Via Workers World News Service
Reprinted from the Sept. 19, 1996
issue of Workers World newspaper
25TH ANNIVERSARY OF ATTICA UPRISING:
A SHINING MOMENT IN THE STRUGGLE
By Judi Cheng
Sept. 9-13 is the 25th anniversary of the Attica Prison
uprising of 1971. Today, with prisons in this country
overflowing and conditions inside them worse than ever--with
ruling-class officials pushing for more prison construction
and throwing more and more working-class youths, especially
Black, Latino and Native, into the prisons--it's worthwhile
to look back to Attica.
Because when 1,500 men in Cell Block D took over Attica
Prison in a courageous act of rebellion, they provided an
example of class solidarity, unity, and worker consciousness
that is more relevant than ever today. They showed that the
workers, including the most oppressed, those literally in
chains, have the potential to shake the ruling class and
fight the system.
The uprising came in a period of upsurge. The Black
community was rising against racism. The Black Panther Party
was organizing African Americans to challenge the racist
Young people were fighting to end the Vietnam war. The
women's and the gay-liberation movements had begun.
There were bitter clashes. Altogether, the National Guard
was called on 324 times between 1968 and 1970 to crush
various struggles and protests.
Troops shot and killed students at Jackson State and Kent
State Universities in 1970 for protesting the U.S. bombing
of Cambodia. Armed guards in Ohio suppressed a Teamsters
strike. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King had both been
All this was reflected inside the prisons, where racist
oppression was expressed most intensely. And prisoners'
struggles were increasingly finding support on the outside.
In California, the Soledad Brothers had won wide support in
Eighty-five percent of Attica's prisoners were Black and
Latino. Attica, like most U.S. prisons, was a concentration
camp. A ghetto. A factory.
The prisoners were political prisoners. Oppressed and
poor. Victims of a history of racism and discrimination.
The prisoner never sees a lawyer. He is prevented from
defending himself. He is isolated, raped, harassed,
Hygienic conditions were atrocious. Medical care was
practically non-existent. Mail was read and censored.
Prison life had become unbearable.
New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller--grandchild of the most
notorious robber baron of them all, and himself a direct
representative of the billionaire ruling class--ran the
state prisons as forced labor camps.
In New York's prisons as in the rest of the country, labor
is practically free. This helps hold down wages for employed
workers on the outside. Attica, like all prisons, was a
sweatshop. The average pay was 40 cents a day for
manufacturing mattresses, shoes and license plates.
Today, 25 years later, this situation has intensified
tremendously. In 1971 at Attica, things came to a head.
Increasingly, there were confrontations between the shock
troops of the racist oppressor class--Attica's all-white
correctional staff--and the prisoners.
The prisoners seethed with anger. They were bitter about
conditions in their communities and the injustice of the
At the same time, social awareness among inmates was
spurred by the development of groups such as the Black
Panthers, Young Lords and Nation of Islam. Discussions and
meetings took place in the exercise yard.
Authorities reacted by transferring and punishing
suspected leaders and "troublemakers."
When news came that the state had killed George Jackson at
San Quentin Prison in California on Aug. 21, Attica inmates
organized a hunger strike. Many wore black armbands.
Jackson was the most famous political prisoner of the day,
as a leader of the Black Panther Party. His book "Soledad
Brother" was passed from prisoner to prisoner inside Attica.
His revolutionary writings had a tremendous impact on the
prisoners' consciousness, and his death led directly to the
uprising that came a little over two weeks later.
Finally, as with any group of workers working under
unbearable conditions, the prisoners decided to go on
strike. Among other things, they were fighting for an eight-
hour work day and union rights.
But in prison, when workers strike it is a direct
rebellion against the authority of the state.
On Sept. 9, the prisoners in D Block took over Attica.
They seized prison guards as hostages to force the state to
address their demands.
All the prisoners--Black, Latino and white--stood united.
A number of politically conscious white prisoners, some of
them in Attica for crimes of opposition to the Vietnam war,
recognized the leadership of the Black and Latino brothers.
They presented a list of 27 demands covering legal rights
and repression, work, food and hygiene, and other crucial
issues regarding prison conditions.
Four key demands went to the crux of the rebellion--and
demonstrated the prisoners' high political consciousness.
