Revolution #245, September 11, 2011
40th Anniversary of Attica Prison Rebellion
“We are not beasts and we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such.”
We are men! We are not beasts and we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such. The entire prison populace—that means each and every one of us here—has set forth to change forever the ruthless brutalization 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. We will not compromise on any terms except those terms that are agreeable to us. We call upon all the conscientious citizens of America to assist us in putting an end to this situation that threatens the lives of not only us, but of each and every one of us.
L.D. Barkley, 21-year-old spokesman for the Attica prisoners,
killed by New York state troopers on September 13, 1971
On September 9, 1971, 1,200 prisoners at Attica prison in upstate New York seized control of half the prison, taking 38 prison guards hostage. For four days, the Attica Brothers controlled D-yard, issuing a call to people on the outside to witness the brutal nature of the system and support their stand.
For months, the Attica Brothers had tried to negotiate with prison officials over a long list of grievances and demands.
Attica prison was built to hold 1,600 men but by 1971 the prison population was more than 2,200—54 percent were Black prisoners, 9 percent Puerto Rican, and 37 percent white. Confined to their cells from 14 to 16 hours each day, and paid between 20 cents and $1.00 a day for prison work, the men at Attica were allowed one shower a week, allotted one bar of soap and one roll of toilet paper each month. Their mail was heavily censored, access to literature was restricted and visitors were harassed, when they were even allowed inside. Black and Latino prisoners were routinely subjected to racist slurs and beatings by prison guards who referred to their billy clubs as “nigger sticks.’’ There were no real education programs, and food and medical care was horrible.
Across the country a prisoners’ rights movement was growing and many of these prisoners had been part of the Black liberation movement and the anti-war struggle of the ‘60s.
On August 21, 1971 revolutionary Black prisoner George Jackson was murdered in cold blood in a California state prison. As word of George Jackson’s murder spread from cell to cell, a plan developed to organize the whole prison in a united protest of bitter outrage and mourning. The next morning, as the men filed out for breakfast, they organized themselves into two columns, a Black prisoner heading each one. Inside the mess halls, hundreds of prisoners sat in total silence. Wearing black armbands, they fasted, seething with hostility at the system that had murdered their comrade and continued to incarcerate them under brutal, inhumane conditions.
An Attica Brother interviewed by the Revolutionary Worker (now Revolution) in 1980 described how the rebellion broke out the morning of September 9:
“We were walking back from the mess hall. And I mean the tension was high. We were just up to the point where it was about to explode. So, when one of the guards pulled someone out of the line, we started hassling this guard. And it just blew up right there. We had had it! We just started getting some. Putting the guards up against the walls. Taking those clubs. It just spread like wildfire.
“Those with organizing and leadership qualities began organizing things. Setting up command posts, getting everybody together, taking over the workshops, letting out inmates who had been in segregation. We blew holes through the walls to give us access to other blocks. We took hostages and put them in cells, with security around them. We set up a place for food. People brought their extra stuff to one area and it became a sort of commissary. Everybody had a task.
“At Attica, it just got to a point, we said, the hell with this. We might just have to get out there and tear this damn place apart no matter what the consequences are. Because we’re just as good as dead anyway.’’
Message to the World
The Attica Brothers formed a leadership and negotiating committee made up of Black, Latino and white prisoners. And among the prisoners as a whole, there was an unbreakable unity among prisoners of all nationalities. They were highly organized and disciplined. Despite the fact that they had suffered under the sadistic prison guards, they gave their hostages decent living quarters, food rations and set up a security force to protect them.
They set forth demands “that will bring closer to reality the demise of these prison institutions that serve no useful purpose to the People of America, but to those who would enslave and exploit the people of America.’’ The demands included complete amnesty, speedy and safe transportation to a “non-imperialistic country’’ and negotiation through a team of observers that they chose. The statement ended by saying, “We invite all the people to come here and witness this degradation, so that they can better know how to bring this degradation to an end.’’
The spirit of Attica reverberated off the walls in D-yard for the next four days as leaders of the rebellion and other prisoners got up to address the crowd. One of the Attica Brothers, Herbert X. Blyden, told the rebels in D-yard, “We are standing here for all the oppressed people of the world, and we are not going to give up or knuckle under, we are going to show the way! For we have the way!’’ Other prisoners got up and gave statements of solidarity with people struggling against imperialism around the world, especially the Vietnamese people.
The message of Attica reached and inspired people around the world and gave people a small taste of what it would be like to take power away from the hands of the oppressor and put it in the hands of the people.
Arthur Eve, an assemblyman from New York, one of the observation team, recalled: “It was very interesting. They had set up a somewhat elaborate communication system. They had certain people who were in charge of security. They had people who were in charge of dealing with human waste and garbage and some who were involved with food and other kinds of things. And any of the inmates who were ill or sick, how to deal with them. They had some of the inmates who served as medical staff. It was almost a community within a community. And it was very, very impressive that they had said, This is our home and we’re now going to make it as livable as possible. There was a tremendous amount of discipline there within the yard.’’
Massacre at Attica
Very quickly the forces of the state stopped negotiations and prepared to crush the rebellion. They could no longer allow this symbol of resistance which so boldly defied their rule. And they were afraid of the effect it was having on millions outside Attica’s walls. They moved to respond with the naked and terroristic armed force of the state.
On September 13, at the order of Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who had ignored the prisoners’ demand for a meeting, 211 state troopers and corrections officers retook Attica using tear gas, rifles, and shotguns. After the shooting was over, 10 hostages and 29 inmates lay dead or dying. At least 450 rounds of ammunition had been discharged. Prison officials initially said the hostages had been killed by the prisoners. But pathology reports later revealed that all hostages and inmates died from gunshot wounds. And none of the prisoners had had any guns.
One of the Attica Brothers interviewed by the Revolutionary Worker recounted the terror of that morning:
“They came in there with their guns and bayonets blasting everything that moved. They shot at everybody. They went from cell to cell with machine guns, spraying the cells, under the beds. They didn’t care whether there was anybody there. They were just shooting. Their objective was to kill, not to ask questions, but to kill. They were scared, you could really see that in their faces when they were running through the yard.
“Afterwards, they stripped everybody and made us crawl into the yard. They would make 30 to 40 of us run down their lines (they stood facing each other and made us run down the line). After the first man ran through, while they were beating on him, he told me to run swerving from left to right to make it hard for them to get a surface to hit... We felt like dogs. It was really demeaning. You can’t be a savage like that. You don’t want to become an animal like those people.
“After the rebellion a lot of us died, a lot of us were wounded. But none of us had any regrets because of what we did. As a matter of fact, if we had had another opportunity, we would have done it again and again. Because it was better than being treated like animals.’’
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