Former Attica Prisoner Describes Racist Brutality That Sparked Deadly Uprising

On the 50th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising, the deadliest prison uprising in U.S. history, we speak with Tyrone Larkins, a formerly incarcerated survivor, who was shot three times in the brutal crackdown of September 13, 1971. He describes Attica as “the roughest place that I’ve ever seen in my life,” as he recalls what led to the rebellion on September 9, 1971, when prisoners overpowered guards and took over much of Attica prison in upstate New York to protest conditions. At the time, prisoners spent most of their time in their cells and got one shower per week. Larkins lays out how tense negotiations with politicized prisoners followed, and says the rebellion was on its way to being resolved through diplomacy when Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered state police to storm the facility. Police opened fire, killing 29 inmates and 10 hostages.

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman.

Today we spend the hour marking the 50th anniversary of the deadliest prison uprising in the history of the United States. A state cover-up of the mass killing began that day. We will air long-suppressed testimony of survivors who were tortured by guards, and speak with one of the survivors, as well as a negotiator and a filmmaker who helped uncover what really happened.

And a warning to our listeners and viewers: Today’s show will include graphic, painful, brutal descriptions and images.

Yes, 50 years ago today, September 13th, 1971, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller waged war on the men held in Attica state prison in western New York, ending a four-day prisoner uprising.

The rebellion started on September 9, 1971, when prisoners overpowered guards and took over much of Attica to protest the conditions at the maximum-security prison. At the time, prisoners spent most of their time in their cells and got one shower per week.

Days of tense negotiations followed in the prison yard. The rebellion was on its way to being resolved through diplomacy. But on the morning of September 13th, Governor Rockefeller ordered state troopers to storm the prison. Through a haze of tear gas, police opened fire, killing 29 prisoners and 10 hostages. Three prisoners and a guard were killed by prisoners in the days before the retaking. In all, there were 43 deaths.

This is a trailer for the new documentary called Betrayal at Attica on HBO Max that examines the hidden history of what really happened in the Attica uprising through the men who lived it, the Attica Brothers, and their defense attorney, Elizabeth Fink, who died in 2015. The film draws on an archive of evidence that was once owned by Liz Fink, available now for the first time.

ELIZABETH FINK: I stole all this stuff. I shouldn’t say that. I expropriated it from them as the chief counsel for the prisoners, who were the plaintiffs. They were going to destroy it. We’re at this point right now where they are refusing to admit they have all these files, and they are lying about what they have.

LOUDSPEAKER: Those of you who have not done so, surrender peacefully. You will not be harmed. Place your hands [inaudible] on your head.

ELIZABETH FINK:I t’s all going to be blown up, because I took it all, and also because of you.

AMY GOODMAN: In the documentary Betrayal at Attica, prisoners describe how they were tortured when the uprising was brutally suppressed. These are actually deposition interviews from the 1974 civil suit against the state of New York filed by the Attica Brothers Legal Defense.

In this clip, Frank “Big Black” Smith, who became a spokesperson of the prisoners and helped protect the hostages, as well, describes what happened to him. A warning: His answer and the images that accompany it are graphic, brutal, emotional.

FRANK BIG BLACK SMITH: I was made to crawl after I was knocked to the ground, pushing me, kicking, calling me all kind of [bleep], telling me to walk, telling me to run, drug, dragged.

ATTORNEY: Where did they take you?

FRANK BIG BLACK SMITH: They took me to —

ELIZABETH FINK: Want a handkerchief?

ATTORNEY: Took you to where?

ELIZABETH FINK: You’ve got to let him do his thing now. Want a break? Take some water?

FRANK BIG BLACK SMITH: Took me, and they made me lay on the table in the yard, and they beat my on my nuts, threatened me and dropped cigarette butts on me and hot shells on me and spit on me.

STENOGRAPHER: Hot what? I’m sorry.

ELIZABETH FINK: Shells.

STENOGRAPHER: OK.

FRANK BIG BLACK SMITH: Telling me they was going to cut my testicles and my genital out. That’s what was happening to me.

ATTORNEY: OK. How long did that go on?

FRANK BIG BLACK SMITH: A long time, three to six hours, all day.

ATTORNEY: Was the football under your — under your chin?

FRANK BIG BLACK SMITH: Under my chin, yes.

ATTORNEY: All day?

FRANK BIG BLACK SMITH: Yes.

