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Attica Blues: prison revolts, the Black Panther Party and Muhammad Ali

By Martin Smith | 16 July 2017

The Attica Uprising (pic credit AP/Bob Schutz)

When I was in prison, I read an article – don’t be shocked when I say I was in prison. You’re still in prison. That’s what America means: prison.
–– Malcolm X

San Quentin Prison in California was the setting for Johnny Cash’s live recording and film – At San Quentin. He was not the first and he was definitely not the last musician to perform in front of the prisoners and guards. In 1966, Frank Sinatra and the Count Basie Orchestra performed there and, as an act of solidarity, Country Joe and the Fish and the Grateful Dead played outside the prison walls to the delight of hundreds of inmates in 1969.

However there is one San Quentin Prison concert that was not recorded, not documented in any official report and has only recently come to light.

Originally titled Soul Day at San Quentin Prison took place in May 1971. It was a day-long event of music, dancing and speeches organised by a prisoners’ organisation, with the help of the newly formed San Quentin Prison Chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP). Despite massive opposition from the prison governor the event was renamed “Malcolm X Day at San Quentin”.

Curtis Mayfield was the headliner and Muhammad Ali was the guest speaker. What the prison authorities were unaware of was the supporting band was none other than The Lumpen.

The Lumpen was the Black Panthers’ very own house band. They were funky, they sang about revolution and rebellion and – just as importantly – they were good. Band member William Calhoun takes up the story:

Curtis Mayfield was there, Muhammad Ali was there, we were there and believe me they didn’t know we were coming. They cut us off almost as we got started.

The founder of the San Quentin Prison Chapter of the BPP was George Jackson. Was he there that day? Nobody knows but his spirit certainly was.

Soledad Brother

I’ve been patient, but where I’m concerned patience has its limits. Take it too far, and it’s cowardice.
–– George Jackson

Any discussion about the US prison-industrial complex and the prison revolts of the late 1960s and early 1970s leads you to George Jackson, one of its most eloquent commentators and victims.

Jackson was born in Chicago in 1941. Aged 20 he was convicted of armed robbery (stealing $70 at gunpoint from a petrol station) and sentenced to serve “one year to life” in prison.

He would spend his entire adult life incarcerated, most of it in San Quentin State Prison. At San Quentin he met the inmate WL Nolen.

Nolen was a Marxist/Black Nationalist and he introduced Jackson to the works of Karl Marx, Mao Tse Tung, and black Algerian psychologist and revolutionary Franz Fanon. Jackson set up and led a revolutionary prisoners’ organisation called the Black Guerrilla Family.

Jackson’s involvement in revolutionary politics made him a target for the prison authorities. He was accused of assaulting prison guards and inmates. These false allegations were used to justify his continued imprisonment on an indeterminate sentence.

In January 1969, Jackson and Nolen were transferred from San Quentin to Soledad prison. On 13 January 1970, a prison officer shot and killed Nolen and two other black inmates. A few days later, a different white guard was found beaten to death in the prison courtyard.

Jackson, along with two other black prisoners, Fleeta Drumgo and John Clutchette, was charged with the guard’s murder. It was during this time that Jackson’s prison correspondence was published as Soledad Brother: The prison letters of George Jackson. The success of the book propelled Jackson into the spotlight and he became an internationally famous black militant.

George’s 17 year old brother Jonathan was politicised by his brother’s writings and desperate to free him from jail. On 7 August 1970, the police shot and killed Jonathan during his attempt to take over a California courthouse to free three San Quentin inmates and highlight his brothers case. The judge and two of the inmates were also killed during the botched kidnapping.

The front page of the Black Panther Party newspaper

In the summer of 1971, Jackson was sent back to San Quentin to await trial for his alleged role in the killing of the Soledad guard. While he was there he set up the San Quentin Chapter of the BPP and was made a national field marshal for the Panthers.

