Sunday, September 18, 2016

They wanted to be seen as human beings

Forty-five years ago this month, about 1000 mostly Black prisoners at New York's Attica state prison revolted against the terrible conditions in which they were jailed. They killed two guards in the struggle, seized 42 additional guards and other personnel as hostages, and used their momentary power over the prison to present demands to correctional authorities, to Governor Nelson Rockefeller who was gearing up to run for president, and to the world.

We are men! We are not beasts and we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such. The entire prison populace, that means each and every one of us here, have set forth to change forever the ruthless brutalization and disregard for the lives of the prisoners here and throughout the United States. What has happened here is but the sound before the fury of those who are oppressed.

Elliott James "L.D." Barkley

The prisoners requested a group of sympathetic free civilians be brought in to act as witnesses and go-betweens with the authorities; Rockefeller, hoping to tamp down the rebellion, agreed.

Clarence B. Jones, a lawyer and former advisor to Dr. King who was also the publisher of the Black newspaper, the Amsterdam News, was one of the observers. He retold (with co-author Stuart Connelly) the Attica events as he lived them in Uprising: Understanding Attica, Revolution, and the Incarceration State. How he came to be chosen by the prisoners is an appealing story. This wasn't about his connection to Dr. King.

To enable incarcerated readers to develop a special connection to my paper, I soon created a weekly feature for our op ed page entitled “From Behind Prison Walls.” I did this to provide inmates in prisons within New York a voice, the opportunity to have their letters read by the public at large. It turned out I was one of the very few—perhaps the only—editor in the country who actually published letters like this.

So when the convicts of Attica’s Cellblock “D” had their hostages and the government waiting for them to make their first move, they wanted some righteous representation. They wanted me to do their talking for them. To speak truth to power. From the rioting inmates’ perspective, it was a perfect fit. Apparently, without my realizing it, printing these letters had made my name intertwined with prison reform. ...

So Jones allowed himself to be transported to the prison and, alongside several dozen others acceptable to the prisoners, visited the insurgents. The longer prisoners controlled the yard, the longer the demand list grew.

The prisoners’ list of fifteen so-called practical demands [about immediate conditions like overcrowding and racist white officers] had more than doubled. They were now asking for 33 concessions, including a plane to fly them out of the country. Cuba was mentioned several times. Things were moving in the wrong direction. The issue of amnesty was still paramount; it was listed third after getting food and water and replacing the warden.

Jones was horrified. This wasn't going to happen after two guards had died -- and the most likely outcome would be a massacre of prisoners. He describes his introduction to the prisoners.

As each observer’s name was shouted, there was a roar from the crowd. One of the riot’s leaders, a Black Muslim, told the inmates in “D” Yard that each of us would be called up to the microphone and makeshift podium to say a few words to them.

All through the night, the inmates made speeches and so did the observers. As important as it was for us to be there for them, they in fact spent more time making proclamations to each other than they did listening to us. They were merely, in street parlance, “sellin’ wolf tickets” to one another. When the observers did have a chance to speak, there was a thematic consistency threading through almost every one of our comments. The idea behind nearly every one of the observers’ remarks was that we were individually committed to facilitate a peaceful resolution of the uprising and to try to get the prison authorities to respond to and redress the inmates’ demands.

Over two tense days, the observers tried to avert bloodshed. The authorities made some feints toward agreeing to a few demands, but the situation was at an impasse. Rockefeller feared his presidential prospects were dribbling away as the nation watched him fail to crush the rebellion. And so, four days after the revolt began, the guards and state police came in with tear gas, clubs, snipers and guns blazing. Ten hostages and 29 inmates died, all apparently killed by the invading prison authorities.

Jones describes his last visit to the yard before the massacre.

As I made my way out of the yard, the prisoners parted to make a path for me and I could feel the tension in the air shift. It was a deflated sensation, all that pent-up hostility turning in an instant to despair. On either side, I could hear the sobbing. Convicts’ emotions poured forth–a litany of swearing, praying, moaning, and crying. A jumble of lost voices sifting through to my ears, drumming into my head:

Tell my boy daddy loves him...
Oh god, save us...
It’s not our fault...
Don’t go, brother...

Because they knew, just knew, they were watching their last hope walk out that door. Black and brown hands reached out, forcing into my grip notes written on the inside of cigarette packs and torn-out edges of Bible pages.

Outside of the yard, I sifted through the dozens of hand-scrawled notes. They were all written to loved ones or family members, many with phone numbers and/or addressed for me to reached out to on behalf of their doomed. These inmates were being realist now. They never expected to survive in “D” Yard once the order was given by Rockefeller to take the prison back. And that order was coming sooner or later.

The brutal re-occupation of Attica was the inaugural scene in a decades long racist backlash against Black gains, characterized by "law and order," "tough on crime," mandatory sentencing, and mass incarceration.

The second half of Uprising deals with the subsequent investigations of the Attica revolt and the continuing struggle against mass incarceration. Jones affirms what he draws from the experience working with Dr. King:

Make no mistake, history follows its own arc unless we make a purposeful determined effort to bend it in another direction.

He's still alive and, I suspect, appreciating the contemporary struggles of the Movement for Black Lives.
During the Attica rebellion, I was on the hot, anxious streets of the Lower East Side of New York where many of the nine percent of Attica prisoners who were Puerto Rican originated. Fear and despair were everywhere. Attica seemed very close.

1 comment:

Hattie said...

It was a horrible time. We could have crossed paths, then. We lived in Plainfield, NJ until May of 1971 and went to NYC often.
Being so busy with my daughter at the time, and in spite of my interest in feminism, racial politics and the peace movement, I really did not understand much that was going on. It was all too dynamic for a woman mostly worried about protecting a small child.

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