- Interview by
- Lee Wengraf
Forty-five years ago today, prisoners at the Attica prison in upstate New York rose up. The protest’s suppression became one of the most brutal acts of repression ever on US soil.
On the morning of September 9, 1971, a group of prisoners refused to line up for work detail. Nearly half of the 2,250 prisoners — three-quarters of whom were black or Puerto Rican — were involved in the rebellion, which demanded an end to barbaric conditions, as well as social programs, religious and political freedom, and civil rights for prisoners.
“We are men,” declared their statement. “We are not beasts, and do not intend to be beaten or driven. What has happened here is but the sound before the fury of those oppressed.”
The prisoners occupied D Yard for four days, until New York State governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered an assault, using helicopters, tear gas, and shotguns. At least thirty-nine people were killed, including twenty-nine prisoners, and close to one hundred prisoners were badly injured.
In the weeks that followed, retaliation was brought against the organizers, but in the larger context of the civil rights and Black Power movements, crucial demands were won for those behind bars.
Attica was fundamentally shaped by the political period it took place in. Can you describe the political context and the organizing at Attica in the lead-up to the rebellion in 1971?
To put myself in the context of Attica, I had been convicted of attempted murder of two police officers in Harlem. The crime I was supposed to have committed was firing on two police officers. The police reports started out saying that the guys that did this were over six feet tall. I’m five foot five.
Anyway, I ended up being convicted of this crime and sent to Attica. I was completely innocent. But this was during the period of 1969, so activism was afoot. All over the country, we had the Weatherman, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Young Lords, Black Panthers, the Black Liberation Army (BLA). The country was in a state of total unrest.
Students on campus, the anti–Vietnam War movement, everything. So this happened in that context. People were actually challenging the police — the Black Panther Party especially and the BLA took this to the highest level.
I was not a member of any political organization. I ended up getting convicted and sent to Attica. My whole attitude from that point forward was a state of rage, a state of anger. When I arrived in Attica, all of the county jails in New York City were up in smoke because you had this volatile mixture of radicals from the college campuses mixed in with the underclass in these jails and prisons.
It was a perfect storm. You couldn’t put together a more volatile mix. The result was that they took most of the activists that were locked up for their antiwar activities and human and civil rights activities, and sent many of them to Attica. So when I got to Attica there was this mixture of radicals and people from the underclass world — what they would call “criminals.”
As a result of that, because we have this mix of Weatherman, SDS, Black Panthers, Young Lords, and lumpen proletariat, we began to come together. When I got there, political education classes were being conducted in the yards.
At this time, they had so much literature coming through there — the Nation of Islam paper, the Black Panther paper, the Young Lords paper — news and information on every radical, every revolutionary movement in the world was flowing through this place.
You had nothing else to do but read, and then you come into the yard, and you discuss these things, and you form study groups. At some point, I became in charge of my study group.
The prisoner demands were for major changes behind the walls, from political rights to improved conditions. How did the environment at Attica fuel the uprising?
It was a sense of hopelessness. I mean, Attica was a stark place. You only had an hour a day of recreation and the rest of the time, it was something out of the 1870s. It was apartheid, it was slavery, it was Jim Crow, it was everything — because of the racial divide.
The majority of the people in the population were African Americans, and the keepers were all white, rural people. There were no cultural connections or racial connections, nothing.
And it was a place where, especially in the atmosphere of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the policies of this country were being brought into question — not just here, but all over the world. This was an era of what we called “interesting times” because people were fighting apartheid in South Africa, Vietnam, Korea divided north and south.
Everywhere America goes in the world, we see brother fighting brother, all these divisions and murder and mayhem. This was a time that stirred those kinds of ideas and people began to question.
The big thing was that we followed was the war in Vietnam. Of course us being prisoners here in the United States, we definitely were not sympathetic to what our government was doing over there. We were predisposed to look at things from the point of view of the oppressed.
So we studied that struggle and the anticolonial movements throughout the world. This was our way of turning the prison into an institution of higher learning.
We began to start looking at the institution itself and began to analyze it. We reduced the alphabet soup [of different organizations] down to the People’s Party. That’s what we were. All of the groups in there came under this one umbrella, to collaborate and cooperate together.
At one point, we got the corrections commissioner to come in, and we met with him to discuss lack of education, restrictions on visiting rules, the lack of an adequate law library, the poor working conditions. He left, and we agreed that we would meet again.
Then on August 21, [California prisoner and revolutionary] George Jackson was murdered by guards, but the media reports made it look like an attempted escape. There was outrage at the murder — it added to the fuel, but it wasn’t the cause of the uprising that was to come. It was symptomatic of what was happening all over the country: it was social dynamite accumulated in the prisons.
