(Hugo 'Yogi' Pinell, artwork by Kiilu Nyasha, 2015)
(Transcription of KPOO interview from SF Bay View Newspaper)
This interview was broadcast live on Aug. 18, 2015, on Terry Collins’ show, The Spirit of Joe Rudolph. Listen to it in full here; these are highlights. Read more about Hugo Pinell here.
Terry Collins: A lot of people around here are definitely in deep mourning for the murder of Hugo Pinell on the 12th of August, this month. From my correspondence with him over the past three or four years, I know he was a person full of love.
I loved Hugo or Yogi Bear, as he was called, and he really helped me sustain myself through some of the problems I thought I had with growing old and still trying to keep the struggle going on. I know you love Hugo also, so tell me some of the things you want to talk about.
Kiilu Nyasha: If there was one word that could describe Yogi Bear, it would be love. His love energies are what sustained him for 45 years in solitary confinement beginning December 1970.
They couldn’t torture him enough, because he was in total opposition to white supremacist racism and he was subjected to it the whole time he was imprisoned. He was first sent to prison in 1965 after having spent a year in the county jail.
His redemption came in the form of revolutionary politics, learning from W.L. Nolen, from George Jackson and many other brothers that were in the California prison system in the ‘60s and transformed themselves from the gangster mentality to a revolutionary mentality and started studying and practicing how to serve the people, how to break down the barriers between the ethnic groups.
At that time, it was mostly Mexicans and Whites and Blacks (in California prisons), and Blacks were constantly under attack because the racism targeting Blacks was overt and extreme. The Aryan Brotherhood and the Nazis were in collusion with the racist guards and brothers were turning up dead.
There was an attack on three of the conscious brothers. W.L. Nolen was shot; he was known as the Marvin Hagler of the prison system, the middle weight champion of long ago, because he was a terrific fighter, and nobody would have challenged him on the yard if they didn’t know that a guard was prepared to shoot him.
And he did. He was shot dead as soon as one of these racists attacked him. It was set up anyway, because they put the most arch-racists out on the yard with these Black conscious brothers, knowing that a fight would break out; in fact I think they orchestrated it.
So the bottom line is they had two other brother rush to W.L.’s rescue, and they were shot and all three were left to bleed to death. That precipitated the case of the Soledad Brothers, because where their demands were not met and they had a kangaroo court that brought back the usual verdict of that time of justifiable homicide.
We heard that left and right, Terry; you remember those days. Every time you turn around someone was being acquitted on the basis of justifiable homicide if they had killed a Black person or a Brown person. So the bottom line is the brothers retaliated and a guard was thrown off the tier to his death and three brothers – George Jackson, Fleeta Drumgo and John Clutchette – were eventually acquitted, George Jackson posthumously, because they figured out how to kill him on Aug. 21, 1971.
And so now they have gotten his comrade, Hugo Pinell, and Hugo had gotten himself transferred to San Quentin so he could be beside George. The two of them were liberators. They were freedom fighters.
Hugo was always talking to me about becoming the new man, growing and developing and changing and loving the people and serving the people. He was always asking about other people and telling us how to take better care of ourselves. You talk about that a minute, Terry.
TC: The first letter I got from him, I was so inspired. I mean here was a brother locked down inside Pelican Bay, and the letters that came showed that the guards had opened them up to put the stamp on it, so I knew everything that came back and forth between me and him was going to be read, so I was hoping he wouldn’t get in no trouble.
I found out you couldn’t say nothing about George Jackson, so I asked about W.L. Nolen and I said, “Hugo, can’t somebody put this in the paper, the San Francisco Bay View?” And he said “Yeah, that’s ok if you do.” I said, “I ain’t gonna do it if you don’t want me to.”
And then he talked about W.L. Nolen, how (he was) from Oakland and he was a gangster, a real gangster, and he changed from a gangster to a revolutionary. And that’s what inspired (Hugo), because he could not believe someone like him – as you said he was a great boxer – someone like W.L. Nolen came to him and said we got to start reading, we got to start studying.
