This week I’m reviewing two zines collaboratively made by Lewis Wallace, Micah Bazant, and others. Both are free to download and are totally awesome.
A Story of Attica
By Project NIA, with contributions by Mariame Kaba and Lewis Wallace.
Illustrated by Katy Groves and designed by Micah Bazant.
28 pg. at half-letter size
In a recent review, I wrote about the George Jackson Brigade, a radical direct action group in the 1970s motivated by the murder of imprisoned Black Panther activist George Jackson. While the George Jackson Brigade may not be so widely known, this zine concerns another political consequence of Jackson’s murder that is much better known: the uprising at Attica Correctional Facility.
The population at Attica, in upstate New York, was largely young, largely Black, and much, much larger than what the prison had been built for. In 1970, Attica Liberation Front, a radical study group, helped give shape to the prison population’s anger and frustration with a list of demands to improve conditions in the prison.
The Front gained support throughout the prison by joining the sports teams to have an opportunity to interact with prisoners in other blocks. I was excited to learn this fact, as it is definitely the best and most intelligible reason I have heard for being involved in team sports.
However, the issuance of their demands only provoked harsher treatment, compounding tensions in the prison, which were subsequently ignited by George Jackson’s murder. After a series of non-violent protests, the prisoners took over Attica on September 9th, 1971.
On September 13th, 43 people, guards and prisoners alike, were shot to death by the police and the National Guard, wresting control back from the prisoners. While the uprising drew worldwide attention to prison conditions in America, it also provoked violent reprisals against the prisoners of Attica.
Valuably, this zine includes oral histories of prisoners who lived through the uprising and the subsequent reprisals. Frank Smith’s detailed and unsparing account of being beaten and tortured by guards who accused him of being a leader in the uprising is very difficult to read, but it is the kind of thing that you should know about.
I have an awesome friend named Kristin, who is very involved in activism and research around prison abolition. She recently took a PR tour of Attica, and had the following interesting and profoundly horrifying story about it:
“A long-term correctional officer talked about a shift between the 80s and 90s in the kinds of prisoners entering Attica—a politicized and organized group of inmates was replaced by people with histories of crack addiction, who were quick to lash out against guards and other prisoners when faced with even ‘minor’ personal inconveniences, but weren’t very interested in collective political action.
The officer recounted an episode from 1981 in which thousands of prisoners at Attica showed solidarity with the 1971 riots by eating their meals together in total silence for several days, and he talked about how scary that was for him to witness. He concluded that the rise of crack was one of the best things to have happened to the prison”.
As this zine points out, there are over three times as many Americans in prison in 2009 as in 1970. The lessons of Attica are as relevant as ever to America and the world. With this in mind, the zine also includes Information about current prison strikes and uprisings, and the conditions that provoked them. This is much appreciated, cause I find it important to learn about radical history to have a sense of continuity and tradition, and equally, to understand that these struggles continue.
The zine also includes poetry by men who were imprisoned at Attica at the time of the uprising, an extensive list of resources, and expressive, angular illustrations by Katy Groves showing key moments and quotations from the uprising.
All in all, the zine is a handy primer, which seems to be intended more for someone who is not especially familiar with the history of Attica. That said, the materials it collects and the analysis it offers are interesting and thoughtful, so it would also be of interest if you’ve already done some reading about the ground covered.
- Lily Pepper