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Attica Blues: 45 Years After The Attica Prison Uprising, Mass Incarceration Is Radicalizing A New Generation
Attica Blues: 45 Years After The Attica Prison Uprising, Mass Incarceration Is Radicalizing A New Generation

Attica Blues: 45 Years After The Attica Prison Uprising

Attica Blues: 45 Years After The Attica Prison Uprising, Mass Incarceration Is Radicalizing A New Generation

Today marks the 45th anniversary of the beginning of the Attica Uprising, the US' most famous prison revolt which brought the eyes of the world to Attica Correctional Facility in Upstate New York near the City of Buffalo. Constant beatings, inadequate medical attention, a demeaning toilet paper ration, one shower a week and guards routinely disposing of letters sent to Puerto Rican inmates because they were in Spanish and couldn't be read by the all white correctional officers,were just some of the abhorrent prison conditions which lead to the uprising. All this was underscored by prison guards openly racist attitudes, right down to some officers allegedly referring to their batons as “nigger sticks.”  Add in the political milieu of 1971, a year of heightened militancy and revolutionary fervor across the USA and the world that included the Anti War Movement and the Weather Underground in the states to the Red Army Faction in Germany. This environment of resistance was also strong within the Black community stateside as exemplified by such organizations as the Black Panther Party, whose fiftieth anniversary is arriving this October. To put it simply, the prison in Attica, NY was a boiling pot of hostility, just waiting to explode.

The blow up came on September 9th, 1971 after news that an inmate had allegedly hit an officer and was being punished, a group of prisoners attacked a guard, setting off a full-scale occupation of the prison itself. The inmates quickly took control of several sections of the prison, taking forty-two hostages in the process. They made a list of demands: adequate medical access and treatment, better visiting conditions, an end to political persecution and the segregation of prisoners from the main population due to their political beliefs, an end to exploitative forced prison labor (many prisoners viewed it as slave labor), an end to the vicious physical brutality committed by officers upon inmates and that correctional officers be prosecuted for these acts of violence and an end to the discrimination of black and brown inmates. The list went on and included amnesty for those involved in the uprising. 

Three days of negotiations with authorities were abandoned when the state decided to move in to break the occupation with sheer armed force. Thousands of rounds of bullets were indiscriminately fired at inmates and hostages. In the aftermath, the deaths of hostages was blamed on the inmates despite being false. One of the negotiators (although requested, Minister Louis Farrakhan declined to represent the inmates) was radical lawyer and civil rights activist William Kunstler who in his long and controversial career represented people from the Weather Underground, Black Panthers to the American Indian Movement (watch a clip on the Attica Uprising from a PBS doc on Kunstler above).

A few days earlier in the month of August a chain of events would galvanize the nation and years later lead to the founding of a new, black and revolutionary month of remembrance...

Attica Blues: 45 Years After The Attica Prison Uprising, Mass Incarceration Is Radicalizing A New Generation

Black August, Black History Month’s more radical cousin, arguably began to gain steam in August of 1619 when African slaves were brought to the shores of Jamestown. It is summed up by political prisoner and revolutionary Mumia Abu Jamalas: annual celebration that originated with political prisoners and commemorates the legacy of African revolutionary struggle in the U.S. “August is a month of meaning, of repression and radical resistance, of injustice and divine justice; of repression and righteous rebellion; of individual and collective efforts to free the slaves and break the chains that bind us.”

Black August as it would come to be known gained further fuel with the slave rebellions of Gabriel Prosser in August of 1800 and Nat Turner’s infamous revolt in August of 1831. There was also the establishment of the first black republic - Haiti. The slave rebellion that began and propelled the war began on the 21st of August in 1791 and shook the U.S. and other slave holding nations to their white supremacist core. The March on Washington was in August of 1963 while the Watts Rebellion lit ablaze in August of 1965.

And on August 21st, 1971 at San Quentin State Prison, George Jackson, one of the Soledad Brothers, would have a final showdown with the state, news of the event traveling all the way from California to a prison in Attica, NY. Jackson was originally sent to prison for the theft of $70 at a gas station in 1961 and sentenced to one year to life in prison but was kept, arguably, due to his radical Marxist politics that he studied intensely while in prison. Jackson would end up spending the rest of his life behind bars, dying at the age of twenty-nine. On that August day in 1971 as Jackson was being taken back to his cell he produced a small gun from a wig he was wearing and said, referencing Vietnam’s Communist leader Ho Chi Minh, "Gentlemen, the dragon has come." He forced the officer to open the cells of other inmates and began to take guards hostage. Jackson was subsequently killed. The actions of Jackson and his younger brother Jonathan Jackson who kidnapped a California Superior Court Judge in an effort to negotiate the release of the Soledad Brothers had instilled a sense of defiance and rebellion in some, including those at Attica. The gun Jonathan Jackson used was registered under the name of young Communist professor and activist Angela Davis. It was with the memory of George Jackson, the Soledad Brothers, the San Quentin Six, Attica, and other historical examples of black resistance that Black August was created.

By the end of the Attica Prison Riot as it would be come to be known, 33 inmates and ten correctional officers were dead, the majority killed from a hail of bullets shot by other officers, and a wave of retaliatory violence was dished out to prisoners. The deindustrialization of America in the '70s and '80s which left scores of black people (and white people) unemployed and in the streets - a recipe for strife, unrest, and revolution. The solution: over two million human beings are locked up in the United States, the largest incarcerated population in the world. Yes, more than China, the world's most populous nation with 1.3 billion compared to the USA’s 318 million. The US is undeniably a nation obsessed with “Law & Order”--too often a transparent euphemism providing cover for a highly racialized mass incarceration apparatus, fed by increasingly militarized police departments across the country. The legacy of Attica and the participants fight for dignity still lives on today in movements fighting police brutality and mass incarceration. A new book, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy by Heather Ann Thompson, meticulously documents the events surrounding Attica, drawing on previously unseen documents. (Baltimore residents can join Thompson in a reading and discussion this coming Wednesday evening--get more info here).

Today, coinciding with the anniversary of the Attica uprising, a large scale and nationally coordinated prison strike is planned to take place across 24 states, with prisoners and their supporters demonstrating the inhumane and degrading conditions faced by inmates. News of a riot have already been reported at Holmes Correctional in Florida by the Miami Herald. You can read more about the planned protests here and here.