This week, on September 9, it will be 45 years since the Attica rebellion. Prisoners in various facilities throughout the country plan to engage in a long-term labor strike against prison slavery, many of the same conditions prisoners at Attica state prison in New York resisted.
Thirty-three prisoners and ten prison guards were killed because Governor Nelson Rockefeller would not meet with prisoners to discuss their demands for an end to brutality and slave labor. Instead, Rockefeller authorized the National Guard, police, and guards to use force. They opened fire on prisoners. Following the bullets, torture, beatings, and abuse were used to restore order.
The brutal end to the rebellion had a great impact on John Lennon. At his 31st birthday party at a Syracuse hotel about a month later, Lennon chanted lyrics that became the chorus: “Attica state, Attica state, we’re all mates with Attica state.”
The song became “Attica State,” and it was released on a widely panned album, “Some Time In New York City.”
A slide guitar riff opens the song, giving the protest song grit. Both Lennon and Yoko Ono sing lead, and in the opening verse, they declare, “What a waste of human power/What a waste of human lives/Shoot the prisoners in the towers/Forty-three poor widowed wives.”
Lennon and Ono critique the media for blaming the violence on the prisoners, and they correct the coverage. “Rockefeller pulled the trigger/That is what the people feel.”
A call to action follows the condemnation, with Lennon and Ono singing, “Free the prisoners, jail the judges/Free all prisoners everywhere.”
“All they want is truth and justice,” Lennon and Ono recognize. “All they need is love and care.”
Lennon and Ono debuted the song at a freedom rally on December 10 for John Sinclair in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Sinclair, who was the manager for the band, the MC5, was jailed after passing two marijuana joints to an undercover cop.
Six days later, according to Tim Riley’s book, “Lennon: The Man, the Myth, the Music—The Definitive Life,” it was performed in New York on David Frost’s show.
Audience members during the talk show accused Lennon of only having sympathy for the prisoners. “You make it sound like the only worthwhile people in this world are the ones who committed crimes and were put away,” one person suggested. Another man shouted, “They must have done something wrong in the first place or they wouldn’t have been there!”
Lennon could not believe the push back he received. He noted the song mentions all the wives of the dead, including the wives of the guards killed. He also said, “We’re not glorifying them. This song will come and go. But there will be another Attica tomorrow.”
Days later, Lennon and Ono performed for the Attica State benefit, which was organized to raise money for the families of prisoners killed. They performed an acoustic version of the song, and he had no reason to temper his solidarity with the prisoners.
Lennon intended to memorialize the tragedy so it would never be forgotten. The song also has a direct call for prisoners to be freed, which is clearly in line with the movement for prison abolition.
Already, Lennon had produced his album, “Imagine,” which had songs infused with pointed social and political commentary. But for his third album, “Some Time In New York City,” he spoke out against the violence against Attica prisoners, the jailing of Black Panther, Angela Davis, and the oppression of women.
Not only did Lennon’s radical politics incense people, who may have previously been fans, but it garnered the interest of the FBI, which opened a file and engaged in surveillance against Lennon and Ono. It also led the United States government to try and deport the couple.
All because they were now performing at benefit shows, where they sang songs about freeing all the prisoners of the world, supporting Black Panthers, and fighting for truth and justice everywhere.
Listen to “Attica State”:
The acoustic performance at the Attica State benefit on December 17, 1971:
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