Ramsey Clark on the Attica Prison Rebellion
Ramsey Clark: The one case in our lives that Bill and I worked on together most closely and for the longest period of time was the Attica Prison rebellion case. And we worked over a period of, it must have been—not including the appeal—several years, and we were working night and day. Our major involvement became indictment number one. There were a whole string of indictments, maybe thirty-seven, I don’t remember how many. But, indictment number one was the only indictment for the death of a guard or any other person other than a prisoner. The guard, William Quinn, had died in what was called Times Square, the interchange place between the cellblocks. And two youngsters, both eighteen years old at the time and legally not supposed to be in Attica, were being held there pending transfer to a juvenile or a youth facility. And they were indicted for the murder of the guard. It was a central point and occurrence in the Attica Prison rebellion. The guard was injured and the prisoners permitted him, his body, to be taken out. He was unconscious, and he died something like fifty-six hours later. And once he died you knew there was no hope of peaceful reconciliation. And that led up to the final day where thirty-nine people were killed, including eight hostages—prison personnel and contractors who were in there working—all by police fire, even though they lied about it and said that prisoners had emasculated people and cut their throats and all that stuff, and it didn’t happen. When the autopsies were done they were all killed with guns, all injured with guns. And no prisoner had a gun.
But Bill and I represented a young guy named John Hill who had … he’s a least a quarter Seneca Indian in the blood. And I represented a young guy who at that time was called Charles Joe Pernasalice, who wanted to be an Indian. He acted and dressed like an Indian, sometimes he wore headbands with beads that the judge would make him take off when he got into the courtroom. He wanted to be an Indian. Lots of kids wanted to be an Indian, it was a noble aspiration at that time; I kind of wanted to be an Indian myself. And Bill and I spent an enormous amount of time, effort, and energy and lived together in a hotel that was practically empty through that bitter winter. We were paid ten dollars a day while we were in court and a roundtrip airplane ticket from New York to Buffalo at that time was about ninety-two dollars as I recall. And we never got paid for it. We got the ten dollars, sometimes.
So we had, uh, we had that long close experience that went on over a period of years. It ended, there were convictions. Charlie Joe’s was attempted assault in the second degree. But, um, … the impact of the trial and all the other activity and anger and hurt around it and the injustice of it! No police officer indicted for five years, and finally a guy was indicted for practically nothing, and that indictment was later dismissed, when thirty-nine people had been shot and killed by police officers in plain sight of defenseless people laying down. And then they brutalized scores of others, I mean they beat them mercilessly, put ’em on tables and just beat ’em, they would. Uncontrollable anger, unrestrained power. But the final outcome was that, um, … frankly I think we were gonna win, but the thing was all interrupted, and then Governor Carey gave amnesties to everybody. Charlie Joe never served a day. John was in for maybe two years or something like that before he was released.
And the verdict shows that they couldn’t even find that Charlie Joe had hit Quinn. He was convicted of attempted assault in the second degree.He was swinging something inside Times Square there, but everybody was swinging something inside Times Square, you know. And there was no evidence that I ever saw that they hit William Quinn, or anybody else for that matter. He was just, he was just trying to do what everybody else was doing. They’d come in from the yard and they were very angry and they were pulling on the gate to Times Square. There were four gates, one to each cellblock, where the prisoners would be marched through going to chow and stuff like that. And it shows you … I mean it’s the story of the prison industry. One of the main bars that went down to the ground, that went into a steel tube and into the ground to hold the gate closed when it was down, snapped. And later, when it was examined, they found that the steel rod had broken earlier and been welded, and the weld broke. So some contractor, to save a few bucks, you know, maybe– I don’t know what a new gate or a new single bar to fit it in would cost—but they welded the thing together.
The prison had been called a model prison. It was dedicated by Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the early 1930’s or maybe earlier than that, but I think that’s when it was. It was just before he ran for president. And, um, that was kind of the story of institutional failure. If you’d done it right, if you’d treated the prisoners right … It’s hard to remember that the rebellion was a complaint over prison conditions. At that time there were roughly twelve thousand prisoners in felony detention in the whole state of New York. And today it’s five, six times that … unbelievable, just this huge expansion. I mean, the prison archipelago of the United States since then is just awful, and the conditions are worse than they were at Attica. Attica was still a new prison, a model prison. It’s not any place anybody, any human being, oughtta be. And certainly no human being in his right mind or with a mind would want to be there. But the physical plant was good and the treatment wasn’t as bad as the overcrowding and other conditions that you have in prisons in New York today.
Well, it was called, um, the bloodiest day on US soil since the Civil War. Governor Rockefeller was, um, severely criticized for it. You could tell for the rest of his life through his conduct that he was always very sensitive about, um, the decision to tell the state police to take D-yard back. And it seemed for a while that Attica could lead to prison reform, but, um, history was running against it. The United States is becoming more and more police-oriented, more and more prison-oriented. The prison industry has grown just enormously. We’ve built more prison cells in the United States in the last thirty years than we have public shelters for families, which is quite an indictment of a society. But it’s true. It remains a time when clearly excessive and brutal force that involved the deaths of even nine guards and civilian workers within the prison who were being held hostage was held unaccounted for, that we will simply not hold our police accountable for terrible crimes against our people. And that’s not freedom, and it’s not justice.
