September 2011 Will Mark 40 Years Since the Attica Prison Rebellion

The following is an excerpt from “Live From the Heartland Radio” – an interview with Dennis Cunningham.

Michael James: Let’s talk about Attica. How about sharing with our listeners, many of whom are younger, what was Attica all about? What was the rebellion in Attica? What happened? What was the role of the police and Governor Rockefeller, a liberal back when there were so-called liberal republicans? And what are the residual effects of the situation today?

Dennis Cunningham: The rebellion at Attica was, symbolized, a level of consciousness and resistance on the part of prisoners all around the country that was alive at the end of the 60’s period. In September 1971, Attica was a state penitentiary in western New York about fifty miles east of Buffalo. It was really out in the country. That part of the country was what you could call “up-south,” white people there were as racist as the people in Mississippi. But in this prison the vast majority of the prisoners were black and Latin, they came from New York City, and Albany, and Buffalo. All of the guards were white, and they came from the country around there. There was conflict, but there was also, in contrast to what there is today, there was a much looser approach to the administration of the prison. There were programs in the prison, educational programs, in some the prisoners would teach each other about the political situation.

MJ: You point out that educational programs in prisons around the country have been wiped out.

DC: Since then, almost all of them. Since then, there has been a change in the philosophy growing out of Attica and other events. What counts is security, rehabilitation is meaningless, just lock them up and forget about them. And that momentum continued through the 70’s and 80’s bringing higher and higher sentences, and more and more rigidity, and less and less parole, and nothing to do in prison, and coming out, if you come out, worse off than when you went in, and more of a burden on society.

It is just beginning to be talked about in the last year or so, because in some states like Illinois, there was a headline in the newspaper talking about closing Pontiac Prison and a couple of other prisons, because it costs too much. It costs too much to keep thousands of mostly black and brown young men locked up in these joints.

MJ: For not especially big crimes.

DC: Some of the crimes are bad obviously, but everybody that gets into prison is fodder for the high security system and the new high-tech prisons they have been building. If they close Pontiac, which is old, they’ve got ten prisons build in the last fifteen or twenty years that are totally mechanized, electrified, full of isolation cells, sensory deprivation cells where all there’s is a TV screen.

MJ: Low level torture.

DC: It’s torture. It’s what you call psychological torture and obviously whatever is bad about the confinement is made ten times worse by the attitude of other human beings who come to bring them food, or take them to the shower, or do whatever they do with them who regard them as animals. So that’s been the outcome of Attica, along with a larger shift to the right and towards punishment and authoritarianism in this society and the political system as a whole. It’s not like Attica led to anything good, other than what happened right there, and that’s certainly a mixed thing.

But in those days there was a lot more consciousness and a lot more opportunity for prisoners to organize. What happened in Attica began spontaneously, but there were plenty of guys who had been thinking, if only something would happen, so they responded. It began with a fight in a corner between a couple of guards and some prisoners, doors they usually used to go out to the yard were locked, they began to complain. One thing led to another, there was a big gate, a bunch of guys got next to it, started to shake it. It turned out it was broken and repaired in a faulty way. It came loose, they got into the control area at the center of the prison, they were there, then it was up for grabs in the whole prison.

They wound up in control of a big exercise yard. The prison is laid out in a square, divided down the middle two ways and one corner, a fourth of it, they took over, and they had a lot of hostages. They started out with thirty or forty people they took hostage, they tried to negotiate. They had a list of demands about medical care, about food, about religious practices. Just straight up reasonable demands about maltreatment. It was race-based essentially, because these upcountry people that were employed running the prison were so hostile and so contemptuous of the black and brown prisoners. So they negotiated, and they called for a panel of outside observers, name people, journalists, lawmakers, other people, that went there to serve as mediators.

The corrections commissioner came to the prison and negotiated the first day. He told the prisoners in the yard a bunch of stuff, and then he went outside and said a whole bunch of different stuff on television that condemned them. They had a television right in there, they could see his double talk. He left one set of statements on the table, went outside and made different statements.

MJ: Who was this guy?

DC: Russell Oswald. So they wouldn’t talk to him again. Then the observers came and got involved. They negotiated for four days, but the state pulled back, and pulled back, and pulled back and wouldn’t really negotiate. In the end, the only thing that was at issue was could they arrange a surrender in which the prisoners wouldn’t get beat up? Was there a way? Could they bring in some National Guard? Or could they do this or do that? Just so that they wouldn’t beat up all the prisoners who were in the yard because they had been part of it and they wanted amnesty for the events that had happened when the thing first went up and they got control of the prison.

The penitentiary officials wouldn’t do it. It was clear in the aftermath they didn’t want to do it, Rockefeller didn’t want to do it, he wanted to project an image of tough. It was alleged, we never could prove it, that he had consulted with Nixon before they made the decision to go in.

MJ: What was Rockefeller’s political situation at that time? Had he already tried to get the presidential nomination or was he still after it?