They demanded that the warden be removed. They demanded that
all participants in the uprising receive full amnesty. They
demanded union recognition.
And they demanded safe passage out of the United States to
a non-imperialist country.
Fully aware that the state authorities were enraged and
preparing to crush the rebellion, the prisoners then called
for an observers' committee to come to Attica. The committee
was to be made up of representatives of independent
organizations. They would come to D yard to monitor
negotiations between the prisoner representatives and New
York state prison officials.
The year before the Attica uprising broke out, a group
called the Prisoners Solidarity Committee had been organized
by Youth Against War and Fascism, the youth arm of Workers
World Party. The PSC was formed in response to a request for
help from prisoners at Auburn, N.Y. When the Auburn 6 went
to trial, PSC members had demonstrated in support of them,
even in blizzard conditions.
When the Attica rebellion broke out, the PSC moved quickly
to raise money and rent buses so prisoners' relatives could
get to the prison compound.
When the Attica brothers in D Block called for formation
of the observers' committee, they requested a PSC
representative be part of it. Prisoners trusted the PSC
delegate, Tom Soto, to get their messages to their families
Also in the observers' committee were representatives of
the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords Party, New York
State Assemblymember Arthur O. Eve, lawyer William Kunstler
ROCKEFELLER THE BUTCHER
Outside, the PSC was working with others to help get legal
assistance to prisoners and their families. PSC organizers
helped give voice to the prisoners' demands. While Soto was
inside with the prisoners, a PSC delegation was outside
demonstrating unconditional support for the prisoners'
Throughout, the pressure on the prisoners was unbelievably
high. They knew their lives were at stake. But their
solidarity and unity never wavered. They never broke ranks.
And they never gave up.
On Sept. 12 the prisoners announced there could be a
peaceful resolution to the conflict if Rockefeller would
open negotiations with them. Instead, he dispatched National
Guard, state troopers and deputized prison guards to re-take
the prison by armed force.
The assault came on Sept. 13.
Rockefeller ordered a military attack on the prison. It
was a murderous assault that even meant killing 10 of the
state's own, its prison guards. This was an acceptable
sacrifice in the larger interests of protecting the state
and the ruling class.
A thousand state troopers, sheriff's deputies, and prison
guards armed with automatic weapons and nausea gas stormed
the prison. After 15 minutes, the assault had left 28 people
lying dead and hundreds wounded on the 55-acre grounds.
State officials, aided by compliant news media, put out
the lie that the prisoners had slashed the throats of the 10
guards who died. Autopsies later proved that, like the 18
murdered prisoners, they had all been killed by gunshots
from the state's assault, ordered by Nelson Rockefeller.
A GLIMPSE OF WHAT CAN BE
What were the Attica prisoners fighting for? Freedom from
oppression for all poor and working people. Their demands
were simple, reasonable, and just.
The prison authorities tried to divide the prisoners--but
they remained united, even in the face of death. And their
valiant insurrection inspired prisoners around the country
to fight on.
A wave of prison rebellions spread like wildfire. Walpole,
Mass. Leavenworth, Texas. Atlanta, Ga. Terre Haute, Ind.
Wayne County, Mich. Alderson, W.Va., Comstock and Elmira,
In all, some 200,000 prisoners expressed solidarity with
the Attica brothers and their fighting spirit.
Today, the prisoners' struggle for freedom continues to be
part of the working-class struggle. As jobs disappear and
wages fall, more and more of the poorest workers end up in
Prisoners are the most oppressed, most ill-treated, most
brutalized segment in this racist society. But Attica proved
that revolutionary people can change the world.
In five days in 1971, thanks to the brothers at Attica,
workers and oppressed people got a glimpse of what could be
possible, if the workers could take over in a struggle with
the ruling class: working to create a humane society, unity
and class solidarity, rejection of racism, and workers'
Just as July 14 is marked in France as Bastille Day--
commemorating the 1789 day when the masses stormed the hated
Paris prison, freeing inmates and propelling the French
Revolution forward--the Attica rebellion should be
recognized in this country. Instead, the ruling class has
tried to consign Attica to a lesson in prison mismanagement.
But it was much more than that. It was a shining moment in
the history of the working-class struggle against racism and
- END -
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