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From the Executive Director


Lest we forget Attica Open Letter from Mika’il DeVeaux, Executive Director, Citizens Against Recidivism, Inc.

Lest we forget, the business of the criminal justice system deals in lives. Today we should remember the events that ended on September 13, 1971, in Attica New York, when lives were lost and a strong message was sent about the value of the people who are incarcerated and the lives of those that work in prisons as well. Today’s (September 13, 2011) New York Times reported that the then Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller told then President Richard M. Nixon, that“They did a fabulous job.” “It really was a beautiful operation,” when reporting on how the ordeal concluded. When asked about the hostages (guards) that were killed by gunfire, Governor Rockefeller replied “Well you know, this is one of those things, you can’t have sharpshooters picking off the prisoners when the hostages are there with them, at a distance with tear gas, without maybe having a few accidents.”

President Nixon was of the opinion that trouble in prison was caused by African Americans. He had his views confirmed by Governor Rockefeller during a very brief exchange. “Tell me,” Nixon asked, “are these primarily blacks that you’re dealing with?” “Oh, yes,” Rockefeller replied, “the whole thing was led by the blacks.”

As we continue our efforts today, we need to be clear about the ideological battles waged around the issues. The prison expansion that began some four decades ago was fueled by attention given to the construction of a crime wave by the media and the raised voices and political rhetoric of conservative politicians. In fact, since the 1970s, crime rates had been stable and in decline. Moreover, neither crime nor policies to address it were high on the public agenda. Even so, today more than two million number among the incarcerated, five million others labor under parole or probation and some 65 million American are reminded that they have a felony conviction no matter how long after repaying their debt to society. History clearly reveals the politicization of crime as part of conservative policies to reverse gains made by social activist in the 1960s. As a result of struggles during the civil rights era, overt racist arguments and remarks were no longer suitable for public discourse. As a result “war on crime” became the veiled racist message to conservative supporters. “In notes taken at an Oval Office meeting shortly after Nixon’s election, H.R. Haldeman, his chief of staff, wrote, “[the President] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the Blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to”[1]

On this point, Jean Hardisty observed that during the 1970s[2]:

 

. . . a conservative backlash began to gain popularity. By the end of the 1970s, the New Right, a growing social and political movement whose central program was to attack liberal ideas and practices, had labeled the liberal model the “coddling” of criminals. The New Right directed its message- that the country appeared to be spinning out of control – to White men, conservative Christians, and White Southerners. “Middle Americans,” feeling they were losing status and financial security in a time of social change, were encouraged by rightists to fear “chaos” in the streets and in private life. Subtle messages appealed to racial stereotypes by implying that the reforms of the 1960s and 1970s had strengthened the position of “undeserving” welfare recipients (usually stereotyped as people of color) and criminals at the expense of “good” White people. Soon moderate Democrats and even some liberals began to collaborate in the promotion of the backlash slogan, “tough on crime.”

The “war on drugs” took a similar tone. Today’s conservative policies of punishment with its use of political rhetoric has its roots in the historical reactions to street activism when African American and Hispanics from wrecked and shattered communities began to link with mainly white politically active students and those of privilege in opposition to war and other policies advanced by the status quo. Social problems identified in America were linked to these problem children. They were dubbed disrespecters of law and order. During this time, conservatives argued that the one thing these groups “shared in common was drugs! Therefore drugs was America’s problem! The solution was elegantly suited to the agenda of the political right: a “War On Drugs” (Cahill, 1999).[3]

 

These political and ideological realities are Attica too, even today. “From the very beginning, like all wars, the War on Drugs has been about politics and economics. And, like all wars, to protect “national security,” civil liberties are suspended, atrocities are committed, and health, education, and welfare are dangerously depreciated” (Cahill, 1999).[4] We must remember Attica. We must remember all the Attica’s and what they symbolize and continue to fight back, continue to fight for social justice for all. If we don’t, Angela Davis has already warned us, “If they come for me in the morning, they will come for you in the night.”

[1] Gaspar, P. (2007). Prisoners of ideology: America’s draconian approach to criminal justice is beginning to unravel, International Socialist Review (52). Retrieved from http://www.isreview.org/issues/52/gasper_prisons.shtml

[2] Hardisty, J. (nd). Crime and Political Ideology, The Public Eye – Vol. 18, No. 3, Retrieved from http://www.publiceye.org/magazine/v18n3/hardisty_crime.html

 

[3] Cahill, T (1999). The war on drugs – Unhealthy for all living things: A history of “The WOD” Alternatives Magazine Issue 11 Retrieved from http://www.alternativesmagazine.com/11/cahill1.html

[4] Cahill, T (1999). The war on drugs – Unhealthy for all living things: A history of “The WOD” Alternatives Magazine Issue 11 Retrieved from http://www.alternativesmagazine.com/11/cahill1.html