Death Over Dishonor: The Attica Prison Riot

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Racial tensions were at an all-time high at Attica Correctional Facility in New York during the summer of 1971.

Coming off the heels of the Civil Rights movement, many Black inmates perceived themselves as “political” prisoners and through their reading of books and newspapers were informed and active in the struggle for liberation despite existing behind bars.

At the time, Attica Correctional Facility was comprised of an entirely white staff in charge of a prison body with three-fourths minority inmates and more than half of those being Black.

Pressure mounted between the guards and inmates as the prison grew severely overcrowded and conditions were deplorable. Prisoners were only allowed one shower per week and one roll of toilet paper per month.

On September 9th, 1971 the inmates reached their tipping point after a brawl broke out in the common area.

Several prisoners pressed violently up against a faulty gate until it gave way granting them access to all the cell blocks which they subsequently opened.

Based on their brutal conditions, the Attica prisoners were left with no other options than to stand up for their rights and demand some semblance of dignity even if it meant violence.

Needless to say, all hell broke loose and a historic riot ensued. One guard was immediately fatally beaten and 40 other employees were taken hostage by nearly 2000 freed inmates.

Using makeshift weapons from handmade shanks, pipes, and bats the inmates gained control of the prison leading to a 4-day hostile takeover and stalemate.

Riot leaders put together a list of demands, including improved living conditions, more religious freedom, an end to mail censorship, and expanded phone privileges.

With no intentions of meeting the inmates’ demands, the New York governor called in the  National Guard and offered them an ultimatum to surrender.

With the inmates not backing down, a helicopter was ordered to fly offer the prison dropping tear gas and the national guard fired nearly 3000 rounds into the smoke killing 39 inmates and 10 hostages (and left 90 others wounded).

Even after the smoke dissipated, they continued executing prisoners no matter whether they were surrendering or not.

This was the bloodiest and most catastrophic prison riot in history. The tragic loss of Black lives as a result of riots is undoubtedly woven into the narrative of our collective struggle as we push forward for human rights, justice, and equality.

For us, often resistance comes before progress so we must continue fighting the good fight.

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