Harlem’s historic Riverside Church where Martin Luther King delivered his “Beyond Vietnam” speech was packed with hundreds of people who came to listen to a panel about mass incarceration on September 14, 2012. It was the second annual gathering at the church where the theme of the night was ending mass incarceration and closing Attica Prison.
In 1971 the world witnessed the Attica Prison uprising which started in response to the targeted assassination of Black Panther and prisoner George Jackson at San Quentin Prison by guards. Jackson, sentenced to life in prison for stealing $70, was a leading voice in the prisoner movement of the 1960s-70s. This movement included the organization of prisoners’ unions, prisoner strikes and the support of celebrities like Pete Seeger and Muhammad Ali. The demands of the Attica prisoners included an end to slave labor at the prison and religious freedom among others.
The uprising ended with the tragic killing of 39 people, including 10 prison guards and employees, at the hands of NY State Police sent in by Governor Rockefeller. After the prison was recaptured a number of white officers were heard yelling celebratory chants of “white power!”
The uprising marked the height of the prisoner movement of the time but the conservative Right soon dominated the narrative over the prison and criminal justice systems. The emphasis was now on law and order, maximum sentencing and the extensive use of cheap prison labor for profit.
At the time of the Attica Prison uprising the US prison population was roughly 200,000. That number reached 1.2 million by the early 90s and through the draconian policies under the War on Drugs is currently over 2 million and growing. While the US has 5% of the world’s population, it claims 25% of the world’s prison population.
The Justice Department recently proved that the War on Drugs has absolutely nothing to do with ending the sale and use of drugs in the US in their decision to not criminally prosecute anyone from HSBC after it was revealed that officials in the bank laundered millions of dollars to narco-traffickers.
The San Jose Mercury News journalist Gary Webb proved this in 1996 with his award-winning coverage of the crack-cocaine epidemic. He uncovered a damning story that revealed the proliferation of crack-cocaine in poor urban communities started with the CIA and the rightwing paramilitary Contras in Nicaragua working together to bring the drugs into South Central LA. Drug kingpin Ricky “Freeway” Ross sold these drugs to gangs in LA who then sold them elsewhere. The rest, as they say, is history.
Drugs have taken a heavy toll on Utica. But while the ones who bring drugs into the community remain above the law, those caught with minor possession are thrown in prison. In the New York Times bestseller “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” written by Michelle Alexander, the author argues that the criminal justice system acts as a form of racial control and has created, in part through the War on Drugs, a caste-like system in the US.
Alexander shared the stage with Angela Davis, Cornel West, Jazz Hayden and Marc Lamont Hill. They all spoke of the movement now forming to end mass incarceration. It was no coincidence that the event in Harlem took place 41 years and a day after the Attica uprising. It is important to not just reflect but also act to ebb the rising tide of mass incarceration, not just for Black people but for all that are affected by this prison nation we live in.
Brendan Maslauskas Dunn