the attica uprising

I’ve written a couple of times before about why the notion that prisons are principally or even significantly about the exploitation of slave labor is harmful, but i want to reiterate a few points, hopefully with a bit more clarity.

The point of criticizing popular “left” narratives about prisons and slave labor is not to claim that the use of prisoners as slave labor for corporations doesn’t happen—it does—but to point out that the amount of outcry about prison labor relative to the numerous other issues that prisoners face is not at all proportional to the actual scale of the phenomenon.

The trouble is that by and large, the only time the large majority of leftists in the u.$. ever talk about prisoners is when the issue can be framed in stereotypical terms of labor and strikes. For example, there is in fact widespread resistance that happens every single year in u.$. prisons on the anniversary of the Attica uprising. But the only time i have ever seen this get significant play in leftist circles outside of prisons is when the September 9 resistance took the form of a labor strike. Then afterwards there’s total silence about prisoners again.

I saw an article being shared around a while ago about how much money the 10,000 or so prison laborers in California cost businesses by going on strike. This is all fine, but the problem is that there are around 130,000 prisoners in California, and no one ever gives a flying fuck about the 90+% of prisoners in California who don’t do any labor for corporations. The use of prison labor in Califronia also seems to be well above average. Nationally less than one half of one percent of prisoners are involved in labor for private firms.

It’s not that people should never talk about prison labor, but prison labor is the only thing most leftists talk about and when leftists try to make the issue with prisons primarily about labor, they have to ignore literally over 99% of the prison population, not to mention all of the other issues that those prisoners who do happen to perform labor for business also face.

Additionally, just like calling for an end to private prisons, calling for the abolition of slave labor in prisons is a demand that the State could easily grant without changing hardly anything about the realities actually faced by the overwhelming majority of prisoners. It would be one thing if leftists pushing for an end to private prisons and prison labor would go on to also tackle other issues like “tough on crime” laws, institutionalized sexual violence in prisons, widespread censorship of reading materials in prisons, or any number of other issues. But evidence suggests that they would not, considering that the only thing leftists talk about is prison labor and they are completely silent on everything else.

Making prisons about slave labor is a way that leftists on the outside can feign that they care about prisoners without actually ever addressing the real function that prisons have in the social control of internally colonized populations, and the corollary function of solidifying the Amerikkkan labor aristocracy, making sure the “good” jobs are still largely monopolized by Amerikans, depleting oppressed nations of their most significant resource (i.e. labor-power) so that it’s harder to challenge Amerikan dominance, and so on. Amerikan leftists are complicit in this process and refusing to investigate and draw attention to it extends that complicity.

“We are Men! We are not beasts and do not intend to be beaten or driven as such. The entire prison populace has set forth to change forever the ruthless brutalization and disregard for the lives of the prisoners here and throughout the United States. What has happened here is but the sound before the fury of those are oppressed.”

  Elliot L.D. Barkley, revolutionary inmate, speaking to media during the 1971 Attica Prison Uprising

ATTICA PRISON MASSACRE: Sept 13, 1971. A number of prisoners killed had, according to several witnesses, actually still been alive after troopers had control of the facility. One even at the time, however, National Guardsman Callahan could see that the abuses happening to prisoners following the retaking were fueled by outright racism. Callahan overheard one trooper bragging of shooting a black inmate with a .357 and watched him then give a “White Power salute.”.. [President] Nixon was clear to the men assembled that, in his view, “[N.Y. Mayor] Rockefeller handled it well” because, as the president put it, “you see it’s the black business…he had to do it.” To a one, these men felt strongly that this rebellion was of a piece with the revolutionary plots that had recently been hatched in the California system by black activists… from the Black Panther Party. [Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy]


Muhammad Ali - Attica Prison poem

[Today is the 46th anniversary of the Attica Prison uprising.]

Better far from all I see
To die fighting to be free
What more fitting end could be?

Better surely than in some bed
Where in broken health I’m led
Lingering until I’m dead

Better than with prayers and pleas
Or in the clutch of some disease
Wasting slowly by degrees

Better than of heart attack
Or some dose of drug I lack
Let me die by being black

Better far that I should go
Standing here against the foe
Is the sweeter death to know

Better than the bloody stain
On some highway where I’m lain
Torn by flying glass and pane

Better calling death to come
Than to die another dumb,
Muted victim in the slum

Better than of this prison rot
If there’s any choice I’ve got
Kill me here on the spot

Better for my fight to wage
Now while my blood boils with rage
Less it cool with ancient age

Better violent for us to die
Than to Uncle Tom and try
Making peace just to live a lie

Better now that I say my sooth
I’m gonna die demanding Truth
While I’m still akin to youth

Better now than later on
Now that fear of death is gone
Never mind another dawn

Activism & Awareness: A Reading List For The Holidays

It’s been a tough year, and many of us are trying to figure out where to go next. But education is essential before we take informed action, so do a deep dive into some of the issues we face in America with these books.

“…A poster-size spread read: ‘Kaddish—For Our Sisters and Brothers who fought and died in War-saw and Attica’. Prominent in the poster was a photograph of a demonstration against the actions taken by Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York to quell the uprising at Attica State Prison in September 1971. Rockefeller authorized the violent retaking of Attica by the National Guard; consequently, forty-three people were killed—all but one by gunfire from the National Guard. And after the National Guard regained control of the prison, numerous African American inmates were tortured by vindictive prison guards.

…Brooklyn Bridge directly connected the Jewish heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising with the African American dead and tortured victims of the Attica prison uprising, and it memorialized them all in equal (and equally religious and equally Jewish) terms. The excerpted Hebrew prayer read in part: 

May God remember the souls of the holy and pure ones who were killed, murdered, slaughtered, burned, drowned, and strangled … May their souls be bound in the bond of light together with the souls of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.”

Torn at the Roots: The Crisis of Jewish Liberalism in Postwar America. Michael E. Staub. 2004.

Today in history: September 9, 1971 – The Attica Prison uprising In the aftermath of the killing of political prisoner George Jackson in California prisoners at Attica State in New York rebelled and seized control of the prison with a list of demands for prison reforms an end to racism and brutality against prisoners. At Attica 54% of the inmates were black while 100% of the guards were white many of whom were openly racist The level of unity that developed among prisoners was nearly unprecedented There were four days of negotiations until then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered state police to take back control of the prison by brutal force When the uprising was over at least 39 people were dead and the prisoners were subjected to extreme brutality and torture The example of the Attica prisoners uniting and standing up for their rights and dignity in the face of such intense repression inspired people around the world