“We are MEN! We are not beasts and do not intend to be beaten or driven as such. The entire prison populace has set forth to change forever the ruthless brutalisation and disregard for the lives of the prisoners here and throughout the United States. What has happened here is but the sound before the fury of those who are oppressed.”—The Five Demands: To the People of America, Attica inmates, September 9, 1971.
Attica! Attica! Attica!…
The most recognizable prison uprising in U.S. history took place September 9–13, 1971. The 1,200 inmates of Attica state prison occupied D-yard and captured the imagination of the country and the world as the New York state government and police force violently put down the rebellion in a matter of minutes. Attica resonated within the popular culture, from jazz legend and activist Archie Shepp’s tribute, Attica Blues, in 1972, to Sidney Lumet’s classic 1975 film, Dog Day Afternoon, which starred Al Pacino and John Cazale. The Attica rebellion was rooted in the revolutionary explosion of the 1960s and 1970s, in the quest for human emancipation, ending modern-day slavery in the prison system. The Georgia state prisoners’ strike last December and the recent Pelican Bay prisoners’ hunger strike compels us to recognize the four days that transformed the prisoners’ rights movement in New York, in the U.S., and globally.
The town of Attica was born in 1811; the prison that is named after the town was built in 1931, two years into the Great Depression. The New York prison system and big business spent $7 million to construct the prison. It was the most expensive prison project up to that time. Attica was deemed “architecturally handsome” and a “paradise for convicts.” Its construction was meant to relax the extreme overcrowding of New York prisons after a series of riots throughout the system. A riot in 1932 by newly transferred inmates raised the issue of the outrageous distances most family members and friends would have to travel for visits to the “paradise.”
There were significant demographic shifts in the prison system throughout the 1960s, particularly among black and Puerto Rican youth from New York City. Attica would be the last prison to reflect this shift. Bert Useem and Peter Kimball, authors of States of Siege: U.S. Prison Riots, 1971–1986, document this change: “By September 1971…the breakdown by race of the 2,243 inmates at Attica was quite similar to that of the population of the system: 54 percent black, 37 percent white, 9 percent Hispanic. Nearly half—43 percent—were from New York City. Sixty-two percent had been convicted of violent crimes; 40 percent were under the age of 30.” (pg.22)
A contemporary New York Amsterdam News editorial stated: “Correctional executive officials, supervisory staff and guards are all white. Most of the guards come from a non-urban or rural environment, whereas most of the prisoners come from the ghettos of our cities.” (“The Tragedy of Attica,” September 19, 1971)
Among the guards there was a racist prejudice and white supremacist attitude toward the inmates. This was coupled with a lack of adequate training; guards received only a two-week orientation. A powder keg was bound to ignite. The inmates reflected the heightened political, class, and racial consciousness spreading throughout the world at that time. Many would be members either before or after coming to prison of the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords, the Nation of Islam, the Five-Percent Nation, or various white radical organizations.
Reform or Revolution
The tenure of the commissioner of the New York State Dept. of Correctional Services, Russell Oswald, began on January 1, 1971. Oswald would introduce reforms to the prison system, for example providing extensive reading material for inmates. His plans were immediately challenged by the administrative community of Attica—the corrections officers union and hard-line “tough on crime” advocates. In addition, a statewide budget crisis slowed down Oswald’s reformist and liberal agenda.
The inmates had begun to raise their heads and straighten up their backs even before Oswald came on the scene, opposing conditions that resembled slavery. In July 1970, 450 inmates from the metal shop organized a sit-down strike for better wages. Around this time, many inmates who had organized peaceful protests at institutions such as Auburn State Prison were sent to Attica. The seeds of organizing began to sprout activism. Five inmates who came together under the banner of the Attica Liberation Faction wrote a “Manifesto of Demands.” These basic demands fit neatly into Oswald’s agenda. The Manifesto called for more showers, proper medical care, ending mail censorship, and establishing a grievance committee.
The collective action, unity, and organization of the inmates encountered some difficulties along the way. There were intense discussions among the various organisations that attempted to settle differences that would divide the inmates.
The death of prison activist and revolutionary George Jackson at San Quentin State Prison in California brought the Attica inmates together even more. On August 22, 1971, a silent protest to commemorate Jackson took place during meal time. Corrections officer Sgt. Jack English states: “Then we noticed that almost all [the inmates] had some black on them. Some had black arm bands, some had black shoe laces tied around their arms, others had little pieces of black cloth or paper pinned on them...It scared us because a thing like that takes a lot of organization, a lot of solidarity, and we had no idea they were so well organized.” (New York Daily News, October 5, 1971.) Over 700 inmates participated in the commemoration. Two weeks later, 300 inmates organized a sick-out.
Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos
“This is not a race riot. We are all in this together; there are no white inmates, no black inmates, and no Puerto Rican inmates. There are only inmates.”—Attica inmate on a bull horn during the rebellion, as quoted in Attica 1971-1975 by Annette T. Rubinstein
On 8 September, there were a number of skirmishes between inmates and guards throughout the various blocks (sectors) of Attica. These incidents culminated on 9 September, with 1,200 inmates occupying D-yard and establishing an alternative society based on democratic discussion and debate, with “open mike” procedures regulated by a strict code of conduct and discipline. There was an executive council made up of inmates Richard Clark, Herbert X. Blyden, Charles “Flip” Crowley, Roger Champen, Jerry Rosenberg, and Elliot “L.D” Barkley. The inmates organized committees for security, food distribution, and medical and hospital care. This kind of “organic” organizing draws a profound parallel to the self-organization of the workers’ movement historically, like the 1919 Seattle general strike.
