hyacinth. In the California tradition of being-there-first, this is truly the courtroom of the future: with a decor so neutral and a procedure so informal that it’s hard to think of death as anything more than an inconvenience, meted out by common consent as the only reasonable alternative to life outside.
I strike up a conversation with a young free-lance reporter. We talk about Laing and Hesse and schizophrenia as a vanguard experience. But our reverie is interrupted by the appearance of two armed deputies, one holding a three-foot length of chain, similar to the one I use when walking my dog. The chain is a restorative, and also the first sign that a black man convicted of kidnapping and robbery and attempted rape is about to enter the room. He walks in, already chained at the waist. A thick flat man with shoulders like a stump. He shoots a smile and a half-raised fist at the audience, and sits in a chair which has been bolted to the floor. The guards wind the chain around his waist. Then they fluff his shirt over the chain so that it is invisible to the court. All you see if you look at Ruchell Magee is a man sitting calmly in his bucket seat, hands resting on his lap, his shoulders slightly hunched. That, you might assume, would be the natural posture of a man who has spent his lion years as a con.
Then Angela Davis walks in, unencumbered, and takes a seat at the other end of the room. A smile and a raised clenched fist. Scattered applause. Reporters start to snip. “I heard she had some work done on those teeth of hers.” And “I wonder where she found the time to go shopping for that dress.” This is envy-patter, but it is delivered with such audible venom that a brief scuffle ensues, with members of the “committed press” demanding respect, or at least silence from the straights. Earl Caldwell, the young black reporter from the Times, smiles into his lapels.
The judge walks in. A slender clear-faced man with shoulders like a steam iron. He smiles. He introduces himself. “I’m Judge Alan Lindsay from Alameda County, over here on assignment.” He introduces the prosecutor. He smiles again. He speaks softly, almost in a whisper, deferential as the guard who searched me on the way in. Think of him as the perfect dinner guest: attentive, respectable, and more than willing to remain invisible beyond the etiquette of the occasion.
He addresses Ruchell Magee, who is attempting to file another writ demanding the removal of his case into federal court. This document, like all the others Magee has filed in the eight years since his last conviction, is written in a stiff hand on prison stationery, and contains the basis of what Magee regards as his defense: that he is being railroaded by court-appointed lawyers and the “flagrant racism” of the system itself; that the state is attempting to suppress evidence which he intends to use in his own behalf; that an attorney, A. Leonard Bjorklund, offered him immunity (if he would testify that Angela Davis provided him with the gun he held during the escape) and threatened him with the death penalty when he refused to cooperate; that he is being ”criminally oppressed, harassed, and tormented in prison.”
The right to conduct your own defense is, in fact, a privilege which may be conveyed upon a defendant at the court’s discretion. Magee’s motions, with their alien, forceful style, have not disposed the bench to grant his request. And though it was a writ by Magee which helped Judge John P. McMurray decide to remove himself from the case, Albert Harris, the prosecuting attorney, has said: “The defendant’s below average intelligence, subnormal education, inexperience, and indisposition toward courts of law do not adequately equip him to save his life.”
Judge Lindsay smiles. He accepts Magee’s motion, although the defendant cannot move his arms away from his lap to present it. “We’re having some difficulty with the chains,” says Robert Bell, a court-appointed lawyer for Magee.
“I understand,” the judge replies. “Would you furnish Mr. Magee with all necessary assistance?”
I remember the time I spent in Judge Julius Hoffman’s court during the pre-trial hearings of the Chicago Seven. I remember Hoffman’s craning presence on the bench. I remember his syntax, the way he chewed attorneys’ names like tough meat. And I remember thinking then, this petulant old man will make the perfect foil for these people, and will secretly enjoy their disobedience and his own power to keep their anger in check. Judge Hoffman was prairie justice: he was energetic and arbitrary, and when he hit, he hurt.
Alan Lindsay is as well-tempered as Julius Hoffman was spiteful. Yet, if anything is apparent from the way he runs his court, it is how little it matters what tone the judge maintains. The effect of courtesy is nil: as in Chicago, a man is chained to his seat and denied the right to choose his own representation. As in Chicago, circumstantial evidence is applied to a political intent. Anyone who doubts that this is a political trial should consider the indictment against Angela Davis which mentions, as “overt acts” to be regarded as evidence of criminal intent, specific speeches and activities on behalf of the Soledad Brothers. The defense should have little trouble establishing — if it is permitted to — that Angela Davis was regarded as a criminal before Jon Jackson ever handled any guns.
