A Radical Guide To Alcatraz

The island of Alcatraz is located 2 kilometers north of San Francisco and is best known for the 30 years it spent as a maximum-security federal penitentiary. Today it is a historical landmark open to visitors and operated by the National Park Service. Tickets to the island start at $37. Be aware however that the Park Service has given one company an exclusive monopoly on ferrying visitors to the island. Since 2006 that company has been Alcatraz Cruises, a subsidiary of the anti-union Hornblower Cruises. In 2010 Alcatraz/Hornblower Cruises fired one of their deckhands for "acting too gay" in the workplace and for attempting to organize a union.

Originally, the United States government planned to use this island as a military base. During the civil war the island was used to imprison Confederate soldiers and sympathizers. Seeing how well the island's natural isolation complimented a prison environment in 1868 Alcatraz officially became a long-term military prison.

During its years as a military prison, a number of American Indians were sent to the island. Many were sent due to mutiny or fighting against the army, including Chief Kaetena, a compatriot of Geronimo. The largest single group of Indian prisoners were nineteen Hopi men. They were imprisoned on the island for their resistance to farming on individual plots of land and for refusing to send their children to government boarding schools; both of which were means of destroying Hopi traditional communal culture by the federal government.

During World War I conscientious objectors were sent to the military prison. One such anti-militarist, Philip Grosser, wrote about his experiences in a recently re-published pamphlet named "Alcatraz" Uncle Sam's Devil's Island: Experiences of a Conscientious Objector in America during the First World War. (Re-published by the Berkeley based Kate Sharpley Library. ISBN: 9781873605240).

In 1933, control of the island was transferred to the Bureau of Prisons and housed many famous gangsters of that era, including Al Capone. In 1963 the prison was finally closed down, mainly due to rising costs. In 1964 there was a four-hour symbolic occupation of the island by American Indian activists. They brought attention to the Treaty of Fort Laramie between the U.S. and the Sioux, where unused federal land were supposed to be returned to the Sioux people.

In 1969, despite a Coast Guard blockade, 79 Indian activists from the group Indians of All Tribes landed on the island and issued the Alcatraz Proclamation which humorously offered to buy Alcatraz for "24 dollars in glass beads and red cloth, a precedent set by the white man's purchase of a similar island about 300 years ago [Manhattan, NY.]... Our offer of $1.24 per acre is greater than the 47 cents per acre the white men are now paying the California Indians for their land." They generously offered to give a portion of the island to Caucasian inhabitants which would be administered by the Bureau of Caucasian Affairs. This would have allowed the raising of "all their white brothers up from their savage and unhappy state." They also pointed out how the decrepit state of the island already resembled most current Indian reservations; isolation from modern facilities, and without adequate means of transportation, no running water, rocky and non-productive soil, etc. The Alcatraz Proclamation ended with by stating that "it would be fitting and symbolic that ships from all over the world, entering the Golden Gate, would first see Indian land, and thus be reminded of the true history of this nation. This tiny island would be a symbol of the great lands once ruled by free and noble Indians."

The occupiers used unanimous consent as their decision making process and soon set up the infrastructure needed for a long term occupation. Their main demands were a deed to the island and the establishment of an Indian university, cultural center and museum. Initially the large public support (ranging from the Hell's Angles to Hollywood celebrities) for the occupation forced the government into negotiations, but this was purely a way to buy time in hopes that public support would disappear. After a few months, many of the initial occupants returned to school and the island saw an influx of San Francisco hippies who ignored the prohibition of drugs and alcohol called for by the Indian occupants. Soon infighting caused the occupation to lose steam and public support began to fade. The media begun publishing negative stories focusing on assaults, drugs, violence and vandalism. Soon the government cut off power and telephone service. Nineteen months after its beginning, the occupation ended with 20 armed federal marshals, assisted by the Coast Guard, swarming the island, removing the last 15 occupants.

While unable to keep Alcatraz island as Indian land, the occupation did bring international attention to issues faced by American Indians. The federal government moved away from its official policy of termination towards a policy of Indian self-determination. The termination policy was meant to destroy American Indian culture and assimilate American Indians into mainstream society. The occupation also served as an inspiration for further Indian civil disobedience, including an occupation of a Nike Missile installation in San Pablo, in the East Bay. This second occupation was directly linked to the occupation of Alcatraz, with activists saying "This is happening because the government did what they did on Alcatraz. We haven't forgotten. If the government would've made some kind of honorable settlement there and wouldn't have lied to us, this wouldn't be necessary here right now." The San Pablo occupation was ended after three days by a combined force of police and US Army troops.

To this day, every November, Indians gather to celebrate Unthanksgiving Day. It is meant to serve in contrast to the traditional Thanksgiving story in which the Pilgrims amicably shared a meal with American Indians. This event is open to the public.