Fifty years ago, nearly 1,300 men would stand together in this nation’s most historic uprising against brutal prison conditions at the Attica State Correctional Facility in upstate New York. The night before, however, many of those same men were so upset they could barely speak or sleep.
Mere minutes before it was time for lights out on September 8, 1971, four correction officers had come to one of the tiers of A block to drag a 23-year-old named Larry Dewer out of his cell and take him off to segregation—the dreaded HBZ Block—for an earlier infraction. Suddenly, though, from his cell came the horrible sounds of screaming, furniture breaking, and glass shattering. Unable to see what was going on, and terrified for their friend’s safety, the other men in the nearby cells began banging on their bars and demanding that the COs “Leave that kid alone!” But then, almost as soon as there was chaos, all was quiet. And, as the men looked on in horror, the four guards walked past them carrying Dewer’s utterly limp body. To a man, they feared he was dead, or soon would be.
This fear that one of their own had just been killed by correction officers had everything to do with why Attica would erupt into a full scale uprising the very next morning—and why it would take an action this dramatic to jolt the officials even to consider reform. In short, the human rights violations at Attica were just that systematic, and that endemic.
The fact that police brutality was as dreaded, and expected, as that of correction officers had already led to countless dramatic rebellions outside of prison walls before Attica. By 1971 it had begun to dawn on activists in cities and correctional facilities alike that law enforcement—whether in inner-city school yards or rural prison yards—when directed at Black and brown citizens too often resulted in injury or death and, therefore, should be made accountable in both places, simultaneously.
It was, in fact, the very connectedness between the activism gaining momentum on city streets and that erupting in cellblocks across the nation that so agitated politicians such as Richard Nixon, giving him the white “Silent Majority” voter resentment he so depended upon. Indeed, it was the serious fear of what such connectedness might produce that fueled government programs like COINTELPRO. This fear is also what led the FBI and Chicago police to instigate the so-called Panther shootout in Chicago in 1969—in fact the outright assassination of key leadership of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. It was also what led Governor Nelson Rockefeller to order the brutal retaking of Attica exactly 50 years ago today. At the time, officials claimed that prisoners had murdered 10 hostages by slitting their throats. In fact, state troopers had killed every one of those men, as well as 29 prisoners, and had shot a total of 128 unarmed men—guards and the incarcerated alike—within a span of just 15 minutes.
It was crucial to state officials that the public be given their version of events: that the Panthers were violent—not the police who murdered Fred Hampton and Mark Clark—and that Attica’s rebel prisoners were the animals, not the troopers who had actually shot everyone in D Yard on the 13th. The unvarnished truth about the preponderant source of violence in the 1960s and ’70s—state violence—would have simply been too destabilizing. That is, unless officials really were willing to contemplate genuine change.
In 2021, they may finally have to at least consider it. From Ferguson to Minneapolis, it is clear that the United States has once again entered an era of rebellion against law enforcement violence and what has become a seemingly epidemic level of police killing of unarmed Black and brown residents of this nation—no matter what neighborhoods they live in, what cars they drive, what park they play in, what store they shop in, what school they learn in, what corner they stand on, or what street they happen to be walking down.
However, not all of those in the streets waging this movement for greater law enforcement accountability have fully understood the common cause that they share with the unarmed citizens who live behind the walls of our prisons and jails. To be sure, the myriad men, woman, and children on the inside who also suffer injury and even death at the hands of officers may be out of sight and out of mind for most of the their fellow citizens—but the trauma they suffer is no less important or real.
Injuries and even deaths in America’s jails—where people are held before having been convicted of any crime—has become alarmingly common. As Reuters notes, “the government won’t even release jail-by-jail death data.” Thankfully, though, we have the vigilant death-in-custody research of scholars such as Michele Deitch as well as the determination of the family members of the victims of officer killing who refuse to have their loved ones’ deaths be forgotten.
And from these sources it’s very clear that officer-related deaths happening on the inside are eerily like those that take place on the freeways and dark alleys on our nation’s cities. From Michael Moore (in a Kentucky jail for being drunk but died from blunt force trauma to the head after being slammed into a concrete wall by guards while in a restraint chair) to Harvey Hill (beaten to death while handcuffed in a Madison County, Mississippi jail) to Sandra Bland, people die behind the walls in circumstances that are immediately suspect. But without a crowd filming what had just happened, jailed victims do not get the public scrutiny, the outrage, or the marches to demand accountability.
Prisons are even less transparent in many respects than jails—and can be even more brutal. Officers in these facilities have subjected America’s incarcerated—people merely trying to serve their sentences so they can return home—to everything from gladiator fights, to attacks dogs purely for the purpose of terrifying them, to beatdowns that have nearly killed them, to torture and beatings that have ended in death. The very few guards who have dared to speak out against such brutality have been severely retaliated against—even driven to the point of suicide—by fellow correction officers.
Activists working for justice may miss the important ways in which police officers who patrol the streets of this nation and correction officers who patrol the tiers and yards of this country’s jails and prisons share a culture of contempt for the rights of people of color that they themselves do not. In the 50 years since Attica, law enforcement as a profession has sought to broaden its umbrella, to expand the brotherhood, and to bring other like-minded “officers” into the fold—from security officers to parole officers to truant officers to TSA, Border Patrol, Rangers, Federal Marshals, and ICE. Together they have embraced a militarized, often racialized, vision of “us versus them.” They have also come share not just a world view, but common tactics. The same fatal results arise from using the choke hold and other restraint maneuvers behind bars that arise from using them on city streets—but few notice or seem to care. The same goes for the abusive deployments of tasers. Prisons everywhere have embraced the use of so-called tactical extraction teams modeled on the most aggressive SWAT and DEA tactics used in inner city drug raids.
All of this matters. It does less good to mobilize against use of the the choke hold or the Taser or aggressive SWAT raids in the community when the same brutal tactics can still be used—without any accountability—behind prison walls. It is less of a victory to stop police officers from being able to injure or kill unarmed citizens of color on the streets, if those same police can arrest them—and a correction officer can then injure or kill them with impunity.
Standing at the negotiating table 50 years ago this week, Attica Brother Flip Crowley stood with a microphone in his hands, his voice cracking with emotion, trying to convey to the nation exactly what was at stake in the struggle that he and the rest of the men inside that maximum-security facility were waging. “If we cannot live as people,” he finally said, “then we will at least try to die like men.” By 2021, far too many men have died for the right to be treated as human beings at Attica. It is now up to all of us—both on the outside and inside of the walls—to demand accountability, and justice, in both places. And this time around, it is imperative that those on the ground get to tell their own history, as it really happened, so that those who wish to keep things just as they are don’t get to hijack the future with their spin.