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Attica! Attica!

On September 13, 1971, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered New York State Troopers and the National Guard to enter and re-take the Attica Correctional Facility from rioting prisoners who had assumed control four days earlier, demanding better living conditions while holding 33 prison staff hostage. The facility, designed to hold 1,200 inmates, was packed with 2,225 prisoners at the time. When the smoke cleared, police bullets had killed 39 people, including guards and civilian employees.

In all, 2000 rounds of ammunition were spent and more than 140 people were shot, making it the most violent and bloody episode of prison brutality in our nation’s history. The New York State Special Commission on Attica, a citizen’s blue ribbon commission led by New York University law professor Robert B. Mackay, summed up the chapter in our history this way: “With the exception of Indian massacres in the late 19th century, the State Police assault which ended the four-day prison uprising was the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War.”

Frank “Big Black” Smith was an inmate at the time, serving 15 years for sticking up an outdoor crap game in Brooklyn. He functioned as chief of security during the uprising, organizing inmates to protect outsiders who entered the prison during negotiations between prisoners and the authorities. In the aftermath of the crackdown, officers brutally beat him. As he lay bleeding on a stretcher, they “played shotgun Russian roulette” with him, and threatened him with castration, holding a sword to his genitals. Because he was coach of the prison football team, sadistic guards made him balance a football under his chin for hours as he lay on the stretcher while they dropped lit cigarettes and hot shotgun shells on his chest. If the football fell, they promised they would kill him. Throughout the brutality, he did not drop the ball.

Smith would be charged in four indictments related to the riot, but all charges were dropped due to lack of evidence.

On January 4, 2000, prisoners who were tortured and beaten by lawmen after the violent re-taking of the prison were awarded an $8 million compensation settlement by Judge Michael Telesca of the US District Court in Rochester—ending a 26-year lawsuit, the longest in state history. New York State would admit no liability or wrongdoing. Smith, by then a free man, died less than four years later.

That compensation judgment would never have occurred were it not for the efforts of Danny Meyers, an attorney for the brutalized inmates who came to be known as the Attica Brothers. On September 13, 1974, five minutes before the statute of limitations would have expired, Meyers submitted the original complaint to the federal courthouse in Manhattan.

Meyers will be in Buffalo to give a talk on his experiences surrounding this shocking chapter of American history at Burning Books, 420 Connecticut Street, on Thursday, September 13, at 7pm. The date marks the 41st anniversary of the prison slaughter, and the first anniversary of Burning Books.

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