The following edited remarks were made on a Sept. 2 live broadcast, “50 Years of Resistance: Black August & Attica,” sponsored by the Prisoners Solidarity Committee of Workers World Party. Moorehead is a WW managing editor and a member of the PSC.
For many revolutionaries and activists of my generation, Black August especially in the early 1970s and the Attica prison rebellion played a significant role in our political development and activism. I had just graduated from high school in Hampton, Virginia, when Jonathan Jackson attempted to free his brother, George Jackson, an imprisoned leader of the Black Panther Party, Ruchell Magee, another political prisoner who has been incarcerated for over 58 years, and others, when he took a judge and others hostage in a Marin County courtroom in San Rafael, California, on Aug. 7, 1970.
It was a prelude of what was to come at Attica in 1971. And even though Jonathan, at the tender age of 17, and others were brutally slaughtered by the police, this daring escape attempt had a profound impact on the movement over 50 years ago and even now.
Our Party declared Jonathan and his companions as heroes, while others in the movement were critical of their actions. This daring raid reflected the desire for oppressed peoples here and worldwide — Black, Asian, Arab and Latinx — to free themselves from centuries-old racism, colonialism and imperialism by any means necessary, including armed resistance.
This daring raid also exposed that the only response from the state to any kind of rebellion, big or small, by the most oppressed, is legalized terror on behalf of the oppressor with no compromise. And that the bestiality of this state-sanctioned violence is a sign of fear and trepidation that those in power always have for the masses whenever their class rule is challenged.
George Jackson was assassinated at San Quentin Prison on Aug. 21, 1971. George’s book, “Soledad Brother,” had resonated throughout the movement inside and outside the prison. His second book, “Blood In My Eye,” was released days after his murder. Thousands attended his funeral.
Huey P. Newton, a founder of the Black Panther Party, gave the eulogy at George’s funeral. Part of that eulogy states: “George was a legendary figure all through the prison system, where he spent most of his life. You know a legendary figure is known to most people through the idea or through the concept or essentially through the spirit. So I met George through the spirit.
“He set a standard for prisoners, political prisoners, for people. He showed the love, the strength, the revolutionary fervor that’s characteristic of any soldier for the people.”
Attica: ‘The sound before the fury’
Huey’s words reflected how much George was loved and respected by incarcerated revolutionaries everywhere including Attica. In less than a month after George’s death, Attica prisoners went on a hunger strike, wearing black armbands in honor of their fallen hero in protest of horrid conditions and treatment.
On Sept. 9, 1971, they had taken guards hostage before taking over the prison. And the Prisoners Solidarity Committee of Youth Against War and Fascism was so honored to have the late Tom Soto be invited by leaders of the uprising to help give voice to the prisoners’ profound demands to the outside world.
I want to quote from a commentary written by WWP’s First Secretary, Larry Holmes, back in 2016: “The significance of the Attica uprising as a prison rebellion transcends prison. It was almost the Black Liberation Movement’s Paris Commune, of 100 years before in France, in 1871.
“Attica was spontaneous but to the extent that it was led, it was organized by revolutionaries — highly political individuals who considered themselves Marxists, Maoists, Black liberationists. They organized committees for food, for negotiations.
“Their demands included: Prisoners should be considered workers. The work day should be eight hours. Prisoners should have the right to form a union. Prisons should be made to conform to New York state labor laws, including wages and workers’ compensation for accidents. Prisoners should have access to vocational training, union pay scales, union membership.”
The prisoners also demanded that they be granted asylum to an anti-imperialist country.
The lessons of Black August and Attica are not just about the past but the present and the future. Their legacies today are about resistance and fight back against capitalism that apply to so many fronts, be they Black Lives Matter, the climate crisis, evictions and more. Their legacies are about freeing all political prisoners and shutting down all aspects of mass incarceration.
When Attica martyr, L.D. Barkley stated that Attica is the sound before the fury of all the oppressed, he was referring to the multinational voices of workers using rebellion to be visible and heard then, but also now with the global working class that will one day take its rightful place as being the gravediggers of capitalism.