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
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
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
“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
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 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. ...
Articles copyright 1995-2012 Workers World.
Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article is permitted in any medium without royalty provided this notice is preserved.
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