by Karima Amin
For 11 years, Prisoners Are People Too, Inc. has devoted time and space to the Attica Uprising of September 1971. At our September monthly meetings, we have featured films, live guest speakers, and panel discussions that have helped us to have a better understanding of why the revolt occurred, how it evolved from September 9 to September 13, who were the major figures involved, and what happened to make this one of the best known and most significant rebellions of the Prisoners’ Rights Movement. Though commonly referred to as a riot this was NOT a riot. It was a demand for political rights and better living conditions.
It was a revolt against the insensitive prison administration. It was a rebellion that happened as a result of the abuse, brutality, violence and racism that prisoners experienced on a daily basis. The evil that defined Attica then, is a critical part of the Attica we know today, forty-five years later. Articles have been written, voices have been raised, and petitions have been signed about closing a place that is “infamous for bloodshed.”
In 1971, the prisoners issued a “manifesto of 27 demands” which included a call for legal representation at parole hearings, improved medical care, adequate conditions for visiting family members, and an end to racial, political, and religious persecution. There were demands for better food, an end to overcrowding, opportunities for education and vocational training, and a policy giving working prisoners wages that conformed with state and federal minimum wage laws. Most working prisoners made less than fifty cents an hour. Prisoners were allowed only one shower per week and one roll of toilet paper each month. The New York state correction commissioner, Russell Oswald, ignored this “manifesto.” The prisoners, mostly Black and Latino also demanded that the prison’s warden, Vincent Mancusi, be fired and that all participants in the uprising receive full amnesty. Outside observers, requested by the prisoners, had minimal input but they were there to mediate and negotiate. Buffalo’s Arthur O. Eve, who was then the Deputy Speaker of the NYS Assembly, was a well-known voice for the prisoners. He was the first official to enter this maximum security facility to hear the demands of the prisoners. At a PRP2 meeting in September 2012, Mr. Eve (now in his 80s) said that it’s hard for him to talk about Attica but he understands the importance of the history and he urged us to never stop fighting for justice.
Negotiations came to a halt when the prisoners took 39 prison guards and employees as hostages. Gov. Rockefeller refused to meet with the prisoners, following President Nixon’s directions. Oswald, Mancusi, and Rockefeller stood together when the governor ordered the State Troopers and National Guardsmen to retake the prison. In the massacre that followed, 43 hostages and prisoners were killed.
Recently, a new book about Attica was published by Pantheon Books, BLOOD IN THE WATER: THE ATTICA PRISON UPRISING OF 1971 AND ITS LEGACY by Dr. Heather Ann Thompson. A major part of her research was done right here in Buffalo at Erie County Hall, after discovering some long-forgotten documents related to the trials of the Attica Brothers. I have invited Dr. Thompson to come back to Buffalo next September when we remember Attica and say, “ATTICA IS ALL OF US.”
This month, we will remember Attica with a previously screened film (2011), “Against the Wall,” starring Samuel L. Jackson and Clarence Williams III, on Monday, September 26 , 7 – 9pm at the Pratt-Willert Community Center, 422 Pratt Street in Buffalo. More info: Karima, firstname.lastname@example.org, 716-834-8438 or BaBa Eng, email@example.com, 716-491-5319.
SIDE NOTE: Within four years of the revolt, 62 inmates had been charged in 42 indictments with 1,289 separate counts. One state trooper was indicted for reckless endangerment.
“God has not called us to see through each other, but to see each other through.” (Anonymous)