On the morning of September 9, 1971, nearly 1,300 inmates— predominantly black and Puerto Rican—took over the state prison at Attica, New York. Four days later 29 of them lay dead, cut down in a hail of bullets fired by New York State Police, sheriffs and corrections officers. Governor Nelson Rockefeller gave the order.
President Richard Nixon cheered them on. In the aftermath, the surviving prisoners were subjected to hideous torture and later charged with a total of 1,300 crimes. Among these were kidnapping and unlawful imprisonment based on taking prison guards hostage, ten of whom were gunned down by Rockefeller’s stormtroopers when they retook the prison. Rockefeller never visited Attica to deal with the prisoners’ grievances.
For many years, Democratic and Republican administrations in Albany, along with the courts, covered up much of the truth of what took place at Attica, assisted by the same press that peddled the lie that the prisoners shot the guards. A significant part of that shroud has been peeled back by Heather Ann Thompson in her recent book, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy.
For millions around the world, Attica became a potent symbol of rebellion against brutal repression— and a stark emblem of racist state murder. To this day it continues to inspire struggles against the racist degradation of Black people inside and outside of prison walls. Attica was an explosion waiting to happen. The 2,200 men warehoused in a facility built for 1,600 were routinely beaten by guards, locked in cells 16 hours a day, rationed one sheet of toilet paper daily, one bar of soap a month and one shower per week—even in the heat of summer.
Among the main grievances was censorship of reading materials—no newspapers, very few books, and nothing at all to read in Spanish. Hours after the revolt began, L.D. Barkley, a 21-year-old Black Panther Party member imprisoned for violating parole by driving without a license, read out the prisoners’ powerful declaration: “We are men! We are not beasts and we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such.”
The prisoners called for the minimum wage for prison work (they were paid slave wages of between 20 cents and one dollar per day), accompanied by an end to censorship and restrictions on political activity, religious freedom, rehabilitation, education and decent medical care.
The main demand was amnesty for participating in the rebellion, along with “speedy and safe transportation out of confinement, to a Non-Imperialist country.” Most likely in mind was Cuba or Algeria. Because his negligence resulted in 39 deaths, Rockefeller is potentially just as guilty of crimes at Attica as those guards who pulled the triggers for him.
The New York State Special Commission on Attica, the McKay Commission, called this event “the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans.