Sporting clunky, thick black glasses -- the kind that sit heavily on the bridge of your nose -- Cook recalls the political atmosphere of those days. "Expropriations were pretty much acceptable," he says. A man heavily steeped in Maoist thought, Cook believes that revolutions may be messy, but they're good for the body politic. Successful revolutionaries become part of the mainstream, making way for another healthy revolution.
The 1970s were a time of Patty Hearst bank robberies, political bombings, guerrilla hijackings, and worldwide revolt. Cook stood at the brink of what seemed like another revolution in America. All that was needed was a big push. Two decades later, Cook stands near the prison fence of the minimum-security Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, and looks uncomfortable. His beard, which used to be dark as coal, is now salty white with barely a dash of pepper. He scratches it, deep in thought.
The only revolution that will take place soon is Cook's own. In four months he will leave the state and federal prison system for good. He will make his way back to Capitol Hill, where he will live with his sister, presumably for the rest of his life. The labels he has borne for years -- prison activist/revolutionary/Panther/reformist -- will be closed chapters in a biography that screams for publication but may never fully get it. He will be just Mark Cook, living in a country he will not recognize.
Cook became politicized in the late 1960s, while serving time for petty crimes. A victim of a troubled childhood, he had been in and out of jail ever since he became an adult. Naturally, the biggest political idea that grabbed him was directly related to his environment -- prison. The criminal justice system denies prisoners basic rights, Cook concluded.
How to be an activist when you're in jail? Cook strived for basic political and civil rights for everyone behind bars, including voting rights for inmates. He and a few other activists called themselves the "Super Crew," and published an underground newsletter, The Bomb. No one knew who printed The Bomb because Cook and his cohorts had their own mimeograph "machine" -- using clear gelatin laid out flatly on a mirror, they created multiple images of one master newsletter.
The most politicized thing Cook believes he did in those days was attaining federal grants so that he could involve prisoners and ex-cons in business projects, like re-upholstering furniture or converting government documents to microfilm. He was giving his fellow prisoners both financial and psychological independence -- a progressive, not revolutionary, idea.
But there was the other side of Cook, the one that wanted dramatic change to come sooner. He and a fellow inmate formed the Tacoma branch of the Black Panthers, flipping a coin to see who would be the branch captain (Cook lost and became the minister of education). Cook started reading Mao's little red book, discussing its meaning among like-minded friends. Ideas about revolution and change flooded his thoughts.
He was paroled in 1973, and he quickly returned to Seattle to take in the political atmosphere. Anti-racism, anti-sexism, and anti-capitalism were all bound together by opposition to the Vietnam War -- the common cause, as Cook puts it. "If you had a revolutionary concept that was anywhere near reasonable, someone would support you," he says.
Through underground social circles in Seattle, Cook met the members of the George Jackson Brigade, including local '70s radicals Ed Mead, John Sherman, and Rita "Bo" Brown. The Brigade was a diverse group of society's marginalized citizens, says Daniel Burton-Rose, an author who is writing a book on the subject. Of seven known members, four were gay, five were working class, and four were ex-convicts. Of the six that later ended up in prison, only Cook was black, Mead says.
Cook insists he never joined the group officially; at first, he only supported the Brigade financially. Nevertheless, his association with the group led to his return to the prison system. In January of 1976, four members of the Brigade "expropriated" a bank in Tukwila. A plan to divert police using fake bombs planted in different hotels across town failed. The cops arrived early. Founding Brigade member Bruce Seidel was killed as he left the bank. Police captured both Mead and Sherman, who was shot in the face.
Two months later, Cook and some other revolutionaries plotted to free Sherman outside the Harborview Hospital. Dressed as a doctor in scrubs, Cook was the main actor, assigned with subduing the police officer guarding Sherman. It was a plan that went awry.
Cook ended up shooting a cop. "If I had wanted to kill him," Cook says pointedly, "I still had five more bullets in my gun."
The officer lived. Still, the incident made Cook queasy. "[After I shot him], I got that feeling in my stomach. Is this person really hurt? It raises the question: Are you for or against violence?"
While he freely admits to having committed many crimes in his life, Cook claims that he did not participate in the 1976 robbery, even as a getaway driver. He was ultimately convicted on both federal and state charges for the robbery and the rescue mission. The police officer, who survived Cook's bullet, identified Cook as his attacker. Evidence against Cook for his role in the Tukwila bank robbery was more shaky. A drug dealer and his girlfriend were the main witnesses against him, and they both received $20,000 from the government for their testimony.
Looking back, Cook doesn't seem completely comfortable with his role during those times. "I kind of felt more reformist because most of my work was above ground," Cook says, referring to the progressive work he did with fellow inmates. Asked, however, about his ideology, he replies, "I was a revolutionary. I was a Black Panther."
Twenty-three years later, Cook has mixed emotions about leaving prison. "I've been in so long; [being outside] is like another prison," he says cryptically. A lot has changed in 23 years. Revolutionaries don't exist, liberals are now progressives, and empowerment is found in either a how-to book or the latest Nike shoes.
"These are hard times for people like us," says Cook's former comrade, Ed Mead. Mead, 57, is now a computer network administrator outside San Francisco. He got out of prison in 1993. "We were doing the stuff that we were doing in those days because we thought [society] was so bad, we would rather suffer death or imprisonment than live under that boot. And today it is so far worse."
Cook will return to Capitol Hill with almost no money, which is why the Washington Prison Project, a newly formed activist group, has been hosting a series of fundraisers to collect $5,000 in starting money for him. Cook fears he may have prostate cancer, so whatever money he receives will either go for medical expenses or -- if he's not sick -- basic living expenses. Obviously, he's hoping for the latter.
Once he gets out, Cook has two major priorities: his family and his chess game. "I'm 62 years old," he says. "I'm a grandfather eight times over. I kind of have to do some explaining about why I haven't been around for them."