The Attica Prison riot occurred at the Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, New York, United States in 1971. The riot was based upon prisoners' demands for political rights and better living conditions. On September 9, 1971, responding to the death of prisoner George Jackson, a black radical activist prisoner shot dead after being involved in the murder of six guards while trying to escape from California's San Quentin Prison on August 21, about 1,000 of the Attica prison's approximately 2,200 inmates rebelled and seized control of the prison, taking 42 staff hostage.
During the following four days of negotiations, authorities agreed to 28 of the prisoners' demands, but would not agree to demands for complete amnesty from criminal prosecution for the prison takeover or for the removal of Attica's superintendent. By the order of then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller, state police took back control of the prison. When the uprising was over, at least 39 people were dead, including ten correctional officers and civilian employees.
The riotAt approximately 8:20 a.m. on Thursday, September 9, 1971, 5 Company lined up for roll-call. Hearing rumors that one of their companions was to remain in his cell and that he was to be tortured after being isolated for an incident involving an assault on a prison officer, a small group of 5 Company inmates protested that they too would be locked up and began walking back towards their cells. The remainder of 5 Company continued towards breakfast. As the protesting group walked past the isolated inmate, they were able to free him from his cell. They then rejoined the rest of 5 Company and proceeded on their way to breakfast. A short time later, when the command staff discovered what had occurred, they changed the usual scheduling of the prisoners. Instead of going to the yard after breakfast as they usually did, the prisoners realized they were being led back to their cells. Complaints led to anger when the correctional officer tried to calm the mob of prisoners. He was assaulted and the riot began.
The inmates quickly gained control of sections, D-yard, two tunnels and the central control room, referred to as "Times Square". Inmates took 42 officers and civilians hostage and aired a list of grievances, demanding their conditions be met before their surrender. In a facility designed to hold 1,200 inmates and actually housing 2,225, they felt that they had been illegally denied rights and conditions to which they were entitled, illustrated by such practices as being allowed only one shower per week and one roll of toilet paper per person per month.
NegotiationsThe prisoners continued to unsuccessfully negotiate with Correctional Services Commissioner Russell G. Oswald and then later with a team of observers that included Tom Wicker, an editor of the New York Times, James Ingram of the Michigan Chronicle, state senator John Dunne, state representative Arthur Eve, civil rights lawyer William Kunstler, Minister Louis Farrakhan, National Representative of the Nation of Islam and others.
The situation may have been further complicated by Governor Rockefeller's refusal to come to the scene of the riot and meet with the inmates, although some later evaluations of the incident would postulate that his absence from the scene actually prevented the situation from deteriorating. Negotiations broke down and Oswald told the inmates that he was unable to negotiate with them anymore and ordered that they must give themselves up. Oswald later called Governor Rockefeller and again begged him to come to the prison to calm the riot. After the governor's refusal, Oswald stated that he would order the State Police to retake the facility by force. Rockefeller agreed with Oswald's decision. This agreement would be later criticized by a commission created by Rockefeller to study the riot and the aftermath.
Retaking of the prison and retaliation
The mood among the inmates had turned ugly. It appeared as though Gov. Rockefeller remained opposed to the inmates' demands and they had become restless. Defensive trenches had been dug, metal gates had been electrified, crude battlements were fashioned out of metal tables and dirt, gasoline was put in position to be lit in the event of conflict and the "Times Square" prison command center was fortified. The inmates brought four corrections officers to the top of the command center and threatened to slit their throats. Reporters in helicopters circling the prison reported that the hostages in D yard were also being prepared for killing. Gov. Rockefeller had ordered that the prison be retaken that day if negotiations failed. Situation commander Oswald, seeing the danger to the hostages, ordered that the prison be retaken by force. Of the decision, he later said "On a much smaller scale, I think I have some feeling now of how Truman must have felt when he decided to drop the A-bomb."
At 9:46 a.m. on Monday, September 13, 1971, tear gas was dropped into the yard and New York State Police troopers and soldiers from the New York National Guard opened fire non-stop for two minutes into the smoke. Among the weapons used by the troopers were shotguns, which led to the wounding and killing of hostages and inmates who were not resisting. Former prison officers were allowed to participate, a decision later called "inexcusable" by the commission established by Rockefeller to study the riot and the aftermath. By the time the facility was retaken, nine hostages and 29 inmates had been killed. A tenth hostage died on October 9, 1972, of gunshot wounds received during the assault.
The final death toll from the riot also included the officer fatally injured at the start of the riot and four inmates who were subject to vigilante killings. Nine hostages died from gunfire by state troopers and soldiers. The New York State Special Commission on Attica wrote, "With the exception of Indian massacres in the late 19th century, the State Police assault which ended the four-day prison uprising was the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War."
