Attica is all of us: 50 years after the rebellion

We are firm in our resolve and we demand, as human beings, the dignity and justice that is due to us by our right of birth. We do not know how the present system of brutality and dehumanization and injustice has been allowed to be perpetrated in this day of enlightenment, but we are the living proof of its existence and we cannot allow it to continue.

Attica Manifesto 1971

The need, the very urgent need to join our sisters and brothers behind bars in their struggle was brought home during the rebellion and the massacre at Attica last year.

And I would like to close by reading a brief passage from a set of reflections I wrote in Marin County Jail upon hearing of the Attica revolt and massacre.

“The damage has been done, scores of men – some yet nameless – are dead. Unknown numbers are wounded. By now it would seem more people should realize that such explosions of repression are not isolated aberrations in a society not terribly disturbing. For we have witnessed Birmingham and Orangeburg, Jackson State, Kent State, My Lai and San Quentin August 21. The list is unending.

“None of these explosions emerged out of nothing. Rather, they all crystallized and attested to profound and extensive social infirmities.

“But Attica was different from these other episodes in one very important respect. For this time the authorities were indicted by the very events themselves; they were caught red-handed in their lies. They were publicly exposed when to justify that massacre – a massacre which was led by Governor Rockefeller and agreed to by President Nixon – when they hastened to falsify what had occurred.

“Perhaps this in itself has pulled greater numbers of people from their socially-inflicted slumber. Many have already expressed outrage, but outrage is not enough. Governments and prison bureaucracies must be subjected to fears and unqualified criticism for their harsh and murderous repression. But even this is not enough, for this is not yet the root of the matter. People must take a forthright stand in active support of prisoners and their grievances. They must try to comprehend the eminently human content of prisoners’ stirrings and struggles. For it is justice that we seek, and many of us can already envision a world unblemished by poverty and alienation, one where the prison would be but a vague memory, a relic of the past.”

Angela Davis, Speech delivered at the Embassy Auditorium, Los Angeles, California – June 9, 1972

1971: The Attica prison uprising

Against the background of the mass revolutionary, black power and prisoners’ movements in the US, a five day revolt began on September 9, 1971 at the Attica Correctional Facility near Buffalo, NY in the United States. Its repression left 39 people killed.

“If we can’t live as men, we sure as hell can die as men”
– Attica prisoner

In 1970 the National Guard had gunned down unarmed students protesting against the Vietnam War at Jackson State and Kent State Universities. Armed guards smashed a Teamsters truckers’ strike. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King had both been murdered. When George Jackson, Black Panther and political prisoner was murdered at San Quentin by the guards on August 21, 1971, his book “Soledad Brother” was being passed from prisoner to prisoner, tensions were running mounting. A prisoners’ rights movement was growing.

Attica was surrounded by a 30-foot wall, 2 feet thick, with fourteen gun towers. 54% of the inmates were black; 100% of the guards were white, many of whom were openly racist. Prisoners spent fourteen to sixteen hours a day in their cells, their mail was read, their reading material restricted, their visits from families conducted through a mesh screen, their medical care disgraceful, their parole system inequitable, racism everywhere. How perceptive the prison administration was about these conditions can be measured by the comment of the superintendent of Attica, Vincent Mancusi, when the uprising began: “Why are they destroying their home?”

Most of the Attica prisoners were there as a result of plea bargaining. Of 32,000 felony indictments a year in New York State, 4,000 to 5,000 were tried. The rest (about 75%) were disposed of by deals made under duress, called “plea bargaining,” described as follows in the Report of the Joint Legislative Committee on Crime in New York:

The final climactic act in the plea bargaining procedure is a charade which in itself has aspects of dishonesty which rival the original crime in many instances. The accused is made to assert publicly his guilt on a specific crime, which in many cases he has not committed; in some cases he pleads guilty to a non-existing crime. He must further indicate that he is entering his plea freely… and that he is not doing so because of any promises made to him.

In plea bargaining, the accused pleads guilty, whether he is or not, and saves the state the trouble of a trial in return for the promise of a less severe punishment.