On August 21, 1971, Jackson was shot while allegedly trying to escape from San Quentin. Activists and thousands of prisoners refused to accept the official version of events and believed George was murdered in cold blood by the prison authorities. Subsequent investigations and reports support the claim that prison officers assassinated Jackson

In response to Jackson’s murder inmates across the US, including several hundred in Attica prison, in New York State, took part in protests and occupations. In her powerful book on the Attica uprising Heather Ann Thompson describes the solidarity protest the day after Jackson’s murder:

As Attica’s various companies were marched in their neat lines into the mess hall in silence, the COs [prison officers] noticed that most of the prisoners were wearing a strip of black cloth as an armband… A prisoner finally explained to one of them that the prisoners were staging a “spiritual sit-in” to protest the murder the previous day of the fellow prisoner George Jackson.

The Attica uprising

Attica Prison was a hell on earth. Close to 2,300 inmates were crammed into a facility built for just 1,600. The prison staff were all white even though over 60 percent of inmates were Black and Latino. The inmates were locked up in bathroom-size cells sometimes for 24 hours at a time. Most cells had no heating or air conditioning, so in winter temperatures could fall below freezing and in summer could rise as high as 46°C.

Prisoners were only allowed one shower per week and one bar of soap and roll of toilet paper each month, which meant the men were limited to one sheet a day. Their mail was heavily censored, the food allocation did not even meet the minimum daily legal requirements and medical neglect in the prison bordered on sadistic.

To buy even the most basic amenities such as toothpaste, toilet rolls, razors and shampoo inmates had to try and get work in the prison’s workshops. They were paid 40 cents a day. Between 1969 and 1970 the prison authorities made $1.2 million profit from the work of the inmates. This was the American prison-industrial complex in action.

Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s there were a number of rebellions and riots in US jails. These were inspired by the Black Power Movement, the struggle against the Vietnam War and the rise of radical and socialist groups.

In Attica members of political groups such as the BPP, Young Lords Party (YLP) and Nation of Islam played key roles in organising inside the prison and it’s worth noting that a large number of white inmates were also involved in the campaign.

From 1969 to 1971 there were a number of protests and petitions in Attica demanding improvements in prison conditions. But all protestors got were vague, unfulfilled promises of reform from the prison’s governor.

Attica prisoners holding a press conference on the first day of the seige (pic credit AP)

The uprising at Attica began on 9 September 1971. It started when a group of prisoners, fearful they were going to be attacked by prison guards, overpowered an officer and a mass riot ensued. The first few hours of the uprising were brutal. Several inmates were killed and a prison guard was beaten senseless and later died.

Over 1,000 inmates were involved – they controlled a number of prison blocks and the courtyards. Political inmates restored order and set about organising the defence of the occupation. Activists were assigned the roles of guarding and protecting the captured prison guards, organising the occupation and security. A list of demands was drawn up and some of the bravest and most committed activists were authorised to negotiate with the prison authorities.

The prisoners’ demands were for basic rights such as regular showers, soap, the right to legal representation at parole hearings, the right to read political newspapers and books and the right of prisoners to form trade unions.

Other demands included that the prison should be under the direct control of Federal Jurisdiction, that independent witnesses should review the prison conditions and negotiate the ending of the siege and that there should be an amnesty for all those involved in the uprising.

Negotiations on behalf of the prisoners were led by a group of journalists, politicians and prison reformers, including the civil rights lawyer William Kunstler, the New York Times columnist Tom Wicker and BPP member Bobby Seale. The negotiations lasted four days. The demand for an amnesty for all the prisoners was the one issue the state governor Nelson Rockefeller and US president Richard Nixon would not concede.

The aftermath of the uprising (pic Model Trigger AP)

To defend the prison occupation, trenches were dug and crude weapons were made out of wood and steel. As the siege and negotiations dragged on, inmates witnessed large numbers of troops assembling outside the prison. Believing the prison was going to be stormed the prisoners blindfolded several of the guards and forced them up onto the catwalks, knives visible at their throats. They threatened to kill them if the occupation was attacked.

Just before 10am on 13 September 1971, a National Guard helicopter dropped tear gas into the prison yard. Then some 550 New York State Police troopers, along with 200 sheriff’s deputies and prison guards stormed the prison.

