Skip to content or view screen version

Remembering Attica 9-13 September 1971

Fight racism! Fight imperialism! | 13.09.2011 11:08 | Anti-racism | Repression | Social Struggles

Forty years ago, on 9 September 1971, prisoners at Attica Correctional Facility, New York State, rose up and took over the gaol. They declared ‘We are men! We are not beasts and we do not intend to be beaten and driven as such’. In this article, first published in Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! in June/July 1992 NICKI JAMESON pays tribute to the prisoners’ struggle.

‘The brothers were not “advocating violence,” Flip said. “We are advocating communications and understanding.” He mentioned Soledad, Kent State, Jackson State. Attica was not different; the brothers of Attica were calling only for what “oppressed people are advocating all over the world ... We do not want to rule, we only want to live.”

‘ “So we have come to the conclusion … after close study ... after much suffering ... after much consideration…” In silence so deep that his voice rang back from the surrounding walls, Flip was marching to the inevitable point, taking his listeners with him so that they knew before the words came, what they would have to say: “That if we cannot live as people, then we will try to die like men!”’ (Tom Wicker: A Time to Die pp96-7)
‘The entire prison populace – that means each and everyone of us here – has set forth to change forever the ruthless brutalisation and disregard for the lives of the prisoners here and throughout the United States. What has happened here is but the sound before the fury of those who are oppressed.’ (LD Barkley introducing the prisoners' Five Demands. Quoted Wicker p28.)

The system the prisoners were confronting will sound familiar to anyone who knows about conditions in US, or indeed British, gaols. Attica was grossly overcrowded: nearly 2,300 men lived in accommodation designed for 1,600. Fifty-four per cent of prisoners were black•and 100 per cent of guards were white. Only white prisoners got ‘good jobs’. Black magazines and books were censored or stopped. When Puerto Rican prisoners requested books in Spanish, they received Mexican comics. All references to prison conditions were censored out of newspapers received by inmates. Black Muslims were persecuted, treated as ‘subversives’ and forced to eat pork. The prison diet in general was disgusting, contained almost no vegetables or fruit and was budgeted at 63 cents per day per prisoner.

There was no remotely adequate medical care. The prison doctor ran a morning sick call from behind a mesh screen without giving examinations and usually prescribed aspirin or nothing and dismissed most prisoners as malingerers. Chronic and serious illnesses went completely untreated and the mentally ill had as little care as the physically unwell.

Political consciousness
Against this background of repression, political consciousness amongst prisoners was developing rapidly. US political prisoner, Ed Mead, writing on the twentieth anniversary of the uprising, describes the mood:

'There had been political study groups in most of the major wings and prisoner consciousness had been developed to a point where the entire population could act as a single fist. Sam Melville, an Attica prisoner, had been publishing a little underground paper he wrote by hand, with as many carbon copies as he could make. It was called the Iced Pig.

‘Well thought-out demands had been drawn up and submitted to the state’s corrections bureaucracy for resolution. When no action was taken by officials, prisoners backed their demands with a ten-day peaceful work strike. The strike ended with a shopping cart full of pious promises that were never honoured. Then on 21 August 1971, when George Jackson was murdered in San Quentin, Attica cons wore black armbands and boycotted the mess-hall for a day. All of these actions reflected a high degree of political unity.’ (‘Remembering Attica, 20 years on’ Prisoners’ Legal News September 1991.)

Five demands
Wicker and other liberal commentators have implied the prisoners’ demands were muddled or too extensive but the ‘Five Demands’ issued on Day One are clear revolutionary demands and are backed up by the ‘15 Practical Proposals’ added later which set out conditions for basic humane treatment of prisoners and could have come from any decent radical manifesto for prison reform.

The five demands are for amnesty from reprisals, transportation to a non-imperialist country, direct intervention by the Federal government so it, and not the state authority, has jurisdiction over the prison, the complete reconstruction of Attica and the presence of a team of named observers to mediate negotiations. Only the last demand was met.

When it was clear the prisoners would not give up their demands, the state turned to violence. 13 September 1971 can only be described as a massacre. The National Guard launched a massive attack with helicopters, rifles and CS gas to retake the prison by force. Twenty-nine prisoners were killed, including Sam Melville and LD Barkley, who was 21 and had been gaoled for a minor cheque forgery and on release returned to prison for breaching parole by driving without a licence. Ten of the hostage guards died in the crossfire. There was no medical treatment for the hundreds of wounded; no blood, plasma. or other equipment had been prepared for the prisoners and the only medical personnel present, other than those who rushed the hostages away to hospital, were two vets who happened to be on the premises.

The surviving prisoners were forced to strip naked and lie face down in the mud of the yard. All their property was taken and destroyed. Watches and glasses were smashed. They were then made to run a gauntlet of guards who beat them with clubs and truncheons.

