Lessons from Attica: From Prisoner Rebellion to Mass Incarceration and Back
Fyodor Dostoevsky observed that “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Our guest Dr. Heather Ann Thompson reports in her recent article “Lessons from Attica: From Prisoner Rebellion to Mass Incarceration and Back”, that according to the Prison Policy Initiative, by 2011 the United States was confining “more than 2.4 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 2,259 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,283 local jails, and 79 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and prisons in the U.S. territories.”
Dr. Heather Ann Thompson:
It’s important to really examine the broader history of prisons and criminal justice because trying to explain how we became the world’s outlier with so many incarcerated and such a hugely disproportionate number being persons of color, we have a lot to explain.
- Something very clearly happened after the 1960s to our criminal justice system, even more specifically after 1971. Clearly it had a lot to do with the rebellions of that period.
- Sorting all that out is what I’ve been doing for the last decade.
- It’s somewhat similar to what happened after the Civil War, sort of the first great moment of civil rights unrest in this country when we had 4 million newly freed African-Americans demanding a real voice in our society, and meaningful equality.
- The response of that society, in that case the South, was to change all the laws. To all of a sudden criminalize black spaces in new ways, and almost overnight southern prison institutions not only exploded in population but they went from being all white to all black.
- You fast forward to the 1960s and I think something similar happened.
- Many northern politicians begin to conflate urban protest and unrest against the slow pace of Civil Rights gains with crime, and began a war on crime in 1964 with Lyndon Johnson, before there was an actual rise in crime.
- We need to know much more about the people that were inside the prison walls.
- What happened in the American prison system that we see today, that seems to be the ultimate control, the ultimate punitive penal state?
- One of the longstanding lawyers in this case, Elizabeth Fink, fought this battle on behalf of the Attica brothers for decades and decades. These are the people who are the real repository of that history.
- My role as a scholar, what I tried to do, was rescue for the American public some of those hidden histories. You had a 4-day rebellion, bringing together 1,300 men inside of a penal institution that were willing to stand together, black, Puerto Rican, white, and say to the state, we’re willing to negotiate with you logically and in good faith to try to improve the conditions under which we live.
- What made it so remarkable was the world’s attention was focused on it. Everybody was watching Attica.
- But ultimately, New York state was unwilling to give in on the most important demand, which was amnesty.
- Amnesty meaning once they surrendered, they would not be charged for any riot-related crimes that the state would allege they’d committed, and an assurance that they would not face reprisals.
- State troopers retook the prison in an utter brutal fashion. They mowed down people, first with tear gas then guns, handguns, deer slugs, shot guns, killing scores of people, wounding scores of people.
- Then, realizing the blood bath, officials stood outside and told the world that the prisoners were the ones that killed the hostages, and from then on tried to control the story, cover up what really happened. That began the 40 year saga of trying to tell the truth of what happened at Attica.
- Had I not met people like Elizabeth Fink who could help me understand this story, and had I not spent ten years digging in every nook and cranny to try to uncover the story, this would have been a difficult story to tell, because the state has gone to enormous lengths to keep a lid on it.
Guest – Dr. Heather Ann Thompson is a native Detroiter currently on faculty in the Departments of African American Studies and History at Temple University. In 2015 she will be joining the faculty of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Thompson has just completed the first comprehensive history of the Attica Prison Rebellion of 1971 and its legacy for Pantheon Books.
We bring you to a press conference held in New York City last week at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR). The Center is representing Professor Steven Salaita, along with the Chicago civil rights law firm of Loevy & Loevy. Salaita was hired and then discharged before he could even start his job last summer at the University of Illinois. He was hired by the American Indian Studies program after a thorough vetting. After Israel attacked Gaza, an attack in which some 2,000 people were killed, including 500 children, Salaita tweeted several what were termed “uncivil” messages on his Twitter account. This was brought to the attention of Zionist donors to the University of Illinois who then pressured Chancellor Phyllis Wise to rescind the hiring. Professor Salaita’s case is probable the most important academic freedom case in 50 years; not since the ’60s when the Supreme Court overturned the non-communist “loyalty oath” has an issue of this importance arisen. Some 6,000 professors have vowed to boycott the University of Illinois.
Greece’s Left-Wing Coalition Wins Parliamentary Election
Last week, in a historic election, the Greek people voted in the anti-austerity party of Syriza, led by Alexis Tsipras, winning 149 seats of the 300-seat Parliament. In the previous 8 years, the Greek people have demonstrated massively, occupied government buildings gone on more than 30 general strikes. Now they’ve formed a party to take back power in government to effectuate a program that will call for cancellation of debt, nationalization of the banks, and expropriating closed factories. Will their attempt to alleviate much of the misery of the Greek population succeed? We’ll see.
- Austerity in Greece means 26 percent unemployment for at least 3 years, 60 percent unemployment for people under 30, which has caused 200,000 college graduates to leave the country in the last 2 years.
- Greece had the lowest pensions in the EU.
- Wages, which were the lowest in Europe, were cut by about a third.
- Prices in Greece are about the same as elsewhere in the EU.
- 300,000 businesses failed as of 2013.
- What austerity does, having taken away people’s money, is raise the property tax and raise the gas and electric taxes.
- It’s a pretty desperate situation, with food lines, et cetera. There’s been a mass movement from the bottom.
- There are a lot of small left-wing parties in Greece.
- What Syriza did was put together a coalition of left parties. That was very difficult to do because within the coalition there are Trotskyists, there are Eurocommunists, environmentalists, anarcho-syndicalists, and so getting to all those people into one room and agreeing on a program is not a very easy thing to do.
- Syriza itself isn’t a traditional party. It is a coalition of parties that probably will transform in time perhaps into a coherent party.
- I would say that if anything characterizes the profile of Syriza, it’s very anti-Stalinist. It wants to go from the base up and talks a lot about horizontalism.
- It’s quite a weak economy and it will take decades to repair.
- In the minds of the leadership, capitalism and prosperity are incompatible.
- The steps they want to take are very modest, beginning with changing some of the cuts they made in the past, and beginning to deal with the corruption and tremendous waste of money.
- The same day he was inaugurated, Alexis Tsipras went to Kaisariani, where 300 Greeks were massacred by the Nazis as they were departing Athens. Most of the people massacred were communists or resistance fighters. Going there after being sworn in as prime minister and laying a rose on the graves, he really served notice on the Germans that the days of us kowtowing and being bullied by you are really over and don’t you dare call us pigs anymore.
- People who contact me say that people are euphoric in Athens.
- We realize that the loans to Greece are really self serving. For instance, Goldman Sachs arranged for Greece to enter the Eurozone in the first place with a totally fraudulent cash arrangement.
- They loaned Greece money at a special rate so Greece could pay off its debt to look like it was solvent, and then issued new bonds at even higher rates.
Guest – Dan Georgakas, regular columnist for the National Herald, the leading Greek-American weekly newspaper in the US. He is co-author of Detroit: I Do Mind Dying and co-editor of Solidarity Forever: An Oral History of the IWW. He was a frequent contributor to the now-defunct Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora and the Journal of Modern Hellenism. Dan has taught at NYU, CUNY, Van Arsdale Labor College, Columbia University and the University of Oklahoma.