September 9, today, is the anniversary of the 1971 prison uprising at Attica Correctional Facility near Buffalo, NY. I was reminded of this in several ways. First, I re-watched the documentary William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe to prepare for attending the reunion of the Milwaukee 14 anti-war activists coming up this month. Kunstler was the lawyer for this group of clergy and lay people who burned draft files in 1968, and also one of the negotiators for the prisoners at Attica. See the film clip here.
Second, I became aware of the nationwide prison strike that began August 21 and was to continue through today. The demands of this current-day action, listed on the website of Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, are uncannily similar to the demands of the prisoners at Attica 47 years ago: an end to prison slavery and fair compensation for work; access to education and the ability to receive Pell Grants; an end to the censorship of reading material; denial of rehabilitation services; denial voting rights, excessive use of solitary confinement and more.
39 people were killed during the brutal crackdown at Attica that Kunstler and others had sought to avoid—29 inmates and 10 hostages (originally reported killed by inmates, but later proved to be killed by the bullets of the National Guard and police.) The videos I reference here are graphic and heartbreaking, including footage I had never seen of surrendering inmates stripped naked, forced to crawl through the mud of the yard amidst the dead bodies of their fellows and then run a gauntlet of guards who beat them and yelled “white power!”
I don’t need to say that a majority of those killed and incarcerated were African American, and like today, many of them were involved in political movements of the era. (See interview with former prisoner, in “Attica Uprising 40 years later” by The Nation.)
The U.S. prison population has grown to 6.9 million people either in prison, on parole, or on probation. Anniversaries are often a time of reflection, and I’ll admit, this is not a celebratory occasion. Hopefully, with reportage and communication better now than decades ago, those folks who read my blog will make the connection between the prisoners of Attica and those of today.