Really, in his writings he always talked about growth and development, development of a new woman, a new man. And believe me, his letters to me really helped me, because at a certain age am I any value anymore? But he would let me know, you’re still a youngster, you know what I mean? (laughter)
So I love Hugo Pinell. I never got to meet the brother, but just through his letters, I loved that brother. To be honest, I still ain’t recovered. Every day I am still thinking about him; it’s hard for me to even realize that he is not with us anymore.
KN: I know. He’s been on my mind constantly. I’m just struggling hard to take Jian Qing’s advice, the widow of Mao Tse Tung. When he died, she told the Chinese people to “turn grief into strength.” That was in 1976 and I’ve been using that motto ever since.
I said to myself, well, I better give myself this order because I’ve been having to do so much damage control and cleanup work behind all the lies and slander and vilification of Yogi by the mainstream (media), and even some of the left that don’t have good sense have been repeating some of the madness.
So you know, it’s very difficult, but I’d like to share a little bit of Mao Tse Tung. I put it in front of a statement from the San Quentin Six, who of course loved the hell out of Yogi. I don’t know any prisoners who didn’t love Yogi who knew him. I mean they all loved him. Anyway, here is a quote from Mao from the Red Book that is really perfect for our beloved warrior:
“I hold that it is bad as far as we’re concerned if a person, a political party, an army or a school is not attacked by the enemy, for in that case it would definitely mean that we have sunk to the level of the enemy. It is good if we are attacked by the enemy, since it proves that we have drawn a clear line of demarcation between the enemy and ourselves. It is still better if the enemy attacks us wildly and paints us as utterly evil and without a single virtue; it demonstrates that we have not only drawn a clear line of demarcation between the enemy and ourselves but achieved a great deal in our work.”
And he has achieved a great deal in his work, because he is the one who has been the most inspiring in instituting the Agreement to End Hostilities that was a result of the hunger strike, and Yogi was in Pelican Bay and was one of the original hunger strikers. It’s (the Agreement was announced) the same date, Aug. 12, 2012, as he was assassinated, on Aug. 12, 2015.
And I honestly think that the Agreement to End Hostilities – the Nazis and the Aryan Brotherhood and the racist prison guards, they hate that. Even the prison administration, they don’t want all their prisoners coming together and ending hostilities. How are they going to control a prison if everybody is one?
TC: Yogi he was from the Fillmore (then the largest Black neighborhood in San Francisco, dubbed Harlem of the West), and when he went into prison, he stayed with his brothers from the Fillmore inside the prison, and that’s when the problem happened, because he wouldn’t go along with being with “the Mexicans.” He was not (Mexican); he was from the Fillmore and he was a Nicaraguan.
KN: Yeah, he wrote to me about that, how they were mad because he hung with the Blacks.
TC: When he went in jail, the administration, as you said, they played that, you know? That’s how they keep control of everybody. That’s what’s happening in this country right now.
KN: Exactly, the bottom line is we need to stop this nonsense and come together. White people don’t like any of us, the racist ones, the white supremacists. And Black people get the brunt of their racism because we are the darkest.
But hey, look out (laughs): Black Lives Matter. Yeah, all lives matter – that’s automatic – but whose lives are targeted every day of the week? And since we are your brothers and sisters, why aren’t you standing up for us? Ask yourself that question if you don’t happen to be Black. Why aren’t you standing up for Black people if you’re not racist?
TC: That’s what Hugo Pinell stood for.
KN: They hated him for it. What really makes me angry is that he is being painted as the most violent man on earth, the most dangerous man on the planet practically and Geronimo ji-Jaga, known by the military as Sgt. Elmer Pratt, who came back from Vietnam after doing two tours of duty, highly decorated, was a green beret.