Just as the British gutter press went wild at completely unsubstantiated rumours of mass murder and emasculation of sex offenders during the 1990 Strangeways uprising, the US press, spurred on by the Corrections Department, spread the story that the ten dead hostages were murdered by the prisoners who had cut their throats. It was also announced that one hostage had been castrated. State autopsies proved what was obvious to the dead guards’ distraught families, that they died from gunshot wounds. The mutilated body of the castrated hostage which an officer told the press he had discovered ‘with his testicles in his mouth’, was, of course, never produced.

A leading figure in the uprising, Frank ‘Big Black’ Smith, was ‘identified’ while lying naked in A Yard as the man who had castrated the hostage. Like the other leaders. he was marked on the back with a chalked X. He was then systematically tortured by guards who ‘lay me on a table and they beat me in my testicles. And they burned me with cigarettes and dropped hot shells on me ... They broke glass up in the middle of the hallway and they made people run through the gauntlet. They had police on each side with the clubs they call nigger sticks and they was beating people.’

Attica Brotherhood
This year Attica has been in the news again. Prisoners who survived the massacre and continue to call themselves the Attica Brotherhood, took out a civiI law suit in 1974 against the prison and the police on behalf of 1,281 inmates. It took 18 years to get to court and on 4 February 1992 a jury returned a guilty verdict on the lowest lackey of the four defendants. Former Deputy Warden at Attica, Karl Pheil, was found guilty on two counts of overseeing brutal reprisals against prisoners. Not guilty verdicts were returned on Corrections Commissioner, Russell G Oswald, former warden Vincent Mancusi and Major John Monahan, the former Commissioner of the New York State Police who led the raid on the prison. Both sides are now appealing against portions of the verdict.

The USA is a violent society as recent events in Los Angeles have demonstrated yet again but the assault on Attica was particularly violent for specific reasons. At the time the US state was engaged in a massive operation aimed at smashing totally all forms of organised resistance by oppressed. peoples: the Black Panther, Black Muslim and Young Lords Hispanic movements were all heavily represented and supported among the brothers at Attica. The state was determined to stop not only these revolutionary movements but the even more dangerous potential threat of cross-race working class unity being created in the gaols.

The lessons of Attica
US prisoners have continued to debate the lessons of Attica. Ed Mead blames the weakness of the US left for the ease with which the state was able to employ such violence:

‘The rebelling prisoners seemed to be aware of their weaknesses, as they immediately called upon cons in other New York prisons and the progressive community to back their play. This call was made through the mass media, the presence of which was a precondition to negotiations.

‘While the media and observer team were successful in terms of winning a substantial amount of public opinion in favour of the prisoners, the men in D Yard needed more than moral support. No other prison went down. And the left did nothing to support the brothers

‘Of course ultimate responsibility for the massacre at Attica belongs in the lap of then governor Rockefeller, whose whole family maintains its position in the ruling class by the murder (eg the 1914 Ludowe, Colorado massacre of miners) and exploitation of poor and working people. Even so, Rockefeller would have been hard pressed to order the attack if those claiming to be supportive of the struggle had actively been so. Besides leaving the prisoners vulnerable by not joining them in the yard, the radicals and left leaders failed to mobilise the extensive progressive community in New York City.’ (Prisoners’ Legal News)

Other prisoners' publications prefer to concentrate on the memory of Attica as an inspiration for continued struggle:
‘We remember Attica because it was the single greatest act of defiance and independence by prisoners ever recorded, in the US. As an essay published in the Black Panther newspaper noted on the first anniversary of Attica:

“The prisoners’ uprising at Attica was a statement of life, of human concern for survival with dignity, addressing all-too-clearly the backwardness and armed forces of racism, exploitation and death.” Notwithstanding the brutal repression present at Attica, the Attica prisoners said NO! We will not be treated as animals anymore. Attica was liberated for four and a half days. This is what we remember Attica for; this is what Attica ultimately stands for. Liberation. Power. Resistance. Above all, let us never forget, Attica equals resistance.’ (Walkin’ Steel Vol 1 No 2)

They held D Yard for four days, organised committees to run food, bedding, sanitation, security, and health care and engaged in a continuous process of democratic, revolutionary debate with a sophisticated loudspeaker system over which any prisoner could address the assembly. Some of the proud, defiant speeches of prisoners such as Flip Crowley and LD Barkley have been immortalised in the moving and inspiring film Attica and the book A Time to Die written by New York Times journalist, Tom Wicker, present at Attica among the outside observers insisted upon by the prisoners.

The prisoners who took over Attica took 39 guards hostage to force the prison authorities to negotiate. They were well treated, provided with food, cigarettes, bedding and water. Black Muslim prisoners mounted a constant guard to prevent any freelance acts of revenge by angry prisoners.

Fight racism! Fight imperialism!
- e-mail:


Display the following comment

  1. Link to article on website — Fight racism! Fight imperialism!