Hunter’s Point Weekly
September 9, 2007
Death of A Revolutionary
by Merillee Jackson
The recent prison disturbance at Alameda County’s Santa Rita County Jail may have taken the community by surprise, but it did not surprise those closest to the daily goings-on at the facility. Lawyers, corrections officers, relatives of inmates and recently released inmates all agree that the jail was nearing a boiling point this past summer. A combination of cutbacks, staff working too much overtime, a crackdown on petty criminals throughout Alameda County, and a simmering gang war all contributed to the six hour riot. Although officials are reluctant to release many details of the incidents that occurred that night or in the days preceding it, the public does know this: five men died, forty-one were injured, two cell blocks were destroyed by fire and water, and there was more than $10 million worth of damage to the facility. After the disturbance was quelled, some prisoners were transferred to other jails and prisons in the region, some were given early release, and several dozen are currently living in the prison yard, which has been closed to other prisoners. What this means is that most inmates at the facility are no longer being let out except for meals. The rest of the day they spend in their cells. Visiting hours have been limited to one weekend a month and worship hours are severely curtailed. According to various guards we interviewed, the place is (according to one anonymous individual) “more tense than before the fuckin’ riot.”
Correctional officials have released the names of those who died in the riot. A guard named Jerry Hinckle died in the first minutes of the riot. He was apparently killed by unknown prisoners. Two of the inmate dead were well-known gang leaders in the Bay Area named Jesus Aramacio and Bobby Taylor. The two once led rival gangs but in recent years the two gangs have joined forces. Furthermore, The Weekly has confirmed what has been rumored for weeks. Both men had agreed with federal officials to testify about police corruption and involvement in the Bay Area drug trade and murder. The other two men were less well-known, at least to today’s news readers. One of them called himself Gypsy. He was a white man in his sixties who used to live on the streets of Berkeley and the Haight-Ashbury. A member of the street family known in underground lore as the STP Family, Gypsy spent his last twenty years in prison after being convicted of killing a UC Berkeley student at Barrington Hall – a defunct student co-op that was known by police and Berkeleyites alike as a center for drug dealing, sex orgies and other unconventional (and often illegal) behavior. He was at Santa Rita due to the overpopulation of the state prison system. The other inmate fatality in the riot was Porgy Johnson. Wanted by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies for more than two decades, Johnson surfaced last spring not long after his case was featured on America’s Most Wanted. He was awaiting trial on murder charges going back to 1980.
A Radical Past
Porgy Johnston was born in 1950 in San Antonio, Texas. His father was an Air Force NCO. Like most other military families, the Johnsons moved every three or four years. Most of Sergeant Johnson’s tours were stateside. He was a plane mechanic and helped keep the Strategic Air Command fighter jets in top condition. In 1962, the family was assigned to Khair Sagalie Air Station near Peshawar, West Pakistan. At the time, Pakistan had two wings. One was between India and Afghanistan and the other was thousands of miles away on India’s northeastern flank. The eastern half is now Bangladesh.
The Peshawar air station was a small outpost, known primarily to those who knew it at all as the place where U2 pilot Gary Powers took off from before his ill-fated trip to spy on the Soviets. Perhaps Sergeant Johnson helped maintain the U2s. The family stayed in Peshawar for three years. They were the only African-American family on the base in an Air Force that was primarily white. Porgy used to tell friends of his that The Weekly interviewed that his parents would take him to the Peshawar bazaar at least twice a month. They did this, he said, so that he would know that not everyone in the world was white skinned.
Sergeant Johnston retired from the Air Force in 1969. The family moved to Berkeley, California so that Porgy could attend one of the Bay Area colleges. He was an A student in high school. He didn’t go to college after graduating in 1968 because his family didn’t know where they would be living after his father’s retirement. Instead, Porgy worked at a Sears warehouse in Davis, CA. where his father was stationed.
In 1969, the US Selective Service began using the lottery system. Porgy’s number was 17. The draft was finally going to take him. Porgy went in. His father would have disowned him if he hadn’t. By March 1970 he was in Vietnam. There was no plane mechanic work for him. He was an infantry man. By May of that year he would find himself in Cambodia, part of the “incursion” ordered by President Nixon. It was a move that unleashed a torrent of rage across the United States. On May 4, 1970 four students were killed by the National Guard during antiwar disturbances there. Ten days later, two more young people were killed in Jackson, Mississippi during similar protests. In between, millions of students walked out of classes, six blacks were killed by law enforcement in Augusta, Georgia and servicemen and women refused to fight or work.
The unrest did not go unnoticed by the young soldier. Several African-American GIs in his unit were regular readers of the Black Panther newspaper. Porgy began to read it himself. By the time he was shipped home in March 1971, he was no longer a good soldier. Indeed, he was no longer a patriotic American. He had joined the Black Panther Party. Within days of his return he spoke at a Panther rally in Berkeley’s Provo Park. He called for a revolution and told the crowd he was organizing inside the military. His father died three days after Porgy came back from Vietnam. According to military records, the younger Johnson was sent to Germany in April 1971 after being granted two weeks of bereavement leave. He continued being an active member of the Panthers. According to some former Panther members who lived in Frankfurt am Main, Germany at the time and published the local Panther paper The Voice of the Lumpen, Johnson helped organize a speaking tour by Fania Davis, whose sister Angela was on trial for her alleged involvement in an attack on the Marin County Courthouse in 1970. He also played conga in a musical group that played the music of the Last Poets and other revolutionary groups.
After his release from the service, Porgy drifted around Europe. He found his way back to the Bay Area around 1976. The revolutionary fervor was tempered by then, but the street scene on Telegraph Avenue was still going strong. He joined in immediately. Porgy became a well known figure in People’s Park, on the Ave, and in various political and countercultural happenings. His mother told The Weekly that they read about Porgy in the paper more than they saw him in those days.