Now you know he had to have killed some Viet Cong for him to have been decorated like that, but he comes back home and he sees, and it came out of his mouth: “I saw them treating Black people,” meaning the police, “like we were the Viet Cong,” he said. He was really pissed off.
He joined the Black Panther Party when he was on the UCLA campus, and he began teaching Black people how to defend themselves. He was the one who fortified the LA chapter’s office so that when they went to vamp on that and massacre some Panthers like they did in Chicago when they killed Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, they were ready for them.
Four days later, they tried to do the same in LA, and they were ready and some of the sisters knew how to deal with them and defended the office well enough that they held off the whole LAPD for five hours until the media and people were all outside and they could surrender themselves safely.
Geronimo wasn’t even there at the time, but they framed him for a murder, a murder he did not commit. He was put in jail for 27 years, and he was finally exonerated and settled in court for about $4 million.
But as long as he was over there killing other folks who didn’t ever call him nigger, when he came over here and tried to help Black people learn how to defend themselves, all of a sudden he was a monster. So we need to think about this double standard for violence.
As long as you are killing everyday ordinary people for this fascist government, overseas in some other country, mowing down civilians, you are fine. You’re a hero. But if you stay here and try to defend people against these domestic terrorists they call police, then all of a sudden you are violent.
TC: Geronimo also talks about Hugo Pinell, that he is one of the mostly loving persons that he met. He would stand up for anybody. If he saw guards mistreating somebody, Hugo Pinell would go to try to stop the guards. He didn’t even have to know them.
KN: Exactly! He would jump in and defend them. He would never stand by and watch a guard brutalize another prisoner. Another thing, he was telling me Cleve Edwards, the one who was shot to death on the yard that I was mentioning earlier, he got thrown in the hole, and he (Hugo) said, “I got thrown in the hole myself so that I could go see about him.” I mean, who does that? That’s why he was so loved.
TC: Yeah, he still lives; he has to live. They can take his body, but he lives; he still lives among the people. Through his letters, that keeps him alive.
KN: I have them all, cards …
TC: I have his letters too.
KN: Yogi wrote me a letter one time – and you may have noticed I stopped saying, “Free all political prisoners!” He said they can’t free me. I am already free. He chastised me for saying, “Free Hugo Pinell!” He said, “I am already free. They can just release me.”
TC: (laughing) The letters he wrote to me, sometimes I said, “Wow, I mean how can somebody who don’t even see the sunlight, who never saw the sky, who never saw stars, who never seen green trees, heard the sound of birds, nothing like that, be so full of love?”
KN: That is exactly what sustained him is love. And I believe in the power of love. I really do. And Yogi, he sustained me all these years, because like you just said, if he can handle 24/7 isolation with no creature comforts, no contact, no phone calls, nothing but concrete and madness surrounding him and keep his sanity and his love and his humanity, what have I got to complain about?
I feel his spirit. His spirit is still here. I am not religious, but I believe in spiritual energy, love energy. Hugo Pinell will long be remembered.
TC: He’s gotta be talked about. We can never let somebody that powerful, that great, with that much love ever be forgotten. Thank you, Kiilu.
KN: Not as long as I’m alive, he won’t be forgotten. Listeners, please go to www.hugopinell.com and you’ll find a letter that Hugo wrote to Terry that is profound. Thank you.
--Terry Collins is co-founder, in 1971, and president of the board at KPOO, Poor Peoples Radio, broadcasting 24/7 at 89.5FM from the Fillmore in San Francisco, and hosts The Spirit of Joe Rudolph on Tuesdays, 10 p.m. to midnight. Kiilu Nyasha, Black Panther veteran and revolutionary journalist, hosts the TV talk show Freedom Is a Constant Struggle, broadcast live on San Francisco Channels 29 and 76, and blogs at The Official Website of Kiilu Nyasha, where episodes of Freedom are archived. She can be reached at Kiilu2@sbcglobal.net.