ATTORNEY: All day?

FRANK BIG BLACK SMITH: Yes.

ATTORNEY: The shells were on your chest all day?

FRANK BIG BLACK SMITH: All during — I was moving, trying to get them off me, and the cigarettes off me. A bunch of times, they’d beat, call me a bunch of names, because my legs was dead. They was numb. I couldn’t walk. They finally drug me and took me to the hallway, and I had to go through the same thing everybody else was going through, because I was about the last person out of the yard. They made me run through the gauntlet.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Frank “Big Black” Smith, who survived the brutal state suppression of the 1971 Attica uprising 50 years ago today, in a clip from the new documentary, Betrayal at Attica, which brings to light new evidence about what really happened. Big Black said the officers put a football under his chin and told him if it dropped, they would kill him. He went on to fight for justice in a civil suit for prisoners and also pushed for compensation for the guards’ families. Big Black died in 2004.

For more, we’re joined by Tyrone Larkins. He was incarcerated in upstate New York’s Attica prison at the time of the uprising. He was 23 years old. He was shot three times. After 29 years of incarceration, Tyrone was released via parole in 1997 with a college education through Marist College. He’s also featured in a Showtime documentary, brand new, called Attica by Stanley Nelson, which just premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Tyrone Larkins, welcome to Democracy Now! This is a painful time, I’m sure, for you, even now, half a century later. Can you start off even before September 9, 1971, when the prisoner rebellion began, and describe the prison conditions at Attica and the political climate at the time? What led to this uprising?

TYRONE LARKINS: Give me a second. Hearing the overview of Frank’s voice and what happened, it — wow — it took me back 50 years ago today. Let’s make note that this happened exactly 50 years ago today on a Monday morning. And as I was on my way to where I was going to do this taping at, I seen a cloudy sky, and it reminded me of September 13th, 1971. And so, I’m a little discombobulated now, but I am ready to go. And your question was: How did it all start? Am I correct?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes. How did it all start, even before September 9th, the beginning of the prisoner uprising?

TYRONE LARKINS: OK. I got to Attica. I was transferred to Attica in January 1971 from Sing Sing, Ossining, which was known then as Ossining Correctional Facility. And when I got into Attica, I seen that this was — I mean, from the time I got off the bus, me and about 40 other people that was transferred seen that this was the roughest place I’ve ever seen in my life.

The only time the prison guards spoke to us was to give us a description of the institution, to tell us when you bang on — they bang on the wall once with their stick, it means go, and when they bang on the wall with their stick twice, it means to stop. And that basically was the extent of the conversation.

You can feel the roughness and the tightness of the facility in the air, I mean, after coming from Sing Sing, which was relatively — I wouldn’t say open, but a little more humane.

When I finally got settled into the facility, at my cell, I was given a roll of toilet paper, a bar of soap, and was told that this roll of toilet paper would have to last me for one month and that I will possibly get a second bar of soap in two weeks’ time. And that was it.

I should say at this juncture that Attica, prior to the disturbance itself — and I use the word “disturbance” loosely, because we was in the climate of international things that was happening throughout the world. First of all, from an ethnic pride sense, a lot of the African American prisoners, such as myself, adhered to James Brown was singing — “Say it loud: I’m Black, and I’m proud” — that gave us a racial identity, as opposed to be adhering to what a nigger is and stop doing what niggers do. And that made us feel good. Then you had the “Hell no, we won’t go” slogans was permeating all over the world in regards to the Vietnam situation. So, we was getting a certain sense of politicalization and ethnic reality at the same time. And we started adhering to things of that nature. And this was counterculture to the powers that be in Attica Correctional Facility.

And to give you an example of that, the first time I seen it fully in full operation, the racial divide, was in the summer of 1971. It was a hot day. And the officers came out into the yard — I was locking in B Block at the time — and had a wheelbarrow full of ice and emptied the wheelbarrow full of ice on the ground and said “white ice,” which meant that that ice was for the white prisoners. And after they picked their ice up, a second wheelbarrow was rolled to the yard, and the officers dumped it on the ground and said “black ice,” and that was for the Black and — well, let me say, people of color prisoners that was locked up in Attica at the time. And this caused a definite racial divide.

