Legacies of Attica

So, 40 years later, we come back to commemorate this struggle against the historical backdrop of a people who have been so terrorized and traumatized and stigmatized that we have been taught to be scared, intimidated, always afraid, distrustful of one another, and disrespectful of one another. But the Attica’s rebellion was a countermove in that direction. I call it the niggerization of a people, not just black people, because America been niggerized since 9/11. When you’re niggerized, you’re unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence, hated for who you are. You become so scared that you defer to the powers that be, and you’re willing to consent to your own domination. And that’s the history of black people in America. That’s the history of black people in America.

So spoke Dr. Cornel West before a September 9th  2011 gathering of some 3,000 at Riverside Church in New York City commemorating the 40th anniversary of the uprising at Attica State Prison.

Four decades prior, roughly half the 2,200 inmate population of that notorious maximum security prison in the rolling hills of western New York rose up, took hostages and demanded redress of a long list of grievances surrounding the inhumane treatment and living conditions they endured within the 30′ walls of Attica.  One shower a week, one roll of toilet paper a month, letters to or from loved ones in any language but English shredded, no recognition of the Muslim faith and its tenets were but a small number of elements in a larger regime of daily repressions that finally and simply boiled over on the ninth of September 1971.

Tense negotiations in the coming days between Russell G. Oswald, New York State Prisons Commissioner and inmate leadership proceeded successfully with Oswald agreeing to fully 28 expanded rights and improvements to general living conditions.

Meanwhile . . .

Reelected to four consecutive four year terms between 1959 and 1973, New York State Governor, Nelson Rockefeller was a “moderate” Republican born into unimaginable wealth and power.  Beating out another fractional one percenter named Averill Harriman, scion to a railroad empire and much besides, for his first term in Albany, Rockefeller would bond, borrow and spend billions on truly mind boggling infrastructure projects like the entire New York State transportation system of highways, bridges and tunnels.  Spending lavishly on higher public education and the arts, he built out the State University of New York (SUNY) system of universities from a few dozen campuses with a total matriculation lower than Florida State University’s to a behemoth of 72 campuses and well over a quarter million students.  He oversaw the construction of the World Trade Centers in NYC, the Albany Plaza Complex and even the Saratoga Performing Arts Center upstate where I was introduced to The Newport Jazz Festival, NYC Ballet, NY Philharmonic Orchestra  and every major rock tour of the mid to late seventies.  A solid pension system for public sector employees, thousands of units of low or fixed income housing and an ever escalating minimum wage over his tenure were all accomplishments that would make him utterly unrecognizable within his own party today, or the Democratic Party establishment for that matter.  If he were alive he would have to run as a Green Party candidate or something to the left of that.  He was not only progressive on a multitude of fronts, he was actually productive.  He got things done, built, accomplished on a titanic scale.  I suspect he’d have neither a role to play in today’s transmogrified, factional, neo-fascist Republican party nor any affinity for the austere neo-liberal militant monstrosity of the Democratic Party regime.

But then, one day, that recessive gene of 1% douchbaggery expressed itself and forever destroyed his legacy – and quite likely his lifelong Presidential aspirations.  That day was September 13, 1971 at Attica.  Compared to the political arm twisting, back room knee capping, cement shoe pouring, kickbacking, bribes and compromising he had engaged in to get all that he accomplished done, it would have been nothing for him to show up at Attica and listen to the legitimate grievances of inmate leadership and shepherd negotiations to a peaceful conclusion.  And in spite of major headway accomplished in his absence –  that’s exactly what did not happen.

On the morning of the 13th, Gov. Rockefeller – fully understanding that retaking the prison by force could well cost the lives of every hostage and up to 300 prisoners – ordered state police and corrections officers to retake the prison by any means necessary.  A low flying helicopter released tear gas over the prison yard and in the fog that obscured everything from view the state opened up with shotgun, rifle and handgun fire shooting an estimated 2,000 rounds indiscriminately at prisoners and hostages alike.  Oddly, the body count varies slightly depending on the source material but approximately all the hostages and roughly between 29 and 33 inmates were cut down in a My Lai style orgy of death.  89 others were wounded in the fusillade, give or take, in addition to the torturing and bludgeoning of scores of prisoners by corrections officers as reprisal in ensuing days.  I’m no accountant, so I’ll leave the exact body count to the pedigreed historians to sort out.  I’m content to go with a huge pile of mass murdered carnage at the feet of Nelson Rockefeller — a vainglorious pathological coward who felt the overwhelming urge to prove his mettle and the size of his Ivy League balls by green lighting a turkey shoot.  In this act, he joined a long and gristly list of Amerikan political and military leaders from Stonewall Jackson to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

In taped phone conversations between Nelson Rockefeller and President Richard Nixon that didn’t bob to the surface until 2011, Nelson Rockefeller is heard telling Nixon just hours after the massacre, “It really was a beautiful operation”.  As a New York State medical examiner began debunking emergent propaganda assigning blame for hostage deaths to throat slashing inmates, the unspinnable reality of bullet riddled corpses caused a more rueful Rockefeller to later say to a still conciliatory Nixon, “That’s life”.

