From Attica to Daunte Wright

In the 2021 documentary Attica, the brutal truth about the official reaction to the most deadly US prison uprising unfolds in riveting footage from the prisoner protest that left 33 inmates and 10 correctional officers and prison employees dead and led to the prisoners’ rights movement. That movement, for prison reform, faced its own rollback in the law and order universe of the US political system of the 1980s and 1990s, a bipartisan putsch to show how tough politicians could be on crime. As many Black people learned following Reconstruction, prison was the conduit by which much of the US South imposed slavery once again on Black people. Mass incarceration in the contemporary US has resulted in the same condition for masses of people.

Despite intense negotiations during the Attica prison uprising, involving notable leaders such as attorney William Kunstler, all but three inmates and one prison guard were killed by state and local police at the state prison in the town of Attica in western upstate New York. There was a total disregard for those willing to surrender as the siege by police began and loudspeaker/bullhorn admonitions for prisoners to put their hands above their heads were met with gunfire. Some believe that prisoners who led the uprising were specifically targeted by police during the siege.

Prisoners spent 14 to 16 hours a day in their cells, their mail was read, their reading material restricted, their visits from families conducted through a mesh screen, their medical care disgraceful, their parole system inequitable, racism everywhere. (Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 1980).

To Howard Zinn’s description of conditions at the upstate New York prison can be added that Spanish-speaking prisoners rarely got their mail, as there was no one who spoke/wrote Spanish among prison censors.

The Jim Crow repression of the post-Reconstruction era came home like a plague to the system of incarceration. Michelle Alexander writes in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010), that this morphing of racism reared its ugly head in the masses of people, including masses of Black people (and also brown and white people), who were locked away in a repressive and a violent prison system.

Solitary confinement became a routine method of punishing people, a recognized form of torture. Many people who were no longer of use to a deindustrialized society were warehoused and often found their way into prison and sometimes long abandonment in solitary confinement.

The most telling parts of the documentary Attica involve the conversations about the uprising between New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and President Richard Nixon. Nixon, true to form, encourages the governor of New York to take a law and order hard line against the prisoners. Nixon comments about the Black prisoners in an obvious nod to racism. Rockefeller was being groomed for national office. Just over a year before, Nixon, who had made political hay out of anticommunism in Congress, labelled the protesters against Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia during the Vietnam War at Kent State as “bums,” a slander which translated into years of protest and activism of trying to get the history of Kent State right. Tragically, despite decades of heroic efforts to prove the conspiracy that those like Nixon and his ilk unleashed against the antiwar movement, the history of the Kent State University massacre has never been resolved. Just over a week after the Kent State massacre by members of the Ohio National Guard, police murdered students at the historically Black Jackson State College in Mississippi. Readers do not need a Ph.D. in history or the social sciences to interpret what was, and is, going on in these examples.

The most riveting parts of the Attica documentary are the scenes where police hollered “white power” before the mass murder in the prison yard. Following the massacre, many surviving inmates were humiliated and tortured. Among the favored techniques of torture and humiliation were forcing inmates to crawl on the ground while being beaten and forcing inmates to crawl through excrement in the prison yard.

History at Attica in 1971 does not precisely repeat itself in the contemporary system of US courts and prisons and violence against people of color, but history certainly does rhyme. Police murder of Black and brown people takes place frequently and the prison system in the US remains outrageously medieval. There are crimes and criminals that society needs to be protected from, but there are social and economic and political forces operating in contemporary society that facilitate the existence of many crimes and many criminals. Work, decent living places, food, and educational opportunities would go far toward lessening the draw of crime and the system of laws that place so many in the prison system. The US has only sporadically and poorly faced its history of blatant racism.

A Time to Die: The Attica Prison Revolt by Tom Wicker (1976) is a good primer on the revolt. Wicker was present during the uprising and was a New York Times reporter.

This is a BBC timeline from 2014, with the police murder of Eric Garner, to 2021, with the murder of Daunte Wright by police.

A young man, Kalief Browder, spent three years from 2010 to 2013, jailed in New York City’s notorious Rikers Island, during which time he was beaten. He was held for allegedly stealing a backpack and having been allegedly involved in a bakery truck incident, an incident that Browder later claimed he had witnessed as a bystander. Kalief committed suicide following his release from Rikers. Many people find their way into Rikers through the notoriously unjust system of plea bargaining, another medieval facet of the so-called criminal justice system where prosecutors offer a lesser sentence to those accused of crimes with the threat of long or longer prison sentences if the plea is not accepted. The latter makes a mockery of standing trial before a jury of one’s peers. Innocence is often not considered in these so-called plea deals.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).