I had an experience, it was quite appalling. I was Deputy Attorney General and I was visiting a prison at Seagullville[?], Texas. And it was in the summer of ’64 and hot as blazes, it was August. And I was walking through the yard—I visited all the prisons, with the warden—and I saw an old guy, ’cause he had a white head, lean against, not lean against … sitting against a building and humped over like this in the sun. So I kind of steered over, walked to him, and when I got to him said something like, “Hey, buddy, what are you doing here? It’s pretty hot.” And, um, … nothing. So I reached over and I patted him on the shoulder, and I looked down. And finally he lifted his head up, and he was senile. I mean, he clearly didn’t, couldn’t … had no thoughts. And I turned to the warden and said, “What’s he doing here?” He said, “He was …,” the warden said, “He was convicted of the death of an FBI agent in a bank robbery in Oklahoma in 1926.” Said, “We’ve been trying to get rid of him…”—that shows the gratitude towards and respect for his dignity—“… we’ve been trying to get rid of him for years. But every time we send a recommendation, we, the prison authority, the warden—’Please release this man, we’re not a nursing home. We don’t know how to change diapers and do all these things. And it’s a distraction, and it’s totally improper that he’s here. Please release him–‘ and the word comes back that anyone convicted of killing an FBI Agent will never be released. Signed, J. Edgar Hoover.”
Crew member Matt Ruskin during filming at Attica Prison. Courtesy of the filmmakers.
There’s this new contempt for dignity, for human dignity. I mean, just look at their reaction to what they do at Abu Ghraib, or Guantanamo, or places like that. There’s a contempt for law for the United States to say, “Yeah, we held prisoners elsewhere, not just in Guantanamo, all over the place. CIA held prisoners. So?” No constitution. No laws. No human rights. No international treaties. Nothing to protect them. And why not just enough common decency not to do it, you know? Does it take a law to tell you you don’t torture people? Does it take a law to tell you you don’t grab somebody and don’t tell his family where he is, you don’t tell him where he is, and you stick him in some god-forsaken hole someplace, and you don’t tell him what’s gonna happen to him but make him know that it won’t be good? And leave him there? Uh, we’re a long way from the Constitution now. And the struggle is not the struggle, the valiant struggle that Bill Kunstler and those who worked with him in that cause were engaged in. Because then there was some belief that there are fundamental rights, and that, um, we can become a nation that insists upon respect for the dignity of every man, woman, and child on earth and equality in treating them and assessing their conduct. But fairness is always the, the guiding measure. But we’re a long way from that now.
The Filmmakers: Do you still believe in the legal system?
Clark: I have the great advantage-disadvantage of being an optimist, so I try to assess things realistically. But I still believe that people can see the truth, finally, however obscure it is because of its complexities, or the numbers, or the confusion of life, or the deliberate distortion, or the power of a mass media just presenting one thing all the time. The capacity to demonize today far exceeds the capacity to demonize in the past. I mean, you can make something so hateful, a piece of cheese, that, um, people want to spit at. You know, they won’t have … they can’t concede ? the possibility that there’s a human quality at all there. You compare someone that you’ve never met, you’ve never talked to, you really don’t know anything about him, and you say he’s a … he’s a Hitler, he’s a Stalin, he’s a Lenin, just every name from the past that evokes evil, as they like to think. But I believe the truth, in time, is possible. If not, then I think the only conduct that’s acceptable is believing it’s possible as the ship goes down.
Photo courtesy of the filmmakers
Filmmakers: Do you believe in progress?
Clark: I believe in change. I think change is the dominant fact of our lives. I believe we can guide change, um, to a greater degree than ever in the past. If we master technology rather than have technology master us, if we control it rather than have it threaten us, if we bought less things that are dangerous and create things that are good for children, we can change things. I have no doubt that if we wanted to, collectively, or in large numbers, there wouldn’t be a hungry child or person on earth. There wouldn’t be a homeless person on earth. There wouldn’t be a person who couldn’t have a full education, all that they desired or could absorb, on earth. That they couldn’t have meaningful work from which they could get some sense of fulfillment, satisfaction. That they couldn’t be free from violence. That they couldn’t say whatever they wanted to say and do whatever they wanted to do that didn’t hurt others. I don’t have any doubt that we’d accomplish that. If, um, if greed is our master and we think our accumulation will make us happy and safe, we’ll reap the whirlwind. And you can feel its gusts everywhere on the earth today.
Filmmakers: Why do you do the kind of work you do?
Clark: Well, I think Bill and me, and people like us, uh, believe that the only thing worthwhile in life is struggling for what you think ought to be. That everything else is fleeting. That you may get some sense of comfort from wealth, from acquisition, from power, but, uh, when you look at the world, and you look at the suffering … . I mean, look at the violence across the world today. Um, I think people like Bill and so many of us would be destroyed if we turned our backs on it and said, “I’d rather take care of myself. I’d rather have my taxes cut, you know? I’d rather see our economic power concentrated so we can control the world. I’d rather wipe out the cradle of civilization than risk my comfort. And the truth doesn’t matter, this is what I want, and this is what we’ll do.” I think we turned our backs on the belief that, uh, the worth of every child is of the utmost importance. And you struggle for her well-being. And, um, particularly with Bill, that you enjoy the struggle and, um, let the Devil take the hindmost.
All extended interviews were provided by the filmmakers and edited by Andrew Lutsky.