In 1978, things took a more serious turn. The SLA and Patti Hearst were a thing of the past. The Weather Underground was a memory to anyone but the most hardened leftist and the Black Panther Party was an occasional electoral phenomenon in Oakland city elections. Porgy ran into a group of young men and women who were still revolutionary. They called themselves the New People’s Liberation Front (NPLF). Some of the individuals had tenuous ties to the SLA and the others had connections to the Berkeley radical scene. Porgy ran into a member in People’s Park and soon moved into the house the group rented on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley. According to observers of US radicalism in the 1960s and 1979s, the group was different from other similar formations primarily because it did not form until 1977. This was after most radical organizations were either foundering, involved in organizing in factories, or, in the case of the Weather Underground, disintegrating in a final internal battle. What Porgy and the other members didn’t know was that the group was infiltrated. Not by one agency, but by two. There was a man named Ronnie Freedman (known as Ra) who worked for the California Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the FBI. There was a woman named Rosa McNamara (Rosie) who also worked for the CBI, as well as the DEA. Neither undercover agent knew about the other. The group showed up at protests against slumlords like the Berkeley Judge who tried to evict the White Panther Party from their Berkeley housing and issued statements that were occasionally published in the final issues of the Berkeley Barb. However, most of their time was spent earning money to pay their rent and honing the politics of the group. There was also a fair amount of sexual experimentation among most of the group’s members.
Murder, Molotovs and Murder
In 1979, the Berkley police killed a popular street figure named Thomas Africa. The murder occurred in a climate of increased police harassment of the street people and culture in Berkeley. The campaign was part of an attempt to rid the city of elements considered repulsive to the real estate and other industries. There was a stepped-up police presence on Telegraph Avenue. Concerts in People’s Park were broken up by the police. When the University tried to turn the parking lot in the west end of the park into a pay parking lot, the asphalt was torn up and a three month confrontation between denizens of the park, their supporters and the police and university took place. It could be argued that the protesters won, as the University did not try to develop the park for more than a dozen years afterwards.
The NPLF decided they would respond to the police killing of Africa. On December 19, 1979, they tossed Molotov cocktails into the parking lot where Berkeley Police kept their vehicles. Three vehicles burned. Because of the infiltration of the group, the police knew who the perpetrators were almost immediately. They decided not to act, however. It seems that one of the informants – a woman named Rosie McNamara – was also involved in trying to take down a LSD distribution ring operating in Marin County. In February 1980, the other informant (Ra) dropped her off near the house where she was supposed to buy the LSD. Two weeks later her corpse was found on the side of I-680 just past San Quentin.
Within weeks, Porgy Johnson was the number one suspect for the crime. His friends at the time insisted that he was not the culprit. Those who hoped to represent him in the trial he will never attend insist the same.
After conversations with Johnson’s lawyer, a retired undercover agent for the political and gang wing of the State of California’s Bureau of Investigation (CBI), and a friend of Johnson’s, The Weekly summarizes the case below.
June 23. 1979: Thomas Africa killed by Berkeley Police on Telegraph Avenue.
December 19, 1979: NPLF firebombs Berkeley Police cars in response to the murder of Africa. Three cars destroyed. NPLF claims responsibility in a statement reported by radio station KPFA.
March 1980: Undercover policewoman Rosie McNamara’s body found in Marin County. Apparent homicide and sexual assault. Large amounts of barbiturates found in her bloodstream. Police tell public they are searching for two African-American men.
April-June 1980: NPLF members go underground. Porgy Johnson becomes prime suspect in murder of McNamara. His name is put on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. He disappears into Mexico. Johnson assumes the identity Esteban Cruz. The other suspect (Ra) is apparently removed from consideration. According to retired agent Richard Stevens, this individual, referred to as Freedman in defense documents, was known to most of his acquaintances as Ra. He was a long time informant for a number of California police agencies, including the LAPD, CHP, and the Berkeley and Oakland Police departments. Stevens believes to this day that Freedman was the murderer.
February 17, 2007: America’s Most Wanted features the murder of Rosie McNamara and the disappearance of the “number one suspect in the case, Porgy Johnson” on its show. Johnson is assumed to still be somewhere in Mexico.
March 17, 2007: Johnson attends his mother’s funeral in Oakland, California. Police arrest him soon afterwards in traffic stop.
Early April, 2007: Attorney Mariah Callahan is assigned to Johnson’s case as a public defender. She struggles with the case due to a paucity of information.
Early May, 2007: Peter Somers, a former friend of Johnson’s and other NPLF members, receives letter from Callahan asking for assistance. Somers flies to Berkeley to help out.
July 23, 2007: During a visit with Johnson, Callahan and other visitors are hastily removed from the Santa Rita Jail grounds after a disturbance breaks out. The disturbance spreads. The facility is calm by morning. Four inmates die during the disturbance. Johnson is one of them.
Nobody is talking about how Johnson or the other three men died that night in Santa Rita. Callahan, other attorneys and the families of those victims that have families have asked for independent autopsies, but their requests have been denied. Indeed, as of this writing, the authorities have said very little, refusing even to acknowledge whether or not they have investigated the cause of death. Three of the bodies, including Johnson’s, remain in the County morgue. Friends and relatives of the men are pressuring the county to release the bodies so the men can be put to rest.
An excerpt from the 2011 novel The Co-Conspirator’s Tale (Fomite Press 2011) by Ron Jacobs
Ron Jacobs is an anti-imperialist and the author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground (Verso 1997). His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, was released in 2007 from Mainstay Press. His most recent novel is The Co-Conspirator's Tale (Fomite Press 2011). He currently lives in North Carolina, USA.