The fury of the oppressed at Attica

September 8, 2017

The Attica prison uprising of 1971 took place against the backdrop of atrocious conditions and the impact of the Black Power movement. Luke Pickrell tells the story.

THE NIGHT of September 8, 1971, was a sleepless one for many of the men of Cell Block A at the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York. Hours before, a fight had broken out between guards and two popular prisoners, who were later dragged off to solitary confinement--known as "the box"--as punishment.

One of the men yelled a final promise to the guards: "We'll get you in the morning, motherfuckers!" And so they did.

The next morning, a fight broke out, a gate that separated the different cellblocks of the prison gave way when a cracked bolt snapped, and prisoners seized tear-gas launchers and baseball helmets, and took 40 guards hostage.

It was September 9, 1971, and the Attica uprising had begun.

Given the horrendous conditions in Attica and the larger social and political context of the time, the uprising was less than a surprise for all involved. A year earlier, prisoners at the Auburn Correctional Facility, 100 miles east of Attica, had gone on strike and then taken 50 hostages to protest a number of abuses. Guards mercilessly beat all prisoners involved after Auburn was recaptured.

Prisoners during the Attica Uprising of 1971
Prisoners during the Attica Uprising of 1971

In July, New York Correctional Service Commissioner Russell Oswald received a letter from the Attica Liberation Faction, demanding 27 changes to "brutal" and "dehumanizing" conditions inside Attica. The guards--all white, except one--were described as "vile and vicious slave masters" toward the mostly Black prisoners.

Torture, whether through solitary confinement or more traditional methods, was rampant. The plumbing was broken, and cells routinely flooded with feces. Showers were allowed once a week, and there wasn't enough food and water. The prison itself--designed for 1,600--was bursting with some 2,250 bodies. The guards were poorly trained and underpaid, with many working a second job.

In response to these grievances, Oswald made promises that everyone--most of all the prisoners--knew were empty.

CONDITIONS OUTSIDE the prison, especially for African Americans, were grim as well. A growing number of people, and Blacks in particular, were drawing revolutionary conclusions.

In the short span of seven years, four towering figures of the Black freedom struggle--Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Fred Hampton--had been assassinated. In October 1966, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. That same year, Stokely Carmichael coined the slogan "Black Power" during a civil rights march in Mississippi.

What else to read

Read more about the Attica Rebellion and the struggles of the 1960s and '70s in these books:

-- Tom Wicker, A Time to Die: The Attica Prison Revolt
-- George Jackson, Blood in My Eye
-- Heather Ann Thompson, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy

Rebellion at Attica by Lee Wengraf is part of Socialist Worker's series, The History of Black America

SW also published an interview with former Attica prisoner and activist Joseph "Jazz" Hayden on the 40th anniversary of the rebellion.

On August 21, 1971, 29-year-old Black Panther member George Jackson was shot and killed during an alleged breakout attempt at San Quentin Prison. Jackson, who was serving a possible life sentence after a third-strike conviction for alleged petty theft, was targeted for murder because of his political activity and uncompromising spirit.

His killing sent ripples across the country and easily penetrated prison walls, including Attica's. There, the news reached the ears of young men--many of them Black Panthers, Black Muslims or Young Lords--who were reading Mao and Marx.

The morning after Jackson's murder saw a scene of incredible solidarity: over 800 prisoners gathered in the cafeteria and sat silently, not touching breakfast. Each one had a black shoelace tied around his bicep. The guards were scared, knowing that a demonstration took organization and leadership.

Jackson's murder became one of many sparks. The fuel--made of intolerable living conditions, Black Power and revolution, and dreams of freedom and liberation--had been pooling for a long time. No walls, not even the 30-foot concrete slabs that surrounded Attica, could suppress the fire.

AFTER TAKING D-yard and a crucial connection point in the prison known as "Times Square," the men began to organize. A security force was created to watch the yard and protect hostages from retaliation from revenge-minded prisoners. From the start, Black Muslims had kept the guards--save for one--safe from mortal injury.

Lookouts were posted to watch for counterattacks. The public address system was used for radical speeches and denunciations of inhumane prison conditions: "You hear but the sound before the fury of those who are oppressed," boomed Brother Herbert Blyden across the yard, "When you are the anvil, you bend--when you are the hammer, you strike!"

