When David Rothenberg Went to Attica

When David Rothenberg Went to Attica


“We are MEN! We are not beasts and do not intend to be beaten or driven as such. The entire prison populace has set forth to change forever the ruthless brutalization and disregard for the lives of the prisoners here and throughout the United States.”

— Elliot “LD” Barkley, 21-year-old orator of the 1971 Attica uprising. Elliot was killed in the retaking of the prison.

Walking into the yard, Fortune founder David Rothenberg’s companion leaned in and whispered into his ear: “I smell death.” It was September 10th, 1971—one day after the men of the Attica Correctional Facility had overthrown their wardens, taking 39 hostages and full control of the prison. It was three days before New York state troopers stormed the same yard where David stood. The massacre would leave 43 dead and 89 injured in the bloodiest prison conflict in U.S history. Standing amid the crowd, beneath the rifles police had positioned on the roof of the cellblocks, David knew his friend was right. Something awful was soon to happen.

The Attica Uprising

David came to Attica as one of thirty observers summoned by the leaders of the uprising as witnesses to their negotiations with the state. Though The Fortune Society was in its relative infancy, founded only four years prior, the organization had become popular among incarcerated individuals at Attica for its monthly newsletter. This popularity soared when Attica banned the newsletter for its authorship by writers who were formerly incarcerated. Fortune took the case to court and Attica lost in a ruling that made it unlawful for prisons to deprive incarcerated persons of reading literature. It was a revolutionary verdict. “Education is a very dangerous weapon,” David says, “The prison wasn’t providing it.” From September 9th to the 13th, as the men in the yard took to their makeshift podium, one by one, the world would learn that education wasn’t the only civil right the prison wasn’t providing.

The Attica Uprising

The men of the Attica prison weren’t revolting against a singular set of policies—they were revolting against a culture. Attica, the primary employer of the predominantly white county of Wyoming, New York, was characterized by anti-black violence and an aggressively enforced system of segregation. “The prison had very effectively divided [the individuals who were incarcerated] by race,” David recounts. “On the Fourth of July, when everybody came [to] the yard, they had lemonade [with] white ice and black ice, and everybody knew their role.” The racism of the prison guards was overt. The violence they inflicted was fomented by the power of their position and their impunity from consequence. When Governor Rockefeller ordered police to retake the prison, they removed their identification and many used their personal firearms.

“In our peaceful efforts to assemble in dissent as provided under this nation’s U.S. Constitution, we are in turn murdered, brutalized, and framed on various criminal charges because we seek the rights and privileges of all American People.”— Attica Prison Liberation Faction, Manifesto of Demands

The brutality experienced by the men of Attica had been the subject of numerous grievances many had filed through the various appropriate channels allotted to them. Before the uprising, the men had written letters to Department of Corrections Commissioner Russell Oswald and at least one state senator. When they were ignored, they wrote to The Fortune Society. “I was in correspondence with two of the men who emerged as leaders [among those who were incarcerated]” David recounts, “that was Rodger Chapman and Herbert X Blighten, who were extremely political and sophisticated in their letters…politically sophisticated people were starting to ask for more humane treatment but also [for] the tools to function when they came out.” Among these tools were fundamental human rights: protection from unmonitored violence, adequate food and medical care, and the end to a parole system that locked young men like 21 year old Elliot Barkley in maximum security facilities for petty crimes like driving without a license. After years of subjugation and silence, the men of Attica made the world listen. For that, they were killed.

The Attica Uprising

After the massacre, many of the bodies were left unclaimed. The Fortune Society identified these men, contacted their families, and held a memorial to commemorate their lives. After leaving the Attica facility, Rodger Chapman became an active member of the Fortune community and helped connect many men at Attica to Fortune’s services for years after.

In the wake of such tragedy, an awakening happened. “[Attica] sensitized the world,” David says. Fortune was suddenly flooded with volunteers: “…we had volunteer tutors and people wanting to stuff envelopes—anything to learn more about what was going on.” Fortune steadily grew a community of allies committed to advocating on behalf of the incarcerated. As this community grew, so did Fortune’s ability to provide direct services.

Today, 46 years after the Attica uprising, Fortune supports nearly 7,000 people per year with services ranging from housing to employment to medical care. It provides permanent and transitional housing to residents in The Fortune Academy, also known as “the Castle,” and replaces prison with rehabilitation through its Alternatives to Incarceration (ATI) program. Fortune grew from Attica and it has not stopped growing. As we celebrate the last 50 years of Fortune history, we remember the martyrs of the Attica movement.

They gave their lives to fight for a fairer future. And we are carrying on that fight.

Article written by Aya Abdelaziz

Share this Event
Learn how Fortune Society can help you