(taken from Freedom, October 2011)
It was inevitable that the 10th anniversary of 9-11 would be ubiquitous in September’s media, just as inevitably there would be scant coverage of a different, though still significant, anniversary of a rather different atrocity perpetrated on American soil on almost the same day 30 years earlier – the brutal ending of the Attica Rebellion.
For four days in September 1971 more than 1,000 prisoners took control of the Attica Correctional Facility, a supermax penitentiary in New York State. They set up committees to negotiate their demands with the authorities, to organise food, bedding, sanitation, security and health care for the prisoners and for the 42 prison officers and civilian staff that they had taken hostage. Mass debates took place on aims and possible outcomes of the rebellion and on the wave of rebellion and resistance sweeping America, both inside and outside of its prison walls.
At the time, Attica was grossly overcrowded – designed to hold 1,200 prisoners, it held 2,225. Banged-up 14 to 16 hours a day, prisoners were allowed only one shower a week and one roll of toilet paper per person per month. Family visits were conducted through a mesh screen; medical care was minimal; parole inequitable; and racism all pervasive – the governor ran an overtly racist regime, where two-thirds of Attica’s prisoners were Black and Puerto Rican and all 383 guards were white, and the best jobs went to the white prisoners.
Despite this, there was a growing sense of solidarity across racial lines following the issuing of an inmate manifesto in early 1971 setting forth a series of moderate demands that had been presented to the prison authorities, backed up by a peaceful 10-day prison work strike, together with a day-long hunger strike and protests involving 800 prisoners following the assassination of George Jackson two weeks before the uprising.
The spark that started the uprising itself was quite a small incident: the rescuing of an inmate from a prospective beating to be meted out by guards in retaliation for the throwing of a soup can at one of their number. Guards attempted a lockdown in retaliation and half the prison population rebelled and seized control of the prison and hostages. Negotiations started based around five core demands, including amnesty from reprisals and the presence of a team of named observers to mediate negotiations, plus a series of ‘practical proposals’ based on the earlier manifesto (an immediate end to all racial discrimination, the right to a prison labour union, the removal of the warden, etc.), many of which the authorities were planning on introducing anyway.
Negotiations stalled and on the 13th, whilst National Guard helicopters sprayed tear gas into the prison yard, 450 National Guardsmen, prison guards and police assaulted the prison, indiscriminately firing up to 4,5000 rounds of ammunition in the process. They killed 29 inmates and 10 hostages in the process (though they initially claimed that nine guards had had their throats cut by the prisoners). The surviving prisoners, many with untreated gunshot wounds, were forced to strip naked and lie face down in the mud of A Yard before being beaten. Those identified as ringleaders, marked with a white chalked cross on their backs, were singled-out for special treatment, i.e. torture. The remainder were beaten and forced to crawl across broken glass.
Thus ended the bloodiest prison riot in American history. Despite the massacre, only one state trooper was ever convicted (for reckless endangerment), whilst 64 inmates faced 1,300 separate charges. The state never accepted any blame for the deaths and the public remain barred from the riot files, which are exempt from state public access laws or sealed by court order.
“We are men. We are not beasts, and we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such.” (L.D. Barkely, a 21 year old prisoner serving time for breaching parole by driving without a licence. He died in the assault, shot 15 times at point-blank range.)
(This article originally appeared in Freedom, October 2011)