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Attica Rebellion Inspire’s Until We’re Free Abolition Week of Action

BAJI Reflects on the Attica Rebellion

On August 21, 1971, incarcerated author and revolutionary George Jackson was assassinated on the grounds of San Quentin Prison in Northern California. At the time Jackson was well-known as a member of the Soledad Brothers, three California prisoners unjustly charged with the murder of a prison guard in 1970. A selection of letters, Soledad Brother,  Jackson had written to family, supporters and friends was published the same year. In it, Jackson wrote about his case as well as his thoughts on the nature of American society and the current state of the Black Revolution.

Jackson’s brief life was inspiring to many activists outside prison walls and his death was equally devastating. It also affected many who were incarcerated. Approximately three weeks after Jackson’s murder on Sept. 9, 1971, incarcerated people at the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York rebelled against their treatment by prison guards. What began as a fight involving less than a dozen incarcerated people eventually led to an uprising where forty-two correctional facility employees were taken hostage.

It was the largest prison uprising to date in United States history. Incarcerated people demanded basic human rights such as bilingual staff, better medical care and educational opportunities, and an end to racist treatment by guards and other prison staff as well as amnesty for all those who took part in the rebellion. 

Negotiators and observers brought to the prison relayed their concerns to the world. Unfortunately, Nelson Rockefeller, governor of the state of New York, refused to meet with the imprisoned people. On Sept, 13th, four days into the rebellion, Rockefeller ordered New York State Troopers to take control of the prison. The incarcerated people at Attica  placed the hostages in front of them as the officers came across a bridge leading into the prison, firing their weapons. When the firing stopped, thirty incarcerated people and nine Attica correctional officers lay dead. It is the worst prison massacre in United States history.

Fifty years later, lawsuits by relatives of those murdered by New York State have been settled and not one single government official has stood trial for the deaths. Some of the reforms demanded by the incarcerated people of Attica were implemented but by the late 1990’s many had been rolled back.

Perhaps the most enduring legacy of Attica is the growth of the prison-industrial complex. According to the Illinois-based Committee to End the Marion Lockdown, the US incarceration rate “had been more or less steady between 1925 and 1971 … but started to soar in 1972. And that was the same year that one wing of Marion prison was opened as the first actualization of a control unit.”

Control unit prisons – entire prisons that are basically giant solitary confinement institutions – exist simply to contain the undesirable elements that hold the potential for the same type of societal disruption caused by Attica in 1971. 

The brothers of Attica declared that they were “… men, not beasts, and we refuse to be beaten and driven as such.” They desired basic rights and humane treatment within the US prison system. 

Fifty years later, the state continues to confirm that there is no way to humanely keep people in cages. BAJI dedicates our Until We’re Free Abolition Week of Action to the Attica Rebellion and to all those in detention, jails and prisons.