Rebellion at Attica

March 8, 2013

Lee Wengraf tells the story of the Attica prison rebellion in upstate New York.

THE REBELLION at Attica prison on September 9, 1971, broke out in an era of mass struggles for Black liberation and racial justice, an era of revolutionary and radical struggle that shook the U.S. government and global ruling classes to the core. Around the world, from Vietnam to Africa, anti-colonial movements were overthrowing an old order. In the U.S., the antiwar, civil rights and Black Power movements drew millions into struggle.

That militancy and political consciousness didn't stop at the prison gates, but gave rise to a national prisoner rights movement.

The most prominent leader of this movement was California prisoner George Jackson, sentenced as a teenager to one year to life for petty theft. Jackson became a Black Panther behind bars and went on to write two books, Soledad Brother and Blood in My Eye, which brought the conditions faced by prisoners into public consciousness and gave voice to the urgent need for resistance.

As Jackson wrote:

I'm of the opinion that, right along with the student movement, right along with the old familiar workers' movement, the prison movement is central to the process of revolution as a whole...We've got to organize our resistance once we're inside...turn the prison into just another front of the struggle, tear it down from the inside.

The History of Black America

Beginning in the late 1960s, prisoners began to organize systematic truces between prisoners across racial lines. Two successful "unity" strikes at California's massive San Quentin prison were organized in 1968, and in 1970, several multiracial strikes took place in New York City jails, and at Soledad, Folsom and San Luis Obispo prisons in California. A work stoppage in November at Folsom lasted 19 days, the longest prison strike in U.S. history.

On August 21, 1971, George Jackson was murdered at San Quentin, shot in the back by prison guards who claimed he was trying to escape. Outrage swept through prisons and beyond, with writer James Baldwin declaring, "No Black person will ever believe that George Jackson died the way they tell us he did."

AT THE Attica prison outside Buffalo in upstate New York, hundreds of prisoners organized a protest for Jackson, wearing black armbands and maintaining silence throughout the day.

The prisoners at Attica had already begun to organize against the terrible conditions they faced. Chief among their grievances were poor medical treatment, lack of educational programs and the racism of prison guards.

In July, the Attica Liberation Faction submitted a petition to prison officials--on September 2, a prisoner representative managed to win an in-person meeting with the state Department of Corrections Commissioner Russell Oswald. But Oswald left the facility having made no concessions, infuriating prisoners when he delivered only a pre-recorded message that he would look into the situation.

On the morning of September 9, prisoners manage to free a prisoner who had been ordered to his cell by guards. When guards tried to get control of the protest, protesters broke down gates and flooded into the main yard.

Close to 1,300 prisoners took over the yard, moving quickly to issue demands, and organize security, food distribution and the running of D-yard. The prisoners took 40 hostages, most of them guards--they remained under guard, but protected by the prisoners throughout the uprising. That afternoon, the demands of the Attica prisoners were read out by L.D. Barkley, a 21-year-old prisoner, who prefaced the demands with this statement:

The rebellion of inmates at Attica is part of the long struggle of people demanding that their basic needs be met...[Gov. Nelson] Rockefeller's response to their demands has shown his willingness to commit genocide and kill his own people in order to save the system that keeps him rich...

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 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 call upon all the conscientious citizens of America to assist us in putting an end to this situation that threatens not only our lives, but each and every citizen as well.

The demands included complete amnesty, transportation to a "non-imperialistic country," and a team of negotiators to include radical lawyer William Kunstler, New York Times reporter Tom Wicker, and representatives of the Black Panther Party, Young Lords and the Urban League, among others. The demands were followed by "practical proposals" that included freedom of religion, political expression, an end to segregation and the state minimum wage law for prisoners.

The leaders of the uprising--even as they were being branded as "criminals" undeserving of fundamental rights--proceeded to set up a democratically elected council to negotiate with authorities and to organize themselves in the yard. As one rebellion leader, Frank "Big Black" Smith, the head of security during the uprising, described it:

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 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.

Arthur Eve, an African American state senator on the observation team, recalled the scene:

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...

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.

Attica also reflected a broader political vision of social change, a recognition that the prisoners' demands needed to go beyond reforms and improved conditions, important as those were. One of the rebellion leaders, Herb Blyden, declared:

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! 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!

The Attica prisoners issued statements of solidarity with those struggling against imperialism around the world, especially in Vietnam. Sixty of the Attica brothers sent a statement of revolutionary solidarity to Native Americans at Wounded Knee that 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 uprising at Attica transformed the prisoner rights movement into a struggle championed by millions around the world. As negotiating team member Tom Wicker described:

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...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.

