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Third Hunger Strike Ends: Reflections on the 42nd Anniversary of Attica

September 10, 2013

Today is the 42nd anniversary marking the beginning of the Attica prisoner uprising in 1971. As I think about the prisoners in California who have just completed their first week of eating food again I am deeply saddened at where we are today with our prison system in the United States. The prisoners in Attica had their own list of five demands they required to be met in order to end the uprising. Their demands were, “1.) We want complete amnesty, meaning freedom from any physical, mental, and legal reprisals;  2.) We want now, speedy and safe transportation out of confinement, to a non-imperialistic country; 3.) We demand that the federal government intervene, so that we will be under direct federal jurisdiction; 4.) We demand the reconstruction of Attica Prison to be done by inmates and/or with inmate supervision; 5.) We urgently demand immediate negotiation. We guarantee the safe passage of all people, [we have chosen], to and from this institution. We invite all the people to come here and witness this degradation, so that they can better know how to bring this degradation to an end.”

I find myself thinking about the demands from 1971 and their following list of “15 Practical Proposals” and am filled both with inspiration by their leadership and anger that not a single proposal has been met at Attica. I received a text this morning from Megan, “I have dueling feelings about eating. I’m really glad to not fast today but hating why (sad face) how do we win?” The PBSP-SHU, Short Corridor Collective Representatives, who called for the Hunger Strike to begin, released a statement on September 5th bringing an end to the Hunger Strike. In their statement they wrote, “Our decision to suspend our third hunger strike in two years does not come lightly. This decision is especially difficult considering that most of our demands have not been met (despite nearly universal agreement that they are reasonable)…The fact is that Governor Brown and CDCR Secretary Beard have responded to our third peaceful action with typical denials and falsehoods, claiming solitary confinement does not exist and justifying the continuation of their indefinite torture regime by vilifying the peaceful protest representatives… From our perspective, we’ve gained a lot of positive ground towards achieving our goals. However, there’s still much to be done. Our resistance will continue to build and grow until we have won our human rights.”

So to answer Megan’s question, we win by continuing to build and grow. We win when we keep fighting in new and creative ways. We win when we understand that the prisoners who participated in the Hunger Strike did not give up, rather they listened to their loved ones, they listened to their own hearts, and they made a strategic decision. The prisoners in California displayed incredible power when more than 30,000 prisoners participated in the first day of the strike. Even though their 5 Demands were not met, a victory can still be claimed. Even though Governor Brown’s heart continues to be hardened, a victory can still be claimed. The prisoners in PBSP-SHU and in prisons across California are far from retreating, they are choosing strategic actions for moving forward. As they do so, we on the outside need to continue fighting as well. Che Guevara rightly declared, “solidarity means running the same risks.” While taking the same risks on the outside may be difficult, we need to be willing to get uncomfortable and be ready to bring up this struggle in places that may not be popular. Have you talked to your family about the solidarity fast? Have you talked with co-workers about prison justice? Have you spoken up at church about the need to be engaged in authentic prisoner solidarity? Are you willing to push the conversation into places that are far too often silent? To be in solidarity is to begin taking risks and to keep this work going.

The Attica Uprising ended with that National Guard storming the prison and murdering 39 people. Governor Rockefeller and President Nixon decided the lives of prisoners, particularly Black prisoners, were of no value. Yet prisoners across the United States, and free world allies, were so inspired by the Attica uprising that they began fighting in their own communities. Prisoners across the country won major victories and allies worked alongside prisoners with respect. While the demands of the California prisoner hunger strikers have not yet been met, we need to feel inspired by their leadership and by their sacrifice. We must work in our own communities. We must build relationships with prisoners nearby us. We must work to end solitary confinement everywhere. We must not settle for lip service by government officials. The California Hunger Strikers gave up food for 60 days, it is on us to follow their lead and put ourselves on the line in whatever way we can. We do all of this work knowing that once there were no prisons, that day will come again.

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