By Pat M. Tomaino
Listen & comment at www.radioopensource.org/after-attica
Here’s a common, almost facile, view — the 1960s and 1970s were times of tumult. That’s not half of it. Digging deeper and seeking more voices, the last American century seems defined by systemic, homegrown violence. As the historian Heather Ann Thompson told us on the radio, this government made war on Americans all century long: Jim Crow and the lynching regime, Chicago ’68.
Another battle on our minds this week was the 1971 uprising at Attica State Prison in western New York. Forty-three men died there, including 29 inmates and 10 hostages killed by authorities, as Governor Nelson Rockefeller and President Nixon sought a total victory. In a recent report on ongoing violence at Attica, The New York Times reminded us: “The state commission that investigated the September 1971 uprising memorably described it as the bloodiest single encounter, Indian massacres aside, between Americans since the Civil War.”
If the last century was a battlefield, which side gets to keep the spent cartridges and the shrouds of the dead? Do they belong to the victims, to the state, or to history? For more than forty years, Attica inmates, corrections officers, and their families have fought New York over those questions.
Much of the physical evidence from the brutal raid that ended the Attica uprising is gone forever, allegedly destroyed by troopers sweeping the facility. However, hundreds of articles that were tagged and stored by Troop A of the New York State Police were only temporarily lost.
As the Albany Times Union reported, those letters, weapons, badges, photos, and scraps of clothing lay nearly forgotten for 40 years until archivists at the New York State Museum convinced the police to hand them over in 2011. Once headed for the waste pile, suddenly the 2,100 objects were open to any historian willing to drive to Albany.
Not anymore. Last summer, officials cut public access to the artifacts. Then, New York’s corrections department took control of 400 items that may belong to inmates and guards. In September, the corrections department distributed some of those objects to hostages’ families. The curator who originally claimed the artifacts for the New York State Museum criticized the transfer. Some victims’ families also complained, citing their deep mistrust of the corrections department.
Museum officials insist that the rest of the trove, which they describe as “general contraband,” will eventually be restored as a public collection. Despite assurances, the fate of the collection is still in question and, as bureaucratic disputes over artifacts go, the situation has drawn healthy media attention.
At one level, the recent wrangling is a problem for scholars and curators who want to tell this story. The collection is poorer now because the state took back hundreds of items that speak most clearly of Attica’s anguish. Future exhibits won’t contain the #13 cap and badge (pictured above) that corrections officer Raymond Bogart wore when he was “beaten beyond recognition.” (Mr. Bogart received the hat in a ceremony at Attica last year.) Historians may also lose access to the bloody and bullet-ridden sweatshirt that belonged to an as-yet unidentified inmate (also above).
It’s a problem for the rest of us, too. The state’s plan might extend and strengthen some of the lies that are still told about Attica. Many Americans mistakenly link the uprising with murderous criminality. According to Thompson, “the portrayal of prisoners as incorrigible animals contributed to a distrust of prisoners” after Attica—a powerful fiction that fueled the War on Crime and our policies of mass incarceration.
Any exhibition of the Attica artifacts risks reinforcing that negative view. That’s because the collection already suffers from a distorting selection effect: troopers searching the rubble of the raid were evidently on the lookout for improvised weapons. If the Times Union’s photos are any guide, those items make up much of the trove. Without the more mundane personal items—the hats and sweatshirts—an exhibit would be a horror show of shivs, molotov cocktails, and other “general contraband.”
Fundamentally, the state’s plan restricts information about the uprising. Historians like Thompson, who is working on a book about Attica, will have less access to these objects than they did four years ago. Other parts of the archival record are even more difficult to access.
Researchers and family members need more information, not less. Nearly fifty years later, they are still struggling to find out what happened during the raid. Why did police storm the prison in a two-minute-long hail of bullets? Did 39 people have to die that day?
We too are puzzling about a penal system and a society shaped by Attica. So, we are fascinated by the objects on this page (photographed in 2011 while they were still public). Alongside archival images, they sketch a story of pain and possibility, and they suggest how much more there is to know.
Special thanks to John Shearer, the photographer on the scene for Life Magazine in 1971. Mr. Shearer lent several of his images to this piece.
According to several accounts, a simple football game ignited the uprising. On September 8, 1971, guards broke up a rough play between two inmates and attempted to discipline them for fighting. Other inmates approached the scene, jeering. That night, when guards removed the two players from their cells, other men on the block threw objects. One spectator was taken from his cell after he launched a piece of glass.
When inmates protested the next morning, guards lost control of the situation, then of the prison.
The inmates took hostages, and over the next four days, a large group negotiated with authorities. Members of the prison football team worked as a motley security detail. Inmates on the yard donned football helmets like the one below, photographed in 2011.
Inmates improvised weapons as well as armor, turning to bats like the ones pictured below. They stockpiled knives and jury-rigged a grenade launcher. After authorities retook Attica on September 13, state police searched for illegal contraband, collecting and tagging as many of these crude weapons as possible. Not surprisingly, the collection in dispute today contains hundreds of such items.
Of the 43 men who died at Attica, the authorities killed every one except for three inmates who died in earlier rioting and William Quinn, a corrections officer who died after being beaten on the uprising’s first day.
Initially, the state claimed that inmates had slit the hostages’ throats. That turned out to be a lie: autopsies confirmed that twenty-nine prisoners and ten hostages died by gunfire — most during the first two minutes of the raid. The police had all of the guns. Knives and sports equipment were of little use for helmeted inmates like Edward Lamar Davis, below to the left, and an unidentified man pictured right .
Frank Smith was the coach of Attica’s football team before he emerged as a leader of the rebellion. Smith, known as “Big Black,” organized security for the inmates during the uprising, and many of his players guarded hostages.
After the raid, when authorities already had control of Attica, police and corrections personnel tortured Smith. Smith testified that they—some apparently under the mistaken impression that he and other inmates had killed hostages—beat his testicles and played Russian roulette against his head. He said that the officers jammed a football under his chin: “they kept telling me that if it dropped they was going to kill me.”
Letters and possessions
In August 1971, one month before the uprising, prisoners calling themselves the Attica Liberation Front wrote to Corrections Commissioner Russell Oswald with a manifesto of demands and a letter: “We hope that your department don’t cause us any hardships in the future because we are informing you of prison conditions. We are doing this in a democratic manner; and we do hope that you will aid us.”
Those writings formed the core of the inmates’ demands during the four-day uprising. Inmates and authorities negotiated many of the points, but the state never accepted the most important one—amnesty from prosecution and reprisal — and finally decided to take Attica by force.
As the dust and gas of the raid cleared, troopers and corrections officers reasserted complete control. As Frank Smith testified, this meant beating and torturing several survivors.
Police also took control of personal effects—items belonging to guards like Ray Bogart, as well as inmates, living and dead. Joe Watson of Prison Legal News writes that troopers collected “personal letters to prisoners from their children, hundreds of photographs recovered…from the cells of slain prisoners, notebooks containing stories of prison life at Attica and copies of prisoners’ legal records.”
Rafael Vasquez was one of the 29 inmates killed by police; they catalogued his effects the day after the raid and locked them up for the next 40 years. In 2011, the Times Union photographed two items that reportedly fell from Vasquez’s pockets the day he died: a New Testament printed in Spanish and a color portrait of a young girl.
Waiting for the state
People trying to make sense of Attica hoped that objects like the ones featured on this page would help tell the story.
Researchers, families, and the rest of us are waiting now, hoping that these pieces of ‘general contraband’ don’t stay lost on the battlefield.