Media reports claimed that inmate hostage-takers slit the throats of many of their hostages, reports that contradicted official medical evidence. Newspaper headlines made statements such as "I Saw Slit Throats", implying that prisoners had cut the hostages' throats when the armed raid occurred. These fabricated reports set the stage for reprisals by troopers and prison officers. Inmates were made to strip and crawl through the mud and then some were made to run naked between lines of enraged officers, who beat the inmates. Several days after the riot's end, prison doctors reported evidence of more beatings. The Special Commission found that state officials failed to quickly refute those rumors and false reports.
- At least three TV movies of the riot have been produced: 1980's Attica, with George Grizzard, and Morgan Freeman, 1994's Against The Wall, with Samuel L. Jackson, Kyle MacLachlan and Clarence Williams III, and 2001's The Killing Yard, by Euzhan Palcy with Alan Alda.
- In the Gil Scott-Heron song, "We Beg Your Pardon", Scott-Heron is critical of Governor Rockefeller's handling of the riot, stating that "brother Richard X of Buffalo New York faces 1365 years... behind bars for participating in Attica, and Rockefeller faces being the Vice President of this country".
- In the 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon, Al Pacino's character, Sonny, who is holding eight bank employees hostage, starts a chant of "Attica! Attica!" at the massed police outside, evoking the excessive police force used in response to the Attica riot. The chant "Attica! Attica!" has since been parodied or used for comedic effect in everything from children's cartoons to crime procedurals.
- The incident is directly referenced in several songs: Tom Paxton's "The Hostage", which was included by Judy Collins on her 1973 album True Stories and Other Dreams, John Lennon's "Attica State" on his Some Time In New York City album, Paul Simon's "Virgil", on his 1997 album Songs from The Capeman, and the song "Rubber Bullets" by English band 10cc. The Attica riot also inspired the Charles Mingus composition "Remember Rockefeller at Attica", and jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp's 1972 composition "Attica Blues" from his album of the same name. Rapper Nas mentioned Attica in his collaboration song with Lauryn Hill, "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)". Nas raps "I'd open every cell in Attica, send 'em to Africa". In the song "C.I.A. (Criminals in Action)", by KRS-One, Zack De La Rocha, and The Last Emperor: "I flip the shit like Pacino and it's your Dog Day Afternoon / Attica, Attica, drug agents you bring your static-a."
- Boxer Muhammad Ali recited a poem in Ireland, imagining what Attica's prisoners would have said before their death.
- In 1972, avant-garde composer and pianist Frederic Rzewski wrote two pieces connected to the Attica riot, both for percussion ensemble and speaker. "Coming Together" sets text by Sam Melville, a leader of the uprising and one of the people who lost their lives as a result of it, from a letter he wrote in 1971. The second and shorter piece, "Attica", is set to the statement made by inmate Richard X. Clark when he was released from the prison: "Attica is in front of me now." The two pieces was recorded in 1973 for the Opus One label by the Blackearth Percussion Group, with Steven ben Israel of the Living Theater as the speaker.
- The poem Hadda Be Playing on the Jukebox by American poet Allen Ginsberg makes a reference to the Attica prison riot. This poem was also subsequently performed as a song by political rock band Rage Against The Machine.
- In the episode "A Date with the Booty Warrior" of the popular animated series The Boondocks, the episode's titular character takes Tom hostage with a shank, inciting a prison riot. After the convicts had taken the guards hostage, they were deciding what to do next. The other convicts were disgruntled to learn that the Booty Warrior's only demands were "to get some booty". One of the other convicts (voiced by Clifton Powell) remarked "I thought this was supposed to be some Attica-type shit!".
- In the 25th episode of TMNT (2003 TV series) titled The Search for Splinter: Part 1, Casey Jones says the phrase "Attica, Attica" while distracting the guards of TCRI while April disables the building's alarms.
- In the season 1 finale of the HBO series Oz, Attica is referenced by unit manager Tim McManus as his hometown and the riot as his original impetus for his wanting to set up the Emerald City.
- In the episode "Charlie Goes America All Over Everybody's Ass" of the FX series It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, in a form of protesting the bar's "No rules" stance, Charlie scares bystanders away from Dee's street performance by swinging a broom and screaming, "Attica! Attica, man!" repeatedly.
- In the episode "Missing Identity" of SpongeBob SquarePants, when SpongeBob imagines someone robbing a bank wearing his name tag. When the camera zooms in on the name tag the robber begins screaming "Attica!". This may be more of a reference to the movie Dog Day Afternoon, but it is an Attica reference nonetheless.