Why Did The 'Orange Is The New Black' Prisoners Yell "Attica"? The Season 4 Riotors Made A Famous Reference
As Orange Is the New Black started heading towards its fourth season finale, most of the show's pop culture-loving DNA started melting away to reveal a darker, more serious core. But, in the finale (spoilers beyond this point!), the prisoners' fury over the ongoing racial profiling, factionism, and guard abuse, were spurred even further once the (seriously, SPOILERS) death of Poussey Washington during a peaceful protest fails to be taken seriously or treated with care. And, once their anger became a full on riot, the characters began chanting — but why were the OITNB prisoners yelling "Attica?" Loveably ignorant Leanne and Angie even commented on it, not recognizing the famous phrase but joining in on the chant as they start running with the rest of the inmates to break free of their dorms in order to raise a protest.
The answer is actually twofold. The shouting of "Attica! Attica!" as a furious chant is clearly a reference to Dog Day Afternoon, where Al Pacino's character, Sonny, stars screaming that phrase when he leaves the bank he's attempting to rob for an ill-fated attempt at resolution. As he looks around to see just how many cops are crowded around the building with their guns pointed his way, he begins yelling "Attica! Remember Attica?!" as a way to rile up the crowds gathered around the bank. And it works — the pedestrians begin to cheer him on.
So that's where the angry, repetitive nature of the chant originates, but there's also a deeper meaning behind "Attica" — Pacino's character, and by extension, the OITNB prisoners, are referencing the 1971 Attica Prison riots in upstate New York (not unlike Litchfield). Naturally, having rioting prisoners referencing a real prison riot is something that's a little too TV-writerly to happen in real life, but these prisoners seem to love their library, so maybe the chant originator had not only seen the movie, but was also aware of the 1971 prisoner uprising, because it has lots of similarities to the situation that is happening at Litchfield.
Thousands of prisoners at Attica rebelled, using their numbers to overwhelm the guards, taking hostages, and making demands about their alleged treatment. The Attica prisoners' list of demands were quite similar to the issues that the Litchfield prisoners are having — they wanted to be treated like human beings. "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," their list of demands began, and while some of the things they asked for were almost impossible for them to receive (like being transported to a "non-imperialist country"), some of their requests, like to be paid fairly for the work they do, to have more freedom to move around, and to have adequate medical care and education, are themes that have been circling around OITNB for seasons now.
But, I hope that things don't escalate to the point that they did at the Attica riot. According to the History Channel's website, after several days of protest, New York Governor Rockefeller sent in the police, rather than negotiating the prisoners' demands. And the results were horrifying. The New York Times reported that, at the end of the siege, which went for five days, "11 guards and 32 prisoners had died." Those casualties became representative of police brutality — hence Dog Day Afternoon's "Attica" chant.
In 2000, the NYT reported that an $8 million settlement was reached that ordered the state to "compensate more than 500 inmates and relatives for the abuse that the prisoners suffered." But, that decision came decades after the initial act, and some of the Attica documents weren't even released until 2015, showing just how hard it is for prisoners to get justice. Hopefully, if OITNB uses more Attica references in Season 5, that means that Poussey will get some form of justice.
The Attica prison riot of 1971 isn't nearly as famous as the movie moment that references it. And while it's a good thing that Orange Is the New Black is, at the very least, keeping the phrase "Attica" alive, hopefully it doesn't mean that these women are going to suffer more fatal consequences in Season 5 for their protests.
Image: JoJo Whilden/Netflix