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Attica Is All Of Us

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Agenda Publications
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Late in the summer of 1971, Frank "Big Black? Smith was serving time on a robbery charge at Attica Prison in upstate New York. Big Black coached thefootball team, got along with prison officials and was looked uptoby younger prisoners. Horrible conditions, unkept promises, an influx of prisoners influenced by 1960s radicalism (including some who were in prison because oftheir radical activities) and the August 21, 1971 murder of California Black Panther prison leader George Jackson created an explosive atmosphere. On September 8 at Attica Prison, a guard breaking up a scuffle between aWhiteandaBlackinmatewaspunchedbythe Whiteprisoner. Whentheauthoritiesdecidedto punish only the Black man, a crowd gathered andforcedthe guardsto backdown. Thefollowing morning, prisoners provoked by another move to punish the Black inmate tookoverpart of the prison and held several dozen prison employees hostage.Severalguardswerehurt in the initial takeover, onefatally. lnmates of all races, religions and ideologies united. They demanded both modest improvements in living conditions andfar reaching social changes. The inmoles turned to Big Black to take charge ofsecurity. He led an inmate "pólice forcé" thatprotectedhostagesandensuredthe safety of prison officials and observers who carne into the prison yard. Injured hostages were evacuated for medical attention. Prison racketeers, informers and those who threatened the hostages were locked up. OnSeptember 13, 1971, New Yorkgovernor NelsonRockefeller ordered an all-W hite pólice forcé to retake the prison. After a helicopter dropped tear gas, the cops carne in shooting, killing both inmoles and hostages. In all, 43 men died in the Attica rebellion. For his role in the rebellion, Big Black was forced to lie naked on his back on a metal table, with afootball balancea under his neck and a shotgun to his head, for 5 hours. Threatened with instant death ifhe allowed thefootball to drop, he was burned with cigars and cigarettes, beaten and spat upon. Subsequent beatings about his genitab caused him to urinaie blood fortwoyears. OnSeptember 30, 1991, more thanlOyears later. Big Black, the other living Attica rebels and relatives of those who died will go to trial on a civil suit against many of those responsibie for the massacre and subsequent brutality. The trial is expected to last several months. Last month Big Black was in town as part of a long commemoration of the Attica rebellion sponsored by The Freedom Campaign, and spent some time talking to AGENDA stoffers. Thefollowing text is an edited transcript of that recorded conversation. AGENDA: What happened at Attica, from even before day one, from your perspective? Because the dominant perspective we've seen is from what we've read in the mass media raseen on TV. BB: Prior to that, everybody was in pretty bad shape, thinking about George Jackson. The morning that we got [the news] about George Jackson everyone went in the mess hall, and I never seen nothing like it. Nobody didn't eat, nobody didn't piek up no silverware, because when you go to the dining room you got to piek up whatever it is, whatever silverware that you're going to eat with. In the morning it's basically a spoon, 'cause it's nothing but cereal, and whatever you're going to eat you eat with a spoon. Nobody didn'tpick up anything. We had on black armbands. You got to see 700 people that's doing this, and nobody talking. It was really cold, you know. I said "Wow, what's going on?" to myself, because when you in prison, you got a little clique. I had four or five people with me, but we wasn't talking. So everybody was really a little aggravated, and at that time we had a manifestó that was going around, spe aking on the conditions . There turned out to be 33 different demands that we asked for. People started talking about that. People started rebelling all over the facility. And when they pushed the wall down a month later they said "hey Black, they got your man," ( which was a cop friend of mine), "in the yard, man, and he's really hurt." I said "What's going on?" They said "Man, the shit's on, you know, everybody's just fed up, and everybody's forming in D Yard, so you got to go out there and see what's happening." So me and my little crew went to the yard. That was almost like freedom, really. When you're locked up for nine years, and so many people that's been locked up 10, 15, 20 years, and now we 're in the yard and all kind of food was in the yard, where we took food out the commissary, out of the dining room. We'd rather just stay in the yard and do what we got to do. Then we started organizing. And we started talking about the conditions. That's when my views and my head started changing. Because before then I was what you cali a hustler. I was working for the warden. I was hustling cigarettes, hustling nutmeg, making booze. I was a hustler. Butlstarted focussing in on what was really happening, especially when they asked me to take charge of the security part of it I was known in the penitentiary . I was the coach of the football team. I couldn' t play anymore so I started coaching. And then I guess my values and my principies started changing. Andthat's whatstimulated Attica.They say it was race, they say it was a whole lot of things, but the 8th brought the 9th to the Bth. Race is the easiest thing to créate a problem. The pólice can come in right now and start something racial and the public eat that up. Because r acism is one of the biggest enemies we got. That's the most powerfullest piece of dynamite that we could use. And it's always been that way, especially with the Black and the Whitcs. That was the escalation from Attica 1971 to Attica 1991. See, we had a slogan, and it's not rhetoric, that "Attica is all of us." We wasn't talking about escaping, we were talking about conditions. And the conditions that we were speaking about at Attica State Prison is on a national, international and inter-community level. We're talking about the same conditions in our community as well as what's in prison. Because we carne from communities. They're talking about rehabilitation. For what? Fot the facility? For the institution? You got to be rehabilitated for some other location. And where's that location? Back in our communities. We were asking for less starchy, fatty food. For more people of yourpeer. (You didn'thave no Black cops, no Latín cops, in Attica State Prison. But the population is 87 point whatever percent - you knowit'smorethan that now - of Black, or minority people, with all White cops.) Tobe able to practice the religión of your choice. More updated books. Better educational programs. So that's community needs, not just Attica State Prison. It wasn't just isolated in the prison perspecti ve. That's why we say Attica is all of us, Attica is everything. In order for Attica to change, out here's got to change. What we see, from the community, through the pólice