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HomeAbout NBHRNHuman RightsRemembering Attica

Remembering Attica

Dennis Cunningham,Michael Deutsch, & Elizabeth Fink:


Editor’s Note: This article will appear in the September issue of Prison Legal News. It isexcerpted from a longer article available on our website at

This year, September 9th will mark the 40th anniversary of the rebellion at Attica State Prison in upstate New York. As one of the prisoner leaders, L.D. Barkley, announced tothe world, the rebellion was “but the sound before the fury of those who are oppressed.” The sound of Attica was heard cloud and clear, but the fury at the time was reserved tothe assault force: several hundred violently angry white state police and prison guards,who carried out the massacre that ended the rebellion on September 13, 1971, with 43men dead. The fury of the oppressed themselves has been a work in progress since that time… L.D. was one of many politically aware prisoners in New York and elsewhere who identified with the struggle for liberation world-wide, with consciousness growing outthe civil rights movement, the urban uprisings of the 60’s, and the ideology and practice of Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party. Much of it was given voice in the writingsof George Jackson and Eldridge Cleaver, especially “Soledad Brother” and “Soul on Ice”,whose searing indictment of injustice, racism, and cruelty in the prisons in California echoed across the country, and inspired resistance. A Manifesto demanding reformand urging resistance had come out of California’s Folsom Prison in 1970 and made its way around the Country and into Attica, and the prisoners there had delivered one of their own to NYS authorities, which was ignored, several months before the rebellion. George Jackson was assassinated at San Quentin on August 21, 1971; a few days laterthe prisoners at Attica staged a surprise protest at breakfast, during which nobody ateand nobody talked. The guards were stunned at the unanimity of it, and unnerved.

A number of the prisoners had been involved in previous, smaller rebellions in theTombs jail in New York City and at the state prison at Auburn. Various chapters ofpolitical groups on the outside had formed inside, including the BPP and the PuertoRican Young Lords, and the Black Muslims had large, organized contingent at Attica,as in all the prisons in the state at that time. Political literature flowed freely, and thegroups were often able to gather in the exercise yards and various work and otherlocales in the institution. Grievances against the guards, the administration and thesystem were many, and widely shared, especially on the part of the Black and Latino prisoners, who came mainly from New York City, and almost all the rest from otherbig city environments like Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester. The entire staff at Attica at thetime was white except for one Puerto Rican officer, who worked in a watchtower andhad no contact with prisoners; and the surrounding rural area of Western New York State which they came from was mostly what some call “up South”, to denote the levelof racial antipathy and outright bigotry endemic in the local population, and thus theprison work force. At the same time, there was a strong and growing belief among the prisoners that theyhad clear-cut rights under the Constitution, that guaranteed fair and decent treatment,and freedom from discrimination; that, despite years of peaceful petition and advocacy,their rights were largely ignored by the prison administration; and that many kinds ofnastiness and brutality they experienced from the white guards were a matter of policy. Many prisoners had come to feel that something had to be done. Dennis Cunningham, Michael Deutsch, and Elizabeth Fink, along with Joseph Heath, werestaff attorneys at Attica Brothers Legal Defense in Buffalo throughout the criminal trial phasewhich ended in February, 1976. They continued as lawyers for the Attica Brothers in the civilsuit that was begun in 1974 and finally ended in 2001.

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