How NY Covered Up a Massacre—and Sparked Mass Incarceration
Attica, Part 2
Good morning, subscriber,
We left off when tensions at Attica State Prison had reached a boiling point. As we explore today, prisoners rebelled. New York State, however, would have the final say, and soon, mass incarceration was born. Here’s Attica, Part 2:
Today’s story comes from Blood in the Water by Heather Ann Thompson. I worship Heather’s book, and I’m pleased to report that she’s a fan of our videos!
Skipped History @SkippedHistoryTomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of the #Attica Prison uprising. We made a (relatively) short, (somehow) comedic primer on the rebellion + its ties to the growth of mass incarceration ⤵️ Full vid: https://t.co/KS6JfqE1Bg Source 📚: "Blood in the Water" by @hthompsn cc @myhnn https://t.co/bkQBB05kwI
Next time on Skipped History…
We’ll explore the “termination” of Native American tribes in the 1950s and 60s. At long last, Vin Diesel has accepted our request to appear on the show.
Today, leaders increasingly connect the poor conditions and legacy of impunity at Attica to the deplorable state of facilities like Rikers Island. Next week, I’ll write more about this connection for paying subscribers. You can sign up below!
Otherwise, see you in two weeks with the episode on termination. Have a nice weekend!
This week’s transcript
Hello, I’m Ben Tumin and welcome to Skipped History. Today’s story is the second of two parts about the Attica Prison uprising of 1971. I read about it in Blood in the Water by Heather Ann Thompson.
We left off in September of 1971, when rising tensions had turned Attica into a powder keg waiting to go off. On the morning of September 9th, a guard named Robert Curtiss accidentally lit the fuse. As he approached a group of prisoners lined up in A Tunnel, intending to deliver a message to the guard leading them, prisoners began backing away, fearing they’d been trapped on purpose so guards could beat them. Suddenly, someone panicked, punched Curtiss, and chaos erupted. Prisoners beat the guards and made their way into Times Square, a central operations hub. From there, they opened gates so more inmates could join them, and by 9:15 am, 1,281 prisoners congregated in D Yard, along with 42 guards and prison employees they’d taken hostage. The Attica Prison uprising, which would last for four days, had begun.
As their first order of business, prisoners set up a medical table, gathered food and cigarettes, and elected representatives to negotiate with the state. That evening, Russell Oswald, Commissioner of the New York Department of Corrections, arrived to discuss inmates’ initial list of demands, which included “no physical, mental, and legal reprisals” against prisoners for the uprising; that press be invited in to witness it; and “speedy and safe transportation… to [freedom in] a non-imperialistic country,” unless the state could only find flights on Frontier. Prisoners had not suffered for years just so they could pay $5 every time they had to use the lavatory. Oswald agreed to some of these demands, including allowing in members of the press, which is why there’s so much imagery of the uprising and footage of people like L.D. Barkley, one of prisoners’ elected representatives, making the following speech:
Over the next two days, negotiations progressed in a seemingly positive direction. Per prisoners’ requests, Oswald allowed in people like famed civil rights lawyer William Kunstler to help them negotiate with the state. And while prisoners dropped their demand for transportation to a non-imperialist country—as it turns out, the only connecting flights out of upstate New York were on Frontier—their representatives fleshed out a total of 30 demands. Oswald agreed to 28 of them, including providing a healthy diet, minimum wage, and “adequate medical treatment.” However, there was a sticking point: amnesty.
Having seen the brutal reprisals at Auburn State Prison, Attica’s men weren’t willing to end the standoff until they received legal assurances that there would be no retribution against them for participating in the uprising. This demand took on even more urgency when prisoners learned that William Quinn, an officer injured amid the initial chaos of the rebellion, had died even after inmates rushed him out to state officials for medical attention. But Oswald refused to grant amnesty, and on this point, he had support from his boss, Governor Nelson Rockefeller who, unbeknownst to prisoners, from the start, believed “discussions [with them] could prove counterproductive.”
The growing number of agitated state troopers gathered outside the prison agreed, fueled by rumors of prisoner atrocities. For example, after watching the prisoners bring mattresses out from cells so hostages would have beds to lie on, troopers worried the hostages were being “surrounded by gasoline-soaked mattresses.” And when prisoners constructed a platform for the negotiating table, state officials fixated on the possibility that it was intended “to be a sacrificial altar and a hangman’s platform,” kind of like when I thought my neighbor was trying to hack my email password because he asked for the name of my cat. And for the record, my cat’s name is not 123456... it’s 123456!
