Thursday, September 13, 2007

Remembering Attica

The United States in 1971 was a powder keg of emotion in every direction. Protests against racial and gender inequality, against governmental corruption, and against an unpopular war filled the streets. Those with the power felt their backs against the wall and came out fighting over and over again, using law enforcement, overt and covert surveillance, and even brutal violence to hold onto the shreds of what they believed they were about to lose. The result was prisons filled beyond capacity with prisoners, a number of whom were intelligent, politically savvy, and committed to social change.

Attica State Penitentiary was no different from any other major joint in this concern. At 40% over maximum capacity with prisoners who were allowed only one shower per week and one roll of toilet paper per month, a long hot summer was just coming to a close when -- on Thursday, September 9th -- a thousand prisoners took over the prison, demanding better conditions.

Governor Nelson Rockefeller, whose get-tough policies on crime and political dissent were part of the reason the New York state system was popping at the seams, blamed the up-rising on what he believed to be "revolutionaries" who he saw as threatening order across the nation. Refusing to go to Attica, even to supervise the outcome, on this day thirty-six years ago, Rockefeller ordered that the prison be re-taken by force. More than 2000 rounds of ammunition were shot at close range, killing 29 prisoners and 10 of the guards being held hostage, in one of the bloodiest show-downs in U.S. history.

The prisoners were harrassed, beaten and tortured for months afterward, but an official investigation a year later faulted Rockefeller for his decision and his lack of presence, calling the attack ill-conceived, poorly executed, and probably unnecessary. In August, 2000, 1280 men who lived through the nightmare were awarded about $8 million among them. But according to award-winning journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, on death row in Pennsylvania for the alleged killing of a police officer in 1981, prisons are today still being used just as they were in the 1970's, except that now, they play an even more intrinsic role in the U.S. economy. This is what he has to say about all this:

In 1971, I was a member of a collective that worked tirelessly to abolish prisons as a tool of oppression. We published a 90-page tabloid about what happened at Attica and forced the administration by court order to allow the issue into the institution. I post today in memory of those who died in Attica on this historic day and in memory of all those who have died anywhere in prison fighting for their rights and the rights of all people to be free.

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