recent obituary about a former state prison official, the New York Times made a
passing reference to "the bloody Attica uprising in 1971, which left 43 people
dead." That’s the kind of newspeak that presents itself as journalism while
detouring around truth.
Thirty years ago, on Sept. 13, in upstate New York, a four-day standoff at the
Attica Correctional Facility ended when 500 state troopers attacked the prison
compound, firing 2,200 bullets in nine minutes. The raid killed 29 inmates and
10 guards held as hostages, while wounding at least 86 other people. The orders
came from Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.
outlets across the country reported official lies as if they were objective
facts — proclaiming that the rebellious prisoners slit the throats of the
hostages when the troopers began their assault. Autopsies later revealed that no
throats had been cut; only then did authorities admit that the state did the
three decades later, a new full-length documentary, "The Ghosts of Attica," is
debuting on national television. The film includes chilling photos and footage
(long withheld from the public by state officials) and moving interviews with
former prisoners, ex-guards and others whose lives were transformed by what
occurred during the second week of September 1971.
Ghosts of Attica" premieres nationwide Sept. 9 on Court TV (at 9 p.m. in most
time zones). Nuanced and unflinching, the 91-minute film packs a powerful wallop
because of its deep respect for historical accuracy.
Horrendous prison conditions prompted the Attica uprising, which began as an
undisciplined riot and grew into a well-focused articulation of rage from men
who chose to take a fateful step, fighting for human dignity. While the uprising
was multiracial, most of the 1,281 prisoners involved were black.
documentary film is an indictment of what has so often passed for journalism in
reporting on prison-related events. Reflexively assuming that the powerful white
guys in positions of authority would be truthful, reporters on the story got it
the film avoids a facile good-vs.-evil tone, there are heroes nonetheless. Frank
"Big Black" Smith, a prisoner who emerged as a leader of the uprising, went on
to work as a paralegal on the outside. Along with attorney Liz Fink, he was a
key coordinator of a 26-year civil action lawsuit brought by Attica inmates.
efforts made possible the release of more than a million Attica-related files
that state authorities kept claiming did not exist. And, after a quarter of a
century, prisoners won a $12 million settlement.
living through the horror of the Attica bloodshed and its traumatic immediate
aftermath — during which, in the words of Court TV material, guards "tortured
him for hours with cigarettes, hot shell casings, threats of castration and
death, a glass-strewn gauntlet and Russian roulette" — Frank Smith looks back
with evident clarity. "Attica was about wants and needs," he says. "Attica was a
lot about class and a lot about race."
Ghosts of Attica" illuminates many dimensions, past and present. "This movie is
about the struggle for justice," film maker David Van Taylor told me. The
struggle continues; the ghosts of Attica are with us — in a country where the
population behind bars, steeply skewed by economic and racial bias, is enormous.
in 1971, the nation’s prisons and jails held 330,000 people. Today, the number
is 2 million.
are incarcerated for drug-related offenses. A petition submitted to the United
Nations in late August condemned the U.S. war on drugs as "not a war on plants
or chemicals, but on citizens and other human beings who all too often are
members of racial and ethnic minorities." Reuters news service noted that
"whites use as many drugs as Latinos and African Americans" — while the
petition to the UN pointed out that among the people locked up for drug
offenses, 57 percent are black and 22 percent are Latino.
the present time, "Attica is such an icon, but it’s an ill-understood icon," Van
Taylor comments. While clearly focused on the need for social justice, the film
that he co-produced does not fall into simple dichotomies. "The people who
rebelled at Attica were not angels or devils," he says. They insisted on being
treated as human beings.
Attica guards, wounded by troopers’ bullets, were betrayed and neglected by
state authorities intent on hiding evidence and dodging responsibility. Mike
Smith was a young guard taken hostage by prisoners, then shot in the stomach by
state troopers. He says in the film: "I don’t know any other employer who could
murder their employees and get away with it, except the government."
guards and the prisoners were killed by the same gunfire, ordered by a governor
who went on to become vice president of the United States. It’s all in the past,
and in the present. "Attica is not just an isolated prison," Frank Smith says.
"Attica is attitudes and behavior, crime and punishment, education. It’s about
communication, it’s about alleviating racism as much as we can, it’s about the
criminal justice system…. People need to see they are part of the problem and
part of the solution. Attica is all of us."
Norman Solomon writes a syndicated column on media and politics. His latest
book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media: Decoding Spin and Lies in