30 Years Later, Memories of Attica Cry Out
By Norman Solomon, media analyst
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
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 reported official lies 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;
only then did authorities 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 September1971.
"The Ghosts of Attica" premiered nationwide Sept. 9
on Court TV. Nuanced and unflinching, the 91-minute film packs
a powerful wallop because of its deep respect for historical
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
$12 million settlement. After living through the horror of the
Attica bloodshed and its traumatic, immediate aftermath during
which 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," filmmaker 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 economic and racial
bias, is enormous.
Back in 1971, the nation's prisons and jails held 330,000 people.
Today in 2001, 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.
Attica guards, wounded by troopers' bullets, were betrayed and
neglected by state authorities intent on hiding evidence and
dodging responsibility. Mike Smith was a young guard taken hostage
by prisoners, then 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."
(Source: Common Dreams NewsCenter, a non-profit news service)