That callous non sequitur that no one was to hear for over 40 years was a harbinger.  The counterrevolution Cornel West spoke of from the pulpit of Riverside Church was already well underway.  The context within which the odious basket of statutes known as “The Rockefeller Drug Laws” in New York State — passed just two short years after Attica — were set inside the frame of The Safe Streets Act -– a “get tough on crime” bill President Lyndon Johnson signed into Federal law in 1968.  COINTELPRO was already in full swing nationwide with a mandate to purge the Black Panther Party of its leadership by any means necessary. With Nixon now in office and impunity assured, the FBI and Cook County police entered the apartment of the incandescent and charismatic 21 year old leader of the Chicago Chapter of the Black Panthers and assassinated him as he slept in bed.  A colleague, Mark Clark, was murdered as well.  Marshall “Eddie” Conway, the Minister of Defense for the Baltimore Chapter of the Black Panthers, had a police killing put on him and was convicted in 1971 during a highly irregular trial that would see him sent to prison for the next 43 years and 11 months.  State prosecutors changed his sentence to time served and released him in 2014.  He’s back in Baltimore working as a producer of his own show called “Rattling the Bars” on the Real News Network.  Those are only a couple of altogether too many examples of state sponsored extrajudicial killings and show trials the ruling class now had carte blanche to commit.

The Safe Streets Act on the federal level acted as an inspiring template for Rockefeller’s 1973 statutes on a state level.  Enacting mandatory life sentences without the possibility of plea or parole for all drug users, dealers and those convicted of drug related violent crime, those NY State statutes are still in effect albeit in somewhat modified forms.  And with their passage, the Carceral State of Amerika, a blastoma with lethal tendrils nurtured in the oxygen rich dirt of The Great Society and the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, began a decades long process of legislative one upmanship.

From a powerful piece by Robert Perkinson appearing in the Boston Review in 2008:

Since Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation to fix sentencing and eliminate parole in 1977, the state’s prisoner population has shot up 790 percent.  Since George Deukmejian took the helm in 1983, California has built twenty-four major new prisons, making its “golden gulag” the biggest state penal system in the United States.  Once famous for its public universities, California’s largest state agency is now its department of corrections, with an annual budget of $10 billion.

Perkinson sites journalist Sasha Abramsky who laments that for those charged with dealing narcotics, especially crack cocaine, mandatory prison terms routinely exceed those meted out to Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg.

But for pure evil, towering above all the rest in terms of unmerciful carceral structures drawn along the ever widening socio-economic gash of race and class, was President Bill Clinton’s crafting and passage of the Omnibus Crime Bill of 1994.  In a December 2012 article for Truthdig, author and civil rights activist Chris Hedges writes:

The Omnibus Crime Bill, pushed through the Senate with the help of Joe Biden, appropriated $30 billion to expand the nation’s prison program.  It gave $10 billion in federal matching funds to local governments to hire 100,000 new police officers over five years.  It provided $10 billion for the construction of new federal prisons. It expanded the number of federal crimes to which the death penalty applied from two to 58.  It eliminated an existing statute that prohibited the execution of mentally incapacitated defendants.  It instituted the three-strikes proposal that mandates life sentences for anyone convicted of three “violent” felonies.

Clinton also eradicated prison education programs, to a large extent, thus guaranteeing reflexively large rates of recidivism for increasingly privatized prisons thirsty for bodies to fulfill business models dependent upon cells choked to maximum capacity.  Corporate Amerika profited mightily in the years following the Clinton’s passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) -– the greatest mass castration of the working class since Taft-Hartley in 1947 -– through the ability to outsource labor to lower cost venues like Mexico, initially, and later the Far East.

Due to the indispensable nation’s defining characteristic of exceptional indifference, it’s less well known that the corporate state has profited enormously through the process of insourcing.  Exploiting surplus labor, disproportionately black and brown unemployed bodies that don’t make corporations a dime on the streets but behind bars can generate up to $40,000. a year processing meat for McDonald’s hamburger patties, staffing call centers or sewing garments, often through subsidiaries, for Victoria’s Secret, Nordstrom’s, Fruit of the Loom and others.  Insourcing, capitalism’s answer to unemployment, where your labor component makes as much as $1.25 an hour in Federal Prisons on a sliding scale to literally zero in states like Alabama, have assured a silent boon for shareholders and executives in many, many dozens of corporate household names like Target and, until recently, Whole Foods.  This is the boom of neo-slavery guaranteed in the 13th Amendment.  The Clintons made that happen on an industrial scale, doing in broad daylight what Republicans could only dream of around midnight.

