Sunday, September 18, 2016

In Memoriam -- While The Fight Goes On


On September 9th, 1971, the prisoners at the Attica "Correctional" Facility near Buffalo, New York, went down in history when they seized control of the institution and rode that bull to the end. Five days later, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, a representative of one of the oldest richest families in America, picked up the twin lightening bolts of his privilege and his power and crushed the prisoners to claim his position as the ogre he obviously was.

That was forty-five years ago. I had only been a part of the Prisoners' Digest International collective in Iowa City for about six months when it all went down. And I was sitting at a typewriter in the basement of our commune on South Lucas, dropping white crosses and neck-deep in the process of answering two huge cardboard boxes overflowing with unopened letters out of prisons and jails from coast to coast. Prisoners who had been waiting for months -- something they know well how to do -- were finally going to hear from the PDI and its umbrella entity, the National Prison Center. And I had found my niche in life.

Nobody told me Joe Grant -- one of PDI's founders -- was camped outside Attica sleeping in his van and taking photos at the time. Nobody mentioned that Bob Copeland would soon be laying out a ninety-page issue on Attica or that we were going to take that puppy into court and force the institution to let hundreds of issues inside the walls lest the warriors think their roar had gone unheard. There would be more uprisings through the years. More torment. More scandals. More anguish. More deaths of prisoners alone in body but never in spirit. And it became for me one endless panorama of heroism, challenge, and speaking truth to power.

By the time I walked away from the collective several years later (primarily for personal reasons), I was exhausted, discouraged, and depressed. I had learned -- as one reporter told me in a moment of candor -- that nobody much outside the walls cares about the suffering of prisoners. I had learned that most of the ones who care are afflicted with what seems like some chronic condition of caring. And I had volunteered to take it on as one of them, telling the Universe one night as I sat alone in the dark on a stairwell, looking at the stars, "If the prisoners don't know how to turn to you for help, let their pain flow through me that you might hear their voices."

I have been told that I should write the story and maybe I will someday. But I will need more free time than I have right now to do it. So maybe that means I'll live longer than I sometimes think I will. But one thing I know: the men who died at Attica on September 13, 1971, never died at all. They are among the multitude of witnesses that are always present when oppression rears its ugly head. And wherever Nelson Rockefeller is now, I trust that he understands full well how much he will pay throughout eternity for his cavalier dismissal of their humanity.

In the meantime, as I write this, prisoners from coast to coast are smack in the middle of a carefully orchestrated and highly supported work strike. While a slogan of "It's going down!" rings across social media, hundreds of prisons are struggling to function without their primary workforce -- the prisoners. Outside supporters in dozens of major cities around the world are stopping traffic, making noise, and dropping banners from overpasses in solidarity with their sisters and brothers who are, once more, putting their futures on the line by resisting the force that controls their lives but never their living.

A massive march in Washington, D.C., for August, 2017, is well into its planning. And as I watch it all unfold, I raise my fist to those who will not let me rest. It's only been forty-five years, after all. There was a time I thought these days would never come. And we fight because we must.
NOTE: The graphic above is by Black Panther artist Emory Douglas, who gave his permission for me to use it here.

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