When Attica prisoners were up for parole, the average time of their hearing, including the reading of the file and deliberation among the three members, was 5.9 minutes. Then the decision was handed out, with no explanation.

The official report on the Attica uprising tells how an inmate-instructed sociology class there became a forum for ideas about change. Then there was a series of organised protest efforts, and in July an inmate manifesto setting forth a series of moderate demands, after which “tensions at Attica had continued to mount,” culminating in a day of protest over the killing of George Jackson at San Quentin, during which few inmates ate at lunch and dinner on a hunger strike, and many wore black armbands.


On September 9. 1971, a series of conflicts between prisoners and guards ended with a relatively minor incident, involving a guard disciplining two prisoners. This was the spark that set off the revolt a group which began when a group of inmates from D Block broke through a gate with a defective weld and taking over one of the four prison yards, with forty guards as hostages.

Then followed five days in which the prisoners set up a remarkable community in the yard. A group of citizen-observers, invited by the prisoners, included New York Times columnist Tom Wicker, who wrote (A Time to Die): “The racial harmony that prevailed among the prisoners—it was absolutely astonishing… That prison yard was the first place I have ever seen where there was no racism.” One black prisoner later said: “I never thought whites could really get it on. . . . But I can’t tell you what the yard was like, I actually cried it was so close, everyone so together.” All the prisoners – black, Latino, white – who took part in the revolt were united. It was no “race riot” but a united class action.

The prisoners demanded removal of the warden, amnesty for those who had taken part in the revolt, and better conditions. The state agreed to 28 of the 33 demands but not amnesty. The prisoners were not willing to back down on this, as they knew repression would fall heavily on them.


After five days, the state lost patience. Governor Nelson Rockefeller approved a military attack on the prison (see Cinda Firestone’s stunning film Attica). One thousand National Guardsmen, prison guards, and local police went in with automatic rifles, carbines, and submachine guns in a full-scale assault on the prisoners, who had no firearms. Thirty-one prisoners were killed. The first stories given the press by prison authorities said that nine guards held hostage had their throats slashed by the prisoners during the attack. The official autopsies almost immediately showed this to be false: the nine guards died in the same hail of bullets that killed the prisoners.

Guards beat and tortured prisoners after the revolt. A wave of other prison rebellions spread like wildfire, involving 20,000 people.


There were several hundred thousand in prison in 1971 – now there are two million. The memory of Attica is still there – in 2004 prisoners in Texas started a hunger strike on the 33rd anniversary to commemorate the Attica uprising and to support prisoners’ rights.

OCRed by Linda Towlson and lightly edited by libcom – US to UK spelling, additional details, clarifications and links added – from two articles by Howard Zinn and the Anarchist Federation.


Documentary Attica (1973), by Cinda Firestone


From Betcha Ain’t: Poems from Attica (edited by Celes Tisdale, Broadside Press, Detroit Michigan, 1974)

These poems are the product of a poetry workshop intended as a rehabilitative measure for Attica. A series of 8-week poetry workshops began on May 24, 1972, run by Celes Tisdale who was a member of the Buffalo Black Drama workshop. Mr. Tisdale selected some of the poems from the workshops and published a pamphlet titled “Betcha Ain’t: Poems from Attica.” The pamphlet includes brief biographical information on the poets.

13th and Genocide

The clouds were low
when the sun rose that day.
For the white folks were coming
to lay some black brothers away.
From eight surrounding counties,
the white folks came,
with 12 hundred locks
and some brand new chains.
The word was kill niggers,
kill all you can.
For they don’t have the right
to live like men.
Then up in the sky
appeared a big green bird.
And from inside came
these few words.
“Put your hands on your heads
and you won’t get hurt,
lie on your bellies,
put your face in the dirt.”
Then from a distance
came a black brother’s cry.
“I’m a man, white folks,
and like a man I’ll die.”

