CSU Archives/Everett Collection
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the September 27, 1971, issue of The Nation.
One of the convicts in the maximum security "correctional facility" at Attica, NY, ad-dressed the ad hoc committee of observers assembled within the prison walls: "We do not want to rule; we only want to live…but if any of you gentlemen own dogs, you’re treating them better than we’re treated here." On that basic fact there is general agree-ment. Only twelve days before the uprising, State Correction Commissioner Russell G. Oswald sent a taped message to the 2,000 inmates outlining the steps he was working on to make conditions more nearly bearable. "What I’m asking for is time," he told the prisoners, but time ran out on him. About half the prisoners rose in what amounted to an insurrection which, prudent foresight suggests, is a harbinger of worse to come. They had no firearms. The assault force, also numbering about 1,000, was heavily armed. When they had done their. work, thirty-nine men were dead–nine hostages out of the thirty-eight that the convicts had seized, and thirty convicts.
Could this bloody outcome have been avoided? One can only conjecture, but the consensus among enlightened observers is that it could. Mayor Kenneth A. Gibson of New-ark termed the suppression "one of the most callous and blatantly repressive acts ever carried out by a supposedly civilized society on its own people." Now Governor Rockefeller is calling for the formation of a five-member panel to investigate what happened. It is to consist of "some top people in the correctional field." In Commissioner Oswald he had a top man, who negotiated with the inmates and seems to have made a good impression on the committee of observers. But the Governor refused to come to Attica, although his mere presence in the town — no one expected him to go inside the prison walls — might have cooled things off sufficiently to enable an agreement to be reached. And, knowing nothing of the circumstances, President Nixon expressed his support of the Rockefeller hard line.
There was undoubtedly a lunatic fringe among the inmates–those who demanded their release to a "non-imperialist power"–but the great majority of those who took part in the insurrection were rational men. Some were rational in the sense that all they wanted was better living conditions and the respect due them as human beings. Others were rational in a revolutionary sense: they were ready to die rather than continue to submit to society’s treatment of them. They died, and they won. America’s image is further tarnished before the world and, as Senator Muskie said, "the Attica tragedy is more stark proof that something is terribly wrong in America." That view contrasts with Rockefeller’s statement that the uprising was brought on by "the revolutionary tactics of militants," and that the investigation would include the role that "outside forces would appear to have played." Whatever outside forces were involved could not have moved a thousand men to such desperation.