by Dennis Cunningham, Michael Deutsch & Elizabeth Fink
PRISON LEGAL NEWS VOL. 22 NO.9 Sept 2011
This year, September 9 will mark the 40th anniversary of the rebellion at Attica State Prison in upstate New York. As one of the prisoner leaders, L.D. Barkley, announced to the world, the rebellion was “but the sound before the fury of those who are oppressed.”
The sound of Attica was heard loud and clear, but the fury at the time was reserved to the assault force: several hundred violently angry white state police officers and prison guards who carried out the massacre that ended the rebellion on September 13, 1971, with 43 men dead. The fury of the oppressed themselves has been a work in progress since that time.
L.D. was one of many politically aware prisoners in New York and elsewhere who identified with the struggle for liberation world-wide, with consciousness growing out of the civil rights movement, the urban uprisings of the 60s, and the ideology and practices of Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party. This consciousness was given voice in the writings of George Jackson and Eldridge Cleaver, especially Soledad Brother and Soul on Ice, whose searing indictments of injustice, racism and cruelty in California prisons echoed across the country and inspired resistance.
A manifesto demanding reform had come out of California’s Folsom Prison in 1970 and made its way around the country and into Attica, and the prisoners there had delivered a manifesto of their own to New York state authorities, which was ignored, several months before the rebellion. George Jackson was assassinated at San Quentin on August 21, 1971; a few days later the prisoners at Attica staged a surprise protest at breakfast, during which nobody ate and nobody talked. The guards were stunned and unnerved at the unanimity of the protest action.
A number of the prisoners had been involved in previous, smaller rebellions at the Tombs jail in New York City and the state prison at Auburn. Various chapters of political groups on the outside had formed inside, including the Black Panther Party and the Puerto Rican Young Lords, and the Black Muslims had a large organized contingent at Attica as well as in all other New York state prisons at that time. Political literature flowed freely, and the groups were often able to gather in the exercise yards and at various work sites and other locales in the institution. Grievances against the guards, the administration and the system were many and widely shared, especially on the part of the Black and Latino prisoners who came mainly from New York City, and almost all the rest from other big city environments like Buffalo, Syracuse and Rochester.
The entire staff at Attica at the time was white except for one Puerto Rican guard who worked in a watchtower and had no contact with prisoners. The surrounding rural area of Western New York where the guards came from was mostly what some call “up South,” to denote the level of racial antipathy and outright bigotry endemic in the local population, and thus in the prison work force.
At the same time there was a strong and growing belief among the prisoners that they had clear-cut rights under the Constitution that guaranteed fair and decent treatment, as well as freedom from discrimination; that despite years of peaceful petition and advocacy, their rights were largely ignored by the prison administration; and that much of the abuse and brutality they experienced from the white guards was a matter of official policy. Many prisoners had come to feel that something must be done.
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