Attica @ 50

I wrote my first original post here three years ago this month after talking with a comrade at a prison strike support event. In part, that event commemorated the killing of George Jackson and the Attica uprising. During the event my memory went back to composers Steve Reich and Frederic Rzewski and their musical statements of solidarity with the Attica inmates and the defendants from the earlier Harlem “fruit stand” riot of 1964. In the course of conversation I realized I’d outlined the post. See Attica: Coming Together.

This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of Jackson’s murder and the Attica revolt that followed.

On Monday, Democracy Now! devoted its entire program to Attica. Interviewed is rebellion survivor Tyrone Larkins who recalls moving from Sing Sing to Attica not long before the 1971 uprising and describes his shock at the conditions—conditions that were listed in a letter by fellow inmate Sam Melville (not a survivor) and set to music by Rzewski, which I include here.

I was shocked myself recently by watching an excerpt of David Hoffman’s documentary Sing Sing Thanksgiving, filmed a year later, because I can’t reconcile it with the horrors of Attica. And yet we can’t be beguiled by even B.B. King, who called this his best live performance, according to Hoffman. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were killed at Sing Sing, as were 612 other men and women until the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty five months before the concert. Three years later the killing began again, tho’ not at Sing Sing, which turns 195 this year. Last year, inmate journalist John J. Lennon told NPR how COVID turned that prison into a torture chamber.

Part 1 of the program devoted to Attica, September 13, 2021.
Coming Together contains excerpts from a letter written in 1970 by Attica prisoner Sam Melville, a radical on the outside and the inside, in which he describes the prison’s conditions.
Part 2 of the program devoted to Attica, September 13, 2021.
In addition to B.B. King this 1972 Thanksgiving Day concert at Sing Sing includes performances by The Voices of East Harlem, comedian Jimmie Walker, prisoner actors, Joan Baez, and Mimi Fariña.

Header image:
Harper’s Weekly
illustration, 1869
NYPL, details

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