I visited Attica Prison in 1972 as a high-school student in upstate New York. I was part of a group of winners of a unique state essay-contest organized by teachers concerned about civil rights. So I saw the inside of Attica Prison and the cells, spoke to the inmates, and it gave me a life-long interest and concern about civil rights.
At the time everyone in the state was preoccupied with the riot that occurred in 1971, when inmates seized correctional officers, leading to a storming of the prison by the National Guard which resulted in 39 deaths, including of the hostages.
I hope by publishing this here that someone else might come forward who remembers this visit.
There are very distinct impressions I retain from this visit even though it was 42 years ago.
The first is the feeling of suffocation and despair any human will feel when they go through a prison gate and realize they are now locked inside. More people should experience this even with the knowledge they will leave, so that they understand what a prison means in our society. I think it might both serve as a deterrent to crime so that people won't end up in jails, but also spur society to contemplate more what the inside of jails are like, and how they serve as further incubators of crime and not "corrections."
There were the cramped cells and iron bars and the poor conditions the prisoners had which were among the reasons they were rioting -- solitary confinement in "the hole" was the worst.
Finally, I retain the very vivid memory of a charismatic and forceful black orator who represented the prisoners who dramatically told us of their struggle and of their political ideas.
And that's just what is missing here from Heather Ann Thompson's very tendentious account in Salon this week. This uprising was staged *by the Black Panthers*. They were a violent, terrorist movement with extreme ideas. They used beatings, kidnappings, rapes and killing to achieve their violent revolutionary goals -- which would not have brought any of us any kind of just society with civil rights.
In fact later in life, I met a victim of rape of a Black Panther who remains fearful of telling her story because she is a good liberal who despite everything continues at some level to believe in these revolutionary ideas of the 1960s and 1970s.
Thompson also leaves out their killing of Officer Quinn *first* before the troops came in -- they took him hostage, beat him senseless, and he died of his wounds a few days later; this was a key factor in the authorities' decision to storm the prison when the inmates refused to release hostages even after many of their demands were met:
This was my first experience of the dual nature of the these issues in America -- that yes, you can be filled with sympathy for the plight of prisoners and be concerned about their rights and wanting to improve their conditions and ease their suffering and be just.
But they are also *criminals*. They committed *real crimes* which is why they are there. And those who are political in particular are very manipulative and skilled, often from cadre organizations steeped in revolutionary methodology like the Black Panthers, in playing on the sympathies anyone would have -- but particularly liberals -- and then converting that concern into political support of a dubious cause.
It was my earliest experiences of such *duplicity*. The orator was a winning personality with some compelling issues but ultimately couldn't convert me to his violent ideology. In part this was actually due to the teaching of my earnest liberal English teacher who had taught us dramatically as well that "the right to swing your arm ends at the start of another person's nose."
There are many wrongs in the Attica story, that have to do with the Rockefeller administration and the American prison system and the legacy of racism. But there is also wrong in the violent cause of the Black Panthers. Taking hostages and provoking a situation where you and they may be killed *is wrong*. And it's a crime.
Even Wikipedia provides a much more balanced view of these events by noting that the state administration *had already met many of the demands of the prisoners*.
But they wouldn't give them amnesty for committing the crime of hostage-taking itself or meet all their political demands.
One of the things that radical historians fail to appreciate is that establishments in essentially liberal societies, even if they are conservative and even if they themselves have committed wrongs, are simply not going to enable radical violent causes to succeed and overthrow the liberal, democratic society itself. Because what would result would, again, not be a society that ensured all human rights for all.