A half-century after one of the worst prison riots in American history, mistrust of the system lingers — especially by Black and brown people — in part because of the lies that the federal government told about the circumstances leading to what later become known as the Attica Prison Uprising.
The rebellion began 50 years ago on Sept. 9, 1971, when prisoners took over the maximum-security Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York after years of complaints about the conditions in the prison went unacknowledged. Aside from the inhumane conditions, prisoners alleged that they were subjected to treatment based on race and religion.
Fed up with overcrowded prison cells with temperatures that soared during warmer months and froze during wintertime, among other gripes about a basic lack of humane treatment, the disproportionately Black and Hispanic prison population rebelled to take control of the correctional facility for four days. The prisoners took dozens of hostages while they negotiated with officials about their demands.
But on Day 4, law enforcement launched a raid of the prison and killed 10 hostages and 29 inmates when they opened fire at will. Dozens of others were injured.
But what happened next amounted to a calculated smear campaign against the prisoners in a racist narrative that was driven by the federal government and embraced by the mainstream media, which reported that the prisoners were the ones who carried out the killings during the raid on Sept. 13 of that year. Those reports included the false assertions that the prisoners slit the throats of those who were killed by the state police and the National Guard, as ordered by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. Another report said a hostage was castrated.
They were all calculated lies meant to further demonize the prisoners.
“That was not true — every hostage had been killed by law enforcement and by guns,” renowned Attica historian and author Heather Ann Thompson recalled in a 2016 interview with AFP. “The government wanted to portray it as a black insurrection.”
Autopsies ultimately determined that all of the deaths from Sept. 13 came from police service weapons.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, 50 years later, we may not still even know the hall of any other nefarious actions by the government since there has only been a partial release of sealed records about the Attica Uprising. Of most interest to those seeking the full release of the Attica rebellion records is what evidence a grand jury was presented, all of which was redacted from the papers that were released.
“The evidence is clear that they don’t want to do that because then the extent of the cover-up would be clear,” said Thompson, author of “Blood in the Water, a book about the Attica Uprising that took her 13 years of researching to write.
New York Times columnist Clyde Haberman, who covered the uprising for the New York Post at the time, recently recalled the media attention surrounding the story and admitted he helped push the narrative the government provided without question.
“The first news accounts told of inmate atrocities on Sept. 13 as if they were fact, without sufficiently ascribing the claims to officialdom,” Haberman tweeted in a Twitter thread bringing attention to the 50th anniversary of the rebellion.
Haberman added later: “The lies contributed to a deepening mistrust of government in that era of Vietnam, Kent State and, soon enough, Watergate — a sense that it was capable of just about anything.”
It is demonstrations of such authoritarian power along racial lines by the government that has kept the mistrust of federal institutions by Black and brown people at such high levels throughout the decades. It is a mistrust that continues to manifest itself today with the hesitancy to take the COVID-19 vaccine — something that Black and brown people are seemingly being singled out and blamed for despite evidence to the contrary.
In the end, a $2,8 billion class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of the prisoners against prison and state officials was settled 26 years later in 2000 for $8 million, which was split unevenly between 500 inmates. That settlement prevented the families of prisoners from bringing any further related legal action, rendering the case all but closed despite unanswered questions that have helped fuel mistrust of the government by Black and brown populations.