Forty years ago this month, The Nation published an editorial, “Slaughter at Attica,” in the wake of the bloodiest prison massacre the country had ever seen. The bloodiest, not for the actions of the more than 1,200 incarcerated men who seized a prison yard and took thirty-eight guards hostage in a spontaneous revolt at New York’s notorious maximum-security penitentiary. But for the official response five days later, on September 13, 1971, when state troopers, with the blessing of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, unleashed a lethal aerial assault, dropping tear gas from helicopters and shooting hundreds of rounds of gunfire into that yard, leaving twenty-nine prisoners and ten hostages dead.
The editors quoted Newark Mayor Kenneth Gibson, who called the suppression “one of the most callous and blatantly repressive acts ever carried out by a supposedly civilized society on its own people.” His statement is striking today for its language: that prisoners—staging an insurrection, no less—would be referred to not just as “people” but as people elected leaders would publicly claim as their “own” runs counter to all modern political tendencies. Consider Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s initial response, upon being asked whether prisoners on Rikers Island, many of them juveniles awaiting trial, might be included in the city’s unprecedented emergency protocols in the face of a threatening Hurricane Irene. “We are not evacuating Rikers Island,” he said with an air of annoyance, as if the question was absurd on its face. (Later the mayor would clarify that the jail was “perfectly safe,” but as the New York Times would point out, “no hypothetical evacuation plan for the roughly 12,000 inmates that the facility may house on a given day even exists.”)
The basic fact that prisoners, too, are human is one that society has yet to accept. “WE are MEN!” the Attica inmates wrote in a manifesto addressed to “the people of America.” “We are not beasts and do not intend to be beaten or driven as such.” At the top of a list of “demands” was the basic request that officials “provide adequate food, water, and shelter for all inmates.” Others included “adequate medical treatment,” “realistic, effective rehabilitation programs,” “true religious freedom,” an end to “censorship of newspapers, magazines [and] letters” and, tellingly, “a program for the recruitment and employment of a significant number of black and Spanish-speaking officers.”
This last point spoke to an open secret about Attica. “The prison was a hotbed of racism,” The Nation declared in a disgusted editorial a year later, following the official report by the New York State Special Commission on Attica. “The prisoners were almost all black or Puerto Rican; the guards were all white—and drawn from the particular caste of whites whose chief delight is persecution of those of another race.”
Indeed, as the civil rights struggle fought to defend its victories outside prison walls—and as prisoners organized and educated themselves politically—at Attica, segregation ruled. “The white inmates who are sympathetic to the blacks are treated by the officers on a very low scale,” an African-American prisoner named Robert Matthews told members of the commission in 1972. “When they see a white prisoner fraternizing or getting chummy with a black inmate…they try to crush it.” At Attica, a white prisoner, William Jackson, testified, “being white is an asset, you know…. The worst thing is to be black and militant.” But the uprising at Attica crossed racial boundaries. Prisoners found unity in the sense that they were all being treated as less than human. Jackson, imprisoned for selling marijuana, explained that he refused to have his children come to see him, “because if they want to see an animal, they could go to a zoo.”