Attica was part of the Black Liberation struggle and revolutionary upheaval of the 1960s. It was a declaration of the humanity of those this system treats as “beasts,” and a profound exposure of the barbarity of America’s prisons and machinery of violent repression. It highlighted the ongoing enslavement of Black people. And Attica became a clarion call to rise against imperialism and oppression that reverberated worldwide.
The rulers felt they could not tolerate this challenge to their authority and legitimacy by society’s most oppressed. They feared the impact the Attica uprising was having on the millions from many strata who were following it on television and witnessing the prisoners’ deep humanity. So Rockefeller, backed by the Nixon administration, felt compelled to not only violently crush the Attica rebellion, but make an example out of it with a savage “shock and awe” massacre to terrorize, vilify, and isolate the prisoners, and to send an unmistakable message to the oppressed everywhere “never dare to do this again.”
On Sept. 13, 1971, police, sheriffs, park police, and the National Guard launched a murderous assault at Attica prison in upstate New York, killing 39 unarmed people. Four days earlier, on September 9, the most powerful and significant prison rebellion in U.S. history had erupted at Attica. Over half of Attica’s 2,200 inmates, mainly Black but also white and Puerto Rican prisoners, seized control of large parts of the prison, taking 38 guards hostage.
The uprising was fueled by the guards’ routine abuse, horrific living conditions, the state’s refusal to address their grievances, and the racism and national oppression permeating Attica and U.S. society. Many Attica prisoners had been radicalized by the upheavals of the 1960s, and the August 21 murder of the revolutionary prisoner and leader George Jackson, by guards at California’s San Quentin prison, hit them very hard, sparking a silent fast in protest.
The spirit of the Attica Brothers, as they came to be called, was captured by their 21-year-old spokesman L.D. Barkley:
We are men. We are not beasts, and we do not intend to be beaten and driven as such… What has happened here is but the sound before the fury of those who are oppressed…
The prisoners took control of the D-yard and several cellblocks. They organized food, medical care, sanitation, workshops, command posts, and a security squad to ensure the safety of the hostages. They issued demands with the following claims:
That will bring closer to reality the demise of these prison institutions that serve no useful purpose to the People of America, but to those who would enslave and exploit the people of America.”
Their key demands included complete amnesty for their takeover, transport to a “non-imperialistic country” for those who wanted it, and negotiation through a team of observers that they chose. They set forth 15 “practical proposals,” including freedom for political activity and ending the censorship of literature sent into the prison.
The Attica rebellion took place as the U.S. was being rocked by powerful upheavals against the oppression of Black people and the Vietnam War. There was a mass revolt against mainstream American culture. The legitimacy of the existing order was under severe duress, millions dreamed of revolution, and the rulers feared things could slip from their control. They were shocked and shaken by the prison takeover.
New York prison officials refused to accept the prisoners’ demands, especially for amnesty. Governor Nelson Rockefeller rejected calls from many quarters to visit the prison. Instead, he and New York’s police forces secretly planned a full-scale military assault.
The assault began shortly after 9:30 a.m. on September 13. The Attica prisoners had no guns and had not engaged in any violence after their takeover, but moments later over 550 state troopers and sharpshooters opened fire with shotguns, pistols, Thompson sub-machine guns, and semi-automatics. They unleashed an indiscriminate barrage of over 2,000 (perhaps as many as 4,500) rounds.
Around 10:00 a.m., state police ordered prisoners to stand up and put their hands on their heads, assuring them they wouldn’t be harmed. But the shooting continued and surrendering prisoners were hit. Within 20-30 minutes, the state’s armed forces were rampaging through the prison. “They came in there with their guns and bayonets blasting everything that moved. They shot at everybody,” Attica Brother Akil Al-Jundi recalled. He added:
They went from cell to cell with machine guns, spraying the cells, under the beds. They didn’t care whether there was anybody there. They were just shooting. Their objective was to kill, not to ask questions, but to kill…
Political prisoners, leaders of the uprisings, and others were singled out and executed. Black Panther Kenneth Malloy was shot at least 10 times, including four rounds from a .357 magnum into his eyes from a foot away. Sam Melville, a white revolutionary who reportedly had his hands folded on top of his head in a surrender gesture, was killed by a shotgun blast to his chest. L.D. Barkley was shot in the back with a .270 silver-nose bullet, likely from a sharpshooter’s hunting rifle.
Hundreds of prisoners were forced to strip naked, crawl through mud and broken glass and run a gauntlet of baton-wielding rows of cops. Several bled to death due to denial of medical care after being wounded, left to lie in their own blood, urinated upon by guards, or beaten until their bones broke.
Twenty-nine prisoners and 10 guards being held hostage were murdered. Another 89 prisoners were wounded by gunfire and 319 more were injured. A week later, a state court investigation found that 90 percent of the inmates still had visible signs of being brutalized.
One, Deputy Warden Pfeil, yelled, “Kill the Jew bastard,” as he watched jailhouse lawyer Jerry Rosenberg being beaten, and then hit Rosenberg across his head with a chain himself. State troopers and police outside Attica could be heard gleefully yelling “white power,” as they reloaded to continue the massacre. Sixty-two prisoners were indicted for 1289 “crimes” stemming from the rebellion, but no guards were ever charged, tried, or convicted. Twenty years later, in a civil suit filed by the prisoners, only Deputy Warden Karl Pfeil was found liable for any wrongdoing.
September 2021 marks the 50 anniversary of the Attica Rebellion. This massive prison takeover by hundreds of inmates and the callous repression and murders by the state of New York is part of a unique moment in US history. The legacy of Attica and the fight for human rights is carried on in the prisons of Georgia, Ohio, California, and wherever people are caged for years on end.
The exponential growth of prisons largely comprised of people of color makes for a vastly different political climate today. Prison rebellions and prisoner resistance look very different today than they did in 1971. The struggles for human rights utilizing hunger strikes, clearly demonstrate that the spirit of the Attica Rebellion is still very much alive throughout the US, and throughout the world.
By Cherese Jackson (Virginia)
Revolution: American Crime Case #81: September 13, 1971—Massacre of Heroic Attica Prisoners
Freedom Archives: Attica Means Fight Back
Top Image Courtesy of Jayu from Harrisburg – Wikimedia Creative Common License
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Featured Image Courtesy of Dave Nakayama’s Flickr Page – Creative Common License