On this day in 1971 the prisoners at Attica State Penitentiary in upstate New York revolted against their keepers, taking dozens of prison guards hostage and demanding better living conditions. Eventually, Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered a brutal invasion of the prison, leading to the deaths of many prisoners and several guards. The Nation, not in those days much of a voice for violent insurrection or black nationalism, published an editorial that holds up surprisingly well today, cogently reiterating the prisoners’ arguments and expressing sympathy for their plight. As The New York Times reported earlier this year, brutal treatment of prisoners at Attica continues unabated to this day. Many have rallied for the closing of the prison, but it seems unlikely that would change the underlying realities about the American penal system described in this Nation editorial, “Slaughter at Attica.”
There was undoubtedly a lunatic fringe among the inmates—those who demanded their release to a “non-imperialist power”—but the great majority of those who took part in the insurrection were rational men. Some were rational in the sense that all they wanted was better living conditions and the respect due them as human beings. Others were rational in a revolutionary sense: they were ready to die rather than continue to submit to society’s treatment of them. They died, and they won.…
These prisoners were politicized, using the term here not primarily with respect to whatever ideological convictions they may have held, but in the sense that they were aware of themselves as a considerable group sharing common experiences and goals. The uprising at Attica very little resembles prison riots of the past, when goaded men suddenly began beating on their cell bars, hurling their food to the mess hall floor and screaming obsenities at their jailers. This was group action, not mass hysteria. It is the latest, but not in all probability the last, manifestation within a penitentiary of what for lack of a better term is called today black nationalism. But Attica was not a racist movement; blacks and Puerto Ricans were predominant in the resistance, as they predominate in the prison, but many whites stood with them. It was a class action—the class of the disinherited. When men who have nothing discover that they have one another, they combine into units that are incalculably formidable. That is why the words of sane and compassionate men must be heeded. American prisons have never been institutions; they have always been receptacles. But prisoners are not garbage. It is bad enough—indeed, it is probably wicked—that we deprive them of their freedom, but from now on if we also take from them all hope of a future, we may expect Attica to become the name for a new kind of war.
To mark The Nation’s 150th anniversary, every morning this year The Almanac will highlight something that happened that day in history and how The Nation covered it. Get The Almanac every day (or every week) by signing up to the e-mail newsletter.