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Notes from the Unrepenitentiary

I've been thinking a lot about Attica, as we pass the 25th anniversary of the rebellion and the massacre. Remembering how the courage of the men of D Yard transformed all our sorrow and anger at the assassination of George Jackson into energy, struggle and hope. Remembering the inspiration of seeing unity built, combating the divisions of race and class the state normally feeds on. Remembering how we hoped against hope, argued against unreason that the brutal assault would not come. Remembering the demand of the brothers, spoken by L.D. Barkley, that "we are men, we are not beasts, and we don't intend to be driven or beaten as such."

Attica was a rebellion against all odds -- a message written in blood: human dignity will not allow itself to be crushed. A slogan the Vietnamese used in fighting for their national liberation and independence -- "the spirit of the people is greater than the man's technology" -- came alive inside the walls of D Yard. For almost five days a cooperative, peaceful, democratic society existed in D Yard, while the prisoners held power. The demands were so basic, and the administrations' long-standing refusal to meet them so clearly inhumane, that public support grew quickly around New York State. The police guns were held at bay for awhile by the stark morality of the brothers' stand.

But only for awhile. As ever, when confronted with a just struggle of the oppressed, the government fired back with massive, brutal murder, killing nearly 40 prisoners along with some of the hostage guards the prisoners had protected. And then, after the assault itself, L.D. Barkley and other leaders were murdered in cold blood, while others were tortured with burning cigars and savage beatings. Stripped naked, chained, beaten to the ground and forced to crawl through the mud -- the brothers received the government's response to their demands to be treated as humans.

In the aftermath, as the Attica brothers fought (successfully) through charges of murder designed to punish them further for the rebellion, Attica inspired thousands of prisoners throughout the country to rise up and demand their human rights. At the same time, a movement of support for the brothers grew. In that period, we had two main slogans: "Attica is All of Us" and "Attica Means Fight Back." These slogans couldn't quite capture the depth to which Attica shook U.S. society, nor how the inspiration of that struggle for human dignity will continue always to light the path of resistance.

I thought about "Attica Means Fight Back" last October, when Congress refused to adjust the racist, disproportionate sentences for crack as opposed to powder cocaine, and prisoners throughout the federal system fought back. As in NY State in 1971, we recognized that no one on the outside would take up the responsibility to protest the attack on our human rights -- we prisoners had to do it ourselves. Unlike NY State in 1971, there was no sympathetic public response to the October federal prison rebellions.

At least two Attica Brothers, now released from prison, remember Attica every day by working to help prisoners and defendants trying to stay free. Akil Al-Jundi and Frank 'Big Black" Smith both work in NY on prisoners' cases. Big Black is the one who said "Wake up -- because nothing comes to a sleeper but a dream." Those of us inside need to wake up to the need for unity-to fight racism and the other divisions that hurt our ability to stand up together for our dignity. And I think we need to find a way to wake up all those people out there who dream that locking up more and more people will solve the problems of violence and crime -- problems that come NOT from the oppressed but from the very nature of this capitalist system. We need to make them understand that what they are locking up and destroying is, in the end, their own humanity, their own souls.

The U.S. should be held accountable for its human rights violations. The massive long-term incarceration of huge numbers of oppressed people is one of these abuses. Holding more than 100 political prisoners -- in a country that claims to have no political prisoners -- is another. Others are daily reported in the newspapers -- from the U.S. army teaching brutal counterinsurgency techniques ("Army Instructed Latins on Executions, Torture," Washington Post, 9/21/96), to the CIA dealing crack in L.A. to fund the illegal "contra" forces in Nicaragua. It's not in the past, not 25 years ago, it's happening now. It's in violation of international law. The U.S. government is the real criminal, the international outlaw. We prisoners, who experience these human rights abuses every day, can help expose U.S. crimes to the rest of the population. Attica is all of us. Attica means fight back.

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