Attica: The Revolt and Afterward

— Jack M. Bloom

Blood in the Water:
The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy
By Heather Ann Thompson
Pantheon Books, 724 pages, $35 hardcover.

BY NOMINATING BARRY Goldwater as its presidential candidate in 1964, the Republican Party signified the takeover of the party by its right wing, an effort that was bitterly opposed by the party’s “moderates.”

The leader of the “liberal Republicans” and the main alternative to Goldwater was John D. Rockefeller’s grandson, Nelson Rockefeller, then in his second of four terms as governor of New York.

While serving as an undersecretary in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare in the Eisenhower Administration, Rockefeller had advocated a national healthcare system. As governor, he had put in place a host of programs in education, transportation, public works and welfare, low-income housing — all of which were abhorrent to the growing right-wing of the Republican Party.

When Rocky addressed the Republican convention in opposition to the Goldwater “extremists” who were taking leadership of the party, he was treated as an enemy, suffering boos and catcalls by people who literally hated him for the “liberalism” that he stood for. As an indication of how much things had changed since the last election in 1960, he had to fight to complete his speech.

This leader of the soon-to-disappear liberal wing of the party is the eminence grise of Heather Ann Thompson’s outstanding history of the uprising in New York’s Attica prison and its consequences. This is a masterful book, extraordinarily well-written and well-researched.

Thompson not only recounts the events but movingly profiles many individuals — prisoners, guards held hostage, attorneys and reporters — who came to play central roles.

The Attica rebellion — taking hostages, making demands on the state — took place in 1971, a time still roiled by the extraordinary upheaval that constituted the civil rights movement, the ghetto rebellions that were called riots by the enemies of the movement and by the press, and the Black Power movement that had grown out of all of it. The Attica revolt was certainly an organic part of the movement of the time.

According to Thompson, Rockefeller saw things as I stated above: “To his core, he believed that rebellions such as the one he recently had put down at Attica were ominous warnings that the American way of life itself was under attack.” (266). He was joined in this sentiment by leading Nixon Administration officials, including the president, vice-president and attorney general.

Thompson is like the proverbial fly on the wall — everywhere, as she supplies us with fascinating details that bring us into the action. An early example comes after Rocky’s new Commissioner of Corrections Russell Oswald disappointed the men who had taken over part of the Attica prison. They had respectfully petitioned him for changes in how the prison was run, and who thought he would meet with them.

Instead, Oswald left them a taped message: “Although he was not there to hear it, no sooner did his taped speech end than the sound of ‘earphones hitting the wall and men shouting, ‘that’s a cop-out, that’s a cop-out!’ began echoing through Attica’s cell blocks.” (39)

 Another example: when the observers who had been invited by the prisoners, and who were permitted to be there by the prison administration, were waiting while negotiations proceeded at a snail’s pace, they “began to sneeze and their eyes watered as the faint smell of tear gas entered the room. Panicked, they ran to the windows, wondering if [Commissioner] Oswald had just been stalling them and the dreaded attack was actually beginning. It was another false alarm; someone had dropped a canister of gas while unloading a truck outside.” (145)

What Produced the Rebellion

Thompson’s meticulous research takes us through the rebellion itself, its suppression and the subsequent events that took up some 35 years. All of it is a page-turner that is hard to put down. She has managed to get inside events so throughly that much of her book reads as though it had been written by a journalist describing the events as they take place and who has managed to observe all sides.

The first third chronicles the rebellion and its suppression. The prison was vastly overcrowded and brutally managed, with too few staff — who were therefore fearful of the large number of prisoners for whom they bore responsibility. They covered their fear with brusqueness and worse.

There was little recreation for the prisoners, too little food, miserable pay that made the work they did akin to slave labor — specifically permitted by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution that outlawed slavery: “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Meanwhile the New York prison system made huge profits on that work.

