WW interviews Attica survivor, Che Nieves − Part 2: ‘I carried the legacy of struggle in prison’

The following edited interview with Che Nieves, a survivor of the 1971 Attica Prison Rebellion and a founding member of the Young Lords Party in Greenhaven and Attica Prisons, was conducted July 20 by Monica Moorehead, a Workers World managing editor. More segments of the interview will appear in future WW issues. 

Che Nieves

Che Nieves: I learned about George Jackson when I was in Attica. I also learned that my island, Puerto Rico, was a colony of the United States and became a colony as a result of the invasion that occurred in 1898, and the people were considered second-class citizens.

Pedro Albizu Campos: people’s hero

I also learned about Pedro Albizu Campos. He was an extraordinary Puerto Rican from the island who went to Harvard and also went into the army. When he came out of the army, he went to Puerto Rico. He was an attorney. He had all the credentials of an attorney, but he was a people’s attorney. In Puerto Rico, he began organizing Puerto Ricans for independence. As a result of his struggles, there were attempts on his life. 

He was able to [re]organize the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, which prior to that was sort of centralized, it was centralized in the sense that their whole perception of Puerto Rico was different. … They didn’t believe in independence. And Albizu Campos came and changed those policies, changed those concepts, and the whole Nationalist Party became geared towards the independence of Puerto Rico.

The entire Nationalist Party became geared toward the independence of Puerto Rico. But the U.S. government was constantly harassing Albizu Campos and put him in jail. He wound up doing many years in jail, as a result of opposing the U.S. He died in jail. Before he died, they used numerous tactics to destroy this brother. They burned his legs and tortured him in so many ways they killed him.

Before that there were rebellions on the island. [The Ponce Massacre took place in 1937 on Palm Sunday.] Nationalist adults and children were marching on behalf of Pedro Albizu Campos. The U.S. forces in Puerto Rico then shot and killed people at this demonstration.

Independence for Puerto Rico!’

[On March 1, 1954, four Puerto Rican Nationalists] went to Congress with the intention of raising the issue of independence of Puerto Rico and to let the world know that Puerto Rico was a colony of the U.S. When they got to Congress, they started shooting, and some politicians got injured. The nationalists got arrested and served close to 25 years in prison. They got out [in 1979]. Most of them went back to Puerto Rico and continued struggling for the independence of Puerto Rico. 

When we talk about the Young Lords, we are talking about the legacy of Albizu Campos. We are talking about the legacy of the Nationalist Party in Puerto Rico and about the independence of Puerto Rico and what that entails. The Young Lords carried the legacy of struggle for many years. I carried the legacy of struggle in prison as well.

 A lot of things happened to me in the process of struggling. Guards put me in cells and constantly beat me up. There was a time I got sick. They put holes into my cell and opened up [water]. The whole cell was filled with cold water. It’s like trying to put out a fire. But they were aiming at me in my cell. In the process, I got sick. I almost died on one occasion. But I’m here, and I’m still struggling. 

The revolution can’t be stopped. [Prison authorities] kept moving me from place to place. From Auburn I was transferred to Attica in 1970, and that’s where we began to listen and talk to the brothers. [I would say] Listen, man, “I need to form a party here in Attica that would address the issues of the Latinos.” What could I do? They gave me some ideas, and I just went on and did it. I began talking and asked people to come and listen. 

So many people came over. I talked about Puerto Rico and colonialism to Latinos. I talked about Martin Luther King, because I always combine the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Movement in the United States with every struggle. So I began forming a little group, and it started growing. At that time, I was working in the metal shop. I said, “We need to organize a union.”

My Latino brothers said: “That’s what we worked for.” So I spoke with the parties, and I said, “We tried to organize a union. But I know that in order to do that, we need to strike. We need to have a metal shop strike.” My brothers said, “Let’s do it.” So we did it. But when we had that metal shop strike, the administration started transferring many of us out, and so I was transferred from Attica to Greenhaven.

Workers World: And this is 1970, right?

Building Young Lords Party 

CN: Yes. I was transferred from Attica to Greenhaven Prison. I met a brother named Jose Parrish, who was a close associate of our beloved brother, Tom Soto. Tom was part of Youth Against War and Fascism. He used to tell me about his communications with Tom in the street. I asked, “Are you in communication with this brother?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Okay, cool.”

So we started talking, and we organized the second Young Lords Party in Greenhaven, and it became huge. We were really aggressive when we dealt with the administration. Of course, we were in concentration camps. They tried to force some of us out. We were going back to Attica. I would ask myself: Are these people crazy to send me back to Attica? I was terrified of Attica, because they wanted [to send] me. But Jose and I went back to Attica. 

WW: And how old were you at the time?

CN: That was 1970. I was in my early 20s. I’m 74 now. But the Young Lords was started by people who were 16, 17, 18 and 19. Most were youth and students. A lot of folks in the neighborhood asked, “What kind of change could these young people bring? These young people don’t know anything.” 

I was back in Attica, and so they put us back in a metal shop, and we started once again to plan a strike. Because we couldn’t form the union, we had to plan a strike. 

Remember George Jackson!

Over time, we heard that a brother named George Jackson was murdered. [Black freedom fighter and writer George Jackson was killed by guards at San Quentin State Prison on Aug. 21, 1971.]

I said, “Brother George was murdered.” Again, authorities claimed, and lied as always, that he had a gun in his afro. I said, “No, this is ridiculous. Anybody with common sense would know that’s impossible.”

But nevertheless, that’s what they said. And so at Attica, we started discussing what we could do to commemorate the brother. Some of us said, “Let’s organize a hunger strike.” I said, “That sounds good. Let’s do it.” 

So we planned a hunger strike, where everybody would go into the mess hall. I said, “Don’t say anything.” There was total silence. Many of us had black armbands. You sat down and waited for us to be called, so that we could leave. That was it. We didn’t eat. 

The administration was very apprehensive. They said, “What? They ain’t eatin’?” The food at Attica was lousy. The conditions were lousy. You only got one roll of toilet paper a month! You got a shower once a week! Visitations were lousy. It was inadequate. 

Rampant racism at Attica

Many Latinos could not get visitors from the street. Why? Because most of the guards there didn’t speak Spanish. They were all white and didn’t understand the Hispanic population. So a lot of loved ones who came in from the streets weren’t able to see their loved ones, because they spoke Spanish. They said, “You don’t speak English. You can’t get in here.” So that was that. A lot of letters written in Spanish to the brothers inside were ripped up by the administration, because they didn’t understand what was written.

So a lot of people didn’t get the letters. It was white supremacy at its best. Racism was rampant in Attica. After we did this hunger strike, somebody started getting together some partnerships of Young Lords, and they solicited letters from an organization [inside the prison] called the Attica Liberation Faction. So we could begin addressing some of the issues with the administration and with [New York Commissioner of Corrections] Russell Oswald.

A few brothers came together and formed the leadership of the Liberation Faction. These people were going to start struggles around the issues that affected all of us at Attica. Our Manifesto of Demands was sent to the commissioner so he could look at it and reply. He came to the prison to meet with some of the brothers in the radical Liberation Faction.

Next: The Attica Rebellion

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