YET DESPITE the worldwide attention on their uprising, the prisoners and their supporters made little headway in their discussions with prison authorities. While promising to look into their demands down the road, Oswald refused to consider the chief demand for amnesty.

With national media attention glued to the prison, authorities began to mass firepower outside the gates. When Rockefeller rejected several requests to meet with the prisoners at Attica, Oswald gave the green light to re-take the facility.

On the morning of September 13, the uprising came to an end in a hail of gunfire and billowing clouds of tear gas dropped from helicopters. Surrendering prisoners were beaten and tortured by police and prison guards wielding clubs, chains, screwdrivers and other weapons.

Kenneth Malloy, a wounded prisoner, died when a trooper fired five rounds from his revolver into his eyes from a distance of one foot. James Robinson lay dying from a bullet in his chest when a guard fired into his neck from a few feet away. Witnesses later described several men bleeding to death because prison officials kept them away from medical personnel.

Frank "Big Black" Smith was beaten severely and made to lie naked on a table in the Attica yard all afternoon with a football balanced on his chest--he was told he would be castrated if the ball fell. As he later described in a lawsuit against the state:

They ran me through a gauntlet. Everybody had to go through that, with glass broken on the floor. Five officers beat me and broke my wrist and opened my head up and knocked me just about out. They took me to a room next to the hospital, laid me on the floor, spread-eagled me, and played shotgun roulette with me. Then they took me and dumped me on the floor in the [prison] hospital.

All told, the attack by state police left 29 prisoners and 10 hostages dead, and 89 wounded. In the aftermath of the prison re-taking, hysterical newspaper headlines declared that the hostages' throats had been slit--but medical examiners later said that no hostages died at the prisoners' hands.

The savagery of the repression reflected the extent to which authorities were driven by fear of the revolt spreading. As Oswald put it later, "We were dealing with a very sophisticated and determined coalition of revolutionaries who were trying to exploit public sympathy to achieve their political objectives, to trigger a chain reaction undermining authority everywhere."

For Rockefeller's part, his attempt to win the Republican presidential nomination away from Richard Nixon--and therefore his need to counter his reputation as a party liberal--helped form his decision to unleash a massacre at Attica. When it was all over, Rockefeller publicly commended state police for having done a "superb job." Building on his "success" at Attica, Rockefeller went on to enact the nation's most repressive drug laws just a few years later.

Many prisoners were charged in connection with the uprising, and two were convicted in the death of a guard. But in 1976, Gov. Hugh Carey pardoned prisoners who had pled guilty. Not a single trooper or correction officer was ever tried for wrongful death or torture at Attica. In 1974, a class action civil rights lawsuit was filed on behalf of the 1,281 prisoners who were in D-yard the morning of the retaking. Finally, in 2000, New York state awarded $8 million to the prisoners and their families.

THE REPRESSION meted out at Attica was not merely directed at the prisoners in D-yard, but at the Black Power revolt and the wider social upheaval in the U.S. as a whole. Although the following year saw a record number of riots in U.S. prisons, the prisoner rights and Black liberation movements began to decline in the face of state violence and repression.

Nevertheless, prisoner resistance won reforms. Some improvements in basic conditions were achieved, and prison educational programs expanded. Before 1965, only a handful of these programs existed in prisons, and none granted degrees. By 1982, college prison educational programs were created in 350 prisons across the country.

But even those modest changes have been taken back over the ensuing decades. Thanks to the law-and-order agenda pursued by Republican and Democratic politicians alike--with the racist "war on drugs" as its cutting edge--the U.S. prison population grew and grew. In 1980, there were 500,000 people behind bars in the U.S.--today that number is 2.4 million, far larger than any other country in the world.

The presence of the grievances that gave rise to Attica was highlighted in December 2010 when prisoners at seven facilities in Georgia went on strike in the largest prison labor action in U.S. history--the inmates' demand that has echoes back to Attica: "No more slavery. Injustice in one place is injustice to all. Lock down for liberty!"

And in July of this year, prisoners in solitary confinement at the brutal Pelican Bay prison in California began a hunger strike that eventually spread to a third of the state's facilities, involving up to 6,600 prisoners.

The potential for a renewed prisoner justice movement is greater than it has been in decades, and Attica has much to teach us about how to go forward--including a recognition that the struggle for reforms must embrace a challenge to mass incarceration as a whole. As one of the Attica prisoners put it:

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.

The courage and vision of the rebellion at Attica are crucial to the struggle today against a vicious prison system--and to winning racial and social justice.

First published at on September 9, 2011.

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