Thompson tells us that “No matter what the job, few of Attica’s prisoners earned more than 6 cents a day in 1970.” (8) Indeed one of the demands the prisoners made was: “Apply the New York State minimum wage to all state institutions. STOP SLAVE LABOR.” (79) Related to all these issues was the growing militancy of new prisoners who had been influenced by the political agitation of the late sixties.

Thompson tells us in Part II, “Power and Politics Unleashed,” how the rebellion began. It was precipitated by an incident in which one of the prisoners punched a guard and was subsequently taken away by other guards. The prisoners were angered by this response and fearful that they would also suffer retributions. Several took advantage of the situation by taking some of the guards hostages and set themselves up in one of the yards outside the cells, but within the prison walls.

National print and media reporters soon swarmed around the prison. Rockefeller’s newly appointed Commissioner Oswald agreed to negotiate — to the consternation of the FBI and the state police. But tensions grew with the prisoners, who insisted on no reprisals, building barricades and the police anxious to storm the prison.

Thompson takes us through the negotiations; she informs us that the hostages asked the governor to grant clemency to the prisoners so they — the hostages — could be safely released. One told a reporter to ask Governor Rockefeller to do “anything you can” to try to save lives. (148)

Rockefeller’s Massacre

While the police were anxious to go in to end the rebellion, Thompson tells us that on the fourth night, “the final decision to end the negotiations at Attica was indeed the governor’s.” (155)

For Rockefeller, the inevitable bloody outcome was justified. “In his opinion, Attica-like rebellions would likely ‘become epidemic in prisons throughout the state and the nation’ in the future and he wanted his retaking of Attica to send a strong message of deterrence. As an investigative body later put it, ‘The decision to take the prison was…a decisive reassertion of the state of its sovereignty and power.’” (156-157)

They knew that this act would cause many casualties, not only of prisoners, but of the hostages as well. One state assemblyman, Clark Wemple asserted that “there was absolutely no doubt in anyone’s mind that if we went in there, the guards would be killed.” (Quoted, 157)

That is precisely what happened, as Thompson describes in detail how the assault proceeded: with police free to use their guns against prisoners who were already disabled by a blanket of teargas and who had no weapons.

There was no accounting of who had what weapons — and therefore of who was responsible for which wounds. Some of the guns were even brought from home, so there was no record of them.

Thompson describes brutality, maiming and murder, followed by torture of the wounded prisoners. This was a prolonged period after the prison had been retaken by the police and guards during which they were denied access to medical attention. This is what Rockefeller’s “liberalism” ultimately amounted to.

Authorities justified the bloody assault by the supposed barbaric actions which they claimed the prisoners committed, including the allegation that they had castrated one of the guards. President Nixon supported the governor, telling his aides: “Rockefeller handled it well…you see, it’s the black business…he had to do it.”

Nixon continued: “I think this is going to have a hell of a salutary effect on future prison riots. Just like Kent State had a hell of a salutary effect (sic!)…. They can talk all they want about force, but that is the purpose of force.” (Quoted 199, 200)

But as Thompson informs us, the prisoners had gone out of their way to protect the hostages during the whole period, including the negotiations, as well as during the assault on the prison. At times, they put their bodies between the hostages and the police assaulting the prison. It was the police who rioted and murdered.

I have the advantage of having known one of the people who was considered a leader of the rebellion because he had been on the negotiating committee — Dalou Asahi. I met him a few years after the Attica revolt. He was out of prison and was speaking out publicly to gain support for those who faced court cases for their participation in the rebellion.

Dalou and I traveled on a couple of speaking tours before he was killed by a policeman in New York. During that time, we ate together, rode together, shared sleeping quarters, and we talked a lot. The picture presented by officialdom did not match the man whom I came to know and to like.

The governor’s action inevitably reminded critics and activists of how his grandfather had settled a strike at a mine he owned in Ludlow, Colorado almost sixty years earlier, in 1913. John D. Rockefeller hired an aggressive strikebreaking firm whose actions culminated in a ten-day war that killed strikers and their wives and children. It became known as the “Ludlow Massacre.”

