Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Were Kufiyas Used to Incite Fear of Attica Uprising, September 1971?

I meant to post something on the Attica massacre on the 40th anniversary of the event. I was living in New York City, and participated in a demonstration on the day that it happened, Monday, September 13. The demo got rather wild, we were marching in the street without a permit, people were very mad, and there was a bit of "trashing." There was also a big demonstration on the weekend, probably Saturday, September 18, that I attended as well. During that week, with 3 other friends, I also participated in a "tagging" of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Our tag: "Pig Rockefeller, Attica Murderer." The New York Times published a photo of our tag a few days later. I have a note to myself to find a copy on microfilm and reproduce it. All this by way of saying that the Attica events were something that I and thousands of other US progressives felt very intensely about.

I was pleased to see that the New York Times published an excellent article on Attica, by Sam Roberts, on its 40th anniversary. I was also, again, incensed by what had happened, and felt that our description of New York governor Nelson Rockefeller as a pig murderer, was absolutely spot on. The complaints of the prisoners, who demanded better living conditions, were very justified. 29 inmates and 10 prison-guard hostages were shot in the course of the assault ordered by Rockefeller, all killed by New York State troopers. Prisoners were tortured and harassed without mercy after the prison was retaken. Roberts reports, based on recently published logs of phone conversations, that Rockefeller told President Richard Nixon that it was a "beautiful operation." Nixon, with his typical bluster, told Rockefeller “The courage you showed and the judgment in not granting amnesty, it was right, and I don’t care what the hell the papers or anybody else says."

Perhaps these photos, widely printed in newspapers at the time, played a part in the attempt to orchestrate mainstream sentiment against the inmates at Attica, mostly African-American, who had taken hostages.

This iconic photo featured pictures of those seen as representing the main actors, published in a round-up on the events in Attica on Sunday, September 19, 1971, in The New York Times.

It's cropped from this photo, also a widespread image at the time.

As was this one.

It's telling, don't you think, that, out of the 1,000 or so prisoners at Attica who participated in the uprising (the institution housed about 2,200 at the time), African-Americans in what looked like Arab headdresses were made so iconic?

We can speculate about what this was about. Progressive African-Americans had long felt a sense of solidarity with the Palestinians, particularly during the late sixties and early seventies, at the high point of guerilla activity by the Palestinian resistance movement. On the other hand, given that it was very hot in Attica, and that prisoners were in the yard in full sun during the days, it would have made sense to fashion head coverings to protect against the sun. (I remember that reports at the time said that, towards the end, the prisoners were short of water and very thirsty, and hence very tense.)

Another piece of the story may have to do with the fact that prison officials believed, or at least claimed to believe, that Muslim prisoners were responsible for organizing the uprising and for threats to the prisoners. There were, of course, considerable numbers of Nation of Islam adherents at Attica Prison, as well as members of the Moorish Science Temple, and the Nation of Gods and Earths (Five Percenters), as in all prisons with substantial African-American populations at the time. Members of each of these groups were active in the uprising. Non-recognition of their religious rights was an important motivation for their participation in the prison movement. Muslim prisoners were not permitted to hold religious services at Attica, and "any assembly in the prison yard of more than three Muslims was punishable by solitary confinement." One of the negotiators brought in, at the request of the prisoners, was Nation of Islam representative Louis Farrakhan. Of the five man committee negotiating on behalf of the prisoners, one (Carl X. Blyden) was a member of the Nation of Islam and two (Carl Jones-El and Donald Noble) were members of the Moorish Science Temple. When the prison was retaken, the Muslim prisoners (but accounts that I've seen don't distinguish between the NOI, Moorish Scientists and Five Percenters) were singled out for special retaliation on the part of the guards. It turned out that, in fact, the Muslim inmates (again, which "Muslims" is not clear) played a major role in protecting the hostages from other inmates.

Are the iconic Attica prisoners in the photos wearing what look like makeshift kufiyas in fact Muslims (of the Five Percent, Moorish Science or Nation of Islam persuasion)? Who knows? Did these photos play a role in inciting mainstream fears of the dangers that "radical" Black Muslims posed in the Attica uprising? Likely.

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