50 Years Later the Struggle Continues. Commemoration Set for September 9 at 5 p.m. in MLK Park
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.
In order to prove the merit of their demands the leadership of the Attica revolt invited independent observers to come to the prison and witness their grievances and the good faith of their desire to negotiate a peaceful settlement. These eventually included New York Times columnist Tom Wicker, Attorney William Kunstler, and then Assemblyman Arthur Eve of Buffalo who from time to time raised concerns about the degrading and inhuman treatment of Attica prisoners.
Eve was not the only Buffalo connection to the Attica Rebellion.
Herbert X Blyden was an inmate at Attica in 1971. The Times described him as a “prison-educated civil rights activist who gave eloquent voice to 1300 beleaguered inmates as their chief negotiator…” Brother Herb was the chief architect of the Attica Manifesto. He is the father of Malik “Lion” Blyden, president of the local UNIA-ACL Division #433. Lion’s mother, the late Elaine Blyden, was a retired youth worker and the former Chief-of-Staff for NYS Deputy Speaker Arthur O. Eve. She also served as editor of The Challenger, which was co-founded by Mr. Eve.
Tragically, four days after the rebellion began, 29 prisoners 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.
And today many of the changes that were promised were never made or have been rolled back.
After the rebellion and massacre a resolution calling for the impeachment of Governor Rockefeller for “lawless acts of officialdom” in the state’s handling of the Attica Correctional Facility uprising was introduced in the Assembly by Assemblyman Eve. He charged that the Governor’s culpability included his refusal to go to Attica and talk with observers, the tactics and firepower employed in the assault and “widespread lies” from state officials about hostage executions and mutilations that never occurred. In addition, he charged that there was a “plot” by the Governor to encourage inmates to attack observers so the state would have a reason to go into the prison with force.
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 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.
Fifty years after the Attica Uprising of 1971, prisoners across the United States are still facing the same cruel, dehumanizing conditions. There will be a gathering next Thursday, November 9, at 5 p.m. at the Monument in MLK Park
to commemorate the revolutionaries who put their lives on the line to fight the Prison Industrial Complex, and to raise our voices about the ongoing struggle in every prison and ICE detention center. ATTICA Is All Of Us!