However, I would say, in later part of June, early part of July, when ice was thrown on the ground and it was depicted white ice and black ice, nobody in the yard would pick it up — nor white inmates, nor Black inmates, nor Hispanic inmates, nor Indian inmates. Nobody would pick up any ice that was depicted for a racial people. As a matter of fact, the fact that the ice was thrown on the ground, as opposed to being left in the wheelbarrow, was an insult in itself.

In June — excuse me, ratcheting it up to the end of July — or, August, I should say, pardon me, when George Jackson was killed, was murdered, as we would like to call it, in San Quentin prison, on the so-called information that he had a gun in his hand and was trying to escape, that created a unified concern for basically everybody that was in Attica. As a matter of fact, the day after he was killed, it was organized that everybody in the facility would not eat. We had a hunger strike. We went to the mess hall as we were supposed to, picked up the silverware or plastic silverware as they gave out, but nobody picked up any food. And it was extremely quiet. You didn’t hear no noise, no chatter, no nothing. And when it was time to go, we left out of the facility, the eating facility, which was known as the mess hall.

On September 8th, 1971, two guys that was locked up was horsing around in the yard, in A Block yard. And the officers rushed over to them to threaten them to stop it, so forth, etc. And a circle of inmates, a gathering of inmates, got around the officers and said, “You’re not doing anything to anybody.” And they backed off. Well, later on that night, the men, the two men who was horsing around, was literally dragged out of their cells and was beaten all the way to a special housing unit. And you could hear the cries throughout the A Block yard.

Well, the next day, September 9th, the guys that was coming from — that was on the same jail company or housing company where these two guys was pulled out of, was coming back from the mess hall, and they was told that they was not going to the yard for their morning recreation. They was going back to the cell blocks. And that was the spark that started the whole thing.

And they took control of A Block, and they took control basically of the facility. I personally was locking in B Block and was working in the metal shop. And the next thing I know, I seen guys from A Block, B Block, C Block in the metal shop. And I knew it was a full-scale — well, we called it a prison riot, but let me say that it elevated from a prison riot to a prison demonstration. And I know those words, sometimes people will not like to interchange it, but it was, because the mere fact that we, as people that was confined, took on the situation of electing our best and our brightest to represent us, to talk to the administration of the powers that be of the problems in Attica, and that we had some hostages also.

And we adhered to all the factors that was involved. There was no problem in that yard. And sooner rather than later, we had observers come in, because we asked for people from the outside to come into the prison itself. And their level of participation ratcheted up from being an observer to being our negotiators with the powers that be. Well, now, we know that didn’t work out too well, because of what happened on Monday, this Monday, the 50 years ago, exactly on the 13th — exactly on a Monday the 13th, September 13th, 1971.

I woke up in the morning after a fitful night of sleep because the mist and the rain came. And it was a mist and a rain over the yard that morning. And the next thing I know — I guess it was 8:30, 9:00 — I heard a big helicopter hovering, and I seen it hovering over the yard. And the announcement came: “Put your hands on your head. Lay down. You will not be harmed.” And there was some gas that they released from this helicopter that literally knocked me to my knees, and it cleaned my sinuses out.

But at the same token, the ground all around me was jumping and shaking. And I’m thinking I was in some type of a movie or something. But what was jumping all around me was bullets. And I took three shots. And I fell out, but then I regained my consciousness. Somebody — it was a correction officer or a state trooper — was kicking me in my side. And I was told, “Get up and start crawling,” and “Let’s go to the exit, to A Block door.”

And once I got literally thrown into A Block yard by correction officers or national guardsmen or state troopers — I don’t know who it was — I was thankful to see that there was people with stretchers that came and grabbed me by the nape of my neck and pulled me out of a crowd of other individuals who was laying on top of me and on the side of me, and put me on the stretcher and took me out the yard.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to —

TYRONE LARKINS: I’m sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: Tyrone, we thought at this moment we would play a clip from Betrayal at Attica

TYRONE LARKINS: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: — which is the actual video depositions of prisoners, like yourself, and what happened to them after the state troopers opened fire, killing 39 men — among them, prisoners and guards. These clips are extremely graphic, and so are the images it shows.

MICHAEL HULL: In 1974, Attica Brothers Legal Defense filed a $2.8 billion civil suit against the state of New York for damages on behalf of 1,281 inmates. After years of delay by the appointed judge, pretrial discovery depositions got underway in 1991. These tapes are from that deposition. They have never been available to the public.