From a recent 2015 article embracing an interview Hedges conducted with author and Princeton professor Naomi Murakawa, she makes the retrospective assessment that:

The strength of  ‘The New Jim Crow’ by Michelle Alexander is that, by equating mass incarceration with Jim Crow, it makes it rhetorically impossible to defend it.” “But, on the other hand, there is no ‘new’ Jim Crow, there is just capitalist white supremacy in a state of constant self-preservation.

The numbers are staggering.  Murakawa states that beyond the 700% increase of people locked up in the profusion of steel and concrete gulags between 1968 and 2010, “Counting probation and parole with jails and prisons is even more astonishing still.  This population grew from 780,000 in 1965 to seven million in 2010.”

On March 1, 2015, journalist Tom Robbins saw his 7,000 word sequoia “A Brutal Beating Awakens Attica’s Ghosts” published on the front page of the New York Times.  The preferred and unedited version of the piece can be found on the outstanding Pulitzer Prize winning site The Marshall Project, named after civil rights icon and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.  The expose surrounds a gruesome and sadistic beatdown on the evening of August 9, 2011 of 29 year old Attica inmate George Williams at the hands of a number of corrections officers –- three in particular.  Beaten and kicked mercilessly and then thrown down a flight of stairs, Williams suffered two broken legs, broken shoulder, broken ribs and a severe fracture of his eye socket among other injuries.  It took three and a half years of judicial foot dragging and bullshit in rural Wyoming County – and not until the day after Tom Robbins’ piece was published – for the three white officers to plead out to one misdemeanor in order to avoid jail time.  They lost their jobs, kept their pensions and can’t ever work in a NY State correctional facility.  George Williams gets to know when its going to rain 20 minutes before everyone else for the rest of his life.

The legacy of Attica is a nation where breathing while black is a crime punishable by death. Another day, another black body — whether holding down a corner or holding a toy gun, driving while black, standing while black, running while black, laying on the ground unarmed with hands in the air while black, it doesn’t matter.  They’re shot dead in the street with the rank impunity of a now fully paramilitarized law enforcement arm of  the ruling class -– and then another city burns.  The infrastructure of schools bears no aesthetic difference to jails so when the transition happens there is no surprise.  The affluent board themselves up in gated communities and venture out in SUV’s only a paint job removed from the military version used to quell riots.  The legacy of Attica is a volitional blending of the two parties to a point of the indistinguishable.  I’ve sat next to Democrats voting for Hillary who literally channel George W. Bush when they say, “the terrorists hate us for our freedoms” and we’d better “fight ’em over there before we have to fight ’em here.”  The legacy of Attica is a gutting of the Voting Rights Act and the steady stream of tepid, loose stool by the “progressive left” who use their intellect in ways that finally reveal what intellectualism is, at bottom –- a toothless defense mechanism for the sullied, the supine, the sold out.

The legacy of Attica is the corporate psycopathy of carceral laviathans like Corrections Corporation of America – or CCA – that cull data from grade schools to aid in fleshing out their growth projections.  Or feral companies like Aramark, with contracts to sell toxic shit to contracted prisons and call it food.  Or supra-national prison and security conglomerates like the GEO Group that run nightmarish halfway houses across the United States that prey on the vulnerable in ways that few have written about with the clarity and pathos of global civil rights attorney, and the former 19846-052, Stanley Cohen, Esq. in his blog Caged But Undaunted.

The legacy of Attica on its 45th anniversary this coming Friday, September 9, 2016 will also be a nationally coordinated prisoner work stoppage.  From the formal announcement:

On September 9th of 1971, prisoners took over and shut down Attica, New York State’s most notorious prison.  On September 9th of 2016 we will begin an action to shut down prisons all across this country. We will not only demand the end to prison slavery, we will end it ourselves by ceasing to be slaves.”

Slavery is alive and well in the prison system, but by the end of this year, it won’t be anymore. This is a call to end slavery in America.  This call goes directly to the slaves themselves.  We are not making demands or requests of our captors, we are calling ourselves to action.  To every prisoner in every state and federal institution across this land, we call on you to stop being a slave, to let the crops rot in the plantation fields, to go on strike and cease reproducing the institutions of your confinement.

The full text of the document can be found here.

I can only hope for the greatest success in this legacy of Attica and that it takes hold like a California wildfire in far more than the projected forty or fifty prisons across 24 states.  I wish every inmate withholding their labor in resistance to corporate neo-slavery my strength, my voice, my solidarity and my love.  Get in where you fit in and lend your support in any way you can.

As Stanley told me recently:

We live, we fight, we die.  And somewhere in between we MUST fuck this shit up.

Anthony Tarrant no longer toils for healthcare in retail fashion's corporate mills. He lives and writes in Costa Rica, a poor country filled with incredibly happy people with no standing army since 1948. He can be reached at: anthonytarrant2@gmail.com. Read other articles by Anthony.