[Ppnews] The Road from Attica

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu Sep 8 10:54:17 EDT 2011


by Michael E. Deutsch

September 9th marks 40 years since the uprising 
at Attica State Prison, in upstate New York, and 
the deadly and sadistic retaking of the 
prison---and mass torture of hundreds of 
prisoners all the rest of the day and night and 
beyond---by state police and prison guards on the 
morning of September 13th.  When the shooting 
stopped and the gas lifted, 29 unarmed prisoners 
and 10 hostages were dead, slaughtered by the 
assault force.  Over a hundred more prisoners 
were shot, some maimed for life, and many others 
seriously injured.  In addition, almost the 
entire 1200-plus prisoners who occupied D yard, 
and had hoped that their demands for humane 
treatment would be addressed by the authorities, 
were systematically stripped and beaten, made to 
run gauntlets of club swinging police as they 
were herded back into cells, while dozens of 
supposed leaders and other special targets were 
taken aside for more personal vengeance. The 
United States Court of Appeals, hardly a 
pro-prisoner or even liberal institution, called 
the re-housing of the prisoners, “an orgy of brutality.”

Attica and its aftermath exposed the powder kegs 
ready to explode inside the U.S. prisons, and the 
urgent need to change the reigning penology and 
administrative practices throughout the federal, 
state and local prison systems.

Attica uncovered the hidden reality that the 
prisons and jails were increasingly the 
socio-economic destination for the poor and 
largely disproportionate numbers of Black people, 
as well as political militants.  The Attica 
prisoners’ demand for human rights also revealed 
that both men and women were treated like modern 
day slaves in prison, denied minimal humane 
treatment, decent medical care, and fundamental constitutional rights.

It is true there was much liberal sentiment 
expressed for prisoners in the wake of the 
rebellion, and massacre, and a small flurry of 
activity in support of prison reform, involving 
recognition that prisoners had some rights, and 
the need for rehabilitation programs to prepare 
them for release. There was even some concern 
raised about the racist underpinnings of law 
enforcement and the entire criminal justice 
system. These efforts at reform, however, in 
comparison to policies already in motion to make 
the prisons chiefly into warehouses for the 
unemployed and internment camps for militants, 
were minimal, and soon largely abandoned.

The Nixon administration, sweeping into office on 
the cry of “law and order,” was determined to use 
federal government power to destroy what it 
considered a radical domestic insurgency, which 
it believed threatened the very existence of the 
capitalist society.  Following the urban 
uprisings in Harlem, Watts, Newark and Detroit, 
numerous confrontations between the police and 
members of the Black Panther Party and other 
militant organizations, and the massive movement 
in opposition to the Viet Nam war, the government 
calling for greatly expanded police powers, 
passed the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets 
Act of 1968.  The Act established enhanced powers 
for the police to carry on a “war on crime,” 
including procedures to allow wiretapping by law 
enforcement and relaxed standards to admit confessions.

The Act also created the Law Enforcement 
Assistance Administration (LEAA), which over the 
following years provided more than five billion 
dollars in extra funding for state and local 
police, and for new prisons. While small amounts 
of money were given to non-institutional reform 
projects, the vast amount of resources was 
provided to police departments all over the 
country for SWAT type counter-insurgency 
training, hi-tech weapons and surveillance 
hardware, and to build and equip more secure 
prisons.  Thus Attica served to reinforce the 
Nixonian idea that militarized repression and 
high security prisons were needed to confront the 
growing militancy facing the country.

Certainly, in the few years before and after 
Attica, there was clear evidence that 
assassinations and frame-ups of radical political 
leaders was the policy promoted and funded by the administration.

As was made clear in Court cases and other 
investigations, the murders of Fred Hampton and 
Mark Clark, and George Jackson, and the frame-ups 
and imprisonment of Geronimo Pratt, Dhroruba Bin 
Wahad, the Wilmington Ten and the Omaha Two are 
only a few examples of this policy in 
action.  Some political militants still languish 
in prison today over 35 years later.

