50 years ago, one of the largest prison rebellions in United States history took place only a mere 40 miles to Rochester’s southwest in Attica, N.Y. The Attica prison uprising would ultimately go down as one of the largest prison uprisings in the United States, a turning point in the prisoners’ rights movement, and one of the deadliest examples of state power as New York forces killed 29 inmates, 10 correctional officers, and injured at least 80 inmates while retaking the prison. The Rochester Education Justice Initiative (REJI) hosted a panel on Friday, Sept. 10 to discuss the Attica uprising and its meaning 50 years later.
Panelist and Attica survivor Dolph Stergis was only 16 years old when the prisoners took control of the grounds and recalled an extremely segregated institution.
“It’s very racist; we couldn’t play sports together. Whites couldn’t play against Blacks, they couldn’t play together. We couldn’t communicate,” Stergis told the audience. “If they caught me talking to a white guy. It was a problem. You got smacked up, kicked in the butt, you know? And same thing would happen to them.”
Inmates were segregated throughout their time within Attica, even having separate lines for whites and Blacks at the mess hall. Despite extreme segregation, conditions in the prison were horrible enough to inspire an uprising. Corrections officers frequently tortured and beat inmates, according to survivors’ testimonies.
“I was in on the south side of Attica […] in the last cell right by the elevators, so they smart, they know they got to have cameras on you, and they take you to the to the box now so they don’t beat you until they get you off the back of the elevator. And that’s where you get in the box now so they can turn the camera off. So this is where they do their thing, you know?” Stergis told the audience while recalling some of the horrific things he had seen. “I’ve seen Jamaicans with dreads pulled out of their hair.”
Inmates overtook Attica on Sept. 9, 1971 and issued a list of demands which included humane living conditions and political rights. For many, the uprising was about survival.
“Basically, for me, it was about trying to survive, gathering food, to eat, you know, and I had a few cuts,” Stergis told the audience.
On Sept. 13, 1971 New York State sent the national guard into the prison to take control of Attica despite ongoing negotiations. The media was not allowed to watch and was fed misinformation claiming that the inmates had killed the hostages. Later autopsies would reveal that the hostages had been shot and killed by state forces while retaking the prison.
Attica now had a double meaning: one of the uprising in which inmates demanded to be treated like human beings, and another of the massacre which ensued on the thirteenth.
“I call it a massacre. And the reason why I call it a massacre is that the United States government has a history of massacring people,” panelist, author, and activist Jalil Muntaqim told the audience. “Tulsa, Oklahoma as one example of massacring people. The lynching tree, you know, and it’s celebrating the lynching of Black men.”
Muntaquim went on to discuss the history of the United States and institutionalized racism as well as how the prison system is the continuation of the slave system. Other panelists agreed and discussed past and current events such as the crime bill and Daniel Prude’s murder last year.
“The basic demands of the Attica uprising have still not been met. We still do not have reform in parole. We still do not have equity, as they now call it. We still do not have the same rights as our fellow white people,” panelist, PhD candidate at the Warner School of Education, and REGI’s director of community outreach Precious Bedell told the audience. “The Attica brothers had the courage to die for what they believed was right and they died from basic human needs, basic human rights.”
The event concluded with the panelists discussing the future of organizing and how to pursue the goals of the Attica brothers. Muntaquim emphasized the need to change minds and to break the groupthink of our present times. Most institutions, however, are self-serving organizations which contain “power within themselves and don’t look outside their own concentric circle.” Instead, people need to challenge institutions which fail to serve the community interest and build power outside of these institutions.
Attendees were generally very pleased with the event.
“I thought it was really important to hear from people who were formerly incarcerated, who understand the impact of the Attica uprising and where we are today in relation to what people who are incarcerated than we’re fighting for,” Stanley Martin, candidate for city council, told CT. “It was really important to talk about, you know, things like the crime bill talk about policies that really impact Black people in America.”
“I think that this is just very indicative of all of the things that we should be doing from now on, just continuing to try to bridge that generational gap and continue to keep this movement going,” senior Katie Thomas told CT. “So I think this is very hopeful, very empowering, very enlightening.”
“I think these are the kinds of conversations that we should be having as a community and that these historical events that were representative of what is going to happen when you mistreat people in an ongoing way, but they’re not just going to settle for it regardless of where they are,” alumna Nicolle L. Haynes ’91, ’93W told CT. “There’s a lesson for us to learn that this — the revolt — is going to happen not only in jail. It’s going to happen in schools. It’s going to happen on jobs. So we need to learn from this and decide that we’re going to treat all people in a humane way so that we don’t have unnecessary loss of life.”
The panel is available to watch online at the Rochester Education Justice Initiatives website.