department, through the courts and into the maximum prison, we say that both is a prison: one is minimum and one is maximum. AGENDA: ís your goal to go around bringing those two things together? BB : Yeah, bring them together, but bring them together on this level. I'm more interested in no w. I am very concemed [about] prior to going to prison and what we can do about that. See, it don't make sense to start preparing a persononcethey gotoprison.You fcnow, the maximum prison. You got to talk about things out here now, what we can do about the economics. How we can deal with the drug parts of it. Ho w we deal with the education parts of it, the schools and various agencies. So it's not just the prisons that we got to revamp. Society is where we come from, and that's where we're going back to. We weren't bom in prison. I really embrace the people that's moving around prisons, and I do that too. I'm a prison activist, and I do that work. I really support the people that's working on that level. But we need to start doing the job in the community that we need to do, and keep the focus in the community. We need to pay attention to what the little city councilman is saying, what the little mayor is saying, what this little statesman is saying and who we're electing to office and how we vote, what the governor is doing and all the little politicking. Because we all assist in part of the mem. ine government could not be without people.Peopleis govemment,and that's a f act. Ifyoulookin New York state, and especially the Black population, and looking at that as a Black, what is happening when the drugs is involved, you got 90% of the people in prison right now is affiliated with drugs. That's why they're there. So what are they going to do? Their attitude is outdoors, and you going to start working on the prisons? They say "I'm going back on the streets and my mama is on welfare, and even if I got an educationlcan't get no job. So what I'm going to do? I'm going to go out there and take me some money. I'm not like Michael uan. They way they say with Blacks, all you can do is play sports or play music, or drive big cars - that's what they say - and sell dope. That's where they got u s at . S o al 1 o f that kind of thing will have to change. And that's what I've been looking for. AGENDA: You came here and spoke last night in Ann Arbor to a nice crowdthatpacked Guild House. How do you find the response, and particularly with a new generation? Half the people there weren' t even bom when Attica happened. I see what happened last night partly as a transmission of infoimation from generation to generation, and I'm wondering if in New York and the other places you're going the message is getting out, and especially how young people are relating to that. BB: I show them the scène of how Attica started in 1 97 1 . But I also move with it, just like I said earlier, about Attica being everything. Attica becomes a part of the college, what we get there, what we take back to the community. What we do while we are there, what's the educational process. It would be good if people in the colleges would start some kind of relationship to the community that they come from, also to the communities in prisons. So the level of consciousness don' t have to be around 1971 when you're talking to young people. You can tie it in to what's happening now. You can talk a bout that, because the average person don't know what to say or to think any way when you talk about prison and the community. Because it's the way the world is, the way the violence is. And people is supposed to go somewhere for some things that they do. That does not mean that a person has got to be treated like some kind of an animal. Even animáis shouldn't be treated like that, a dehumanized person or whatever woTd that we want to use. You just cut it off and say "You don't have no rights." Those are the things we 're talking about. We're not saying "Prison shouldn't be." It shouldn't be the way it is now, in the form that it's in. And that's the way you talk to people. You talk to people now, and especially the young ones, about the education process, about how you got to watch the education department too, because that's another institution. You can get tied up there more so than if you go to the maximum jail. So people got to know what's happening in the coÜeges and in the high schools and the elementaries and in whatever when you're talking about education, because you can get programmed there more than you can any place. So that's what you got to do. You got to be talking about 1991, because the needs in 1991, like I said with the economics, with the drugs - everybody is just about duped. If you ain't got a job you selling drugs. If you ain't selling drugs you in jail. And soon as you in jail somebody pops up and starts doing it. Even though you go get an education, the average person is saying, it don't make no difference. As a minority, you can't get a job. And if you get a job it's got to be washing the floor, when you went to school to be a lawyer. Everybody think about that, and that's what I talk about now. I lay out Attica in 1971, but I show that Attica is here. Just like what we seen last night, those people sitting in the Guild House. Those people are part of Attica, what they 're doing there. And I say to them over and over again "How you unify yourselves [is that] you don't get too bogged with racism. Because racism can dupe and tie you up too. I'm Black, you White, that's the bottom Une to that There's nothing we can do about that You come out of this neighborhood, I come out of that one. You like this, I like that We can talk about culture and lifestyle and class more than we do racism today. Because racism is just a piek that ' s set up to keep us separated. But that ain't the real deal. The real deal is more class than anything. And culture. Racism among Black and Whites has been the strongest entity ever since I was bom. At each other, at each other, because they systematically, selectively, made us do this. The Bushes, and the this, and the that "Race, race, you Black and I'm White, so you ain't supposed to do this." So the Attica now is the Attica then and it's going to be in the future. And if we don' t change our- I won't say awareness, yeah, we got to change our awareness too - but we really got to knock racism. Racism, it's apaininthebehind. The way people discuss it, and the way people talk about it, and the way people get bogged with it. And it's a set-up. And I stopped being set up a long time ago around racism. I see it. Sometime I get sick on my stomach. But that's behind seeing it, and people not becoming a ware that it's just piek and just leave it alone. It don't make sense to get bogged with it. We got to be able to rub, we got to be able to talk, we got to be able to sit down, we got to be able to look at the situation because it involves all of us. That's what I teil people, and that's a part of Attica. Don't get bogged with racism. Frank "Big Black" Smith was in ter vie wed by Laurie Wechter and Eric Jackson.


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