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Why Attica Still Resonates

On September 9, 1971, prisoners incarcerated at the Attica state penitentiary in New York rose up in rebellion. After a four-day long insurrection 33 prisoners and 10 prison employees lay dead. The name Attica still resonates as a symbol of the inhumane treatment that America metes out to 2 million of its people.

Americans love to think of themselves as “democratic,” “developed,” “advanced,” or “civilized” when comparing themselves and their nation to the rest of the world. The self-serving deception is typical but preposterous in the country with the largest percentage of its population and the largest number of people overall locked away in prisons.

The response to the liberation movement of the 1960s and early 1970s was the creation of a gulag stretching from sea to shining sea. Despite the Attica rebellion, New York state was no exception. Democratic governor and liberal icon Mario Cuomo created 30 additional prisons by using funds meant to build low income housing. Not only has the number of prisoners expanded around the country but so has the number of ways in which they can be exploited.

The image of prisoners breaking rocks or making license plates is a relic of old movies. Now they are exploited in for-profit prisons and forced to work for corporations or the prison system itself for little or no pay. The 13th Amendment, which ended slavery, deliberately excluded imprisonment from the ban on involuntary servitude. The exploitation of prisoners is enshrined in the Constitution. If the call center voice on the phone isn’t from India it is probably coming from a prison right here in America.

The corporate media ignore the prison protests which have occurred with increasing frequency in recent years. Work stoppages began in Georgia in 2010, and continued in Alabama in 2014 and in Texas and Ohio this year. Not only are prisoners used to fatten the bottom line for corporations by making uniforms for McDonald’s employees or car parts for Honda, they and their families must pay exorbitant rates to make phone calls. They are charged for substandard medical care. Incarcerated women are limited in the amount of feminine hygiene products they can use and are shackled while giving birth.

The list of oppression is a long one and that is why incarcerated people themselves have issued a “Call to Action Against Slavery in America” to take place on September 9, 2016 (*link 9/9). They hope to damage the profit making apparatus of the prison system by refusing to work.

It is up to truly advanced and civilized people to help make the struggle known. A cursory glance at any American city or town shows people of all races walking about freely, working or spending leisure time. But the insidious nature of the prison system hides the worst and most persistent inhumanity in this country. Half of the people locked away are black and they are out of sight and thus out of mind. But they have courageously called for the work stoppage and remind us why our efforts are so important.

“…we need support from people on the outside. A prison is an easy-lockdown environment, a place of control and confinement where repression is built into every stone wall and chain link, every gesture and routine. When we stand up to these authorities, they come down on us, and the only protection we have is solidarity from the outside.”

One of the founders of the Free Alabama Movement is Robert Council. He has steadfastly maintained his innocence despite serving more than 20 years for murder. Still in solitary confinement after leading the 2014 work stoppage, he explains the importance of the tactic. “We were begging [officials] to please follow the rules. Please have mercy on me. We’re asking some people to have mercy that just don’t have any mercy. That revelation brought us to the fact that you can’t appeal to the moral [part] of a system that doesn’t have morals.”

The mass incarceration system is inherently merciless and immoral and it must be exposed. There should never again be a call to lock more people away or to further criminalize any violent or non-violent offenses in this country. Racist hysteria about dead beat dads, drug kingpins and super predators has been used to ruin thousands of lives and make money for governments and big business. The call to action must be heeded and the people fighting against the worst cruelty in the country must be supported.

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Margaret Kimberley writes the Freedom Rider column for Black Agenda Report, where this essay originally appeared. 

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