Thirty Years Later, Memories of Attica Cry Out
In a recent obituary about a former state prison official, the New York Times made a passing reference to "the bloody Attica uprising in 1971, which left 43 people dead." That's the kind of newspeak that presents itself as journalism while detouring around truth.
Thirty years ago, on Sept. 13, in upstate New York, a four-day standoff at the Attica Correctional Facility ended when 500 state troopers attacked the prison compound, firing 2,200 bullets in nine minutes. The raid killed 29 inmates and 10 guards held as hostages, while wounding at least 86 other people. The orders came from Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.
Media outlets across the country falsely reported the lies of state officials as if they were objective facts -- proclaiming that the rebellious prisoners slit the throats of the hostages when the troopers began their assault. Autopsies later revealed that no throats had been cut. Authorities had no choice but to admit that the state did the killing.
Now, three decades later, a new full-length documentary, "The Ghosts of Attica," is debuting on national television. The film includes chilling photos and footage (long withheld from the public by state officials) and moving interviews with former prisoners, ex-guards and others whose lives were transformed by what occurred during the second week of September 1971.
"The Ghosts of Attica" -- premiering nationwide Sept. 9 on Court TV, at 9 p.m. in most time zones -- is a significant national event. Nuanced and unflinching, the 91-minute film packs a powerful wallop because of its deep respect for historical accuracy.
Horrendous prison conditions prompted the Attica uprising, which began as an undisciplined riot and grew into a well-focused articulation of rage from men who chose to take a fateful step, fighting for human dignity. While the uprising was multiracial, most of the 1,281 prisoners involved were black.
The documentary film is an indictment of what has so often passed for journalism in reporting on prison-related events. Reflexively assuming that the powerful white guys in positions of authority would be truthful, reporters on the story got it backwards.
While the film avoids a facile good-vs.-evil tone, there are heroes nonetheless. Frank "Big Black" Smith, a prisoner who emerged as a leader of the uprising, went on to work as a paralegal on the outside. Along with attorney Liz Fink, he was a key coordinator of a 26-year civil action lawsuit brought by Attica inmates.
Their efforts made possible the release of more than a million Attica-related files that state authorities kept claiming did not exist. And, after a quarter of a century, prisoners won a settlement that included $12 million, two-thirds of which went to surviving inmates and the rest to attorney fees.
After living through the horror of the Attica bloodshed and its traumatic immediate aftermath -- during which, in the words of Court TV material, guards "tortured him for hours with cigarettes, hot shell casings, threats of castration and death, a glass-strewn gauntlet and Russian roulette" -- Frank Smith looks back with evident clarity. "Attica was about wants and needs," he says. "Attica was a lot about class and a lot about race."
"The Ghosts of Attica" illuminates many dimensions, past and present. "This movie is about the struggle for justice," film maker David Van Taylor told me. The struggle continues; the ghosts of Attica are with us -- in a country where the population behind bars, steeply skewed by race and class, is enormous.
Back in 1971, the nation's prisons and jails held 330,000 people. Today, the number is 2 million.
Many are incarcerated for drug-related offenses. A petition submitted to the United Nations in late August condemned the U.S. war on drugs as "not a war on plants or chemicals, but on citizens and other human beings who all too often are members of racial and ethnic minorities." Reuters news service noted that "whites use as many drugs as Latinos and African Americans" -- while the petition to the UN pointed out that among the people locked up for drug offenses, 57 percent are black and 22 percent are Latino.
In the present time, "Attica is such an icon, but it's an ill-understood icon," Van Taylor comments. While clearly focused on the need for social justice, the film that he co-produced does not fall into simple dichotomies. "The people who rebelled at Attica were not angels or devils," he says. They insisted on being treated as human beings.
Former Attica guards, wounded by troopers' bullets, were tossed aside by state authorities intent on hiding evidence and viewing those ex-employees as expendable. Among them was Mike Smith, a young guard who was taken hostage by prisoners, then was shot in the stomach by state troopers. He says in the film: "I don't know any other employer who could murder their employees and get away with it, except the government."
The guards and the prisoners were killed by the same gunfire, ordered by a governor who went on to become vice president of the United States. It's all in the past, and in the present. "Attica is not just an isolated prison," Frank Smith says. "Attica is attitudes and behavior, crime and punishment, education. It's about communication, it's about alleviating racism as much as we can, it's about the criminal justice system.... People need to see they are part of the problem and part of the solution. Attica is all of us."
Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media."