On this day in 1971, the white authorities of Attica State prison in the so-called liberal state of New York – desperate to restore some semblance of order amongst the concentration camp-like conditions they’d imposed upon their primarily African-American inmates – embarked on a murderous and racist policing so brutal, so terminal and so careless of the lives of the innocent hostages, that their end-game proved to the world what Malcolm X had declared to be the case on page 271 of his autobiography: that the so-called liberal white Northerner was not one iota less racist than his Southern opposite number, just more devious in the manner in which he controlled “the Negro”.
As the Black Revolution gathered ever-increasing momentum in the wake of the deaths of Dr. King and Malcolm X, the criminal justice system – unconcerned by the implications – chose to deal with its black activists not by isolating them all, one per prison across all fifty states, but by herding them together alongside true hoodlums and everyday criminals, thereby politicising all and every one of them, each prison with an African-American presence thereby rendered into a revolutionary cell. When on 9th September 1971 the foolishness of this policy began to unravel, the witless authorities responded with as many bullets as it took to bring them victory.
How had it come to this? Three months earlier, the inmates of Attica had issued a manifesto condemning the inhumane conditions and brutally racist treatment at the hands of the all-white correction officers, who frequently assigned high-profile black prisoners to insulting tasks with demeaning titles, and regularly assaulted them with so-called “nigger sticks”: batons reserved solely for black inmates. Tensions mounted further when George Jackson – a high-profile leader of the Black Panther Party – was, on 21st August, murdered by the authorities of St. Quentin prison. In this milieu of pent-up frustration and anger, the Attica authorities’ decision to move two inmates into solitary confinement triggered a sudden revolt. More than one thousand inmates seized control of the prison; holding forty guards as hostages, they issued their “Five Demands”: federal takeover of the prison, better conditions, amnesty for the crimes committed during the revolt and the removal of the prison’s superintendent. In their statement, the leaders of the rioters criticized the “unmitigated oppression wrought by the racist administrative network of this prison throughout the year,” and the “ruthless brutalisation and disregard for the lives of the prisoners here and throughout the United States.”
New York’s Governor Nelson Rockefeller responded to their demands with silence. But a neutral team of observers – including several high profile journalists – engaged in four days of negotiations with the prisoners, and were reporting positive results to the outside world when, out of the blue, Governor Rockefeller ordered the re-taking of Attica State. And, on 13th September, a state police helicopter started dropping tear gas over the yard and walkways where the inmates were holding the hostages. Within six minutes, 2,200 lethal missiles had been discharged. The use of shotguns, with their imprecise range, increased the bloodshed, and ten hostages and twenty-nine inmates were killed in the carnage. The inmates were then ordered to strip naked, lie down in the mud and crawl back to their cells – whilst the authorities beat them with their “nigger sticks”.
Caught on film and world-widely reported, Attica State prison riot – ‘the bloodiest prison confrontation in U. S. history’ – beamed a terrible warning, for it took place over a thousand miles from the outside world’s stereotypical view of racist Southerners. Occurring high in liberal upstate New York, this defining event at America’s radical crossroads showed both African-Americans and non-whites throughout the wider world that hopes of integration were – as the visionary Malcolm X so often emphatically stated – just as unlikely in the cosmopolitan, industrialised North as in the cotton-picking South.