Today is the 40th Anniversary of the Attica Rebellion. For far too many, it is an event not remembered, and is overshadowed by 9-11, the 10th Anniversary of 9-11. But when it happened, in September of 1971, the repercussions of it reverberated not only in New York but across the country as well as the world. At that point and time in history, it was the bloodiest rebellion in American prison history, and it forced America to take a hard look at its prison systems and institute some fundamental reforms.
Attica symbolized many things, but I want to write briefly about something that existed in 1971 that does not exist in 2011. Then, there was this inside/outside connection, that is, political movements on the outside were connected to political movements on the inside. Now, prisons are for the most part apolitical, though there is the politics of crime and punishment. The NAACP, the Black Panther Party, Workers groups, etc., were involved in some shape, form or fashion in prison, in a political context, because it was a political era and people saw the connection between the inside and the outside. And there was a degree of solidarity between those on the inside and those on the outside. The insiders had not yet become the hated “other.” It was somewhat more obvious then that the criminal justice system was being used as a tool of social control. When Richard Nixon stated that Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was lawless, and declared a “war on crime,” it was so obviously connected to the uprisings in our urban areas, most notably after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Prisons were political. If you were in prison then, you got a political education, a political education that went beyond basic civics.
I remember reading Tom Wicker’s account of the Attica Rebellion, “A Time to Die,” and was deeply disappointed when Wicker wrote about a quote from one of the banners of the Attica Brothers in the yard and didn’t know it was from a famous poem. Maybe it’s because I’m a poet, but I automatically recognized the famous words from Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die,” which was written after the Black Summer of 1919, when Whites stormed into Black neighborhoods and killed innocent Black people. McKay wrote, “If we must die let it not be like hogs, hunted and penned in an inglorious spot….”
Today, let us remember, and hope that not one life was taken in vein.
Let us remember…