The Meaning of Attica 25 Years Later

Twenty-five years ago, Sept, 14, 1971, the bloodiest prison rebellion in U.S. history took place. Four days earlier, prisoners had taken over Attica and demanded more humane treat-ment and better prison conditions. Now, realizing that an assault to retake was imminent, the prisoners marched their 9 guard-hostages to the top of the prison walls and held a knife to each guard’s throat. Sharpshooters zeroed their rifles’ scopes between each prisoner’s eyes, and opened fire.

Forty people, 31 prisoners and 9 guards, died during the retaking of Attica. Forty-three died in total. Immediately after the assault, State officials flooded the media with lurid accounts of prisoners cold-bloodedly slitting guards’ throats in the midst of the sharp&shyp;shooter’s barrage.

It was all a “Big Lie.” About a week later the coroner announced that all guards and prisoners killed during the retaking of the prison had been killed by state troopers’ bullets. A 10th guard died probably at the hands of other prisoners.

The Attica rebellion occurred during the era of the nationwide prison reform movement. It was part of the cost that prisoners, their families and supporters, paid to roll back the inhumane prison policies that had stood for centuries. Prison struggles during that period, led mainly by politically conscious prisoners, gained the rudimentary privileges of contact visits, adequate law libraries, the right to a disciplinary hearing before punishment; college courses; Black, Hispanic and Native American Studies; religions and cultural programs with participation by outside community representatives; more humane treatment; and numerous other privileges that are taken for granted today.

Now, many of these same privileges are being taken away. Prisoners everywhere are being harshly repressed. Control units and control complexes abound, mass arrest, mass imprisonment, building more and harsher prisons, the death penalty, more police, more guards, and the “lock ’em up and throw away the key” mentality, is the order of the day. Prison guards’ unions have grown as powerful as the policemen’s PBA in bankrolling law-and-order politicians to pass more repressive crime legislation. Nothing is too cruel to be done to prisoners today, particularly since most prisoners are Black, Brown, or other people of color.

The “Big Lie” reigns supreme. Nobody wants to hear about Reagan’s use of the CIA to flood the ghettoes, barrios, and reservations, with cocaine to create the “crack”/crime epidemic in the first place-in order to fund the Contra War. Nor does anyone want to hear about Clinton’s passage of NAFTA and other corporate legislative schemes that send U.S. jobs overseas to be done at cheap wages, creating massive underemployment here. And definitely no one wants to hear of the current rush by transnational corporations to make even bigger profits by opening factories in U.S. prisons to replace overseas labor.

Prison slave labor is even cheaper than overseas workers, plus there’s no overseas shipping costs, no health insurance, unemployment or retirement costs, and most of all, prisoners can’t strike. Everyone is profiting off the law-and-order “Big Lie” that scapegoats prisoners and people of color. Everyone, that is, except the underemployed U.S. worker who must now work two jobs to make ends meet and is expected to cheer because the stock market goes through the roof, as the transnational corporations laugh all the way to the bank.

If Attica represents a high point of the unity and consciousness of the prison struggle movement, then today represents a low point in prison conditions, consciousness, solidarity, and struggle. The real lesson of Attica is that it serves as a beacon to remind us of where we were, and how we got there.

Today’s prisons are filled with mostly younger, less politically aware, but rebellious prisoners who were swept up during the Big Lie “War on Drugs.” Actually it was, and is, a war on people of color. We changed the prisons before and we can again, even further this time. To do so it’s necessary to politically educate and activate a whole new generation of prisoners, and community and legal supporters. Building a National Prison Organization (NPO) is as good a place to start as any.