“There is a time for everything…a time to be born and a time to die…”
Tom Wicker, a former columnist for the New York Times, chose that passage from Ecclesiastes for the title of his book about the Attica Prison catastrophe. It happened just 40 years ago this week -- and it stands out as an epic tragedy.
It was a wholesale slaughter -- in an assault on the prison, 10 guards were held as hostages and 29 inmates were killed. And it was totally unnecessary. The attack on the prison was based on false information and probably the political motivations of a governor ambitious to run for president.
On Sept. 9, 1971, tensions boiled over at the Attica Correctional Facility, near Buffalo, as about 1,500 inmates, mostly black and Puerto Rican, rioted. They set fire to mattresses, barricaded cell block D, a major area of the prison, and put out a list of demands, including the opportunity to worship as they desired and to get prison food that met their religious needs. But the key demand was amnesty for the prisoners who took part in the revolt.
The correction commissioner, Russell Oswald, refused to entertain that demand although he acceded to some others. Many inmates were from the New York City area and their relatives had a long trip to make, about 400 miles, to see them on visitors’ days. The prisoners complained bitterly about beatings and other brutality practiced on them by guards.
With the situation a stalemate, an outside group was appointed to mediate the dispute. They tried to negotiate with the prisoners, entering Attica and speaking face to face with a committee of revolt leaders. Among the committee members was Herman Badillo of the Bronx, the first Puerto Rican elected to Congress.
As the situation grew more tense, Badillo called Governor Rockefeller and urged him to come to Attica to see the situation for himself. Other committee members joined his plea. But Rockefeller refused. He told Commissioner Oswald later: “Of course there was more at stake even than saving lives. There was the whole rule of law to consider. The whole fabric of our society, in fact.”
It was Sunday night, September 12, when the Attica rebellion was in its fourth day. As Badillo recalled to me this week: “I called Governor Rockefeller. I warned him that, if he sent his people in there to re-take the prison, there would be a massacre. I asked for more time to try to negotiate a solution.”
“He absolutely refused, saying he was getting calls from people to stand firm. ‘I’ve got to respond, he said, to these calls.’‘’ Meanwhile, there were rumors that the rebels were holding knives to the throats of hostages, threatening to kill them if their comrades assaulted the prison.
I had rushed up to Attica from New York as the affair was nearing a climax. My cameraman, Steve Petropoulos, and I got out of the car, joining hundreds of law enforcement and press people waiting at the gates. Petropoulos, who had covered wars and revolutions in the Balkans, took one look at the hundreds of state troopers, sheriff’s deputies and correction guards -- all heavily armed -- lined up in front of the prison, anxiously waiting for the order to attack. It was September 13, 1971.
Petropoulos said: “You are looking into the faces of murderers!” He could sense what was about to happen.
Just 15 minutes or so after we got to the scene, helicopters flew overhead, hurling tear gas into the prison, the ground forces were throwing tear gas in too. Then, guns blazing, the army of law enforcement officers stormed into the prison.
In a hail of gunfire, in a few minutes, 39 people were killed -- 10 guard hostages and 29 inmates. A special commission later wrote that, except for the 19th century Indian massacres, it was the “bloodiest encounter between Americans since the Civil War.” The commission also found that prisoner and guards alike were killed by bullets fired by authorities.
There were strong political overtones. Rockefeller was perceived by the country to be a liberal, soft on law and order. He wanted to run for president on the Republican ticket in 1972. He saw this, it seemed clear later, as a way to bolster his credentials for the job.
It didn’t. It was the low point of his governorship. I covered the governor from his first day in office and I would say this was Rocky, as we called him, at his worst.
Rockefeller was indeed a warm, decent human being. But, at Attica, he got derailed. He resisted whatever impulse he could have had to be conciliatory or kind. Instead of listening, he acted insensitively and cruelly. He had sent a couple of aides up to Attica to keep him posted. But neither was capable of reading the emotions of the attacking force.
He had a great press secretary, Ron Mairona, who should have been sent up to Attica. Ron was streetwise. The aide the Governor dispatched to Attica was not. As a result, the tactics spelled massacre, not peaceful solution.
Badillo tells me that conditions, according to the mail he receives from today’s inmates, have not improved very much at Attica, a prison that became a role model for how not to incarcerate men.
As it says in Ecclesiastes, there is “a time for war and a time for peace… a time to kill and a time to heal.”
At Attica, peace didn’t come until it was too late. And the wounds, for many, never healed.
And, compounding the tragedy, the legacy of a compassionate, decent governor was forever marred.