There were 39 hostages, consisting of prison workers and guards. The Black Muslims were in charge of protecting the nine prison guards held in D-yard during the four-day takeover. This event showed the true nature of human beings - practicing cooperation and solidarity in times of social struggle and even in crisis.
The inmates discussed and presented their five demands to Oswald. The document called for “complete amnesty, meaning freedom from any physical, mental and legal reprisals.” This was the most vital demand of the five, and one which Oswald and Governor Nelson Rockefeller would never grant. It was accompanied by 15 practical proposals, including a demand that the New York State minimum wage law apply to all state institutions, including prisons. The document also called for an end to slave labor; for freedom for all New York State prisoners to be politically active, without fear of intimidation or reprisals; and for true religious freedom. Other demands concerned issues such as better healthcare and food, parole reform, and advanced educational programmes.
The negotiations over the course of four days proceeded in three stages: direct negotiation between Oswald and the inmates; talks between an “observers committee” and the inmates; and finally, the state’s ultimatum to the inmates. Gov. Rockefeller refused to visit Attica or engage the inmates. Rockefeller saw the rebellion as another in a series of revolutionary events taking place in the world, striking a mighty body blow to U.S. capitalism and democracy. These events were raising the political consciousness of the working class, youth, and people of color. It was clear from the standpoint of big business and their political parties (Democratic and Republican) that this rebellion had to be extinguished by any means. All of the stages of negotiation failed, finally resulting in the violent retaking of Attica and D-yard.
“September 13, 1971, a watching world recoiled in horror as a heavily armed New York State assault force moved into D-yard of Attica Prison, firing automatic weapons, deer rifles and shotguns loaded with dum-dum bullets at the prisoners, guards and civilian employees penned, without guns to fire in return, within the wall. The resulting tragedy must rank with My Lai and Wounded Knee in the annals of American governmental inhumanity.” —Haywood Burns, National Conference of Black Lawyers, Professor of Law, New York University, November 1975
“If I am killed my blood will be on the hands of Governor Nelson Rockefeller.”—Corrections Officer Edward Cunningham, who died of wounds sustained in the Attica rebellion, as quoted in the New York Amsterdam News October 30, 1971.
The assault began at 9:46 a.m. and ended 15 minutes later, utilizing tear gas with 2,200 rounds of ammunition discharged. The state forces consisted of corrections officers, state troopers, and sheriffs and deputies from around upstate New York. There was indiscriminate shooting into D-yard, but there were also targeted assassinations of leaders like Richard Clark and L.D. Barkley.
The surviving inmates were stripped naked, beaten, burned with lighted cigarettes, and forced to run a gauntlet with state forces inflicting retaliatory violence for the rebellion. The assault resulted in the death of 29 inmates and 10 prison guards. The Rockefeller administration and big business began to invoke the false claim that inmates sexually abused and slashed the throats of hostages. However, the medical examiner, Dr. John F. Edland, would determine the hostages died from gunshot wounds inflicted during the state’s attack.
The state soon began its prosecution of the inmates. Three leaders were charged with 34 counts of kidnapping and 62 inmates were charged with a total 1,289 counts of other criminal charges. In ‘A Time to Die’, a book about the uprising by New York Times columnist and observer committee member, Tom Wicker, and the comprehensive report of the McKay Commission, exposed the reality of Attica. The Mckay Commission was a New York State special panel, whose members were selected by the five ranking New York State justices. They were empowered by the state to conduct a full investigation of Attica. The Commission highlighted the criminality of Gov. Rockefeller, prison authorities, and big business before, during, and after September 13, 1971.
The gains from the uprising were substantial. The state adopted an inmate grievance system, began to provide nutritious food, attempted to hire more black and Latino guards, installed payphones for inmates, and extended mail service. Perhaps most significantly, college-level educational programmes were established. Many Attica inmates were transferred to other state prisons, such as Greenhaven and Sing Sing. Through a partnership with Marist College and Greenhaven Prison, college courses and degree programmes provided many inmates the opportunity for educational advancement, rehabilitation, and re-entry into civil society. These programs would flourish for over 20 years, until President Bill Clinton’s insidious 1994 omnibus crime bill eliminated Pell grants for inmates, in effect ending the college programs that had been provided by the federal government. During the eight years of the Clinton administration, the nationwide prison population exploded, in part due to the “three strikes and you’re out” laws passed by many states. As big business and their political parties ushered in a neo-liberal agenda, draconian cuts to social programmes expanded the prison-industrial complex. At the same time, big business worldwide exploited cheap labor and vastly increased their profits. We are experiencing today the new ‘Jim Crow’ and slavery through the prison system.
The struggles of working people, youth, and prisoners around the country and all over the world are part of a tradition of social struggle that is inspired by the Attica uprising. The rebellion demonstrated how collective action, organization, power, and unity can, in the long run, benefit even the most downtrodden in our society. As Clarence B. Jones, a member of the observers committee and the publisher of the Amsterdam News, at the time of the uprising, explained: “Attica is a symbol of hope. The struggle for self-dignity, the kinship, expressed and implied, among Black, Puerto Rican, and white inmates and between inmates and hostages in cell block D, shows us what yet may be possible in the search for meaningful brother and sisterhood in our society.”