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ATTICA REBELLION: Unity & courage vs. Rockefeller’s machine guns

Published Sep 7, 2011 9:09 PM

Attica prisoners present demands during 1971 prison rebellion. L.D. Barkley second from right.

This Sept. 13 is the 40th anniversary of the Attica massacre, which followed a rebellion by 1,000 prisoners against horrendous conditions in that New York state prison. Below is a slightly abridged version of an article in the Workers World of Sept. 17, 1971. It was part of an eight-page supplement to the newspaper written by members of the Prisoners Solidarity Committee.

Billionaire Gov. Nelson Rockefeller ended the greatest prisoners’ rebellion in modern times with a massacre. Reflecting the blatant racism that has created the concentration camp system in this country and has led to prisoners’ revolts nationwide, a guard held hostage by rebelling inmates at Attica State Prison emerged from the prison’s main gate free and unharmed with a violent shout of “White power!”

Behind him, within the prison walls, spewed a carnage of blood and bodies, including 28 dead prisoners and hundreds wounded, some fatally. Also dead were nine guards held as hostages — all, according to later autopsies, killed by bullets as 1,000 state troopers, sheriff’s deputies and prison guards armed with shotguns, automatic weapons and nausea gas stormed the prison with guns blazing.

“It resembled the aftermath of a war,” some observers said, and they were right. Attica, with its prisoner population 85 percent Black and Puerto Rican and the high political consciousness and clenched fist salutes displayed during the rebellion, was one more battle in the continuing war for national liberation of the Black and Brown populations in the United States. Few believe that it will be the last.

On Thursday, Sept. 9, over 1,000 prisoners, long abused by the all-white racist guard force, a vicious prison system, and an economic and political dictatorship held over the poor and working class of this country by the rich, rose up to overpower their tormentors. Within minutes, the inmates seized Cell Block D and 32 guards. Then, from a makeshift megaphone, the inmates issued their demands, many of which reflected the high political content of the rebellion.

Political demands raised

“An immediate end to the agitation of race relations by the prison administration of this state,” the prisoners demanded. An end to racial discrimination against Brown and Black prisoners by the parole board; a replacement of the present parole board appointed by Rockefeller with a board elected by the people; the right to prison labor union membership while working in the prison and state and federal minimum wage instead of the present slave labor; constitutional right to legal representation at parole board hearings; “an end to the segregation of prisoners from the mainline population because of their political beliefs”; an end to guard brutality against prisoners; and later the prisoners added their demands for amnesty from criminal prosecution and “speedy and safe transportation out of confinement to any non-imperialist country.”

“Many prisoners believe their labor power is being exploited,” said the declaration of demands, “in order for the state to increase its economic power and to continue to expand its correctional industries (which are million-dollar complexes), yet do not develop working skills acceptable for employment in the outside society, and which do not pay the prisoner more than an average of 40 cents a day. Most prisoners never make more than 50 cents a day. Prisoners who refuse to work for the outrageous scale, or who strike, are punished and segregated without the access to privileges shared by those who work; this is class legislation, class division, and creates hostilities within the prison.”

The prisoners set up a People’s Central Committee which included Black, Puerto Rican and white members, and organized their own typing pool and sound system. As for the hostages, according to Tom Soto of the Prisoners Solidarity Committee who saw them, the guards were well treated, undoubtedly much better than the guards had ever treated the prisoners.

Rockefeller rejects amnesty

Nelson Rockefeller, billionaire governor of New York, disagreed. “To do so [grant amnesty] would undermine the very essence” of American society, he said. From the barbed-wired seclusion of his 3,000-acre private estate at Pocantico Hills, Rockefeller rejected the plea of the mediating committee for him to join the negotiations. Instead, this brother of the head of Chase Manhattan Bank ordered the full mobilization of the National Guard units in western New York to prepare a massacre of Attica’s inmates.

The demands of the inmates were never seriously considered, and the most fundamental of the demands, amnesty, was never considered by the state. To the prisoners, this was crucial as many were in danger of being framed up on murder charges for the death of a sympathetic guard killed by other guards when the rebellion broke out.

Meanwhile, the troop buildup outside the prison continued. Sheriff’s deputies poured in from 13 surrounding counties in their own automobiles, armed with shotguns and 30-30 hunting rifles for “the turkey shoot,” as one racist called it. ...

Under cover of “negotiating,” they were preparing the massacre, as hundreds of National Guard troops were moved into the area on Sunday. Police outside the prison grew increasingly hostile to arriving crowds of prisoners’ supporters and relatives. One state trooper leveled his shotgun at members of the Prisoners Solidarity Committee and growled, “Get out of the roadway or we’ll wipe you out!”

Meanwhile, relatives of prisoners were denied access to the prison grounds by police, although relatives of hostages were allowed in. ... A curfew was also imposed in the town of Attica to prevent angry Black, Brown and white supporters from exercising their right to be at the scene. ...

Yesterday, Monday morning, the state’s mobilization was completed and by 8 a.m. 1,700 troops armed with machine guns, automatic rifles, tear and nausea gas, shotguns and high-pressure hoses were poised for the attack. At 9:45, [Commissioner] Oswald gave the signal for the attack to begin. Two Army helicopters circled over the northeast corner of the 55-acre compound where prisoners were gathered. One dropped canisters of nausea gas onto Cell Block D, while the other swooped down on the men below, firing automatic weapons into the crowd of prisoners, shooting them down in “Vietnam” fashion. The prisoners had no weapons to return the fire but defended themselves as valiantly as they could. Their only means of defense were hand-made weapons. It was a massacre.

Capitalist press lied

Yesterday the capitalist press was full of horror stories of hostages with their throats cut, mutilations and executions. The racist hysteria against the prisoners’ uprising was being carefully fanned. Today the truth came out — the guards were all killed in the same murderous assault by police and national guards as the prisoners.

So far, 28 prisoners and nine hostages were reported killed, hundreds of prisoners wounded. The 28 surviving hostages were taken for treatment to a nearby hospital, while the hundreds of wounded prisoners waited for treatment in a small room in the prison, 8 by 10 feet, the floor covered with blood. “It’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” said one doctor emerging from the prison gate in a blood-stained gown.

... This was not just a prison rebellion, but part of a larger class war going on across the country. This was recognized on a national level as President Nixon personally phoned his congratulations to Gov. Rockefeller.

Prisons around the country stirred with anger. In Baltimore City Jail, the second revolt within a year broke out, and prisoners of Cleveland County Prison also rebelled. ...