September 9-13 mark the 40th anniversary of the Attica Rebellion. This massive prison takeover by hundreds of inmates and the callous repression and murders by the state of New York are part of a unique moment in US history. The legacy of Attica and the fight for human rights is carried on in the prisons of Georgia, Ohio, California and wherever people are caged for years on end.
By HEATHER ANN THOMPSON, in an op-ed opinion column in the New York Times
FORTY years ago today, more than 1,000 inmates at Attica Correctional Facility began a major civil and human rights protest — an uprising that is barely mentioned in textbooks but nevertheless was one of the most important rebellions in American history.
A forbidding institution that opened in 1931, Attica, roughly midway between Buffalo and Rochester, was overcrowded and governed by rigid and often capricious penal practices.
The guards were white men from small towns in upstate New York; the prisoners were mostly urban African-Americans and Puerto Ricans. They wanted decent medical care so that an inmate like Angel Martinez, 21, could receive treatment for his debilitating polio. They wanted more humane parole so that a man like L. D. Barkley, also 21, wouldn’t be locked up in a maximum security facility like Attica for driving without a license. They also wanted less discriminatory policies so that black inmates like Richard X. Clark wouldn’t be given the worst jobs, while white prisoners were given the best. These men first tried writing to state officials, but their pleas for reform were largely ignored. Eventually, they erupted.
Over five days, Americans sat glued to their televisions as this uprising unfolded. They watched in surprise as inmates elected representatives from each cellblock to negotiate on their behalf. They watched in disbelief as these same inmates protected the guards and civilian employees they had taken hostage. Continue reading →