DC: I think he tried in the sixties, in ’64. Remember Goldwater, the so called Rockefeller wing were supposedly liberals. He certainly made a drive at the presidency and was four term governor of the state of New York. He was still ambitious for the presidency, but Nixon was president, it was his first term, so he would be running again in the next term. Rockefeller, I suppose he was thinking of the future, but he definitely was thinking of, on behalf of the whole political machine, of projecting a hard line against these prisoners. So they wouldn’t negotiate seriously, even though a group of fairly substantial, solid citizens had come, a bunch of legislators, Tom Wicker, Herman Badillo, a lot of important people came. And they just shut us out, they wouldn’t listen.

They assaulted the yard on Monday morning, September 13, 1971. Rockefeller agreed not to make the assault on Sunday. It occurred to him that everybody would be home watching football, they’d see all these images on TV, or get the news on TV. So they did it Monday. It was a cold rainy morning, and they attacked. First they sent Army helicopters over the yard with gas, CS gas, or military grade type of tear gas and choking gas, the strongest gas that they had at that time, which they were told, would put the prisoners on the ground, would knock them out. Whatever they were doing, they wouldn’t be able to keep doing it. Then they came in shooting.

When it was clear they were going to come, the prisoners, or some prisoners took some of the hostages up on the roof of a wall, the catwalk they called it, in the quarters that crossed between the cellblocks in the center of the yard, and made threats like “okay, if you come in we’re going to cut these guys throats,” but they didn’t. Two guys got cut on their throats but didn’t die. Four or five prisoners who were on the roof were killed by sharpshooters from the higher roof on the periphery and two or three of the hostages that were on the roof were also killed by the sharpshooters.

There was a hostage circle in the center of the yard that was under guard by the Black Muslim contingent to be sure that they didn’t come to any harm. They were on TV saying, “they’re treating us good, we just want some settlement here so we can get out, they’re just human beings just like us,” that kind of stuff. Strong stuff and the officials just rode right over it, because they wanted to make an attack. They did, the prisoners were on the ground from the gas, then these guys came in, went to the roofs up above them and were shooting into the yard at these bodies laying on the ground with their long guns.

Twenty-nine prisoners died in the attack and nine hostages. I think that’s right. No, there was forty-three in all. There were three prisoners who were found dead when they got in there. There was a guard who died of injuries that had happened during the initial takeover rioting and the rest were killed by gun fire in the assault. There were six minutes of gunfire. You could see it on TV. You couldn’t really see what was happening, but –

MJ: No, I remember.

DC: We got the still pictures and you see lines of cops, state police with long guns firing down into the yard where all the guys are lying in the mud with their hands over their heads hoping they didn’t get hit by the bullets. A hundred and twenty-nine out of roughly twelve hundred of them were hit and thirty-nine people died.

MJ: Did any of the sharpshooters or any of the police ever talk about any remorse, about the way it was and their role, or did they keep a hard line?

DC: We never heard it if they did. There was a long, long aftermath of legal proceedings. They first tried to scapegoat a bunch of prisoners.

MJ: A guy name LD?

DC: LD was one of the leaders, but he was killed.

MJ: Big Black?

DC: He was not killed. He was the head of security, he was tortured all day. They came in, after the shooting stopped, they came in and they beat everybody up. And then they, people might have seen the picture, made them strip naked and had them waiting in this long snake-looking line before they would have to go into the hallway where there was a gauntlet set up of state police and prison guards with axe handles and rifle butts.

All the windows were broken, there was glass all over the floor. They had you wait in this long line until you went inside, then you had to run that gauntlet into the cellblock. Right outside the door, they laid Big Black on a table naked with his head hanging off, and his legs hanging off, and his arms hanging off. They put a football under his chin and told him if dropped the football, he’d be killed. Then they burned him with cigarettes or brought up the shell casings and dropped them on him, spit on him, whacked him. And these guys were in line watching what’s happening to him – they had to wait two three hours to run the gauntlet.

MJ: How did you get involved?

DC: Through the National Lawyers Guild, lawyers from all over the North East responded to the prison situation during that weekend and afterwards, a lot of lawyers out of New York City, a lot of lawyers out of Detroit, lawyers from many other places and some of us from Chicago. A couple of my partners went up there from the PLO (Peoples Law Office).

Jeffrey Haas went there, and others, and Mzizi, a legal worker. They were in this first group of lawyers that went into the prison. But when they first went to the prison, they wouldn’t let them in. So they went to the federal court to get an order to let them in. So then they went back to the prison with the order from a federal judge saying, “let them in, they’re visitors,” and they were told, “go to hell, we’re not letting anybody in.” So they went back to the judge, he said, “they wouldn’t let you in?” They said, “no, they wouldn’t let us in, you got to do something to enforce your order.” And he said, “no, I think I’m going to change my order.”