Fellow prisoner Jerry Rosenberg said: "We're all oppressed in this Attica Concentration Camp, whether you're white, Black or Puerto Rican. But we are all united!"

Tables were pushed together for a negotiating team, with space for a secretary and typewriter. Demands included complete amnesty for the takeover, transportation to "non-imperialist" countries for anyone who wanted to leave, the freedom to be "politically active" and receive outside literature, the federal takeover of Attica, a minimum wage, funding for rehabilitation and education programs, and healthy food and medical care.

These demands, stated the list's preamble, "will bring closer to reality the demise of these institutions that serve no useful purpose to the people of America, but to those who would enslave and exploit the people of America."

Over the next four days, a select group of prisoners met with outsiders--Correctional Service Commissioner Oswald, radical lawyer William Kunstler, Democratic state Assemblyman Arthur Eve and others--to negotiate a peaceful resolution. Community members, including members of the Young Lords, New York Times journalist Tom Wicker and, briefly, Bobby Seale--served as observers.

Meanwhile, the FBI kept detailed notes on everyone who showed an interest in the uprising.

The state was unwilling to move on a number of important demands, including amnesty for the revolt. When the negotiating team presented a list of compromises that didn't include amnesty, many prisoners laughed derisively, and the paper was torn in half. Why end the takeover, only to be punished?

A violent conclusion appeared inevitable. The U.S. military's massacre of civilians at My Lai was referenced more than once by prisoners. Meanwhile, Rep. Herman Badillo predicted riots in every Black and Puerto Rican ghetto in the state.

Still, moments of beauty could be found despite increasingly dire circumstances. During first night of freedom, writes Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy author Heather Ann Thompson, music could be heard--"drums, a guitar, vibes, flute, sax":

This was the lightest many of the men had felt since being processed into the maximum-security facility. That night was in fact a deeply emotional time for all of them. Richard Clark watched in amazement as men embraced each other, and he saw one man break down in tears because it had been so long since he had been "allowed to get close to someone." Carlos Roche watched as tears of elation ran down the withered face of his friend "Owl," an old man who had been locked up for decades. "You know," Owl said in wonderment, "I haven't seen the stars in 22 years. As Clark later described this first night of the rebellion..."no matter what happens later on, they couldn't take this night away from us."

ON SEPTEMBER 13, state troopers and guards retook the prison using state-issued and personal guns, including hunting rifles. Tear gas was dropped from a helicopter, and for six minutes, uniformed men shot blindly, eventually killing 28 prisoners and nine hostages.

"With the exception of Indian massacres in the late 19th century," wrote the New York State Special Commission on Attica, "the State Police assault which ended the four-day prison uprising was the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War." The final body count was 43.

As at Auburn prison, survivors were subjected to various forms of torture, including genital mutilation and sexual abuse. There was also a massive cover-up of any state culpability, as Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, the media and the police department converged to place blame on the prisoners.

Funeral services for several of the murdered prisoners drew hundreds of mourners in New York City.

Though not demonized like the prisoners, Attica guards and their families--mostly poor and all working class--were denied reparations and largely kept in the dark. The upper echelons of the state thought only about saving face and upholding the capitalist state's monopoly on violence.

Just weeks before the uprising, prisoner Sam Melville wrote:

I can't tell you what a change has come over t[he] brothers in Attica. So much more awareness & growing, consciousness of themselves as potential revolutionaries, reading, questioning, rapping all the time. Still bigotry & racism...but one can feel it beginning to crumble in the knowledge so many are gaining that we must build solidarity amongst our common oppressor--the system of exploitation of each other & alienation from each other.

Today's carceral state is more expansive and at least as brutal as in 1970--conditions in Attica are the same, if not worse.

Yet several times in the last decade--include the Pelican Bay hunger strikes in 2011 and 2013 and nationwide prison labor strikes in 2016--prisoners have put aside the differences, which the authorities intentionally fueled, in order to reach a common goal.

Such unity in action must be amplified a thousandfold, inside and outside prison walls, to challenge a system that thrives on incarceration, racism and terror.

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