Saturday, 4 May 2013

Attica's 1971 Prisoners' Rebellion

Inmates of Attica State prison raise their hands in clenched fist salutes Sept. 10, 1971, as they voice their demands during a negotiation session with New York's prison boss, Commissioner Russell Oswald. The Commissioner subsequently agreed to some of the 21 demands listed by prisoners.
Inmate negotiating committee with Commissioner Russell G.Oswald in D-yard, Thursday, September 9, 1971. Sitting (elbow on table, wristwatch) is Richard Clark. Half-rising is Carl El Jones. Standing (behind Jones) Herbert Blyden, Frank 'Big Black' Smith, Roger Champen, L.D. Barkley, and an unknown inmate who has broken into the negotiation.
Attica, N.Y. 9 September 1971 - Black Panther Party leader Bobby Seale, left, is flanked by state police as he enters riot-torn Attica State Correction Facility 9/11. Seale entered the maximum security prison to talk to inmates just before it was learned that a guard died as a result of injuries suffered during the 9/9 takeover.
Tom Wicker (centre) took part in the negotiations and wrote a famous book about the Attica massacre called 'Time to die'. 

read all about it:

George Jackson, murdered at San Quentin on August 1971, was inspiration for the Attica inmates to start the Uprising...

George Jackson
I woke up this mornin’ there were tears in my bed
they killed a man I really loved, shot him through the head.
Lord, Lord, they cut George Jackson down
Lord, Lord, they laid him in the ground
Sent him off to prison for a seventy-dollar robbery
they closed the door behind him and they threw away the key.
Lord, Lord, they cut George Jackson down
Lord, Lord, they laid him in the ground
He wouldn’t take shit from no one, he wouldn’t bow down or kneel
authorities, they hated him because he was just too real.
Lord, Lord, they cut George Jackson down
Lord, Lord, they laid him in the ground
The prison guards, they watched him and they cursed him from above
but they were frightened of his power, they were scared of his love.
Lord, Lord, so they cut George Jackson down
Lord, Lord, they laid him in the ground.
Sometimes I think this whole world is one big prison yard
some of us are prisoners, some of us are guards.
Lord, Lord, they cut George Jackson down
Lord, Lord, they laid him in the ground
written & performed by Bob Dylan 
Copyright © 1971 by Ram’s Horn Music; renewed 1999 by Ram’s Horn Music
It is eerie and uncanny that such tragedies as George Jackson's death and the bloody Attica uprising have happened within 21 August and 13 September 1971. It is exactly when I was in the midst of preparing my big trip to the United States. I wouldn't have had the means to know about George Jackson's death because I didn't follow the Black Panther's activities but I remember quite well reading about the Attica uprising in a Brazilian newspaper while I was preparing myself to fly to the USA in another 2 weeks.

It is strange when I come to think about my being identified with the political Left without ever being in a political party. It must have been the result of my being religious at a young age and then going on to 'graduate' in the fight for justice and peace. 

I was concious Brazil was a bloody dictatorship even though most of Brazilians who lived in the US was apolitical. They were actually very ignorant of most things. The Brazilian junta had a censorship programme that would ban any foreign film or song that would not conform with their view of the world. So, as soon as I got to New York I wanted to see movies that had been banned by the 'pigs': Ken Russell's 'The Devils' with Vanessa Redgrave was one of such flicks that I went to see. Stanley Kubrick's 'A clockwork orange' was another. John Lennon's single 'A working class hero' had been banned too. 

Anyway, when I went to the USA in October 1971, I already had a sense of justice and I knew exactly what side of the political fence I belonged. I was glad to realize that folk-singer Joan Baez had a smash-hit with 'The night they drove Old Dixie down' playing on the New York radio stations and on juke boxes in the Ironbound, the Newark Portuguese-Hispanic ghetto. I could not believe my eyes when I saw a Brazilian bumpkin put a dime in box slot to listen to a Joan Baez song!

George Harrison had organized two big concerts in New York's Madison Square Garden to raise money to help in the terrible famine in Bangladesh due to a war of independence. Bob Dylan had been the highlight of such a concert that took place on August 1st, 1971. In November 1971, Columbia Records releases Bob Dylan's 45 rpm single 'George Jackson' about the tragic event of 21 August. I bought the single because I was a Dylan fan, but didn't know much about George Jackson himself. 

Concert for Bangladesh - Sunday, 1st of August 1971

Newark, N.J. in October 1971

I could say I arrived in the USA when things were really humming. Little did I know that my future best American friend was in midst of the hell that was happening in the Attica facilities in those September days. 

I had a cultural shock when I first arrived in the USA on 2nd October 1971. I soon realized I did not understand English as I imaged I would. Suddenly, English was like Greek or Russian to me. I had trouble ordering simple foods like 'hot-dog'. Street vendors would not understand what I said. Maybe I didn't open the vowels enough. Maybe I didn't speak loud enough. 

I couldn't follow the news anymore because I didn't understand what I heard on the radio. I used to tune my transistor radio on New York's WINS 1010 - all the news, all the time - but I hardly knew what subject-matter they were talking about. I could sort out words like 'Vietnam' or 'President Nixon'. 'Police Corruption' was, perhaps, the first words I understood coming from the radio. There must have been some 'police corruption inquiry' going on in New York in the fall of 1971. 

Maybe if I had a TV set it would have been easier to grasp the meaning but no one I knew then had a TV set in their room. Most of us lived in rented rooms, not on proper households. I had to rely on Brazilian newspapers and magazines to know what was happening in the USA. Isn't it dreadful? I eagerly waited for Thursdays for Brazilian newspapers to arrived at 'Tia' on 112 Ferry Street in the Ironbound. I usually bought daily 'Folha de S.Paulo' and 'O Pasquim' a satirical & political weekly printed in Rio de Janeiro. 

I knew the Black Panther Party existed but living in the Portuguese-Hispanic ghetto in Newark I was as far from them as from the moon. Brazilian fellows were afraid of American Blacks. They were usually from the country-side in Brazil with very little formal education and believed any crap they heard from other non-educated hicks. Some of them were so ridiculous as to believe in stories of Black men robbing poor Brazilians and even cutting off their fingers because their rings wouldn't get off their fingers. I remember a fellow warning me never to go further than Broad Street, Newark's main drag because Blacks lived on the other side and they were mean. Maybe those ignorant Brazilians heard such nonsense from immigrants who lived in Newark during the 1967 riots and those stories were exaggerated from one teller to the next.  

One of the first things I noticed when I arrived in the US in the Fall of 1971 was Blackmen's colourful clothes. The first week I arrived I bought myself a marvelous yellow hat but soon I noticed that Brazilians frowned at it so I stopped wearing it. 

Eventually I met some Black men at the record factory I worked but talking to them was next to impossible due to the language barrier. 

Attica Prison Uprising as seen by 'Jornal da Tarde' a Brazilian newspaper 

Jornal da Tarde, 14 September 1971. 

Jornal da Tarde, 16 September 1971. 

16 September 1971 - Barely 15 days before I boarded a Varig DC-10 plane towards John Kennedy Airport in New York, the Attica Uprising came to a bloody outcome... 

Little did I know I would meet one of the (former) Attica inmates that took part in the Uprising when I went to work at the Catskills in New York State in the spring and summer 1976. 

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