Revolution #183, November 15, 2009
On September 9, 1971, enraged prisoners seized a New York prison called Attica, and surrounded by the armed authorities, held it for four intense and liberating days. "The entire incident that has erupted here at Attica is . . . [the result] of the unmitigated oppression wrought by the racist administration of this prison. We are men. We are not beasts, and we do not intend to be beaten and driven as such… What has happened here is but the sound before the fury of those who are oppressed…"
L.D. Barkley, 21-year-old spokesman for the rebelling prisoners in Attica prison.
Three weeks earlier Soledad Brother and revolutionary prisoner George Jackson had been murdered by California prison guards. Attica prisoners saluted him by fasting and wearing armbands. As word spread of the imminent beating of two prisoners in lockdown, a group pushed over a gate and seized 40 guards as hostages, and 1,300 prisoners flooded into D-Yard. Leaders stepped forward, demands were formulated and popularized, and an invitation was extended to the press and sympathetic observers to join them. As the TV cameras rolled, people around the country were riveted to their screens. Many people who had been taught to fear such prisoners learned of the organized destruction of human beings known as the prison system. Millions came to know and embrace the humanity and courage of the prisoners and the justice of their rebellion and their demands.
Like those in the yard, the leadership included Blacks, Puerto Ricans, Native Americans and whites. They organized a security force, mainly to protect the hostages, who received the best of the diminishing supplies, and teams to handle food, medicine, and other needs. Debate and discussion flourished in small groups and mass meetings. An observer from the New York Times wrote, "The racial harmony that prevailed among the prisoners… was absolutely astonishing,"and a prisoner reflected,"I actually cried, it was so close, everyone was so together." The rebels issued a statement "To the People of America" and they struggled over huge questions like exacting revenge for all they had suffered. "These things [previous grievances with hostages] became obsolete in my mind because something much higher was at stake."
These prisoners inspired millions...and it was THIS – potentially a blow against the legitimacy of the whole system – that the government could not allow to go on and decided to violently suppress. Even though the Attica prisoners were not engaged in any violence after their takeover, the armed forces of the government attacked with massive brutality. In the morning of Sept. 13, helicopters dropped a choking cloud of CS gas. Then in 6 minutes, state troopers fired 2,200 rounds into the crowd that had no guns. The sharpshooters murdered 29 prisoners, some—like L.D. Barkley—by deliberate assassination, and 9 hostages. Another 89 prisoners were wounded by gunfire. And 319 more were injured as the troops ordered all prisoners to strip naked and crawl through mud and broken glass, and forced some to run a brutal gauntlet of club-wielding guards. The state tried to cover their crimes by claiming to the press that the prisoners had slit the throats of the hostages and even castrated one. But the next day the Medical Examiner bravely exploded their lies by announcing that ALL the dead prisoners and the guards were murdered by the state police snipers.
All this sparked widespread outrage and outpourings of protest—in major cities, especially New York, but also in small towns and throughout the prison system—as people raised the cry "Attica is All of Us" and "Attica means FIGHT BACK!"
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