‘Ready to die for their just demands’ in Attica, 1971

In September 1971, prisoners at Attica Correctional Facility in New York state staged a rebellion that drew international attention to the struggle of incarcerated workers. Prisoners requested that the Prisoner Solidarity Committee of Workers World Party intervene on their behalf during negotiations. New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller eventually ordered a massacre that led to the deaths of over 40 people. The following is an excerpt of PSC member Tom Soto’s eyewitness account. Soto died earlier this month at the age of 77.

Attica, 1971.

There is one scene I’ll never forget. I was leaving the prison for the last time, late Sunday night. As I entered corridor A leading into the liberated area there was a brother whom I happened to know personally standing on security. His arms were folded as he faced 40 machine guns on the administration side. On his shirt he was wearing a [Prisoners Solidarity Committee] button. Today, I don’t know if he is alive.

Another thing I’ll never forget — a brother whom I rapped with a long time noted the ring on my finger and asked about it. I told him it had been made from an American fighter bomber shot down by Laotian women over Laos. I gave it to him, and he considered it to be a very dear show of solidarity between the PSC and the prisoners and the Indochinese people.

As I left, I knew that I might never see these men again. The atmosphere was filled with tension. There were many hugs and kisses, many goodbyes, many messages to families on the outside. Yet there was also an incredible strength and determination among all the prisoners to fight for their just demands or die in the attempt.

Finally, I’d like to add that the prisoners don’t view themselves as criminals. They know that they — the Black people, the Puerto Rican people, the poor white people — are not “criminals” but oppressed people, driven by poverty. They know that they have been denied jobs; they have families to support; and they know that the only way for poor people to survive, for those with no hope of getting jobs, was through stealing $20 or $100 or $200, in other words, crimes of survival.

They see themselves as victims of a racist society which oppresses and exploits their people. They see the Rockefellers, the Mellons, the big corporations, the banks, those who rob and steal their labor for profit, as the real criminals.

The inmates always told me that they had no intention of killing any of the hostages. They took them because there was no other way to redress their grievances. The guard-hostages were the only thing that stood between the prisoners and sudden death. As it turned out, Rockefeller decided to sacrifice even the guards rather than to give in to the just demands of the prisoners. The blood of all the dead is on his hands.

But one thing the rulers of this country never seem to learn — they think repression, repression and more repression will end the oppressed peoples’ uprisings. In fact, just the opposite is true. The men at Attica were so oppressed, so tortured, so brutally treated that finally they chose to revolt and even die rather than endure life behind those walls any longer. They knew that many would die, yet they chose the dignity of struggle rather than the misery of submission.

The Attica uprising was an historic event. It will live forever in the hearts and minds of the oppressed around the world. If the class solidarity shown there is any indication of the future, the cause of the oppressed and poor cannot fail. No prison rebellion in U.S. history has ever been so politically conscious and so determined. The Prisoners Solidarity Committee felt honored to have been invited by the prisoners to support them and is pledged to continue our work on their behalf.

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