The Attica Uprising, 40 years later

The Attica Uprising, 40 years later
The Attica Uprising, 40 years later

Forty years ago today, the Attica Uprising ended with more than three dozen deaths, prisoners, guards and civilian employees at New York’s Attica Correctional Facility.

The “how” of this story is well-documented. But why did the riots happen at New York State’s largest (and most secure) prison? In a moving piece published in The Nation last week, Asha Bandele describes the spark that lit the flame:

On August 21, George Jackson, prisoner, author and field marshal for the Black Panther Party, was shot and killed at San Quentin Prison in California for allegedly trying to escape his sentence of one year to life for robbing a gas station of seventy bucks. Jackson’s seminal work, Soledad Brother, a collection of prison letters published the year before, had firmly planted him in the seat of the hearts of people the world over, but with no group more so than America’s prisoners. The official explanation for killing him—that he’d hidden a gun in his afro—was summarily rejected by many, especially black prisoners who viewed it as an execution.

The next day, at Attica, the response to Jackson’s death was a silent prayer and fast. Eight hundred men—African-American, Latino and white—arrived for the first shift at the mess hall all wearing black somewhere on their clothing and sat in silence, refusing to eat. The staff knew something was brewing. Jackson’s death had sparked uprisings in other prisons. But Attica, with its fortress-like construction, seemed to an arrogant administration to be immune to such unrest.

It shouldn’t have.

For more coverage of this terrible anniversary, and how the Attica Uprising resonates still in the discussion about American prison reform and prisoners’ rights, click here, here, here, here and here. Have any more links? Post them in the comments.


Two additional looks at the Attica Uprising prove alternatively illuminating and disturbing. Reader clioprof linked the first in the comments below: a historical look from Temple University professor Heather Ann Thompson, who is writing a book on the uprising. Her piece details the bloodshed that resulted from then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordering New York state troopers and other law enforcement to quash the riot on September 13, 1971.

After that raid, the governor called President Richard Nixon to “claim victory unambiguously,” as yesterday’s New York Times report details. An interesting anecdote:

The next day, even after it was becoming clear that hostages had also been killed by sharpshooters, Nixon told Rockefeller: “You just stand firm there and don’t give an inch. Because I think in the country, you see, the example you set may stiffen the backs of a few other governors that may have a problem. But also in the country, too, I think that it might discourage this kind of a riot occurring someplace else.”

“Tell me,” Nixon asked, “are these primarily blacks that you’re dealing with?”

“Oh, yes,” Rockefeller replied, “the whole thing was led by the blacks.”

Later that afternoon, Nixon asked H. R. Haldeman, his chief of staff, whether reports from the prison included “the fact that it’s basically a black thing.”

“That’s going to turn people off awful damn fast,” Nixon said, “that the guards were white.”

The Attica Uprising, 40 years later