Armed with shotguns and rifles they started shooting at the prisoners. The retaking of the prison was a bloodbath – by the end of the occupation 43 people were killed, 33 of them inmates. Another 85 inmates suffered gunshot wounds. Apart from the prison guard killed at the beginning of the uprising the other nine guards were all killed by their own side.

Prisoners stripped and tortured

The most sadistic crimes took place after the National Guard had taken control of the prison. Some of the leaders of the revolt were summarily executed. Prisoners were forced to strip naked and run through a gauntlet of 30 to 40 officers who took turns beating them with batons and some prisoners were forced to drink the guards’ urine.

The officer pulled out a Phillips screwdriver and told the naked inmate to get up on his feet or he’d stab the screwdriver into his rectum… Then he just started stabbing him.
–– National Guardsman James O’Day

In response to the brutal crushing of the Attica uprising, over 200,000 prisoners from all over the US took part in solidarity occupations and protests. They did succeed in highlighting the terrible conditions of US prisons and won some temporary improvements in prison conditions.

But more than 45 years after the Attica uprising prison conditions are even worse. According to the NAACP civil rights organisation, one in every 37 adults in the US – 2.7% of the adult population – is under some form of correctional supervision. In 2014, African Americans constituted 2.3 million, or 34%, of the total US prison population.

Attica Blues

If we can’t live as men, we sure as hell can die as men.
–– Attica prisoner

The Attica rebellion impacted on US culture. John Lennon and Yoko Ono recorded a powerful condemnation of the assault by the National Guard called Attica State and the jazz giant Archie Shepp recorded Attica Blues. But the last words should go to the main guest at the San Quentin prison event – Muhammad Ali.

He wrote a powerful poem, Freedom – Better Now, in the wake of the massacre. You can read his words below. But far better is to watch the video link below of Ali reading the poem on Irish TV. Watch it though to the end to see how Ali links the struggle against racism in the US with the fight for Irish independence.

Freedom – Better Now

Better far — from all I see —
To die fighting to be free
What more fitting end could be?

Better surely than in some bed
Where in broken health I’m led
Lingering until I’m dead

Better than with prayers and pleas
Or in the clutch of some disease
Wasting slowly by degrees

Better than a heart attack
or some dose of drug I lack
Let me die by being black

Better far that I should go
Standing here against the foe
Is the sweeter death to know

Better than the bloody stain
on some highway where I’m lain
Torn by flying glass and pane

Better calling death to come
than to die another dumb,
muted victim in the slum

Better than of this prison rot
if there’s any choice I’ve got
Kill me here on the spot

Better for my fight to wage
Now while my blood boils with rage
Less it cool with ancient age

Better violent for us to die
Than to Uncle Tom and try
Making peace just to live a lie

Better now that I say my sooth
I’m gonna die demanding Truth
While I’m still akin to youth

Better now than later on
Now that fear of death is gone
Never mind another dawn.



3 comments

  1. Alan fair said:

    Hi, I remember watching Cinda Firestone’s disturbing documentary about the uprising back in 1977. I was lucky enough to be running the Sussex University film society where we screened the film to a packed audience and had, as I remember it, a very long and heated debate afterwards. My lasting memory of watching the film was a mixture of anger and awe..The bravery and commitment of the inmates compared to the cruelty and venality of the prison authorities left an abiding memory. I wonder if it is still possible to see the film?
    Peace
    Alan

    18 July 2017 at 8:00am
  2. Martin Smith said:

    It”s a great documentary, I was first drawn to it because of the films poster artwork – the drawing of a figure with a raised fist pushing through prison bars. Sadly it is not available to buy on DVD and neither is it available on line. It would be good if a left film club obtained a copy a put it on. Thanks for your comments.

    18 July 2017 at 9:19am
  3. Neale said:

    Martin,

    Well done for writing up this grim and inspiring history. I knew about the Jonny Cash concert, the Black Panthers and the US profit driven prison/workhouse system, but not about the Attica uprising, the brave George Jackson, his comrades and Muhammad Ali’s poem. Keep on keeping on…

    19 July 2017 at 9:20pm

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