Attica: A Constant Reminder of a Shameful History

May 9, 2017
By Neil Cosgrove

On September 9, 1971 hundreds of inmates at the Attica prison in upstate New York began an unplanned, initially chaotic, take-over of a portion of the facility. Attica’s correctional officers knew, as they apprehensively set off for work each day, that they were sitting on a powder keg with a lit fuse. The violations of prisoners’ basic human rights were both numerous and obvious—poor diet, indifferent medical and dental care, lack of adequate heating and cooling, of fresh air and exercise, and punitive, arbitrarily administered isolation.

The rioting prisoners thought the 39 guards and civilian prison workers they had taken hostage during the uprising could save them from violent retaliation. The hostages were consequently protected, respected and cared for over the ensuing four days of negotiations with authorities. Unfortunately, the authorities had other agendas that superseded concern for the welfare of either the hostages or the prisoners.

Governor Nelson Rockefeller believed, given his own political ambitions, that he needed to appear “tough on crime” and “general disorder,” and he was stoutly supported in that position by “law and order” President Richard Nixon. State prison officials feared a loss of their coveted authority, and were gripped (as was the governor) by a more generalized, historically nurtured, fear of the empowered Black male. Correctional officers and state police were in thrall of a somewhat different set of racial fears nurtured by economic anxiety and the considerable cultural and geographic differences that marked their relationships with the prisoners.

And so, on the morning of September 13th, state police and prison guards mounted a poorly planned, astoundingly undisciplined assault on the yard where prisoners and hostages had dwelt since the uprising. National Guard corpsmen, with actual training in riot control, were present but not used. Armed with large-caliber rifles, as well as their own guns, the assailants first created a cloud of gas, then a cross fire from the catwalks during which 33 prisoners and nine hostages were killed, all by the police and guards, since the prisoners themselves had no firearms. Over 80 others were wounded, and the assault was followed by hours, days and weeks of brutal torture inflicted on defenseless prisoners.

These appalling events, and the subsequent thirty-plus years of legal actions through which state authorities sought to deflect responsibility, while prisoners, former hostages, and their families sought some compensation and sense of justice, are depicted vividly and thoroughly in Heather Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy. Thompson’s work was recently awarded the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in History, perhaps because of Attica’s ongoing relevance to our interrelated problems with incarceration and racism, as well as the author’s decade-long, dogged research in the face of New York State’s continuing attempts to withhold evidence.

Some prison reforms did follow Attica, improvements in living conditions and increased prisoner opportunities to educate themselves and to communicate with the outside world. But Thompson argues that the more persistent legacy is apparent in the repressive drug laws and mandatory-minimum sentences that have led to the “mass incarcerations” of large percentages of people who dwell in communities of color. That the actions of New York’s authorities and “peace” officers in September, 1971 were based in large part on a fear of “losing control” over people of color (Attica at the time also had a large population of Hispanic prisoners) is hard to miss in Thompson’s account.

One of the most vicious, and symbolic, reprisals against prisoners who took part in the uprising was that inflicted on Frank “Big Black” Smith, a man of imposing size. Based on a false rumor that Smith had castrated an officer during the riot, guards made Smith run gauntlets in which he was hit by officers armed with ax handles and batons, and forced him to lie, spread-eagled and naked, on a table for six hours while holding a football under his chin. He was warned that he would be shot if he let the football slip, and in the meantime he was spat upon, struck in the testicles, and subjected to a steady stream of racial slurs. Thompson includes a photo of Smith spread on the table, taken from a catwalk above, that clearly supports his claim that state officials witnessed his ordeal and did nothing to stop it.

Another photo Thompson provides, of slain prisoners lined up on stretchers in front of apparently indifferent state cops and officials, is equally haunting, and damning. It recalls the famous image of the frozen corpse of Spotted Elk, the Lakota chief killed at the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre. Another instance when people of color broke out of confinement in search of dignity and basic human rights. Another instance when the state, in the guise of the US calvary, employed disproportionate fire power to terminate a rebellion.

Attica hasn’t just a legacy. It is another moment in a horrific 400-year history born of racial fear and guilt, of self-justifying myth, and willful ignorance. Thompson’s book forcefully demands that we confront that history, acknowledge it and replace it with knowledge, empathy and restorative action.

Neil Cosgrove is a member of the NewPeople editorial Collective and of the Thomas Merton Center board.

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