Photographer plays a small part in radical history

January 12, 1997
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

On the morning of Aug. 7, 1970, 20-year-old Roger Bockrath was mixing chemicals in the darkroom of the photography lab at the San Rafael Independent-Journal newspaper. He was listening to the police scanner when he heard the dispatcher announce a "code 33 in progress," which meant a dire emergency, a matter of life and death, was taking place.

Bockrath heard something about "an armed convict with hostages at the Marin County Civic Center." He grabbed two cameras - stopping only to turn up the volume of the scanner in the city room and interrupt an editor in mid-sentence by physically turning the editor's head toward the scanner - and ran down three flights of stairs to his car. He flew up Highway 101 to the Civic Center where four black revolutionaries were holding hostage a judge, an assistant district attorney, and three female jurors.

"I had a lot of adrenaline and not much common sense," Bockrath, now 47, sighed in a recent interview. "I ran into this potentially fatal situation, got shot at three times, and walked away unscathed."

Minutes earlier at the courthouse on that August day, Jonathan Jackson, younger brother of imprisoned Black Panther George Jackson, had interrupted the trial of a black convict named James McClain at gunpoint in the courtroom of Judge Harold Haley. Jackson and McClain, assisted by two convicts, took five people hostage and tried to leave the building, heading for a rented van in the parking lot. They hoped to escape to the San Francisco airport and flee.

Bockrath managed to station himself 30 or so yards from the building. As Jackson, McClain and the hostages moved out in a tight, scared little group, Bockrath was furiously shooting photos. He sought cover at the back of a CHP car, shooting the length of the vehicle through the back window and out the front.

"I tried to squeeze the shutter in between beats of my heart," Bockrath recalled. The dramatic photo he took shows McClain leading out the hostages, his right hand pointing a revolver at police, his left hand holding a shotgun taped around the judge's neck. Seconds after Bockrath squeezed off this shot, someone behind him slammed a car door and the convicts turned their attention toward the hapless photographer.

"I was wearing a white shirt and a tie and I guess I looked like a cop," said Bockrath. McClain yelled at him: "Stand up motherf----r or I'll blow your brains out."

"Yes, sir," said Bockrath, who recalls saluting for good measure.

Jackson gestured at him with his gun, and Bockrath started quickly walking away. Jackson fired from the waist, one, twice, three times. By the time the third shot was fired, Bockrath was running as fast as he could, away from the courthouse, 21 pounds of camera equipment trailing in the breeze.

Jim Kean, another I-J photographer, took award-winning shots from inside the courthouse including a distance photo of Bockrath running down the driveway.

While Bockrath threw himself on the ground next to a police sharp-shooter, the Black Panthers and their hostages got in the van. They didn't make it very far. Police opened fire killing all the convicts but one. The judge also was killed and the district attorney, now a Superior Court judge, was severely injured, paralyzed from the waist down. The jurors were shaken up, but lived.

Bockrath ran to the van when it stopped moving and got a shot of the bodies in the back - two convicts, Jackson and the judge.

These photos and others taken that day won the newspaper, Bockrath and Kean several journalism awards, not to mention prestige in the field. Unhappily, Kean soon died of an aggressive form of cancer. And Bockrath? He quit the newspaper.

"I didn't like being shot at," he said.

Instead, he took the money he'd earned from reprint rights and embarked on a series of projects from organizing the first recycling center in Marin County to collecting photos for a book on wild edible plants. Later, he took a trip to New Zealand where he met the woman who would become his wife, Lucy Joseph. They live in Davis with their two young children. She is a microbiologist at UC and he remodels homes.

"I've returned to the Marin County Civic Center several times," Bockrath added. "And every time I go there it gives me the creeps."

Bockrath's uncredited photos and the story of Jonathan Jackson, the Marin County shootout, George Jackson, Stephen Bingham and the San Quentin Massacre can be found in a new book, "The Road to Hell," (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1996) by Paul Liberatore of the Marin Independent Journal.

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