Jerry Elster: Transformational Change From San Quentin to Seattle

by Amir Islam

At the age of nineteen Jerry Eslter killed a rival gang member, ending up in prison. He was released five years ago after serving a twenty-six year sentence. The first five years of that sentence was spent in solidarity confinement. During that time Jerry came to find that his violence was hindering his life’s progress. The time in solidarity confinement challenged him on many different levels, and led Jerry to have a spiritual awakening, which changed his mindset. He knew this would be a hard process, but he adamantly sought alternatives to violence. Jerry began using his influence in jail for the better, making a peace treaty with rival gangs, and promoting peace throughout the California penitentiary system. 

Today, Jerry is a Black Liberation freedom fighter working on transforming a racist crimal justice system through an anti-racist organizing lens, while helping to build the people’s movement. I sat with Jerry to discuss his work, movement building, and where today’s fight for Black liberation is heading.


What message are you bringing to the Seattle community?

I really hope that I can be instrumental in putting the message out there of how important it is to have a collective voice for the movement, right now. It’s urgent. The reason I use the word urgency is that when people talk about the movement, they talk about the past: the civil rights movement, or the Black Panthers.

Things are slightly different today. [As a movement] we’re moving in the same direction, but we’re doing it in silos. If you look at the past, the movement was conquered by division. We continue to be divided. All of these organizations that make up the movement are trying to get to the same place: We all want to be respected as human beings, and we want to have the same rights as everyone else.

We want to see some visible evidence that we are recognized like everyone else, and that we have the same right to prosper. There’s the old Booker T Washington appeal that says “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” Well, what happens if you don’t have bootstraps, because they’ve deprived you of the bootstraps?

We have to take a deliberate stand and say, no more. It’s almost embarrassing that today we’re having the same discussions they had during the 60’s civil rights movement, and the black movement. I differentiate the two because the civil rights movement was for everyone. The black movement had to break away, because within that movement we were still set aside.


People talk about the necessity to have clear demands, similar to the Black Panthers. What do you think of the criticism of the Black Lives Matter Movement not having a clear message?

I disagree with you about Black Lives Matter not having a clear message. I think their message is a simple one. It’s a platform that says stop killing our folks.

The message is really a two pronged one. One is stop killing our folks, the other is, we demand equal rights. We demand to be recognized. We demand to be treated as individuals. We’re not asking for that. We’re demanding that.

I think the BLM message is a powerful one, a lot of us weren’t in the room when BLM formed. How long have we been screaming out against police brutality, and saying that our justice system doesn’t stand for the equality of black people. I think as Black men in this country we have yet to really step up and be heard in this country. I don’t think strong Black men have yet risen to the occasion and said we demand a seat at this table. I’m talking about nationally.


Just for clarification, what table are you talking about? Are you referring to the table of those who oppress us?

I’m saying that we have to create our table. The oppressors don’t own a table. The table I’m talking about is the table of equality in this county. That’s the one I can pull up a seat to and have just as much of a say so over decisions as you do, regardless of your race. I’m talking about a table where I can make decisions every day on a political and economic level. I’m supposed to be included in those decisions when you’re talking about modifying constitutional laws. Your question on clarity is important. If we don’t speak in clear language we can’t expect our young people to have a clear direction ahead.


What would you say to people who say we do currently sit at the table?

I’d say the same thing as I do to those who say “why don’t we just pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.” Give me some bootstraps, as a matter of fact give me some damn boots, so I can walk the terrain and keep my footing like everyone else. For example, [with a felony on my record] I can be a citizen as long as I’m in the state of California, but I will never be a full citizen in this country in other states who don’t recognize my civil rights. We have to change these racist laws. We have economic violence that is waged on us daily. I’ve seen gentrification suck up whole neighborhoods. I’ve been in [historical Black West Oakland] and you’ll barely see any Black people, and when you do see them, the inequality is so damn apparent. You guys have the same issues in Seattle. We live in squalor positions, while they build high rises and call them affordable. It’s so abhorrent.


So how do we take a seat at table?

I think we need to quit trying to shift the agenda, and start creating the agenda. If you aren’t creating your own agenda for yourself, someone else will. I think what we’re missing in the movement is self- accountability – and when I say self-accountability I’m not talking about on an individual level. I’m talking about it on a collective level. Along with holding the system accountable, we have to hold ourselves accountable.

We have to say: “as a man today, as a woman today, I’m willing to hold myself accountable.” An example is the language we have, some of this anti-feminist language we use. I had to really go through some real training to stop saying the word “broad” [in reference to a woman]. Look at the n-word. We need to find another way to address each other. And that includes “goons and road dawgs.”

We need to recognize who we are as Black people. And, it isn’t all Black. We have a strong contingency of whites that are supporting us who need to be accountable as well. But, let’s change are language. That’s one of the first things we did when we became more politicized in jail.

Taking those steps it’s going to propel us to that table, our own table.


So do Blacks need to build a platform solely for themselves?