Even before Nixon was in office, J. Edgar Hoover 
had launched the FBI’s secret 
“counter-intelligence” program (“COINTELPRO”) 
with clearly spelled out plans to “expose, 
disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise 
neutralize” the “militant Black Nationalist 
Movement,” to prevent the rise of a “messiah,” 
who could “unify, and electrify” the militant 
Black movement, and to use “hard-hitting” 
measures to “cripple the Black Panther Party
 and destroy what it stands for

The rebellion at Attica was clearly viewed as a 
reflection, and confirmation of the perceived 
threat of domestic insurgency; indeed, Nixon 
called to congratulate Governor Nelson 
Rockefeller after the massacre.  The political 
speeches, and militancy of the Attica prisoners, 
many of whom identified with the Black Panther 
Party, the revolutionary nationalism of Malcolm 
X, or the teachings and discipline of the Black 
Muslims did not go unnoticed by the forces 
determined to suppress any movement for Black 
liberation.  The government was increasingly well 
aware of these ideas and movements, and was 
determined to destroy them.  Thus the massacre 
and torture should not be viewed as bad 
decision-making by New York authorities, or 
roguish action by the police, but as simply the 
most savage and bloody of countless acts of 
conscious repression, which took place all over 
the country, and showed the political intention 
to destroy the Black Movement, and defeat and 
intimidate its supporters. Its aftermath also 
represents the further development, not of 
liberal efforts towards prison reform, but of the 
use of the prisons as an integral part of the 
program and apparatus intended to control and 
sequester America’s economically marginal, 
politically ungovernable populations.

The incarceration numbers clearly tell the story. 
For almost 50 years prior to Attica, the U.S. 
incarceration rates were constant, and 
commensurate with those of Western 
Europe.  Beginning in 1972, however, the rates 
rose steadily for the next 35 years, and Blacks 
and Latinos were locked up in hugely 
disproportionate numbers.  In 1972 there were 
about 300,000 people in Federal, state and local 
prisons combined. Today the number is over 2.3 
million..  The United States with just 5% of the 
world’s population has 25% of the world’s 
prisoners, the world’s highest per capita imprisonment.

The “prison-industrial complex,” comprised of 
bloated “corrections” bureaucracies and the 
companies they do business with, and fueled more 
and more by private prisons owned by huge 
corporations, has become a multi-billion dollar 
industry.  The annual budget in California alone 
is more than seven billion dollars---meaning an 
average of roughly $50,000 per prisoner per year.

By the beginning of the 1980s, after the 
destruction of Black Liberation Movement, the 
incarceration policies continued under the banner 
of the “war on drugs” and the ramped up fear of 
crime, and young Black and Latino men, often 
demonized as predatory threats. The flooding of 
crack cocaine into poor Black communities, in 
some cases facilitated by law enforcement 
complicity, and the Reaganite “voodoo trickle 
down economics” created the ideal circumstances 
to continue the obscene incarceration juggernaut.

In lieu of decent jobs and education, poor people 
were given militarized occupying racist police, 
and draconian punishments, including mandatory 
sentences and three strikes life 
imprisonment.  Those behind the walls who 
understood this oppression and wished to educate 
other prisoners were often isolated and buried 
alive in special isolation control 
units.  Moreover, unlike the Attica prison 
rebellion, which was broadcast around the world, 
the media more recently generally ignored the 
explosion of numbers, and (until just lately) the 
costs; the conditions of confinement---poor food, 
indifferent medical care, no education or 
training programs, arbitrary parole denials 
---and the swelling numbers of prisoners locked 
up permanently in sensory deprivation cells, 
which constitutes mental and psychological, 
legalized, torture.  Absent a dramatic cry for 
help, like a hunger strike or a riot, the voices 
and plight of prisoners are generally 
ignored.  Certainly the shame of the U.S. prisons 
is never even mentioned by the Obama administration, let alone addressed.

George Jackson said, “The ultimate expression of 
law is not order; it is prison.”  In the absence 
of vibrant movements for liberation and human 
rights, directed by militant activism, we are 
saddled with a society run wholly in the 
interests of the banks, the military, the big 
corporations and the rich people, which have no 
other accommodation for huge numbers of people at 
the base of the socio-economic pyramid except 
prison.  What we need is not marginal reform that 
makes life a little better for those now (and 
soon to be) locked up, but a thorough 
revolutionary change in a political system 
resting on such a corrupt base.  Real “hope and 
change” will only begin to emerge when we 
dismantle the racist, class-based criminal 
justice system, and allow those who are 
oppressed, at the work place, in the community 
and in the prisons, to freely organize and fight for justice.

Michael E. Deutsch, a partner in the Chicago 
People’s Law office, was one of the criminal 
defense and class action civil rights suit 
attorneys for the Attica Brothers. The civil 
rights suit was settled for 12 million dollar in 1999.

Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

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