In 1971, a thousand inmates in an Attica, New York, prison took a stand. Their message continues today.
There's not much around the town of Attica except for tiny rivers, hills, and woods.
There is, however, a prison that held 2,200 inmates in 1971, mostly African-American and Hispanic. The guards were all white.
On Sept. 9, 1971, a thousand inmates took over the prison and held it for four days — until the state governor used 600 state troopers and members of the National Guard to put the action down with guns blazing. When it was over, 10 guards and 29 prisoners were dead.
What happened during and after those four days is often misrepresented by traditional media and by the prison system itself.
What Attica is actually about is much more interesting — and, dare I say it, radical — than the standard narrative.
While the full story won't be told until next September, when historian Heather Ann Thompson's "Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy" comes out with Pantheon Books, here is what is already very clear: Attica's prisoners had every reason to rebel.
Inmates of the Attica prison were living in deplorable conditions, and no one would help them.
Horrid prison living conditions, rampant abuse by guards — especially acute for the African-American and Hispanic prisoners — and the restriction of political rights such as the right to read what they wanted were the key elements that had the prisoners angry.
The inmates wrote to Department of Corrections Commissioner Russell Oswald multiple times. They also tried to gain the interest of a state senator to no avail. During the 1960s and early 1970s, right alongside movements by African-Americans to gain equality and respect in cities and workplaces around the country, similar movements were happening in prisons.
However, the people who could have actually paid attention to the concerns of inmates at Attica instead ignored their grievances, thinking it was simply agitators who would quiet down, soon enough.
This was a grave mistake.
The day the guards lost control of Attica, things had come to a boil.
On Sept. 9, guards decided to lock prisoners back in their cells after breakfast instead of them getting their usual recreational time. Why is unclear — some report an altercation between a white and black inmate, some say a guard was harassing a single inmate by keeping him in his cell rather than letting him eat, which angered his friends. It doesn't really matter; what we do know is the place exploded.
Eventually, about 40 prison guards and civilians were taken hostage by inmates. And then, during the next four days, the leaders of the inmate movement attempted to negotiate with the state and governor.
The demands of the prisoners were pretty straightforward.
The original five were called the "Declaration and 5 Demands of Attica." They included such things as these:
"1. We want complete amnesty, meaning freedom from all and any physical, mental and legal reprisals.
2. We want now, speedy and safe transportation out of confinement to a non-imperialistic country.
3. We demand that the Federal Government intervene, so that we will be under direct Federal Jurisdiction.
4. We want the Governor and the Judiciary, namely Constance B. Motley, to guarantee that there will be no reprisals and we want all factions of the media to articulate this."
The 5th item was a list of people they wanted to come and negotiate for them, and then it ended with this:
"We guarantee the safe passage of all people to and from this institution. We invite all the people to come here and witness this degradation so that they can better know how to bring this degradation to an end. This is what we want."
They included the right to legal representation at parole hearings (which they did not have), a change in medical staff to eliminate the racist and incompetent doctors that were there at the time, an end to denying prisoners the right to read political newspapers and books, the right of prisoners to formlabor unions, an end to physical and mental brutality at the hands of prison staff, and much more.
Even things like adequate food and access to regular showers (and even soap!) were demanded.
The primary sticking point for the state was the first in the five original demands, which included "freedom from physical, mental, and legal reprisals."
Given that physical and mental abuse of prisoners was a key element of how the system at Attica functioned, there was no way that would ever be accepted by the prison or state officials.
That sticking point — amnesty — ended negotiations for the state of New York. On the morning of Sept. 13, 1971, Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller sent in 600 state troopers and National Guardsmen, guns blazing.
Then, the National Guard dropped tear gas — and still, the guns were firing. In total, 4,500 rounds of ammunition were expended. As the prisoners' attorney, Elizabeth Fink, put it:
“Absolutely every procedure established on any kind of armed assault was intentionally not followed at Attica, because what was wanted was a massacre. That's what they wanted … and that's what they got."
The gunfire cut through hostages and prisoners alike. When it was all over minutes later, 10 hostages (mostly prison guards) and 29 inmates were dead. 89 others were wounded.
All but three of the inmates and one of the hostages who died did so at the hands of the state troopers — not the inmates.
All clues point to the fact that the governor wanted a massacre.
Gov. Rockefeller was planning to run against Nixon in the primaries, and he'd constantly been fighting a charge that he was a "hopeless liberal." He desperately wanted to show that he was not soft on crime, so he refused to give an inch at Attica.
In fact, afterward, Rockefeller was so boastful about how it all went down, he told Nixon on the phone immediately following the incident that "They (the troopers) did a fabulous job. It really was a beautiful operation." This was when he assumed that the dead were "only" prisoners.
Lastly, because one of the guards had been killed by some rogue prisoners during the first days of the uprising, state troopers wanted retribution.
I spoke with professor Heather Ann Thompson of the University of Michigan.
Thompson has been writing her definitive history of the Attica uprising for the last 10 years.
“One of the reasons this has taken 10 years to write has everything to do with the fact that the official records are not accessible to the public," she told me.
Why would that be? I asked.
"There is a dual legacy from Attica." She continued. "On the one hand, and after a brief moment of implementing some pretty important reforms, corrections officials used Attica to argue that prisoners needed to be clamped down on even more. And, indeed, because they told so many lies about what had happened at Attica, many ordinary Americans bought this. But the other crucially important legacy of Attica was that prisoners never stopped resisting that kind of draconian treatment."
“Frankly," she said, "what Attica shows is that there's a very long history of covering up for police misconduct. And that misconduct includes the abuse and killing of our nation's most disenfranchised and marginalized citizens. It also speaks to the lengths that officials will go to not take responsibility for their actions."
Learning the real story of what happened at Attica is ongoing.
Although the state of New York has worked hard to keep Attica's history hidden, it has not succeeded entirely. While many of the stories by prisoners themselves were hidden or their accounts were purposefully destroyed, some are coming out now.
When portions of a sealed report called "The Meyer Report" were released this year, it contained a lot of the abuse and denial of medical treatment that occurred before and after the uprising. It's been sealed since the early 1970s, and there is a good deal that is still sealed — for now.
As more people clamor for the release of the full report with other documentation coming to light from Attica's prisoners and guards — and with Thompson's soon-to-be-released book — perhaps one day we will see the full real story.
The ghosts of Attica are still with us today.
When police actions end in the deaths of African-Americans, such as on the streets of Ferguson or New York City or Cleveland, and the official story immediately starts to change until nobody really knows what happened, Attica serves as a lesson to not let those official narratives be the only ones.
Seeking the truth before passing judgment on events like Attica that happen in our lives is something I will always strive to do.
We can respect the legacy of Attica by attempting to do the same. In the following video from The Nation, listen to the first-hand stories of prisoners and guards and explore their perspective.