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Attica: Looking Back 25 Years

[Editor's Note: Jaan Laaman, Ohio-7 political prisoner, served time at Attica in 1971 and is currently incarcerated at U.S.P. Leavenworth. Due to a shooting and prison lockdown, this 25-year anniversary article is being published a month late. The Attica uprising occurred in September, 1971. Here is a brief chronology of those events:

July of 1971 -- A list of demands by Attica prisoners is presented to New York State Commissioner of Corrections, Russell Oswald.

August 20, 1971 -- George Jackson, a California prisoner and political activist, is fatally shot by guards at San Quentin Prison.

August 27, 1971 -- Attica prisoners call a hunger strike in honor of George Jackson. Only 13 men eat breakfast. Only seven eat lunch.

September 3, 1971 -- Commissioner Oswald visits Attica. He delivers a tape recording for the prisoners, asking for more time to consider their demands.

September 9, 1971 -- The spark is lit. About 1,500 prisoners from all cell blocks take over both D-yard and D-block. One guard is badly beaten during the takeover; 40 prison employees are taken hostage. The prisoners elect leaders and draw up a another list of demands. The injured guard is released and later dies in a hospital; the other hostages are protected by the Attica Brothers and treated well; none are beaten.

September 11, 1971 -- New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller refuses to come to Attica to aid in the negotiations. Attica prisoner Flip Crowley makes the famous statement: "If we cannot live as people, then we will at least try to die like men."

September 13, 1971 -- Bloody Monday. Rockefeller orders thousands of National Guardsmen, State Police and prison guards to attack the prisoners. The prisoners have no guns. During a six to eight minute period, approximately 3,000 rounds of shot are fired into D-yard, killing 29 prisoners and 10 hostages and wounding 89 others. After the hail of gunfire in D-Yard has died down, two other prisoners, James Robinson and Kenny Malloy, are summarily executed by three state troopers in another part of the prison. Authorities tell the press that the 10 hostages were killed by prisoners who slashed their throats. Autopsies later proved that all 10 hostages died of gunshot wounds.]

Attica. The word conjures up images of struggle and resistance like few other names, not only in the U.S. but for countless millions around the planet. Yet as the years go by, many - especially younger people, even those behind prison walls - are less and less familiar with what happened there.

So on this twenty-fifth anniversary of the uprising and bloody state massacre, let me quote from a statement that some of the Attica survivors wrote in the weeks following the government's deadly reconquest of the prison. "These brothers whose lives were taken by Rockefeller and his agents did not die in vain. Why? Because the uprising in Attica did not start here, nor will it end here."

I was released from Attica, maxing out on a parole violation, in the Spring of 1971. I personally knew many of the brothers who rose up and counted some of the leaders and spokesmen as close friends.

The period leading up to the rising was filled with a mounting rejection by the prisoners of brutal conditions of confinement. It was also a time of growing unity, of serious pulling together across national, religious and age lines. Men were coming together, discussing conditions, underlying causes, and possible solutions. Study groups were set up among the most serious prisoners, and revolutionary insight and ideology guided the way to clearer understanding of how and why an Attica could exist in 1971 in the U.S.A.

The government's old stand-by divide and conquer tactic was working less and less, and as I left friends and comrades that May morning, we realized that either some resolution to the most horrendous conditions had to occur or serious struggle would soon be jumping off.

It was not simply about bad food or brutal treatment. It was more fundamental, about the oppressed, those without power, about refusing to accept injustice any longer. It was tied into the Vietnamese farmers who at that time were resisting U.S. B-52's. Historically it was connected to African slaves plotting and acting against the enslavers, to Native American people resisting settler occupation and atrocities, to the Puerto Rican and other colonized nations' undying thirst for liberty. In its essence, it was an extreme case of poor and working people stuck on the bottom of an unjust system, standing up, refusing to accept it any longer and fighting back. And it continued and continues on even after the Attica Brothers' noble and courageous words and their stand in D-yard during those September days, 9th - 13th of 1971.

Recent prison uprisings from Lucasville, Ohio to the multiple federal prison uprisings last fall are but some modern examples. On a broader level, the continuing struggles from the IRA guerrillas in Ireland, to the Shining Path/Communist Party in Peru, to the indigenous peasant guerrilla uprisings in Mexico (to name just a few) are all part of this Freedom Struggle.

Attica was a bright light, a searing beacon showing that even the most oppressed in the tightest of conditions can rise up. It was also a blood-drenched reminder that the American government will fight against Peoples' quests for justice and freedom and is willing to commit unspeakable atrocities to hold onto its power.

The aftermath of Attica saw beatings, torture, transfers, legal actions; in other words, much of the usual state repression. But it also brought about longer-term changes, including some meaningful ones, like family/conjugal visits throughout NY State prisons.

History shows us that even reformist halfway decent changes only occur through hard and costly struggle. But nothing remains stationary. The many prison rebellions during that period, of which Attica was the most well known, resulted in some real improvements as well as a lot of meaningless changes. Recently, and this is true across the country, a lot of the improvements made then have been taken away. The "tough on crime - no frills" mentality of the government is stripping prisoners of more and more, even as huge increases occur in the prison population.

It's as simple as this: if We the People aren't pushing them, they immediately begin pushing us back - all the way back to servitude and slavery, and that's regardless of race or nationality if you are a prisoner.

So, like the Attica survivors said, it didn't begin or end at Attica - but Attica is a good and necessary place to remember the fallen, recognize the enemy, and continue our Freedom Struggle, more determined than ever.

Oppressed classes - people and oppressed nations united in battle against the real enemy - using all methods of struggle that are called for -- REMEMBER ATTICA! The future is ours to create.

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