39 were killed and many more brutalised in the historic uprising – may they rest in power
For her guest edit in the Infinite Identities issue of Dazed, Chelsea Manning selected seven vital activist voices from around the US to answer a single question: What, for you, is the most under-discussed issue affecting the trans and non-binary communities in America today? Here, the incarcerated trans activist Comrade Alyssa gives her answer: we need to remember the Attica uprising of 1971. (Donate to Alyssa’s GoFundMe here.)
Sisters Janet Mock, Ashley Diamond, Janetta Johnson and Chelsea Manning are leading the fight for the LGBTQ+ community. But let’s not forget our elders who fought for our rights in the past: Ms Major, Ms Sylvia Rivera, and Ms Marsha ‘Pay It No Mind’ Johnson. The prisoners of Attica.
Attica has been misunderstood for years. The doors to the prison were opened in 1931 with strict instructions to make conditions oppressive, suppressive and racist. By doing this, they were able to create Stockholm syndrome among the prisoners and the makings of a (modern day) slave (system).
(The prison authorities) realised they were in control of 80 per cent of the prison population, but continued to institute distrust and disunity amongst those prisoners they feared and could not control. In this way, they were able to keep prisoners killing each other for four decades and, 40 years after Attica was opened, they created the perfect conditions for the deadliest prison uprising in American history.
“These prisoners – may they rest in power – were treated in this way to show America why prisons were needed... enslaving people of colour and slowly stripping away their constitutional rights”
When the prisoners tried to have peaceful interactions with the state, they failed. They pleaded with the governor, Nelson Rockefeller, to come to Attica, because his presence might at least assure the inmates that the state would honour any agreement it made with them and prevent any reprisals should they end their protest. But even though the prisoners protected the guards and civilian employees they had taken hostage, Rockefeller would not consider their pleas. Instead, he carried out an assassination against those housed at Attica.
On the morning of September 13, 1971, Rockefeller gave the green light for helicopters to rise suddenly over Attica and blanket it with tear gas, which the state troopers knew would blind, choke and incapacitate the prisoners and the hostages. Five hundred heavily armed state troopers rushed in firing a storm of bullets, killing 29 prisoners and 10 hostages. And the brutality did not stop there.
Incredibly, state officials claimed that the prisoners killed the hostages. Meanwhile, all surviving prisoners were tortured. Enraged troopers and correctional officers forced these prisoners, many of whom had been shot multiple times, to crawl naked across shattered glass (while) a gauntlet of fists, gun-butts and nightsticks rained down on their bodies.
These prisoners – may they rest in power – were treated in this way to show America why prisons were needed, and why they would need additional funding to build more secure prisons to ensure that this would not happen again. This would go on to create more profit over the years, at the same time enslaving people of colour and slowly stripping away their constitutional rights.
Brothers and sisters (and siblings) – let’s not let our elders die in vain.