The storming of Attica D-Yard — One day that shows just how little black lives mattered
On the morning of September 13, 1971, on the fourth day of a takeover by inmates at the Attica Correctional Facility in western New York state, hundreds of New York State patrolmen, sheriff’s deputies, correctional officers, and park police stormed the D-yard where 1300 prisoners — armed with makeshift weapons but no firearms — had been holding a number of correctional officers and prison civilians as hostages. In the shooting free-for-all that followed, 9 of the hostages and 28 prisoners were slaughtered; the eventual death toll from the Attica uprising would be 43 men.
In the immediate aftermath of the raid, state government, police, and prison officials attempted to claim that the 9 hostages had been tortured and had had their throats slit prior to the re-taking of the prison. The governor’s representatives claimed that the brutality of the prisoners against their hostages had given the state no other option but to take the yard with deadly force. New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller telephoned President Nixon to tell him that, “They did a fabulous job. It really was a beautiful operation.” And the network news led their stories across the country with the dark tales of brutal prisoners who had executed their hostages and had been executed in turn.
But within 24 hours, autopsies had revealed that every person who died in the yard that day had been killed by bullets fired by state forces sent into “liberate” the prison. Forty-five years later, “Attica” is a divisive word. For those who never stopped believing the state’s initial reports, it was the day their loved ones were freed from a hostage situation. In reality, it was the day that “ordinary men” used the cover of the state’s rescue operation to carry out the hunting down and killing of black men knowing that there would be no accountability.
The bulk of the story about Attica is well-known, but, with the publication of Blood in the Water by University of Michigan historian Heather Ann Thompson, the details of what happened in D-Yard, and the terrible reprisals taken against the prisoners in the days following, have been brought to light. Many of these details were suppressed by the State of New York, which resisted repeated FOIA requests to produce the documented testimony by prisoners who were targets for the guards’ racially motivated vengeance. These details, which include stories of naked prisoners forced to run gauntlets of guards armed with clubs, and the sexualized torture and execution of the suspected ringleaders of the revolt, have been told consistently by both prisoners and COs who survived the massacre, stories they told to investigators in the aftermath but which were hidden from the public. Thompson has gathered those materials and presents a narrative that shines a light on one of the darkest days in the already umbrous history of incarceration in the United States. (A history that continues even now at Attica.)
The Attica riot began on September 9, after a tense summer in which prisoners who had been agitating for redress of grievances had grown increasingly frustrated at the inability to make any kind of progress. Among their demands: adequate medical care; adequate food (many of the prisoners were perpetually hungry); a raise in prison wages (most prisoners earned only 6 cents per day — which made it impossible for them to buy commissary food to supplement a starvation diet); and an end to constant beatings by COs and arbitrary assignment to solitary confinement, which was used by guards as punishment for the slightest of rules infractions. In addition, despite the fact that many prisoners were Puerto Rican, no guards spoke Spanish, and any mail that came to prisoners that was written in Spanish was automatically thrown away because it could not be censored. All of these issues had been brought to the attention of prison officials, who had failed to act on them, choosing to see the prisoners complaints as both “petty” and the work of “agitators.”
A series of events — a bottleneck of prisoners, a rusted-through gate, and a series of other accidents which all came together in a corridor between blocks after breakfast on September 9th — led to an outcome in which the prisoners had beaten several guards, taken prison employees hostage, and converged in D-yard, one of four recreational yards at the gigantic prison complex. While Attica had a reputation for being the last home for hardened “thugs,” one of the revolt’s leaders, 21-year old L.D. Barkley, had been sent to Attica after violating his parole for driving without a license.
In the opening melee, one of the guards was severely beaten. Prisoners arranged to release the injured guards and all the women hostages. The most seriously injured of the guards died three days after the riot began, (and there is evidence of state negligence in getting the CO immediate medical attention after he was released to its care) which created the issue on which the state refused to cave and the prisoners refused to surrender until the demand had been met: no further punishment for what officials saw as a riot and to which they had attached all sorts of criminal charges. The prisoners wanted amnesty from any criminal charges. They were willing to surrender and release the hostages in exchange for the meeting of their list of demands about the improvement of prison conditions and a promise of amnesty. Despite the negotiations with a team of outsiders — including journalists, politicians, clergymen, and Black Power leaders — Governor Rockefeller and the District Attorney for the county refused to agree to amnesty.
