Friday, September 15, 2006
35th Anniversary of the Attica Prison Rebellion, Sept. 1971
On September 9th, 1971, over 1300 prisoners took over a portion of Attica State Prison, held over 30 hostages and attempted to gain certain civil liberties over the course of five days. They had tried to protest the oppressive conditions in all other ways to no avail. During the occupation, they brought in the media to witness the degradation of prison life and outside observers to negotiate their demands. On Sept 13th, they were massacred by the state, leaving 39 dead, 150 shot and 1289 tortured.
The Attica Prison revolt was prompted by the influence and by the later assassination of George Jackson. As a powerful writer and a member of Black Panther party, Jackson was a man who was idolized by many. Along with a few others, he played a great role in turning prisoners on to the true nature of Amerikan racism and fascism. He helped start the prison movement and brought the knowledge of who the real enemy was to prisoners of all races. He taught that just as there was institutionalized slavery 400 years ago, that same slavery existed in the present-day prison system.
On May 12th, 1971, the prisoners of Attica sent a manifesto of 30 demands to Commissioner Oswald. In July, another, more focused letter was sent and signed by five inmates. It was eight pages long and demanded satisfaction on 27 separate items. It stated, "These items are being presented to you. There is no strike of any kind to protest for these demands. We are trying to do this in a democratic fashion. We feel there is no need to dramatize our demands." These were not crazy demands either. They asked for better food as the prisoners were fed on only 67 cents a day. They wanted better medical care than the two doctors that could only be seen two hours a day, five days a week. Also, one of the doctors is quoted as saying, "They're animals." They also demanded better pay since they only received an average of 40 cents per day after ten-hour shifts in a 105 degree metal shop. Additional demands included religious freedom and no censorship of mail. The point is that the prisoners' complaints were valid and their demands were not unreasonable. Oswald later agreed to 13 of the 27 demands but only after the rebellion had began.
On August 21st of 1971, George Jackson was murdered in San Quentin during what we now know to be a COINTELPRO planned escape attempt. When he was murdered, almost the entire prison population of Attica quickly organized a day of silence and fasting. This unification terrified the guards and empowered the prisoners because they saw that if they could get together for this, they could get together for other things as well. Then, on September 9th, guards stopped what they thought was a fight but was really a football game. The violence from the guards inflicted on a black inmate was too much and this inmate punched the guard back. This sort of retaliation by inmates was unheard of because it usually resulted in the inmate's murder. But this time, others joined in and the inmates took control of D-Yard, known to the inmates as Times Square.
The blatant racism that was present in the running of Attica State Prison also helped fuel the riot. 60 percent of the inmates of Attica were African-Amerikan. However, none of the guards were. Every last one of the guards was white. In fact, most of the nearby town that thrived off the prison was very, very white. In reading several statements made during the occupation by townspeople as well as prison officials, we can see that racism was ever-present in Attica. The mayor's wife is quoted as saying, "the colored boys cause all the problems." It is also noted and can be seen in news footage that the observers' committee, whenever interviewed by the press outside the prison, was taunted by the townspeople and repeatedly called "nigger lovers." A guard coming out of Attica after the massacre stated, "Now THAT'S white power," referring to the killing of 39 people and the shooting of 150. Before going into the yard, troopers were told to only shoot at the blacks since all the hostages were white.
As the inmates gained control of the yard, all the prisoners revolting in different sections tried to scramble to Times Square. The guards
attempted to stop them and, in one case, as told by Attica survivor,
Splitting the Sky, "60 inmates pushed and pulled on this iron gate. 60 men ripped it from its foundation." Debris from the crumbling stone fell down on a guard who was guarding the gate in an attempt to try to prevent the prisoners from getting to D-Yard. This is important because this guard died and the inmates feared they would all be charged with murder. This is why the inmates demanded amnesty which was never given. This also was a big reason why the rebellion ended the way it did.
During the inmate occupation of Times Square, the prisoners held
elections and set up an elaborate P.A. system so all the prisoners could hear. They would not move unless they all agreed. They slept on the ground while the hostages slept on mattresses. The hostages were given what little medication there was while the prisoners went without. It is well documented that they were treated well and protected by appointed inmate-guards from harm by other inmates. It is also true that on the 5th day, after still no progress was made on the issue of amnesty, the prisoners did take some hostages out on the catwalk with homemade knives to their throats. However, this was only after the water was shut off.
Here is a very important thing to know about Attica. Nine hostages were killed during the rebellion but no hostage was killed by an inmate! On the morning of the 4th day, prison officials leaked stories to the press that hostages were having their throats slashed and that one was even castrated. Many forms of news media ran with the slashing story, but on the 5th day, after autopsies were done, it was discovered that all nine of the hostages had died from gun shot wounds. None of them had been slashed or castrated.
As stated before, 39 people were murdered during the police raid of
Attica. Many inmates tell stories of being put in little cells with
guns to their heads. Once it was determined that they were not leaders of the rebellion, they were not killed. Others accounts speak of hearing shots through the night. There were several individual accounts to verify this.During the raid, 4500 rounds of ammunition were fired, 150 people were shot and all were tortured in various nasty ways. It was the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans in the 20th century.