Fifty years ago, nearly 1,300 men would stand together in this nation’s most historic uprising against brutal prison conditions at the Attica State Correctional Facility in upstate New York. The night before, however, many of those same men were so upset they could barely speak or sleep.
Mere minutes before it was time for lights out on September 8, 1971, four correction officers had come to one of the tiers of A block to drag a 23-year-old named Larry Dewer out of his cell and take him off to segregation—the dreaded HBZ Block—for an earlier infraction. Suddenly, though, from his cell came the horrible sounds of screaming, furniture breaking, and glass shattering. Unable to see what was going on, and terrified for their friend’s safety, the other men in the nearby cells began banging on their bars and demanding that the COs “Leave that kid alone!” But then, almost as soon as there was chaos, all was quiet. And, as the men looked on in horror, the four guards walked past them carrying Dewer’s utterly limp body. To a man, they feared he was dead, or soon would be.
This fear that one of their own had just been killed by correction officers had everything to do with why Attica would erupt into a full scale uprising the very next morning—and why it would take an action this dramatic to jolt the officials even to consider reform. In short, the human rights violations at Attica were just that systematic, and that endemic.
The fact that police brutality was as dreaded, and expected, as that of correction officers had already led to countless dramatic rebellions outside of prison walls before Attica. By 1971 it had begun to dawn on activists in cities and correctional facilities alike that law enforcement—whether in inner-city school yards or rural prison yards—when directed at Black and brown citizens too often resulted in injury or death and, therefore, should be made accountable in both places, simultaneously.
It was, in fact, the very connectedness between the activism gaining momentum on city streets and that erupting in cellblocks across the nation that so agitated politicians such as Richard Nixon, giving him the white “Silent Majority” voter resentment he so depended upon. Indeed, it was the serious fear of what such connectedness might produce that fueled government programs like COINTELPRO. This fear is also what led the FBI and Chicago police to instigate the so-called Panther shootout in Chicago in 1969—in fact the outright assassination of key leadership of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. It was also what led Governor Nelson Rockefeller to order the brutal retaking of Attica exactly 50 years ago today. At the time, officials claimed that prisoners had murdered 10 hostages by slitting their throats. In fact, state troopers had killed every one of those men, as well as 29 prisoners, and had shot a total of 128 unarmed men—guards and the incarcerated alike—within a span of just 15 minutes.
It was crucial to state officials that the public be given their version of events: that the Panthers were violent—not the police who murdered Fred Hampton and Mark Clark—and that Attica’s rebel prisoners were the animals, not the troopers who had actually shot everyone in D Yard on the 13th. The unvarnished truth about the preponderant source of violence in the 1960s and ’70s—state violence—would have simply been too destabilizing. That is, unless officials really were willing to contemplate genuine change.