The conditions they denounced still exist in prisons across the United States. That’s why their rebellion, the bloody retaliation by guards and police in the retaking of the prison — including outright murder and torture — and the government lies and cover-up continue to reverberate today.
At the opening of the 1970s, the fight for Black rights that had swept the U.S. over the last decade and the mass movement against the war in Vietnam were giving more confidence to working people behind bars.
On July 29, 1970, some 450 inmates in the Attica metal shop went on strike for two days, winning a raise to a minimum of 25 cents and a maximum of $1 a day.
In October that year an uprising in a Long Island City, New York, jail spread to the Manhattan House of Detention for Men, known as the Tombs, and two other jails before cops retook them.
In early November prisoners at Auburn State Prison rebelled after officials put 14 inmates in solitary confinement for defying a prison ban on celebrating Black Solidarity Day. After prisoners surrendered, guards forced them to run gauntlets and beat them with batons.
That same month hundreds of prisoners at Folsom State Penitentiary in California held a 19-day strike.
In June 1971 prisoners calling themselves the Attica Liberation Faction sent a list of demands, modeled on Folsom’s, to Commissioner of Correctional Services Russell Oswald, newly appointed by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. Among the 27 demands: proper medical care; “an end to political persecution, racial persecution” and the censoring of newspapers and books; prosecution of prison guards who perform “cruel and unusual punishment,” and clean dishes and eating utensils.
Oswald, who saw himself as a liberal reformer, replied that he would “study” what improvements could be made.
Prisoner solidarityAttica officials’ worries grew a few days after well-known Black Panther George Jackson was killed in San Quentin State Prison in California. Guard Jack English later told the New York Daily News that prisoners walked into the cafeteria on Aug. 22, 1971, but “nobody took any food. … They looked straight ahead and nobody made a sound.” Almost all the prisoners — Blacks, Caucasians and Latinos — were wearing black armbands or something else that was black.
“It scared us because a thing like that takes a lot of organization, a lot of solidarity, and we had no idea they were so well-organized.”
On Sept. 9, 1971, some prisoners, upset at the beating of two inmates the night before, broke through a locked gate and took control of a wing of the prison. Some 40 guards and civilian prison employees were taken hostage.
Prisoners rapidly organized to get a guard who had been severely injured in the initial confrontation out for medical care, but he died a few days later.
The prisoners poured into the open-air D yard. Roger Champen, a Korean War veteran and respected jailhouse lawyer, grabbed a bullhorn. “We have to pull ourselves together,” he said. Soon they formed a multiracial leadership committee. Among those who came forward were Herbert X Blyden, a veteran of the Tombs rebellion; Don Noble and Frank Lott, two of the authors of the Attica Liberation Faction demands; Black Panther Tommy Hicks, who had been in the Auburn rebellion; Young Lords leader Mariano Gonzalez; jailhouse lawyer Jerry “the Jew” Rosenberg; and Elliot “L.D.” Barkley.
They dug latrines, since prison authorities cut off water to the toilets. They rigged up a sound system. They set up a racially integrated security force and made sure no harm came to the hostages. They set up a medical aid station. They cooked food and distributed mattresses and bedding, giving the hostages priority. They banned drug use.
Hoping to get the prisoners to give up by giving some small concessions, Oswald allowed the press into D yard. With TV cameras rolling, Barkley read their manifesto and initial demands. (See excerpts below.)
Tom Wicker, a New York Times associate editor, who arrived the next day, was struck by “aspects of that strange society — its strikingly effective organization, its fierce political radicalism, its submergence of racial animosity in class solidarity.” He was astonished.
He reported that while a Black prisoner was speaking about “the disadvantages suffered by blacks in America, an inmate shouted back at him in a heavy Puerto Rican accent: ‘Don’t forget our white brothers! They’re in this too.’”
An orgy of terrorOswald and Rockefeller claimed they would agree to all the demands for better conditions except the two that were most important to the prisoners: amnesty for any alleged “crimes” connected to the rebellion and removal of the hated warden Vincent Mancusi.
When the prisoners refused to immediately agree, Rockefeller on Sept. 13 ordered the assault officials had been preparing since day one. It became an orgy of terror.
Under the command of Mancusi and a low-ranking state police official, more than 1,000 state troopers, local cops and prison guards began the assault, along with National Guardsmen. They were armed with shotguns, rifles with dum dum bullets and their personal weapons.
As soon as a helicopter dropped debilitating CS tear gas, they opened fire indiscriminately, killing prisoners and hostages alike. By the end of the day 29 prisoners and 10 hostages were dead.
New York officials immediately publicized a blatant lie. They said the hostages’ throats had been slit and several castrated by the prisoners. A few days later the truth came out: All the hostages had been killed by gunfire. The prisoners didn’t have a single firearm.
The terror continued for days.
Prisoners were forced to crawl on their stomachs through broken glass. They were stripped naked and made to run gauntlets with guards on either side beating them. They were left naked in cells for days. Troopers forced prisoners to remove their dentures and eyeglasses and smashed them.
Troopers and guards singled out alleged leaders for abuse. Doctors from the National Guard reported hearing troops and guards tell Caucasian inmates they were beating, “This is what you get for hanging around with niggers.”
Barkley was shot while lying already wounded on the floor. He wasn’t the only leader of the rebellion killed in cold blood after “order” was re-established.
“The prisons of this country exist for one reason — to try to terrorize people into accepting an inhuman, irrational social system based on maintaining the ‘rights’ of the few over the majority,” wrote Mary-Alice Waters in the pamphlet Attica: Why Prisoners Are Rebelling, distributed widely by the Socialist Workers Party to get out the truth about the rebellion. Until that changes, there will “almost certainly be more Atticas.”
Declaration of the Attica rebellion
Prisoners protest conditions, mark Attica anniversary across U.S.
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home