From September 9th through the morning of September 13th, the prisoners continued to negotiate. During this time, they provided around-the-clock protection to their hostages so that no other inmate could injure them, and Thompson provides testimonial evidence that the inmates took special care to make certain that the hostages were made as comfortable as possible given the circumstances, providing them with shelter, food, and water that was often better than that which the inmates were allowing themselves.
On September 13, with no warning to the prisoners that the state was no longer interested in negotiating, the invasion of the yard began. Reading the details of what happened that morning is sickening. Despite the presence of trained SWAT units and the National Guard, the decision was made to send in New York State Troopers armed with weapons that many of them had never carried before: .270 rifles with unjacketed bullets, “a kind of ammunition that causes such enormous damage to human flesh that it was banned by the Geneva Conventions.” (pg. 157) One of the troopers interviewed said that he had no idea why they had been given those particular weapons because he “had absolutely no training in the use of this weapon and he knew that was true of most of the other officers.”
The decision to not use the National Guard was most likely a political decision — this was only months after the disastrous encounter between Ohio’s National Guard and the protesters at Kent State — and it seems clear that in choosing which units would go in and who would lead them, even before the assault, political butt-covering was in effect. Even before the first shot was fired, state administrators and elected officials were setting up layers between themselves and whatever happened.
Before the troopers — and hundreds of other armed men, some COs, some sheriff’s deputies, none of whom were officially supposed to be there — went in, rumours went through the crowd that the prisoners had been torturing their hostages. The CO who had died in the original riot — William Quinn — had died of a head injury, but in the overtired, overhyped crowd of law enforcement officers, the story spread that Quinn had been castrated prior to his death. The story was embellished until it included the details that Quinn’s genitals had been stuffed into his mouth. The “rescuers” were being whipped up into a mob. One can imagine that angry men armed with unfamiliar weapons would not make the best force for hostage rescue, but in the disaster that Attica was to become, no one put the brakes on this situation.
On Monday, September 13th, prisoners had continued to negotiate with the State until 9 a.m. Without warning the prisoners that it was suspending negotiations, just after 9:30, a helicopter carrying CS and CN gas dropped its payload into the yard where the 1300 men were. The combination of the two chemicals created a situation where the air became opaque because the gas disperses as a thick powder, and it caused vomiting, tearing, swelling of mucus membranes, and burning of lungs. It disabled all who came in contact with it, and reports were that the men in the yard overwhelmed — some even coughing up blood as the gas burned their lungs. As Thompson writes, “If the Rockefeller administration’s goal had been … to completely immobilize ‘persons exposed to the CS gas,’ so that prison officials could walk in and, with no one capable of stopping them, calmly retake control, they had succeeded in mere minutes.”
But, the State wasn’t finished. Into a yard full of disabled men, and in a situation where there was no visibility due to the high levels of noxious gas in the air, at 9:46, following orders, the troopers moved in. The troopers had removed all identifying information from their uniforms, including their ranks and units. They were riled up on false stories of murdered hostages. And, they were also hopped up on stories of “Black Power” inmates seeking revenge against white COs. On top of this, many of them were carrying .270s with “Dum Dum” bullets. According to Thompson’s research, approximately 832 men were involved in the re-taking of Attica (pg. 180), armed with .270s, handguns, and shotguns loaded with buckshot “because it scattered.”
The stories of what happened in Yard D over the next hour are revolting, and too numerous to recount here. What was apparent was that the prisoners’ rebellion had been quashed almost immediately; what happened afterward was motivated by vengeance and hatred.
As cruel as these events were, it was the acts of cold-blooded killing, and attempted killing, that made the scene especially terrifying. One prisoner watched in disbelief as two troopers aimed their guns at a man trying to take cover in a trench. The troopers instructed the man to climb out of the hole with his hands on his head, which he did. Then, ‘he was shot in the chest by the trooper who <had> told him to keep his hands on his head.’ Another prisoner who had been shot in the abdomen and in the leg was ordered to get up and walk, which he was unable to do. ‘The trooper then shot him in the head with a handgun.’ Trooper Gerard Smith watched as his fellow officers stormed through the tent city and happen upon foxholes that prisoners were trying to hide in, and then witnessed one of these troopers as he ‘just stuck the rifle into the hole and pulled the trigger.’