In 1971, Governor Rockefeller followed in his grandfather’s footsteps by sending in the armed police to retake the prison, effectively authorizing the killing of the prisoners and of the hostages.

Accounting and Coverup

Once the prison was recaptured, the accounting had to begin. As the doctors began to do their autopsies, it became clear that every fatality was the result of bullet wounds — and the prisoners had no guns, so the stories of the prisoners having killed and maimed the hostages had no basis in truth. With the exception of a few prisoners who were apparently executed far away from the action, all the deaths were caused by the police.

This fact became a public relations disaster for the governor, and he and his supporters went into action to protect him. First, they sought to discredit the doctors who had done the autopsies that undermined the claims of the prison and governor concerning the “barbaric” actions of the prisoners that had caused the deaths of the hostages.

Meanwhile, the hostages and family survivors of those killed were quickly given small amounts of money, promised that there would be more to come, and that they would be taken care of. Later in the book we learn how they had been manipulated.

Inevitably, investigations followed. Rockefeller and his supporters did his best to control his image. Thompson tells us how the state built the cases they would prosecute based on massive coercion of prisoners to testify against one another. The result was that 63 prisoners were indicted for 1289 crimes, some of which included murder and other serious felonies.

Thompson recounts how these indictments forced the Attica defendants to create a defense team. It included some well-known lawyers of the time, such as William Kunstler. Some of the defendants participated heavily in their own defense.

Certain differences began to emerge among the defendants concerning how political their defense should be. Some were able to raise bail and to work on their defense while they were outside. Those who could not, had access to fewer resources.

In the next few chapters, Thompson takes us through the first cases, in which the prosecution wins one, loses two and wins a plea of guilty, with no new time added to the guilty man’s sentence — not a very good record.

A great deal of time and expense had gone into these prosecutions, with very few positive results, from the point of view of the prosecutors.

Although much effort had gone into trying to prosecute the prisoners, very little had been done about the police actions that had killed several people, including some of the hostages. This was so despite the efforts of several witnesses who had seen crimes being committed by the invaders and who felt that the state’s failure to prosecute was “outrageous and unacceptable.” (403)

There was lots of evidence of police misconduct, including that police tampered with the evidence. One powerful example that Thompson provides is two photographs of a dead prisoner: the first shows him lying on the ground, empty-handed; the second is the same pose, but this time a sword had been placed under his hand.

In fact, Thompson assures us that it is plain that the District Attorney’s office “did, in fact, have a remarkable amount of evidence against specific members of law enforcement that did not result in the indictment of these men” and that there was abundant proof “that the top brass in the NYSP [New York State Police] was involved in hiding evidence” of police guilt. (425)

When one attorney, Malcolm Bell, sought to prosecute these officiers, he found his cases sidelined by the DA. Bell was certain that there had been a coverup of the police actions and that officials had gone out of their way to prevent any accounting of what the police had done.

Those in charge of the invasion had avoided keeping track of who was issued which weapons or what privately-owned firearms individuals had brought with them when they attacked, thereby making it more difficult to trace who was responsible for what.

Indeed, Thompson writes, “By the close of Fall 1974, Bell had begun to worry that he had stumbled upon an outright conspiracy to protect Attica’s shooters, one that reached to the highest level of his own Attica investigation as well as to the office of the former governor, Nelson Rockefeller [who was then serving as Gerald Ford’s vice-president].” (435)

After Bell did what he could to get the attention of the new governor Hugh Carey, and failed, he gave his information to a reporter at The New York Times. Once published, the story created an uproar, which brought about a new investigation … of the investigation.

Ultimately, however, nothing changed with respect to prosecuting the police. Rather, the Democratic governor Carey dropped all the charges against the prisoners, the police and the guards, and stipulated that the names of the guards who might have been indicted would be kept secret.

In so doing, he deeply disappointed the prisoners who had suffered so much. Carey obviously wanted to wipe the slate clean. He announced that he would “pardon every prisoner who had pled out in an Attica case, grant clemency to every prisoner who had been found guilty in an Attica case, and drop all inquiries into the potentially illegal actions of any state officers and employees at Attica back in September 1971— even disciplinary actions against them would now be off the table.” (452).

