Via Workers World News Service
Reprinted from the Sept. 19, 1996
issue of Workers World newspaper

By Judi Cheng

Sept. 9-13 is the 25th anniversary of the Attica Prison 
uprising of 1971. Today, with prisons in this country 
overflowing and conditions inside them worse than ever--with 
ruling-class officials pushing for more prison construction 
and throwing more and more working-class youths, especially 
Black, Latino and Native, into the prisons--it's worthwhile 
to look back to Attica.

Because when 1,500 men in Cell Block D took over Attica 
Prison in a courageous act of rebellion, they provided an 
example of class solidarity, unity, and worker consciousness 
that is more relevant than ever today. They showed that the 
workers, including the most oppressed, those literally in 
chains, have the potential to shake the ruling class and 
fight the system.

The uprising came in a period of upsurge. The Black 
community was rising against racism. The Black Panther Party 
was organizing African Americans to challenge the racist 
ruling class.

Young people were fighting to end the Vietnam war. The 
women's and the gay-liberation movements had begun.

There were bitter clashes. Altogether, the National Guard 
was called on 324 times between 1968 and 1970 to crush 
various struggles and protests.

Troops shot and killed students at Jackson State and Kent 
State Universities in 1970 for protesting the U.S. bombing 
of Cambodia. Armed guards in Ohio suppressed a Teamsters 
strike. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King had both been 

All this was reflected inside the prisons, where racist 
oppression was expressed most intensely. And prisoners' 
struggles were increasingly finding support on the outside. 
In California, the Soledad Brothers had won wide support in 
their struggle.


Eighty-five percent of Attica's prisoners were Black and 
Latino. Attica, like most U.S. prisons, was a concentration 
camp. A ghetto. A factory.

The prisoners were political prisoners. Oppressed and 
poor. Victims of a history of racism and discrimination.

The prisoner never sees a lawyer. He is prevented from 
defending himself. He is isolated, raped, harassed, 

Hygienic conditions were atrocious. Medical care was 
practically non-existent. Mail was read and censored.

Prison life had become unbearable.

New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller--grandchild of the most 
notorious robber baron of them all, and himself a direct 
representative of the billionaire ruling class--ran the 
state prisons as forced labor camps.

In New York's prisons as in the rest of the country, labor 
is practically free. This helps hold down wages for employed 
workers on the outside. Attica, like all prisons, was a 
sweatshop. The average pay was 40 cents a day for 
manufacturing mattresses, shoes and license plates.

Today, 25 years later, this situation has intensified 
tremendously. In 1971 at Attica, things came to a head.

Increasingly, there were confrontations between the shock 
troops of the racist oppressor class--Attica's all-white 
correctional staff--and the prisoners.

The prisoners seethed with anger. They were bitter about 
conditions in their communities and the injustice of the 
criminal system.

At the same time, social awareness among inmates was 
spurred by the development of groups such as the Black 
Panthers, Young Lords and Nation of Islam. Discussions and 
meetings took place in the exercise yard.

Authorities reacted by transferring and punishing 
suspected leaders and "troublemakers."

When news came that the state had killed George Jackson at 
San Quentin Prison in California on Aug. 21, Attica inmates 
organized a hunger strike. Many wore black armbands.

Jackson was the most famous political prisoner of the day, 
as a leader of the Black Panther Party. His book "Soledad 
Brother" was passed from prisoner to prisoner inside Attica. 
His revolutionary writings had a tremendous impact on the 
prisoners' consciousness, and his death led directly to the 
uprising that came a little over two weeks later.

Finally, as with any group of workers working under 
unbearable conditions, the prisoners decided to go on 
strike. Among other things, they were fighting for an eight-
hour work day and union rights.

But in prison, when workers strike it is a direct 
rebellion against the authority of the state.


On Sept. 9, the prisoners in D Block took over Attica. 
They seized prison guards as hostages to force the state to 
address their demands.

All the prisoners--Black, Latino and white--stood united. 
A number of politically conscious white prisoners, some of 
them in Attica for crimes of opposition to the Vietnam war, 
recognized the leadership of the Black and Latino brothers.

They presented a list of 27 demands covering legal rights 
and repression, work, food and hygiene, and other crucial 
issues regarding prison conditions.

