Out of Control: Chapter 27–Twenty Five Years Since Attica—Marion Revisited, 1997

Front page of "The Fire This Time"

In February the Marion Committee commemorated Black History Month by showing the documentary, The Fire This Time. The movie had been shown in Chicago two years previously and was the “Critic’s Choice” in the Chicago Reader.

We agreed with the film critic about the significant connections it makes between racism and government repression and control of poor communities of color, and showed it in the hopes that people would be moved to join our work. The critic, Jonathan Rosenbaum, had this to say about it:

PBS has refused to show Randy Holland’s powerful, illuminating feature-length documentary video (1993) about South Central Los Angeles, no doubt because it offers an analysis of unemployment and oppression that implies an active conspiracy—an analysis offered mainly by people who live there. If this sounds dubious in a few particulars, it’s still the most cogent and persuasive portrait of this ghetto and its determinations that I’ve seen, and unless the Republicans come up with a better explanation, this one will have to stand, with or without PBS’s dubious seal of approval.

The video traces the rise of the ghetto gangs to the destruction of Black Panther leadership by the police and the FBI in the 60s, to the continuing preference of the white community for building prisons (the one government program they still support) rather than hospitals, schools, parks, or recreation centers, and to the refusal of local building crews to employ qualified blacks.

It’s worth adding that the gang members argue that the ready availability of drugs and firearms is largely attributable to the police and that the unvoiced agenda of the white middle class is that ghetto residents should destroy one another… It’s hard to shake off some of the supporting evidence offered by responsible and articulate adults, including Andrew Young and Betty Shabazz.

We produced a new edition of Walkin’ Steel (Spring 1997) commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Attica rebellion, with articles by political prisoners Laura Whitehorn, Sundiata Acoli, Bill Dunne, and Oscar López Rivera; a long article about women in prison by Peg Byrne; and a CEML piece entitled “Do Prisons Decrease Crime?”

Bill’s piece pointed out that the essential nature of Marion as a control unit remained “undiminished.”

In June of 1997, Frank Smith, known to those in the movement as “Big Black,” was the first Attica survivor to win damages ($4 million) for what he endured when he was beaten and tortured in Attica prison following the 1971 rebellion.

Photo of NYT article on Frank Smith lawsuitAccording to the New York Times (June 6, 1997) he had been forced to walk over broken glass, was beaten with batons, burned with cigarettes, continuously struck in the testicles, and told that he would be murdered or castrated if he let a football drop from under his chin after being forced to hold it there for five hours.

Coming 26 years after the rebellion, and after 23 years of uncompensated legal struggle by a team of lawyers including Elizabeth Fink, Dennis Cunningham, and Michael Deutsch, there was finally some vindication, although it was not expected that Big Black would actually receive the settlement any time soon if at all.

In August of that same summer, our friend Akil Al-Jundi, another of the Attica Brothers, died at the age of 56. A third Attica brother, Herbert Blyden, 61, died in September.

On October 4, 1997, we co-sponsored with several other groups an event about Attica—Attica, The Struggle For Justice Continues—with Frank “Big Black” Smith, Michael Deutsch, and Lourdes Lugo as the speakers. It was a fundraiser for the Attica Brothers Defense Committee. We produced a pamphlet about Attica with news articles and statements from several political prisoners.

Three weeks later, on the 14th anniversary of the Marion lockdown, we were back at the prison gates; well, actually the blockade before the gate. Once again, our flyer said ALL OUT TO MARION.

Puerto Rican political prisoner Oscar López Rivera, who had been at Marion, then transferred to Florence, was now back at Marion. Having “graduated” from the ADX program after two arduous years, he was the only one of his “graduating class” to be returned to Marion, even though he had spent more time there than any one else in the “class.”

He reported that “The program now in effect at Marion is the same one that Amnesty International, religious leaders, politicians and experts in the field of sensory deprivation condemned more than a decade ago. Why do the jailers, who had nothing done to ameliorate these conditions, now try to say that the mission and security level have changed?”

On a chilly, windy day we heard from relatives of prisoners, ex-prisoners, and activists. Lourdes described Oscar’s situation as similar to that of the others incarcerated at Marion. She said that many prisoners are overcome by their predicament and become mentally ill, but some, like her uncle Oscar, had only grown more tenacious. “Are you talking about a broken person? Nope. Are you talking about a weak person? Nope. He is in there because of his convictions and because he has such a profound sense of justice. He’s a very strong human being, and he’s been able to bear all this.”

The SIU-C student newspaper, The Daily Egyptian  quoted Marion committee member Ralph King:

These people are not allowed contact visits, they’re not allowed to touch another human being, they don’t have access to rehabilitation or their own religious services. Their cells are the size of bathrooms or large closets. They have to eat in their cells, too, and typically, their food is smelly and cold by the time it reaches them. These conditions are abhorrent. I’m not saying that everybody here belongs in a choir, but the punishment is prison, not this excessive torture.

Liz Goss, a member of the Marion Committee, spoke about the history of prison control beginning with the first imprisonment binge that took place post slavery.

Also in October the organization Human Rights Watch issued a report entitled Human Rights Violations in the United States: COLD STORAGE: Super-Maximum Security Confinement in Indiana. The credit for this report coming to light was in no small part a result of the work of Mariel, Erica, and others in CEML.

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