Fighting for Justice

Although this move brought an end to all prosecutions, it is far from the end of the story that Thompson tells. With the criminal investigations and trials behind them, the prisoners brought civil suits against the authorities, including former Governor Rockefeller, for all the suffering they endured.

They hoped that at least now their suffering could get into the public record — and Thompson does a good job summarizing the testimony for us. But once again obstacles emerged: Rockefeller was removed from the suit by a judge who was a good friend of the former governor’s attorney.

The jury ruled for the defendants but found only one man responsible, the Assistant Deputy Superintendent, Karl Pfeil. Regarding the other three defendants, the jury was hung.

Still, the ruling meant that the state was on the hook to pay damages to the prisoners. But the judge kept stalling trials intended to determine the amount the state must pay each of the people (or their estate in the case of those who had died since the rebellion of 1971).

Ultimately, he agreed to hold two trials: one to set the highest level of damages for those prisoners who had suffered the most, and one to set the lowest level for those who had suffered least. From these decisions, the payout to all the others would be determined.

Finally, 25 years after the Attica uprising, the first damages trial began. Thompson reports in some detail the testimony offered about what had been done to the prisoners.

The outcome was threatening to the state, which would have to pay the worst-treated prisoners as much as $4 million each and for those least-badly treated, $75,000 for some 1200 men: a huge sum of money. The state quickly appealed, and was rewarded with a reversal both of the original liability ruling and of the amount the state was required to pay.

So, Thompson explains, bereft of other alternatives, the attorneys turned to another judge, Michal Telesca, to try to make a settlement. He invited all the plaintiffs to come in and took the testimony of each — so that there would be a public record of what had been done to them.

He managed to get a settlement of $12 million, a third of which he gave to the attorneys, who had themselves financed the entire legal process. He then apportioned the rest to various categories of injuries he established. And so, the process came to an end.

Except that it did not, as Thompson has one more story to tell. Although the prisoners’ settlement was publicly reported, the hostages and their families asked, what about them? They had received nothing for their pain and suffering, most of which had been caused by the state’s violent retaking of the prison, and they were angry.

Cheating the Hostages

Thompson explains that many of the hostages had been swindled by the same state government that had so carelessly disposed of their bodies and their lives. The small checks they received after the prison had come back under state control — when they had been promised that they would be taken care of — had actually come from the workers’ compensation fund, but they were not told this.

Once they had cashed those checks, according to state law they were no longer entitled to sue the state, as the prisoners had done. Thus, decades after the uprising in 1971, the state of New York created yet one more scandal, this time in how it treated its own employees.

Faced with this prohibition, the hostages turned to pressuring the state legislature to correct this evident inequity. They turned to the same judge who had gotten a settlement for the prisoners. In the end, he managed to get them $12 million also. And each of the hostages was allowed to provide testimony for the public record of his treatment.

Even after all that, the hostages were forced to put public pressure on the state to come through with its settlement, and it only did so in 2005.

With this final act, Thompson brings the Attica story to a close. But the coverup continues: “Literally thousands of boxes of documents relating to these events are sealed or next to impossible to access.” (xiii)  The massive work she did and the lucky breaks through which she gained access to some of them is a whole story in itself.

In addition to her historical scholarship, Heather Thompson is an activist around issues of mass incarceration and prison conditions. As she stated in Newsweek, “When you consider how staggeringly high prison populations became — and how quickly they increased — in the 1980s and 1990s, we clearly have much work still to do if we are interested in fully addressing the crisis of mass incarceration.”

Connecting the legacy of Attica to recent prison strikes in Texas and California among other places, she affirms that “America’s incarcerated people have never stopped struggling against this country’s worst and most punitive practices. The Attica prison uprising of 1971 … testifies to this irrepressible demand for justice. This is Attica’s legacy.” (571)

March-April 2017, ATC 187

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