Four key demands went to the crux of the rebellion--and 
demonstrated the prisoners' high political consciousness. 
They demanded that the warden be removed. They demanded that 
all participants in the uprising receive full amnesty. They 
demanded union recognition.

And they demanded safe passage out of the United States to 
a non-imperialist country.

Fully aware that the state authorities were enraged and 
preparing to crush the rebellion, the prisoners then called 
for an observers' committee to come to Attica. The committee 
was to be made up of representatives of independent 
organizations. They would come to D yard to monitor 
negotiations between the prisoner representatives and New 
York state prison officials.

The year before the Attica uprising broke out, a group 
called the Prisoners Solidarity Committee had been organized 
by Youth Against War and Fascism, the youth arm of Workers 
World Party. The PSC was formed in response to a request for 
help from prisoners at Auburn, N.Y. When the Auburn 6 went 
to trial, PSC members had demonstrated in support of them, 
even in blizzard conditions.

When the Attica rebellion broke out, the PSC moved quickly 
to raise money and rent buses so prisoners' relatives could 
get to the prison compound.

When the Attica brothers in D Block called for formation 
of the observers' committee, they requested a PSC 
representative be part of it. Prisoners trusted the PSC 
delegate, Tom Soto, to get their messages to their families 
and friends.

Also in the observers' committee were representatives of 
the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords Party, New York 
State Assemblymember Arthur O. Eve, lawyer William Kunstler 
and others.


Outside, the PSC was working with others to help get legal 
assistance to prisoners and their families. PSC organizers 
helped give voice to the prisoners' demands. While Soto was 
inside with the prisoners, a PSC delegation was outside 
demonstrating unconditional support for the prisoners' 

Throughout, the pressure on the prisoners was unbelievably 
high. They knew their lives were at stake. But their 
solidarity and unity never wavered. They never broke ranks. 
And they never gave up.

On Sept. 12 the prisoners announced there could be a 
peaceful resolution to the conflict if Rockefeller would 
open negotiations with them. Instead, he dispatched National 
Guard, state troopers and deputized prison guards to re-take 
the prison by armed force.

The assault came on Sept. 13.

Rockefeller ordered a military attack on the prison. It 
was a murderous assault that even meant killing 10 of the 
state's own, its prison guards. This was an acceptable 
sacrifice in the larger interests of protecting the state 
and the ruling class.

A thousand state troopers, sheriff's deputies, and prison 
guards armed with automatic weapons and nausea gas stormed 
the prison. After 15 minutes, the assault had left 28 people 
lying dead and hundreds wounded on the 55-acre grounds.

State officials, aided by compliant news media, put out 
the lie that the prisoners had slashed the throats of the 10 
guards who died. Autopsies later proved that, like the 18 
murdered prisoners, they had all been killed by gunshots 
from the state's assault, ordered by Nelson Rockefeller.


What were the Attica prisoners fighting for? Freedom from 
oppression for all poor and working people. Their demands 
were simple, reasonable, and just.

The prison authorities tried to divide the prisoners--but 
they remained united, even in the face of death. And their 
valiant insurrection inspired prisoners around the country 
to fight on.

A wave of prison rebellions spread like wildfire. Walpole, 
Mass. Leavenworth, Texas. Atlanta, Ga. Terre Haute, Ind. 
Wayne County, Mich. Alderson, W.Va., Comstock and Elmira, 

In all, some 200,000 prisoners expressed solidarity with 
the Attica brothers and their fighting spirit.

Today, the prisoners' struggle for freedom continues to be 
part of the working-class struggle. As jobs disappear and 
wages fall, more and more of the poorest workers end up in 

Prisoners are the most oppressed, most ill-treated, most 
brutalized segment in this racist society. But Attica proved 
that revolutionary people can change the world.

In five days in 1971, thanks to the brothers at Attica, 
workers and oppressed people got a glimpse of what could be 
possible, if the workers could take over in a struggle with 
the ruling class: working to create a humane society, unity 
and class solidarity, rejection of racism, and workers' 

Just as July 14 is marked in France as Bastille Day--
commemorating the 1789 day when the masses stormed the hated 
Paris prison, freeing inmates and propelling the French 
Revolution forward--the Attica rebellion should be 
recognized in this country. Instead, the ruling class has 
tried to consign Attica to a lesson in prison mismanagement.

But it was much more than that. It was a shining moment in 
the history of the working-class struggle against racism and 

                         - END -

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