Not too long after, I was shipped out because I won my appeal, and the charges I was convicted of had been reversed. This was six days before Attica went up. While I continued the work I was doing at Attica, six days later, Attica went up.
I witnessed it on television. It was almost like I was there because I had played such a critical role in organizing, and I knew everybody there. I watched all the people there who rose to prominence — Frank “Big Black” Smith, L. D. Barkley, all the ones who became connected with that story — and I was amazed, because some of them were apolitical. But when that situation erupted, these people rose to the occasion.
The D Block yard where the uprising was organized was the yard where I organized. So everything that took place there, I was living it as I was watching it on TV.
It was a spontaneous event. It came, and all the people in there who were politically conscious and awake and aware of the circumstances they were in, they took control. You could see it. They were very well organized. They ensured the safety and security of the hostages.
They sat down with the commissioner and the arbitrators who came in. They brought the media in so that the public would know what was going on. They had a clear-cut list of demands, which is a critical piece in any kind of rebellion. When you rebel, the first thing the opposition wants to know is, “Well, what do you want?” So they had it all very well organized.
Everybody in that yard played their role, and they recognized the leadership they had there. It was the acknowledged leadership. It was the people that had done the organizing before the rebellion.
And then on September 13, the massacres took place.
Right. On prime-time TV — the whole word was watching. They slaughtered dozens of people. These people weren’t armed with anything. You watched them actually execute people.
The system was sending a message to prisoners all across the country and to revolutionary and nationalist forces all over the world: If you protest, we will kill you. The whole world could see what was going on there. It was a clear record of a mass murder.
What gains were won out of this struggle? And what challenges does the movement for prisoner justice face four decades on?
In the decade following the rebellion, all kinds of reforms came out: higher education, work release, medical release, contact visits, conjugal visits. At the same time, they pacified the prison population, and they began expanding it. The drug war was the main policy they used to do that.
They did the same thing on the other side of the wall too: SDS, the Weatherman, they were subject to COINTELPRO. They knocked out the leadership and quieted those rebellions. So all the gains of the civil rights struggle, they stopped at the prison walls.
They started out with three hundred thousand prisoners in 1970 and expanded to what we have now — 2.4 million locked up in prisons and jails, and another 5 million under control of the criminal justice system.
Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow has given voice to the current crisis in the prison system and how we got here. You’ve called this book a “manifesto” for a movement against the new Jim Crow.
I’m totally impressed with the book. Once we had the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in 1964 and 1965, those involved in the civil rights struggle declared victory. But they didn’t go over the prison walls.
For one, instead of poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses keeping people from the ballot box, now we have felony disenfranchisement. For Alexander, the drug war was the major tool to push back against civil rights victories.
One of the negative things for corporate America and the ruling class in this country was that during the 1960s and 1970s, while they were out trying to protect their power and wealth during the Cold War under the pretext of spreading democracy and free markets around the world, how were you going to present yourself as the champion of democracy when people at home are questioning the lack of it?
They had to quiet down these protests on the domestic front. One of the chief strategies they used was the “war on drugs.”
So today, the United States represents 5 percent of the world’s population, yet has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Almost 50 percent of those are African American males, who are 6.4 percent of the total population. If this were any other group in this country, it would be an outrage. This is clearly a violation of human rights.
This is all about the economy, class, race. It’s about social control, surplus labor population. Now unemployment is up over 10 percent. For African Americans or youth right here in New York City, it’s well over 50 percent.
You’ll see every index of misery. Jobs have shifted overseas. Capital follows cheap labor. The question becomes for the ruling class: What do we do with this surplus population, this surplus labor? But we can’t keep putting them in the prisons because politicians are questioning spending and their budgets. So the whole system is coming apart. It’s in crisis.
In 2010, we saw the largest prisoner strike in US history take place in Georgia. What we can learn from this for the possibilities for resistance to the prison system today?
The Georgia prisoners’ strike was a replica of Attica. The fact that six prisons or more struck together across the state, their methodology [organizing using cell phones], and because they eliminated barriers to coming together — race, ethnicity, age — all make it distinct.
This is very instructive for people engaged in advocacy around prisons. And it wasn’t just Georgia: since then, there have been actions in North Carolina and on Ohio’s death row. We have a lot to learn from the way prisoners put these protests and rebellions together, and May 21 is a day of action and solidarity with Georgia to continue to build that struggle.
Looking forward, we’ve formed the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow whose ultimate goal is prison abolition. This system benefits nobody and we have to dismantle every aspect, not just the criminal justice aspect.
Change is here. Change is constant. I think the American century is over, and we’re witnessing the decline of American dominance. Not even their weapons can change that. Marx says that the government is the executive committee of the ruling class, and they speak in one voice.
We need to come together and speak in one voice. We have no hope without unity.