In addition to the killing though, prisoners reported that their would-be executioners were also driven by racial animus. “As one prisoner was told by a trooper who had a gun trained on him: he would soon be dead because ‘we haven’t killed enough niggers.’ Everywhere there were cries of ‘Keep your nigger nose down!’ ‘Don’t you know state troopers don’t like niggers?’ ‘Don’t move nigger! You’re dead!'”
If this scene feels familiar, it might be because it calls to mind scenes documented by other other historians writing about the men who mowed down entire villages in other wars. Christopher Browning wrote about the ordinary men, police officers from Berlin, who were asked to aid the SS in “clearing” Polish villages during World War II.
And even when they had to shoot, the shootings themselves somehow got easier. In fact, after Jozefow the shootings became, for many, routine — even, for some, fun. And for a few, the initial horror was replaced by a gory sadism, in which Jews, totally naked, preferably old and with beards, were forced to crawl in front of their intended graves and to sustain beatings with clubs before being shot. One officer even brought his new and pregnant wife from Germany to show off his mastery over the fate of the Jews.
At Attica, as in Europe, once the men sent into clear a yard of the undesirables had been convinced that what they were dealing with was less than human, it became a sport to kill them. They were no longer killing other human beings. The ordinary state troopers — the guys who spent most of their times on New York’s Thruway and highways pulling over speeders and aiding motorists with flat tires — turned into spree killers and torturers once their supervisors, with the tacit consent of Nelson Rockefeller, convinced them that the men in Yard D were no longer men with legitimate grievances about their inhumane conditions, but rabid animals who needed to be put down.
The horror didn’t stop there. After the initial raid was over, prisoners testified that they were beaten. Men were forced to run gauntlets of guards armed with clubs, and then were beaten and kicked as they ran between the guards — again and again — depending on whether the guards considered them “ringleaders” in the revolt. The prison doctors, Williams and Sternberg, refused to treat some of the prisoners, and in one horrific case, treated a prisoner with gunshots by having “stuck his finger into one of the holes and started wriggling it around. The prisoner was screaming with pain.”
“Some of the torture was so hideous that it literally nauseated those who happened upon it. One doctor ‘described a prisoner whom he saw on Monday between 2 and 2:30 pm’ who was ‘cut up badly and raggedly around the rectum and genitals and it was not a gunshot wound but looked like it had been done with glass or a broken bottle.'”
The torture continued for days and weeks afterward as prisoners were subjected to retribution. They were dragged from their cells and beaten. They were subjected to sexual abuse. Their personal belongings were destroyed, including destroying men’s dentures so they could not eat. Their eyeglasses were stolen, and some guards wore what they had stolen as trophies around their necks.
Forty-five years later, there are those who believe that the prisoners at Attica got what they deserved. The comments at Amazon on Blood in the Water contain those who say that Thompson’s account, which is based on the new documents, is lopsided in its presentation of what happened to the prisoners. We are assaulted by those who insist that there are two sides to any “fact,” and that if a fact doesn’t suit them, it must be because of bias, and not because it’s possible that the events they don’t like really did occur.
But here are the facts. Forty-five years ago this week, unarmed prisoners killed a guard and took over a prison. Their demands centered on the desire to be treated like human beings. Four days later, the State of New York responded with a poorly executed military assault of the prison in which scores of men were injured and 38 died immediately. State officials then turned a blind eye as COs took their revenge on prisoners — making them run gauntlets, raping them with broken bottles, beating them repeatedly, and making life hell for the men of Attica for months after the riot was over. All told, 43 men died during the Attica Prison Uprising.
In 2015, three Attica COs went on trial for the vicious beating of George Williams, a 29-year old black man who was in jail for robbing two jewelry stores. Williams was kicked over 50 times during the course of his beating. Forty-five years after the uprising, Attica is still the place where justice goes to die.
Watch this excerpt from William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe (POV on PBS)