GEORGE ALEXANDER SHORTS JR.: George Alexander Shorts Jr.

ATTORNEY: Do you recall where you were on the morning of September 13th, 1971?

GEORGE ALEXANDER SHORTS JR.: Yes.

ATTORNEY: Where were you?

GEORGE ALEXANDER SHORTS JR.: In Attica prison.

SURVIVOR 1: I was hit.

SURVIVOR 2: I was kicked in the side, the back and the buttocks.

SURVIVOR 3: My head was in the dirt.

SURVIVOR 4: I was kicked in the side. I was kicked in the hip, kicked in the back.

ATTORNEY: You had any inmates being kicked in A Yard?

PRISON OFFICIAL: I don’t recall that.

SURVIVOR 1: I was hit in the testicles.

ATTORNEY: By what?

SURVIVOR 1: A shotgun.

ATTORNEY: Can you tell me about how many times you feel you were hit during that?

SURVIVOR 1: I couldn’t even say. All I know, I was hit. I was hit — what? You know, when you’re hit like that, you’re not trying to count. You know, you’re scared to death. I wetted on myself. I was hit in the head, the back, my arms, trying to block, in the lip.

ATTORNEY: Lip?

SURVIVOR 1: Face, yes.

ATTORNEY: Did you wear glasses at that time?

SURVIVOR 5: Yes, I did.

ATTORNEY: Did you have them on?

SURVIVOR 5: No, they had taken them and stomped on them.

SURVIVOR 2: Then my glasses was taken off me, stomped.

SURVIVOR 5: We were forced under gunpoint to crawl the length of the yard on your knees and elbows.

SURVIVOR 2: I was told to take off all of my clothes. I was hit and told to run, [bleep].

SURVIVOR 1: Then he put the gun to my head, cocked the gun and said, “[bleep], I’m gonna kill you.” And that’s when I started pleading for my life.

SURVIVOR 2: There was a correction — two correctional officers there telling me the same thing: “Run, [bleep], run.” And that’s exactly what I did.

SURVIVOR 1: And I was told, “When I hit this door with this stick, [bleep], you better start moving.” And when he hit the door, I started to move.

ATTORNEY: Did you hear what kind of language was being uttered in that yard?

PRISON OFFICIAL: Emphatic language: “Get over there. Get down. Move along.” That sort of thing.

ATTORNEY: Did it have, after it, words such as [bleep], when you said, “Get down there. Move along”?

PRISON OFFICIAL: No, I didn’t hear that. If I did, I’d report it to you.

AMY GOODMAN: So, these were testimony in depositions. Tyrone Larkins, it is utterly painful. And in the documentary, Betrayal at Attica, it goes on and on, what happened to these men, and, of course, also your story that we’re hearing today.

TYRONE LARKINS: Yes. Yes. After going to the — well, actually, I laid on the stretcher with quite a few individuals in the yard that was between the giant wall, the hospital and special housing unit. And as I was coming in and out of consciousness, because the pain was — it was great, the pain was great — I seen a line of men that was being escorted or ran like cattle and being beaten by sticks, naked, going to a special housing unit, which is called HBZ. And at the last one I seen, I seen one guy, he fell, and a bunch of correction officers was over him and beating him until he got up and continued to ran — to run, rather, I should say. Sorry, I’m a little emotional, and my words may be getting a little jumbled, because I’m going directly back 50 years.

And then I was taken to the hospital. And I thank god for that, because the medical personnel that took care of me, it was a doctor — I forget his name. I know he mentioned it. And he said he was from Meyer Memorial Hospital. And he told me, “Look, I’m going to try to fix you up, but let me look at the extent of your wounds and see what can be done, to see if you need to go to the outside hospital or if I can do local procedures here.” Well, I guess he felt that he can do the local procedures there and in Attica, because I was taken immediately up to the hospital ward. And they started the preliminary examinations, things of that nature, and started the repairing or the rebuilding of myself.

AMY GOODMAN: Tyrone Larkins, we’re going to break. And when we come back, we’re going to be joined by one of the negotiators. Many believe if the negotiators had been able to continue their work without New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller calling on the state troopers to open fire, this could have resolved peacefully. Tyrone Larkins, formerly incarcerated at Attica prison, was shot by state troopers 50 years ago today, September 13, 1971. We’ll also speak with the HBO Max documentary filmmaker of the film Betrayal at Attica. Stay with us.