Most people forget that up until 9/11/01, the deadliest day on U.S. soil since the Civil War was 9/13/71, the day the Attica Prison riot ended in what was essentially a state-sponsored spree killing.
The riot began on September 9th and would run for four days. Hostages (guards) were taken, inmate leaders emerged, negotiations and demands were made, and the entire thing played out on national television, long before the advent of 24-hour cable news television.
So what prompted the ending, when New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered state police to "re-take" the prison and shoot anyone who resisted? Politics.
Fearing he was appearing weak and cowardly in the eyes of the media (and thus dashing any vice presidential or presidential ambition he had), Rockefeller ordered the massacre and then went to elaborate lengths to cover it up. In a series of "ingratiating" tapes recently released by the National Archives, Rockefeller can be heard discussing the case with President Nixon (who was taping everything, of course), lying about the fact that the state itself had killed the hostages (prison guards) during the shootout.
Hours after 1,000 New York State troopers, sheriff’s deputies and correction officers stormed Attica prison to crush a four-day inmate revolt in 1971, Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller telephoned President Richard M. Nixon to claim victory unambiguously.
At the time, it appeared that State Police sharpshooters who had fired on the prison yard had killed mostly inmates, not some of the prison guards who had been held hostage inside. And because the inmates were black and the guards white, the governor and the president seemed to suggest, the American public would undoubtedly endorse the state’s assault on Attica.
“They did a fabulous job,” Rockefeller told Nixon. “It really was a beautiful operation.”
In a follow-up conversation the next day, as grimmer details began to emerge about the assault, in which 29 inmates and 10 hostages were killed, a more subdued Rockefeller acknowledged that his initial boast about the sharpshooters’ precision was premature.
“Well you know, this is one of those things,” Rockefeller said. “You can’t have sharpshooters picking off the prisoners when the hostages are there with them, at a distance with tear gas, without maybe having a few accidents.”
“Well, you saved a lot of guards,” Nixon replied. “That was worth it.”
You really must click on the story and listen to the audiotapes, which are linked. It's unbelievably fascinating to listen to Nixon help Rockefeller spin the ruit as a "black" problem that needed to end the way it did to prevent further riots from spreading across the country.
“The courage you showed and the judgment in not granting amnesty, it was right, and I don’t care what the hell the papers or anybody else says,” Nixon said. “If you would have granted amnesty in this case, it would have meant that you would have had prisons in an uproar all over this country.”
The next day, even after it was becoming clear that hostages had also been killed by sharpshooters, Nixon told Rockefeller: “You just stand firm there and don’t give an inch. Because I think in the country, you see, the example you set may stiffen the backs of a few other governors that may have a problem. But also in the country, too, I think that it might discourage this kind of a riot occurring someplace else.”
“Tell me,” Nixon asked, “are these primarily blacks that you’re dealing with?”
“Oh, yes,” Rockefeller replied, “the whole thing was led by the blacks.”
The state of New York would tie this up in court, incredibly, for the next 35 years.
Inmates who were beaten sued the state, which settled in 2000 for $8 million. Five years later (2005), the state settled for $12 million with surviving guards and the families of slain hostages.Whoever was left, that is.
The tributes and remembrances of 9/11 this past weekend were perfectly appropriate, but I wish more people would remember today, 9/13, and its importance. In this age of mass incarceration, overcrowded prisons, and a disproportionately minority prison population, we are one prison fight away from another full-blown Attica somewhere in this country.