By Isaiah Hawkins. Isaiah Hawkins was a prisoner at Attica. He was a member of
the prison liaison committee who worked for the betterment of all inmates’ conditions. He was released soon after the workshop began

Attica Reflections

It isn’t strange to awake in the silence
Of midnights,
To hear MEN weeping, in harsh and gravelly voices
That turn away your lies,
They have witnessed the slaughter
And heard your songs of merriment
As you filled your cups with blood.
Anoint yourselves in madness,
Dance with Hitler’s ghost.

By Hersey Boyer. Born August 19, 1941. Education: 9th grade Junior High
School. Birthplace: New York City, Harlem. Time: Life. Desire in life: to be a man
wherever I am!

Just Another Page
(September 13-72)

A year later
And it’s just another page
And the only thing they do right is wrong
And Attica is a maggot-minded black blood sucker
And the only thing they do right is wrong
And another page of history is written in black blood
And old black mamas pay taxes to buy guns that killed
their sons
And the consequence of being free…is death
And your sympathy and tears always come too late
And the only thing they do right is wrong
And it’s just another page.

By John Lee Norris (Kamua). Born November 1941. Birthplace: New York City.
Sign: Scorpio. A father with one son. Dropped out of high school in the second
year. I am a musician who plays drums. I write poetry as love and preparation
for becoming a playwright. Favorite poets are Imamu Baraka, Don Lee, Carolyn
Rogers, and Langston Hughes.

Sept. 13

Let the drums roll
Give the first command
That puts us in the ground


We stiffen our shoulders
Hold our heads up high
Let the world take note
That proud, black men
Are here about to die


If our actions
Cause brothers and sisters to unite
As we die,
In their fighting spirits we live.
So let the drums roll
And damn that final order that puts us in
The ground…


By Christopher Sutherland – Multi-talented (poet, musician) and eyes that
appear to pierce the soul – an early standout in the group sessions.

Was it Necessary?

Was it really necessary?
Did they really have to carry
Rifles and shotguns?
Let’s ask the gov’,
Who’s so full of love!

Was it really necessary?
Did they really have to carry
Rifles and shotguns?
Against sticks and knives!
Was it worth 43 lives?
Let’s ask the gov’,
Who’s so full of love!

Was it really necessary?
Did they really have to carry
Rifles and shotguns?
Shoot them with intent to kill!
Shoot them even when they lay still!
Let’s ask the gov’,
Who’s so full of love?

Was it really necessary?
Did they really have to carry
Rifles and shotguns?
While troopers were killing with hate and glee,
Rock was safe in Albany!
Wasn’t he?
Let’s ask the gov’,
Who’s so full of love!

Was it really necessary?
Did they really have to carry
Rifles and shotguns?
Rock on T.V., says he didn’t know,
While 43 are helping daisies to grow!!
Does it sound like I’m angry?
Damn right, my heart pains me!!
Let me tell you something,
Since it’s time for me to split.
Don’t ask the governor nothing, Man,
Cause he’s full of it.

By Samuel L. Washington
Born: 1952. Birthplace: Toledo, Ohio. Sign: Libra. I came to Buffalo at age 3 and
attended school until age 16. Dropped out; drugs, two minor arrests before this;
conviction on manslaughter. My sentence is 16 years.

Formula for Attica Repeats

…..and when
the smoke cleared
they came aluminum paid
from Rock/The/Terrible,
of S.O.S. Collect Calls,

They came tearless
apologetic grin factories
that breathed Kool
and state-prepared speeches.
They came
like so many unfeeling fingers
groping without touching
the 43 dead men
who listened…
threatening to rise

By Mshaka (Willie Monroe) –Diminutive, incisive young man who was released
from the prison and transferred after two sessions in the workshop.

(From A Story of Attica: A quick primer on the Attica Prison Rebellion of 1971 in honor of the 40th anniversary of the uprising, September 9-13, 2011)

Writings on the Attica rebellion of 1971 are numerous. What follows is a modest selection of sites, texts and videos.

James Carr, the Black Panthers and all that (

Attica is all of us (home)

We Are Attica: Interviews with Prisoners from Attica (Roz Payne Sixties Archive)

Attica Prison Uprising (Zin Education Project)

Remembering Attica: An interview with Heather Ann Thompson (Jacobin magazine)

Attica is all of us (vimeo)

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