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Eyes on the Prize
The Story of the Movement — 26 Events

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The Attica Prison Riot

1971

"The whole criminal justice system... is very much intertwined with the economic oppression of black people."
—Angela Davis, professor and prisoners' rights activist

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As the 1970s dawn, a disproportionate number of blacks and Latinos from poor, urban neighborhoods are in prison. Activists like Amiri Baraka and Angela Davis, see prisoners as potential supporters of revolutionary change. When George Jackson, a California inmate well known for his letters from prison, is killed by San Quentin guards, the news is deeply disconcerting to other black prisoners across the nation.

At Attica Correctional Facility in New York, inmates live under poor conditions. A fight sparks an uprising in which 1200 inmates take over the prison. Holding 39 hostages, the prisoners, including leader Frank "Big Black" Smith, demand improved conditions including less mail censorship, better sanitary conditions, the hiring of more minority guards, and a promise of amnesty to end the impasse. Governor Nelson Rockefeller refuses to consider amnesty and after five days sends state troopers to retake the prison. In the bloody melee, 29 inmates and 10 hostages are killed, all by bullets from police weapons. Prisoners are stripped, tortured, and humiliated. Nearly 30 years later, the prisoners will win a class-action lawsuit against the state for their mistreatment.

Context

Other Events: 1971

National Public Radio makes its first broadcast, covering U.S. Senate hearings on the Vietnam War.

Congress passes and the states ratify the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, lowering the voting age to 18.

Gloria Steinem launches Ms. magazine.

"Brian's Song," a TV movie starring James Caan and Billy Dee Williams, portrays the real-life friendship between white and black football teammates Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers.

The New York Times publishes The Pentagon Papers, a secret history of the United States in Indochina.

A group of military veterans, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, stages a protest at the Capitol. One of the group's leaders, future politician and presidential candidate John Kerry, testifies before Congress.

David Vetter is born in Houston without a functioning immune system. Doctors will keep the boy alive, separated from the rest of the world in a plastic bubble, for twelve and a half years.

"Shaft," about a proud black police detective, is a hit at the movies and on the radio, inspiring dozens of imitators in the "Blaxploitation" genre.

Press

The Atlanta Constitution, September 14, 1971

Editorial: Attica and Truth

...The animals at Attica, who cold-bloodedly slit the throats of eight hostages, and those who stood by and allowed it, left the prison authorities little choice but to use troops.

They are outlaws in the truest sense of the word -- an abomination in the eyes of decent society and unable to accept the law's protection...

The Los Angeles Times, September 17, 1971

Letter to the Editor

The slaughter authorized and perpetrated at Attica Prison by New York state correctional officials was merely symptomatic of America's ever-increasing reliance on institutionalized violence as the sole means of dealing with any type of domestic (or foreign) disorder...

...That the lives of the hostages as well as the prisoners were in imminent danger if the prison was stormed was disregarded by New York officials in their zest to "restore law and order." Their rationalizing away the lives of 40-plus men with the retort "many others would have died if we hadn't acted" is analogous to the sardonic observation about "having to destroy the town in order to save it."

Bill Bell
Los Angeles

The New York Times, September 19, 1971

Letter to the Editor

Rampant permissiveness, long afflicting our society, easily penetrates penitentiary walls. So why all the dismayed utterances decrying the Attica affair? Surely it cannot be described as unexpected. After all, we on the outside (of the prison walls) have been subjected to far greater outrages in the last decade or so...

Robert J. Yamin
Danbury, Conn., Sept, 13, 1971

The Chicago Tribune, September 21, 1971

Letter to the Editor: Attica Riot

... The fact of the matter is that, faced with a riot of convicts with hostages and unacceptable demands, the prison authorities handled the matter as effectively as possible. My only regret is that the guards did not move in quickly enough, since procrastination under such circumstances can only serve to encourage the rioters in their delusions...

Richard J. Hackett
Libertyville

Video

The Attica Prison Riot
Duration: 7:28 min
Watch the Video

The first clips are of people gathered outside the prison during the hostage crisis.

Civil rights lawyer William Kunstler is then seen decrying Governor Nelson Rockefeller's refusal to come to the prison and predicting there will be a massacre if authorities move in.

The father of hostage Michael Smith is shown demanding action.

Finally is an after-the-fact interview with former inmate Frank Smith, describing the storming of the prison and how authorities shot and beat inmates, making them walk across broken glass and threatening their lives while hurling racial epithets.

Footage provided by BBC MOTION GALLERY and ©1999-2000 WGBH Educational Foundation.

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