She sits at the hemispheric table, looking as she always does in court: alert, assured, and provocative. The judge takes note of her behind his smile, and the guards take note behind their guns, and the reporters take note behind their notes. Sex and race hang in the soft air, contradicting the structural intent of the room and turning the gentle little meeting hall with its placid judge irrevocably into a court of law.
As its major business, the defense files a 27-page statement accusing Judge Lindsay of “biases and prejudices … that impede his ability to conduct a fair trial.” As evidence, the defense cites his prior association with enforcement agencies, his term as an assistant district attorney in Alameda County, his membership in the Oakland school board during the NAACP’s intensive campaign against that city’s districting policies, and his pressured loyalty to Ronald Reagan, who appointed Judge Lindsay to the Superior Court in 1967. The defense concludes: “The racism inherent in the American judicial political system is clearly manifested in Judge Lindsay’s career, a classic of our time.”
It would be 10 days before Judge Lindsay responded to the charges by denying he was prejudiced and insisting he had done nothing in his career to further segregation or racism. It would be another two weeks until a hearing before another judge could be convened. At that hearing, the charge of bias was rejected. With an appeal pending on that charge, Judge Lindsay has scheduled a hearing this Wednesday to rule on a petition by Ruchell Magee’s lawyers, who want to withdraw from the case. Still to be argued are pre-trial motions for dismissal of the indictment, for bail, and for the right of Angela Davis to act as co-counsel in her own defense (an arrangement which is rare in American courtrooms, though not in other judicial systems — the Soviet one, for example).
It is unlikely that Judge Lindsay will react with much enthusiasm to the prospect of a series of hearings which could last longer than some trials, but neither is he likely to rush things unceremoniously. Not this judge, who has said, in the tradition of the green shield: “Everybody involved in this matter must not only receive a fair trial, but they must also have the feeling that the trial has been fair.”
Today, the only day Judge Lindsay has actually encountered Angela Davis and Ruchell Magee he adjourns the morning session after 12 minutes. In the afternoon, he returns to announce that he will take the Davis challenge under consideration. He assures Magee that his hand-written motion will also receive its due. He smiles. Then he turns to face the press.
“Indicating we are going to adjourn in a few minutes,” he purrs, “everyone will remain with the exception of those necessary to escort Miss Davis and Mr. Magee from the courtroom.” Guards assume their places, first undoing Magee and then accompanying Davis out the door. The judge departs, and so do the rest of us — reporters and spectators, artists with sketches of Angela (and none of Magee) which invariably make her look huskier and swarthier than she seems, ministers and defense committee types, a couple in overalls.
Outside in the hall, I watch Howard Moore, chief counsel for the defense, cornered by the press.
“People call Alan Lindsay ‘The Smiling Judge.’ What do you think of that?”
“I wouldn’t want to comment on his teeth.”
Afterward, I ask who calls Lindsay the smiling judge, and a reporter answers: “I do. Me and the lady sitting behind me.”
I take the elevator up to the cafeteria for a cup of coffee and fruit salad. I sit looking out on the terrace with its fountains and gardens. I watch a young mother hold her baby up near the edge of the terrace, looking out over the hilltops into the still-green Pacific and the still-blue sky. She’s wearing a poncho and print bells. Her cheeks are the color of the walls around me. So are her breasts, I imagine and her hips. I fancy she is happy, with space enough to move and time to be. I fancy she is free.
“Flowers, guitar music, and a priest speaking words of joy contrasted today with the quiet of the mourners at the funeral of Judge Harold J. Haley.
“Reverend John P. Tierney, pastor of St. Sylvester’s Catholic Church, urged hundreds of persons who had jammed inside for a funeral mass to rejoice with Judge Haley ‘on his entrance into eternal life.’
“The bells in the tower of the First Presbyterian Church across the street from Keaton’s Mortuary in San Rafael tolled as the hearse pulled slowly away — preceded down Fifth Avenue by a line of 25 police cars, their flashing red lights emphasizing the silence of their sirens.
“A policeman armed with a rifle stood watch atop San Rafael’s City Hall, which was closed to traffic until the funeral procession had passed.
“Judge Haley’s parish church in Peacock Gap was already crowded as the hearse and line of cars made their way out of San Pedro Road, through the hills, and along the bay the Judge has known all his life.”
— from the Independent-Journal, August 10, 1970
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 27, 2020