So, as it turns out, the whole time that Oswald was negotiating, Rockefeller’s representatives were preparing for troopers to retake the prison by force. And as negotiations over amnesty reached an impasse, Oswald came to the conclusion that prisoners were not, in fact, calling for “prison reforms” but rather “for revolution and anarchy.” On the morning of Monday, September 13th, he sent one last “urgent appeal” to prisoners asking that “all hostages be released immediately.” But with no inkling that this “appeal” was a demand, prisoners rejected it, only realizing that the appeal came with an implied “or else” when they heard a helicopter that Rockefeller’s aides had called in to drop tear gas on the yard. Soon, the air was engulfed with gas, incapacitating every man it touched.
Tragically, the violent assault was just getting started. At 9:46 am, on orders from Rockefeller, over a thousand troopers and guards poured onto the catwalks and into the yard. They were armed with pistols, sniper rifles, and shotguns, many of which utilized unjacketed bullets, a brutal kind of ammunition banned by the Geneva Conventions. Equipped with gas masks to neutralize the tear gas, troopers shot at point-blank range at incapacitated men who were “waving their hands in the air and begging to be spared.” The gunmen made little effort to distinguish between friend and foe: for example, guard Robert Curtiss was shot in the back, and another hostage, Mike Smith, was wounded by four bullets that exploded on impact and sent shrapnel down his spine. And even after the shooting stopped, the violence continued, with troopers stripping surviving prisoners and forcing them to run through a gauntlet of officers beating them with batons. Some prisoners received even more elaborate forms of torture: for instance, troopers forced Frank Smith to lie naked for hours with a football balanced on his neck, threatening to shoot him if let the ball fall off. Smith survived, but people like LD Barkley did not, and by day’s end, 9 hostages and 28 inmates were dead.
Now, at this point, you might be wondering: what the f—k? So were people around the US in 1971, although probably for different reasons because of news like this: In the final hours of the revolt, the assault, led primarily by Blacks, the inmates murdered nine of their white hostages. Yes, right after the attack, prison officials told the press that all the dead hostages had been murdered by knife-wielding inmates. And to top off these stories, Rockefeller’s aides, knowing the public’s reaction to the assault could turn “into a bit of a nightmare for the governor,” released an official statement saying “several of the hostages had been dead for several hours before State moved into the prison in force.”
Now, neither of these accusations were true, but they spread all around the country. The day after the assault, news that “several of the hostages died... when convicts slashed their throats with knives” appeared on the front pages of every major national periodical. Soon, letters to editors streamed in expressing rage toward the “murderous convicts,” those “evil, vicious enemies of society” and also toward “the thoughtless idiots on the outside who support them.” Hey! And though the record was corrected the next day when autopsies showed that “shots killed the nine Attica hostages, not knives,” the initial onslaught of mistruth left a lasting impression on many people. One New York State Senator summarized, “As a result of Attica, the public attitude is that we’ve got to get tougher. That means we’ve got to put more people in prison.”
Rockefeller heard the message loud and clear and got to work on passing a set of draconian drug laws mandating harsh sentences for low-level offenders. Over the ensuing decades, state legislators around the country duplicated these laws in ever more punitive forms, leading to more people in prison. In fact, if you look at a graph of the US prison population over time, although the War on Crime began in 1965, the US’ dramatic spike in incarceration rates began directly after the Attica Prison uprising. And yes, various factors contributed to this spike at that point in time, but a major cause was the flood of laws inspired by the racist lies spread by the Rockefeller administration directly after killing dozens of prisoners. Fast forward to today, Attica is just as overcrowded as it was in 1971, and according to a recent report, “staff violence, brutality, intimidation, racism, and abuse remain pervasive.” Meanwhile, in a series of trials that lasted for decades and involved a systematic coverup of evidence, almost no one was held accountable for the retaking, prisoners and families of slain hostages only agreed to $12 million settlements with New York State in the 2000s, and New York still refuses to apologize for the violence, which is bewildering and infuriating, aka exactly what it’s like for me and 123456! to fly Frontier.
And speaking of bad deals, in the early 1970s, the US government ended a troubling arrangement with Native American tribes.
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