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Editorial: Lessons From The Attica Prison Uprising, 45 Years Later

The lies told at Attica fueled what would become the largest prison build-up in American history and resulted in the worst prison conditions to date.
Helicopter At Attica
A helicopter flies over the wall in the aftermath of the Attica Correctional Facility prison riots, Attica, New York, September 1971. The riot lasted from September 9 through the 13th.JOHN SHEARER / The LIFE Picture Collection

In recent months our nation has been inundated with ugly headlines indicating that yet another unarmed African American has been shot to death by a police officer, or that someone previously killed by law enforcement will not be finding justice in any court of law.

Despite the myriad victories of the civil rights movement, and despite the racial progress suggested by a black president winning two terms of office, the sheer number of black men and women that have recently died at the hands of law enforcement has shocked even the most jaded citizen and has led a significant portion of our population not only to fear the police, but also to doubt that there is, in fact, equal justice under the law.

Indeed, America is, today, in the grips of a most serious national crisis—perhaps more racially divided now than it has been since the 1960s when African Americans increasingly found themselves taking to the streets to protest the unrelenting police brutality they experienced as well as the fact that members of law enforcement were never held accountable for these actions.

The lies told at Attica fueled what would become the largest prison build-up in American history and resulted in the worst prison conditions to date as well.

This past year numerous cities have erupted once again. Through collective action African Americans and their white allies again hope to force the system to uphold equal justice under the law. Ominously, however, while most who march today remain hopeful that their activism will eventually force accountability, for others optimism is clearly waning. In two tragic cases recently, someone decided to retaliate rather than to resist peacefully.

But why has the people’s faith in our criminal justice system begun to falter so rapidly and so markedly?

Taking a closer look at our nation’s past—and specifically at a particularly dramatic event that took place nearly 5 decades ago—reveals something quite alarming: Where we find ourselves today was, perhaps, inevitable.

Attica Inmates Raising Fists in Unison During Riot
Inmates at the Attica Correctional Facility give the black power salute while Commissioner R.G. Oswald negotiates with leaders of the takeover.Bettmann Archive

On September 9, 1971, and directly on the heels of the dramatic decade of the 1960s in which countless cities had exploded because of the way that African Americans were treated by law enforcement and in the legal system, nearly 1300 men being held in one of America’s largest prisons, the Attica State Correctional Facility, exploded in a protest of their own.

This week marks the 45th anniversary of that now famous prison uprising which was, itself, ended most brutally by a phalanx of nearly 600 members of law enforcement. Today, thanks to brand new revelations about what actually happened in the wake Attica, we now have an important opportunity to reflect not only on the crisis that this nation again finds itself in, but we are given a clear blueprint for how it might now be ended.

When prisoners rebelled at the Attica State Correctional facility it sent the nation a clear message that African Americans literally everywhere, now even those locked behind bars, felt the need to protest the persistence of racial injustice in this country.

Although the demands they made of the state in their four-day uprising were quite basic—they, for example, asked for better medical care—the speeches that filled the prison yard that early September were rife with critiques of American racism, including that which law enforcement exhibited while disproportionately policing black communities across the nation. They powerfully echoed the voices of their counterparts in inner cities outside prison walls both then and now who insist that they be treated like human beings.

Then, suddenly, in the early morning hours of September 13, 1971, the fifth day of the uprising, and making sure to not let the prisoners know the magnitude of what was about to happen, a thick cloud CS gas was dumped into Attica’s D Yard and as prisoners and hostages alike stumbled around choked and blinded by the gas, 600 men—troopers and corrections officers—were sent in with guns blazing.

It was a massacre. In less than 15 minutes of the assault on Attica commencing, 39 men—prisoners and guards hostages—lay dead or dying and 128 men had been shot—some so severely, and with so many bullets, that their screams were ricocheting off the same prison walls as the thousands of bullets being fired all around them.

Those prisoners who somehow managed to survive the brutal retaking of Attica, were then tortured. Troopers and guards burned them, kicked them, beat them, urinated on them, and after stripping them naked played countless “games” of Russian Roulette with these men as they shook from fear and curled into fetal positions in their cement cells.

Saving in to crush riot; National Guardsmen wearing gas masks prepare to storm Cellblock D; the stro
National Guardsmen wearing gas masks prepare to storm Cellblock D, the stronghold of the rebellious convicts at Attica, N.Y. state prison.Don Dutton / Toronto Star via Getty Images

None of these men—not the corrections officer and civilian hostages just shot to death or wounded in the retaking by law enforcement, nor those prisoners who experienced the additional horrors of periods following the retaking—would ever see those who had committed such atrocities against them brought to justice.

As Americans watched the helicopters rise over Attica with tear gas, the troopers then storm the facility, and then the bloody bodies begin to come out on stretchers, they were stunned. What in the world had happened to justify this response? Was this massacre justified?

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Yes, they were told, it was. Indeed state officials stood outside of the prison within mere hours of sending troopers in and stated to every media outlet there that the prisoners were the ones responsible for killing the hostages, and worse, that they have even castrated one of them—shoving his testicles in his mouth.

All sympathy for the hundreds of men writhing in pain from gunshot wounds, and even those that now lay dead, evaporated. These men were, apparently barbarians. Whatever had happened to them, they had deserved.

