Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy

A number of prisoners killed had, according to several witnesses, actually still been alive after troopers had control of the facility. One

Even at the time, however, National Guardsman Callahan could see that the abuses happening to prisoners following the retaking were fueled by outright racism. Callahan overheard one trooper bragging of shooting a black inmate with a .357 and watched him then give a “White Power salute.”54 He also saw “a prison guard sergeant telling this very tall, yellow-skinned black to strip” and when the man refused, the sergeant “told others to hold him down and then kicked him in the head like a football—he went limp.”55 Another Guardsman overheard one trooper saying to another over by a food stand outside Attica’s walls that it was “hot work killing niggers.”56 Racial hostility was in fact so intense that during the legislators’ tour that morning, even Assemblyman Arthur Eve was showered with invective. “Guards [were] yelling at Eve—get your nigger ass out of here.”57

Even though only 37 percent of the prisoner population was white, whites held 74 percent of the jobs in Attica’s power house, 67 percent of the coveted clerk positions, and 62 percent of the staff jobs in the officers’ mess hall. By contrast, 76 percent of the men in the dreaded and low-paid metal shop, and 80 percent in the grueling grading companies, were African American or Puerto Rican.

I never saw human beings treated like this,” another prisoner later recalled. He couldn’t understand: “Why all the hatred?”57 But it wasn’t just any hatred—it was racial hatred. 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.”58 Everywhere there were cries of “Keep your nigger nose down!”59 “Don’t you know state troopers don’t like niggers?”60 “Don’t move nigger! You’re dead!”61 Underscoring just how much racial hatred was fueling trooper rage in D Yard, one prisoner, William Maynard, tried to carry Jomo to safety after he had been shot multiple times. As Maynard struggled along, a CO ordered him to stop and put his hands in the air. As he dutifully put his hands up, still trying to balance Jomo on his shoulders, the CO shot him twice in the forearms. As Maynard fell in a heap, with Jomo on top of him, this same officer “loaded up his gun and shot Jomo six times right on top of me and kicked me in the face and says both the niggers are dead and went on.

I think Attica brings to mind several things. The first is the basic inhumanity of man to man, the veneer of civilization as we sit here today in a well-lit, reasonably well appointed room with suits and ties on objectively performing an autopsy on this day, yet cannot get at the absolute horror of the situation, to people, be they black, yellow, orange, spotted, whatever, whatever uniform they wore, that day tore from them the shreds of their humanity. The veneer was penetrated. After seeing that day I went home and sat down and spoke with my wife and I said for the first time being a somewhat dedicated amateur army type, I could understand what may have happened at My Lai.

Nixon was clear to the men assembled that, in his view, “Rockefeller handled it well” because, as the president put it, “you see it’s the black business…he had to do it.”43 To a one, these men felt strongly that this rebellion was of a piece with the revolutionary plots that had recently been hatched in the California system by black activists such as Angela Davis, famed leader from the Black Panther Party. All

Puerto Rican and African American prisoners were subject to far more stringent rules when it came to family visitation as well. Twenty-six point six percent of all Puerto Ricans and 20.4 percent of all blacks at Attica were in common-law relationships, but prison policy was clear that no common-law wives or children from those unions were allowed to visit.36 Even letters between common-law partners were confiscated. In

So obvious was the racial discrimination at Attica that white prisoners readily agreed that guards applied rules differently to blacks and Puerto Ricans.39

The bottom line, Rockefeller confirmed for Nixon, was that the entire rebellion had been masterminded by African Americans. “The whole thing was led by the blacks,” he said, and he assured the president that he had sent in the troopers “only when they were in the process of murdering the guards.

The Law Enforcement Assistance Act of 1965 and the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 lavished even more federal funds on fighting crime. In addition, landmark Supreme Court decisions such as Terry v. Ohio—which gave the police virtually unlimited powers to stop and frisk citizens without probable cause—intensified the policing of poor neighborhoods and people of color, which, in turn, resulted in record arrest rates. Before long, prisons like Attica were bursting at the seams.

The troopers themselves were less politic about how they felt about the men they were now supposed to rehouse. Directly below a chalked inscription made by the D Yard rebels commemorating the beginning of the uprising on the 9th of September, members of law enforcement made their own inscription: “Retaken 9-13-71. 31 Dead Niggers.”93

The truth was that the only thing that kept the prison running smoothly under these circumstances was that the prisoners usually followed the rules and did what the officer in charge asked them to do. But as the number of men at Attica grew, order and calm were harder to come by. Significantly, the profile of the average prisoner coming to Attica had changed. Many more prisoners were young, politically aware, and determined to speak out when they saw injustices in the facility. These were black and brown youth who had been deeply impacted by the civil rights struggles of this period as well as by the writings of Malcolm X, Mao, and Che Guevara. These younger men made it clear that they were more willing to stand up for themselves—less likely to put up with poor treatment than were Attica’s veterans. Correction

This was perhaps most or particularly true for Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, New York’s governor since 1959, when he decided to get tougher on crime. Rockefeller had been a lifelong Republican, but he had routinely found himself in the liberal wing of his own party. Historically, this had benefited him mightily. He was, for example, one of the few of his party to survive the Lyndon Johnson landslide of 1964. But Rockefeller had ambitions beyond New York. A savvy politician, he increasingly realized that the liberal reputation that had earned him such a following in New York was fast becoming a liability—especially if he hoped to win his party’s nomination for the presidency. Throughout the 1960s he had watched Richard Nixon slowly but surely steal his political thunder across the nation. And so, by the close of the decade, Rockefeller had begun to craft a more conservative and more traditionally Republican image for himself. In 1970, Rockefeller made no bones about the fact that he too would be “tough on crime.” This had suddenly become the platform that could get a man elected.

Twenty-one-year-old Chris Reed was gunned down with four bullets, including one that “exploded and took out a big chunk “of his left thigh. He listened in terror as troopers debated in front of him whether to kill him or let him bleed to death. As they discussed this the troopers had fun jamming their rifle butts into his injuries and dumping lime onto his face and injured legs, until he fell unconscious.

Ultimately, the human cost of the retaking was staggeringly high: 128 men were shot—some of them multiple times.75 Less than half an hour after the retaking had commenced, nine hostages were dead and at least one additional hostage was close to death. Twenty-nine prisoners had been fatally shot.76