Revolutionary Worker #1118, September 16, 2001, posted at http://rwor.org
On September 9, 1971 some 1,200 prisoners at Attica prison in rural upstate New York seized control of half the prison, took 38 prison guards hostage, and declared, "We are men. We are not beasts and we do not intend to be beaten and driven as such.'' 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. The Attica Rebellion was the most well-organized prison uprising in U.S. history, and people around the world saw this act as a righteous response not only to inhuman prison conditions but to the viciousness of the imperialist system as a whole.
THE MAKING OF A REBELLION
For months, the Attica Brothers had tried to negotiate with prison officials over a long list of grievances and demands.
Notorious for treating prisoners as less than human, 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 billyclubs 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 at that time. Many of these prisoners had experience in the Black liberation movement and the anti-war struggle of the '60s. In 1970 alone, at least 16 prison protests occurred. Comrade X, a leading member of the RCP--who became a revolutionary in prison during this time--talks about the vibe: "There was a whole attitude and a whole sentiment that there was going to be a revolution and people were getting prepared, and when the prison doors were opened, people were going to be ready to come out and play a role in being able to bring this whole thing down. And once again it brings me to the point that Chairman Avakian has stressed about the importance of a revolutionary movement and a politicized atmosphere... And what that can do in terms of bringing out the best in people. I think a lot of the best in people was brought out in that period.''
In an interview with the RW, Attica Brother Akil Al-Jundi described the situation at Attica: "Prisoners had really taken on the task of uplifting themselves by seriously studying, to where they would be in a position to come out and be assets to their communities and involve themselves in trying to ensure that their communities would be better off, and actually getting involved in the day-to-day tasks of helping the community, as opposed to being associated with lumpen activities.
"There was an organization called the Attica Liberation Front, which was a representative body of all the prisoners. They were elected and selected by us.''
In May of 1971, the Attica Liberation Front presented a manifesto of demands to the new commissioner of correctional services, Russell G. Oswald. Oswald didn't even have the courtesy to address the prisoners in person. Instead he issued a taped message over the prison speaker system saying reforms would "take time.''
Then on August 21, 1971 revolutionary Black prisoner George Jackson was murdered in cold blood in a California state prison. This was a key event leading up to the Attica Rebellion. 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 RW 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
Brothers! The world is hearing us! The world is seeing our struggle! Look at these men [the team of observers] from all over this country coming here at our call, brothers, coming here to witness firsthand the struggle against racist oppression and brutalization. We got to show them so they can tell the world what goes on behind these walls!
From a speech by Brother Herb, an Attica prisoner,
during one of the visits to D-yard by the team of observers
They had never had a chance to rise in a racist and oppressive America, and when they had refused to yield to slavery and brutality or had reached out for what they rightfully considered their share, society had locked them up, the prison being no more than the actual representation of the life they were forced to lead even on the outside. But all over the world, Brother Herb assured his rapt audience, the downtrodden and the oppressed were listening to the words of Attica, taking heart from them, beginning to cast off their chains, lift up their heads.
New York Times reporter Tom Wicker,
part of the negotiation team at Attica
and author of A Time to Die
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.
A statement was issued, "To the people of America.'' They called on people to "assist us in putting an end to this situation that threatens the lives of not only us, but each and everyone of us as well.'' And 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 included people like the radical lawyer William Kunstler, representatives of the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords, liberal journalists and writers for the Black press. 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.
Sixty of the Attica brothers sent a statement of revolutionary solidarity to Native Americans at Wounded Knee. It ended with the words, "Even though the Yankee imperialists are preparing a bloodbath for america they will not succeed in drowning the people's struggles. All they will evoke is universal hatred against themselves.''
The message of Attica reached and inspired people around the world who were also fighting the powers. And it 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.
Artur 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 prisoner's 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 RW 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.''
Another Attica prisoner, Brother Rahim, later wrote, "We the Brothers who were imprisoned in the Hell-hole concentration camp known as Attica, took our stand against the oppressor. Knowing well that the pigs would vamp down on us with everything in his power. But we knew then and know now that it is our right, our duty to take that stand so that the world would know that we were no longer gonna accept the demoralizing and repressive brutality committed by the prison guards and government bureaucrats. When the pigs realized that we were for real, that we were not gonna back down, then the pigs vamped down on us with their shotguns--their rifles, their tear gas and their handguns...''
The spirit of Attica lives on. It burns in the hearts and minds of the oppressed who dream of the day when the masses of people can rise up and in mass armed revolution seize political power. As Brother Rahim wrote:
"They will continue to do their jobs, if we don't come together to destroy this beast. It knows we have been to the well of knowledge and will never be satisfied until all people are free. So join us to destroy this 'Thing' that walks like a man but is lower than a snake.''
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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