This nation has a long history of police treating African Americans with particular insensitivity and brutality, and a long track record of not holding members of law enforcement accountable for that abuse.

And, yet, what America had been told was an utter lie. The truth was that every single person who had had been wounded or killed on the day of Attica’s retaking, had been shot by a member of law enforcement.

Once this truth itself made it into the papers, there were calls for accountability. Indeed, the lies told at Attica fueled what would become the largest prison build-up in American history and resulted in the worst prison conditions to date.

As important to this turn of events was the way in which the police were protected—never held accountable for the killing they did that September 13, 1971.

Although so many, particularly white, citizens in the country would continue to believe that the prisoners had done the killing on the day of the retaking, despite the various corrections that followed the most explosive initial stories, black citizens did not and together with their allies they pressured state officials to begin a formal investigation into the carnage at Attica.

But that investigation was compromised from start to finish.

For the next decade, not only did state officials focus all of their attention on trying to indict prisoners rather than the police, but it is now clear that they actually were complicit in the police’s own efforts to cover up crimes they had committed. The police were actively protected.

From the beginning, it turns out, state officials knew that state troopers had deliberately failed to record the serial numbers of the many guns they had used when they stormed Attica. They also knew that troopers had made the decision to remove their badges so that no one they harmed would be able to identify them. It was also clear to state prosecutors that, following the retaking, and to a one, troopers then wrote false statements in order to justify having discharged their weapons so frequently and with such deadly results.

Inmates Being Held After Riot
Inmates at the Attica State Prison sit by the trench in "D" yard in this 9/13/71. The photo, taken by State officials, was released to the news media April 26, 1972, by the New York State Special Commission Investigating the prison revolt.Bettmann Archive

Indeed, from the moment that the fog of tear gas and gunpowder began to dissipate over the prison, the governor of New York and the attorney general allowed the New York State Police to investigate the rebellion and retaking at Attica—the very retaking that its own troopers had turned into a bloodbath.

What is more, high-ranking police officials—including those who had orchestrated and then actually overseen that retaking—were, from the beginning, sitting in on highly sensitive meetings at the governor’s mansion.

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It was in these secret meetings, ones in which the men who were supposed to decide if crimes had been committed at Attica also attended, that together a timeline of all that had happened on the 13th of September was agreed upon. As astoundingly, when NYSP brass simultaneously made sure that key evidence it had against specific troopers literally disappeared, not only was this well known by everyone from the Attorney General of New York to the head prosecutor in the Attica Investigation, but no police official was ever indicted for obstruction or for tampering with evidence.

Worse, key evidence that state prosecutors in charge of the Attica massacre did have—evidence that could have be used to charge specific troopers with felonies ranging from Reckless Endangerment to outright Murder in the First Degree, never resulted in indictments either.

The cover up of police crimes at Attica then continued….for 45 years.

That those members of law enforcement responsible for so much death and trauma at Attica never had their day in court--not because they were justified in all that they had done, nor because there was insufficient evidence to hold them accountable. They were able to act with impunity because they were actively protected.

And this matters even today.

In fact, that moment, 45 years ago this week, when so many American citizens who dared to speak up against the persistence of racial injustice in our nation were gunned down without consequence, tells us a great deal about the crisis we find ourselves today.

Attica Correctional Facility
The aftermath at Attica Correctional Facility, 1971New York Daily News / NY Daily News via Getty Images

Attica’s newly uncovered history is, of course, a stark reminder that this nation has a long history of police treating African Americans with particular insensitivity and brutality and has a long track record of not holding members of law enforcement accountable for that abuse.

Far more important, however, Attica’s long history makes it crystal clear that when police officers are not held accountable for shooting unarmed black citizens, one cannot assume that this indicates either that they weren’t guilty or that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute them.

Indeed, what Attica’s history reveals is that in even the most egregious cases of abuse and outright murder, the police in this country have been protected. And, thus, because Attica’s history is unlikely to be exceptional, the nation today might rethink the way in which current incidences of police shootings are handled.

Because we never learned the lessons of Attica back in 1971 when they first were taught, this country was doomed to another 45 years of injustice.

Attica makes clear that any official inquiry into such a shooting cannot be conducted by the police, or by the prosecutors who depend upon them to make them victorious in their other cases. Attica indicates as well that any investigative body convened today must include members of the citizenry, that any legal proceeding convened to decide whether indictments are merited must be held in public, and that all internal documents related to the incident in question must also be open to the public.

On this 45th anniversary of the Attica prison rebellion of 1971 and its brutal retaking, we, today, have an opportunity not only to reflect on the ways in which racial injustice has, and continues to poison our nation, but also on the high and long-term costs of not insisting that our nation does indeed uphold equal justice under the law. In short, because we never learned the lessons of Attica back in 1971 when they first were taught, this country was doomed to another 45 years of injustice. Today’s ugly headlines were, in fact, guaranteed.

But now, now that we can see how deeply entrenched the politics of protecting the police run, now that we can see how much suffering and upheaval this inevitably generates, and now that our politicians have begun talking about criminal justice reform, we can now embrace a different future.

Blood in the Water: the Attica Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy
"Blood in the Water: the Attica Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy" by Heather Ann ThompsonPantheon

Heather Ann Thompson is a historian at the University of Michigan who writes on the history as well as recent politics of mass incarceration. Her newest book is Blood in the Water: the Attica Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy (Pantheon)

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