A prison uprising and its brutal suppression

"AFTER TWENTY-TWO years of reflection on the massacre at the Attica Correctional Institute on September 13, 1971, I believe even more strongly than I did at the time that it need never have happened.”

These words open the preface to the 1993 reissue of Tom Wicker’s 1975 book A Time to Die, his chronicle of the four-day Attica prison uprising and its brutal repression that drew worldwide solidarity and attention to the barbaric conditions and resistance behind bars. A reporter and columnist for the New York Times, Wicker—who died this past November —was one of a group of observers invited by the prisoners to document their struggle and communicate their demands to prison authorities and the outside world.

Commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the uprising, Haymarket has rereleased this invaluable firsthand account. A Time to Die is a powerful narrative of an unforgettable rebellion: its leadership and demands; debate over strategy among the prisoners, observers and supporters; and the intract­ability of prison authorities; and a state government determined not to concede at any cost.

Conditions at Attica at the time of the uprising were inhumane. About 2,250 prisoners were crowded into a facility built for 1,600. Guards were notorious for their brutality, and for their racist targeting of Black and Latino prisoners, who comprised over 60 percent of the population. Medical care and nutrition were abysmal. Prisoners received one shower a week and one roll of toilet paper a month. Mail was censored and reading material highly restricted.

The political backdrop Wicker outlines lends itself to a deeper understanding of the forces behind the uprising. Wicker notes the “new emphasis on law and order” and the horrific treatment it justified on the part of the authorities. The era of radical upheaval in society at large gave rise to greater unity among prisoners, despite the guards’ attempts to undermine it. That summer saw an intensification of political organizing, first with the demands presented by the Attica Liberation Front that July, followed by a prison-wide protest in August in the wake of the murder of California prisoner and Black Panther George Jackson, who was shot in the back by prison guards who claimed he was trying to escape.

Wicker relays prisoner Sam Melville’s description of the atmosphere a month before the rebellion, capturing the new politicization:

I can’t tell you what a change has come over t[he] brothers. So much more awareness and growing, consciousness of themselves as potential revolutionaries, reading, questioning, rapping all t time. Still bigotry and racism, black, white and brown, but one can feel it beginning to crumble in t knowledge so many are gaining that we must build solidarity against our common oppressor—t system of exploitation of each other and alienation from each other.

On the morning of September 9, 1971, a challenge to the unfair punishment of a prisoner the previous day exploded into a protest in one of the prison’s four yards. By mid-morning, close to 1,300 prisoners had taken over D-yard, taking thirty-nine hostages, almost all of them guards. The prisoners quickly organized yard-functions such as security and food distribution. Crucially, A Time to Die stresses how prisoners leading the rebellion halted retribution against the guards. A recurring theme in the book is the contrast between the dehumanizing treatment meted out by state officials and the humanity of those who rebelled.

That afternoon, twenty-one-year-old prisoner L.D Barkley read out the demands of the Attica prisoners, prefacing the demands with this statement:

We are men! We are not beasts and do not intend to be beaten or driven as such. The entire prison populace has set forth to change forever the ruthless brutalization 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.

Wicker joined up with dozens of observers at the prison, including radical lawyer William Kunstler; a representative of the Young Lords Party; local elected officials; civil rights veterans; and other journalists. Entering D-yard for the first time, Wicker paints a moving picture of the day-old uprising, its leadership, and its democratic decision-making. Hopes were high as Herb X. Blyden greeted the group with the words “Brothers! The world is hearing us!...Look at these men from all over the country coming here at our call, brothers, coming here to witness firsthand the struggle against racist oppression and brutalization.”

But as Wicker recounts, expectations of the observers and negotiations wore thin as Corrections Commissioner Russell Oswald and Governor Nelson Rockefeller proved intransigent in the face of the prisoners’ main demands—amnesty for the uprising and the firing of Attica’s warden. Wicker rightly condemns Rockefeller’s refusal to budge, or even put in an appearance at the prison, calling it “a class attitude. It was one thing to support civil rights bills but quite another to deal straightforwardly and equally with the lowest of the underclass—to see that it was a human obligation to do so.”

Rejecting the prisoner’s “five demands” and their “fifteen practical proposals” for reforms, Commissioner Oswald issued a twenty-eight-point statement promising some reforms to disciplinary procedures and other changes. With the state amassing firepower outside the prison walls, prisoners rejected his statement as too weak— empty promises that rang hollow without a guarantee of amnesty.

On the morning of September 13, state troopers unleashed a massive offensive of bullets, shotgun blasts, and nerve gas, re-taking the prison and killing both hostages and prisoners, including those trying to surrender. Thirty-nine people died that day—twenty-nine prisoners and ten hostages. Some died when medical treatment was withheld. Scores were injured and tortured in the government’s frenzy of retribution. Yet Rockefeller, Wicker notes with disgust, congratulated the “skill and courage” of the attackers.

Over the next few years, some reforms were implemented at Attica, with small improvements in visitation and healthcare services. Prisons nationally saw some increases in educational programs over the next decade. But the larger trajectory—in the context of a rollback of the civil rights and Black Power movements—was a shift towards mass incarceration and the criminalization of the poor, particularly people of color.

Despite its defeat, the rebellion at Attica was an inspiration to millions at a time of worldwide revolutionary upheaval. With its close look at those who led that struggle, A Time to Die is an important contribution to the radical history of the era, the prisoner rights movement, and the fight for Black liberation.

In his 1993 preface, Wicker decries the jump in the national prison population to 884,000 from a quarter million at the time of the rebellion. Today that number stands at 2.4 million, a frightening indictment of racial injustice in the United States. The Haymarket re-issue of A Time to Die couldn’t come at a better time, when the legacy of courage and resistance of Attica is urgently needed for a new generation of fighters battling the prison system on both sides of the walls.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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