I think if we try to build just a platform for black folks it’ll just be a superficial structure. In this country the most booming population is brown folks, Latinos. If we count them out, then we’ll fall under divide and conquer. It’s imperative that we do work as a collective and try to mend any rifts we have.


So what does coming together look like?

It’s time for us to be the fathers, the brothers, the leaders in our community that we’re supposed to be. It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be difficult right now to go back in the community because so many young people have heard so much bullshit. They’ve seen so much bullshit and been told: “I have your best interest at heart.”

We’re going to have to find a way to connect with them on a level that’s real. You’re from a certain area of Seattle. If I was just to come down to your neighborhood and start preaching, do you think you would automatically listen to me? No. But if I’m able to sit at the table with someone who looked is respected in the community then they would talk to him and absorb our message.

We need to start pushing the agenda. Collectively, we need to push this and come up with something akin to a unity language, so that no matter what community you go to, we all understand each other’s intentions. In Africa, you talk about Swahili. Swahili is not a regular language. It was dialect that allowed different regions to trade. We need a trader’s language.


You talk about coming together, but often times an impediment to that is the trauma Black youth face from experiencing incarceration and violence at an early age. I’m thinking about a 17 year old I know who was shot five times, and is attempting to heal emotionally from that experience. How can we come together when we have internal healing to do?

I think that is so precise. It’s a hard question, but it’s a true questions. I think first of all we need a healing circle, and when I say healing circle, I mean that we have to recognize why violence really happens on the street and why the penitentiary is really full of Black folks. We have to be ready to excuse and forgive each other, and the only way you’re going to do that, is to be able to say, “I know you’re the one, or I think you’re the one that killed my homeboy, but I also understand that it’s set up by design in this country for us to destroy each other.” We have to be ready to start mending this shit.”

When I stopped gangbanging I started seeing that so clearly. I sat in the first Super-max prison in California, and it was like an epiphany, but it took me so many years to get there. When I did, I no longer wanted to kill the next man. I started seeing him as part of me, my own flesh. We have to look beyond the neighborhood, or the block. This shit is really about, this corporate America, imperalism and colonialism. When you look at that you’re start recognizing before that pistol even materializes, that who you thought was your enemy, is really your brother.

There was a document signed years ago, where the forefather’s said for “us folks.” That constitution never included us. When it did include us it said: “you’ll be one-fifth, we’ll knock you off some crumbs, good job, now keep it up!”


You frequently point to the flaws found in an individualistic mindset. What are the problems you have with it?

First of all we need to recognize that it goes deeper than the hood, and the block, and the city and the turf. It goes back to colonialism, imperialism, and supremacy. That’s where it goes. All those things are individualistic. All those things are capitalists. We were never intended to be capitalists and extreme individualists. We’re tribal beings. We’re a collective. When I hurt, you hurt. My actions affect you, yours affect me. By design it was meant for me to go up with you. We can’t be affected by pyramid syndrome, where only one man can be on top, while we discard each other on our climb upwards.


Many people leave talks and meetings around race, liberation, and justice frustrated, because the question always remains after, what can I do?

Anytime we do something we should always have an “ask.” Like I said we need to have a collective language, and we have to start working on forgiving one another. I did a thing with some cats in the joint. I wanted them to be accountable to themselves, but I always wanted them to do a collective thing. So I told them: From now on this is how we operate. Each one of us is going to operate as a solder unto ourselves. That means you’re going to guard whatever it is I would guard with your life. So if they separate me, and someone says “well, you know Jerry said something bad about you…” They know that’s some bullshit because I wouldn’t.

We also have to be willing to work with each other. You have to be willing to work with your brother, be willing to work with your sister, be willing to work with the LGBTQ community, be willing to work with those who are poor, and be willing to work with immigrants. We need to stop looking at immigrants and saying, well, that’s not my fight. Guess what? It is your fight. The same message they’re sending to them, is the same one they’re sending to you, unless you’re useful, you can get the hell out.


So what are the responsibilities for those of us who find ourselves in positions of influence, whether politically, or in the media?

To whom much is given, much is required. I think if you have privilege, you have to check that privilege. As an individual, I shouldn’t have to wait for someone to say, “Jerry, we need someone to do this… will you do it?” I need to be accountable to say I’ll do it.

What about all the folks though who are economically endowed. They need to say, “I see you.” It’s that collective idea of our heritage. We need to have real dialogue letting people know they’re still part of the community. We can’t sit up at “poverty pimp” meetings and continue to fight for funding for our own organizations. We need to say, “Check this out, Chester Brown has been in prison for 40 years, that’s our brother. We need some funding when he gets out. He needs a job and support.” Until we start doing this stuff for ourselves, they’re going to use our old inclinations to be decisive. Those in positions of power must rise to the occasion.

photo courtesy of Equal Justice Works

Amir Islam is a Seattle native, born and raised in the Central District of Seattle. He is also the Co-founder of the United Hood Movement. Islam is a Black man, and community organizer who’s ancestors call him daily to continue the fight for Black Liberation. He an be followed on Twitter @amirislamsworld and contacted via his E-mail:

Marcus Harrison Green contributed to this interview.

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