So it was three, four, five days before any of them got in. And the prisoners had to run through that gauntlet, then they went up. They were beaten up the stairs, naked. They were put four, five, six guys in a cell made for one or two. And they were kept there for two or three days. Guards would come along at night and rattle the bars, or stick guns through the bars, and tell them they were going to kill them, Russian roulette stuff. It was just insane what went on, what was allowed to go on in the aftermath of all the killing that the state police had done. And then there were the legal cases. They indicted forty-some guys. There were forty-two cases. Sixty-some prisoners were involved in the cases, some in more than one.

Some of the cases involved incidents that supposedly happened the first day. Some were for things that happened at the end. Some were phony cases about the dead inmates. In forty-two cases there was sixteen hundred felony counts and half of them were life counts, counts bearing a life sentence for the prisoners.

On the other hand, it was only in the end of the fourth year, that they finally indicted one police officer for what they called reckless endangerment, because he fired a shotgun two feet away from the head of one of the prisoners. Somehow some other officer ratted him out. But all those who had done the shooting and the killing, all went free. We had a civil suit against some, but the civil suit came later, we spent nearly five, four years and more, fighting the criminal cases. Then it all came unraveled.

There was a guy in the special prosecutor’s squad who realized that they were stonewalling everything. He was stricken in his conscience, and he came forward. He said this is all a put up job, these guys were perverting the whole thing. One thing led to another. There was an investigation of the investigation. There was an investigation of that investigation and finally the new governor of New York Hugh Carey, came out and dismissed the charges.

A couple of guys had been convicted, one guy got convicted and he was given a commute and the other conviction fell apart. We had our civil suit that we started at the end of the statute of limitations. But most of us were exhausted at that point, so nothing happened to the civil suit for about four years. And judge, the federal judge in Buffalo, actually sat on the motion to dismiss for three and a half years before he decided it. Everything, all the organization there was, came apart in the meantime. So when the plaintiffs were notified that if you don’t do something about this case we’re going to throw it out, they turned to us. We decided we couldn’t let that go. We went back and started up the civil case, which then went from 1981 to 1991.

MJ: And what happened?

DC: We had a trial, we didn’t have all the shooters and the tactical planners, we had just three or four of the higher-ups-the warden, an assistant warden, the commissioner, people like that – as defendants. We had a trial for ten or twelve weeks, and the examination found that violations had occurred, but they couldn’t agree on who was responsible for it. They found liability against the assistant warden for some of the torture that happened because there was evidence that he had been part of the consultation of what to do after the assault, and he had been in the yard, had seen the line of naked guys and all that followed.

MJ: Was there any money awarded to the former prisoners?

DC: The first trial in ’91 was only about whether the prison officials were responsible, but there was no issue about if so, what should they pay. It was a class action suit, but the judge was, to put it charitably, confused about what to do at that point. So finally, the trial was just of Big Black’s claim for damages for being tortured like he was. He got a verdict for four million dollars just for himself, and that was represented to us by members of a jury as a compromise, some of the jurors wanted to give him twenty, thirty million.

MJ: Where is Big Black today and what’s his real name?

DC: Frank Smith and he’s in North Carolina. He’s sick with cancer, he’s had a tough time. He had a couple of operations and some chemotherapy. He’s fighting it.

MJ: Did he remain active and in any way supportive of the other people?

DC: Alone among all the brothers he really was active, and one other who died due to natural causes, Akil Al-Jundi. The two of them for years kept the political work alive. When Akil passed, Black did what needed to be done. He was there with us for all the trials and hearings. After his trial was done, there was a trial of another guy, a white prisoner, who was chosen for being typical of what happened to everybody, the least suffering that anyone was subjected to by the police. He got a verdict for seventy-five thousand dollars. So that meant, there were nearly twelve hundred people, that the minimum they were entitled to was seventy-five thousand, on up to Big Black who was the most mistreated with four million. It was huge damages the state was looking at having to pay.

MJ: Did they ever pay?

DC: No. The court of appeals bailed them out. They reversed all the verdicts, the seventy-five thousand, the four million, and the liability of the warden. They said the case shouldn’t be a class action. Everyone should have to have his own lawsuit. They claimed it wasn’t a proper class action suit. Of course, it was. I’ve seen a lot of rotten decisions in my life by American courts, but this was just about the creepiest, the most manipulative.

Crusading attorney Dennis Cunningham and historian of race David Roediger will talk on race and justice at No Exit Cafe, 6970 N. Glenwood, Chicago, Illinois, on Wednesday 25 August 2010, 7 PM. Roediger’s latest work is “How Race Survived U.S. History: From Settlement and Slavery to the Obama Phenomenon.” Cunningham is working on a book with movement activist Michael James to be published by Charles H. Kerr, “Race, Justice, and Resisting the Police State.” Antonio Lopez will MC. Info 773-465-8005 Sponsored by Truthout, Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company and New World Resource Center.