- Interview by
- Ed Rampell
Armed with archival footage, news clips, eyewitness commentary, home movies, and surveillance video, Stanley Nelson’s Attica draws viewers into America’s bloodiest prison revolt: the explosive 1971 riot at Attica Correctional Facility. The result is a gripping, you-are-there account compellingly told in the nearly two-hour Attica, which Nelson produced and codirected with Traci Curry, now playing on Showtime.
The Harlem-born-and-raised Nelson, who has earned three Emmy Awards, is among the world’s top documentarians. His films, often shot for PBS, include the civil rights and Black Power epics Freedom Riders (2011), Freedom Summer (2014) and The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2016).
With Attica, Nelson is tackling another landmark racial tragedy, wherein thirty-three inmates and ten prison guards and staffers were butchered, with many others injured and tortured during that horrific bloodbath a half-century ago. Nelson and Curry painstakingly disclose, blow by blow, what really happened, and they take viewers behind the scenes to the perfidious collusion between New York governor Nelson Rockefeller and President Richard Nixon that sealed the fate of not only the prisoners but their hostages as well. The filmmakers also reveal the heroism of the New Left’s courtroom gladiator William Kunstler; ABC News and Amsterdam News reporters John Johnson and Clarence B. Jones; and most of all, those courageous convicts who, like latter-day Spartacuses, stood up and insisted on being treated like human beings.
So, what happened at Attica prison in 1971?
Attica is 250 miles north of New York City. It’s in the state of New York, but in a very rural area. On September 9, 1971, the prisoners took over the prison, and it was the largest prison rebellion in US history. The prisoners held thirty-some-odd guards hostage. That kept law enforcement from going back in and taking the prison, because the prisoners threatened to kill the hostages if law enforcement came in.
The prisoners rebelled because they were treated so terribly in Attica. Everything from small things — like they’d give prisoners one roll of toilet paper to last them a month — to beatings and cruelty of other kinds. So, the prisoners had had enough, and in a spontaneous action, they took over the prison.
Was it spontaneous, or was the seizure of the Attica Correctional Facility well planned by inmates in advance?
No, it wasn’t planned. These were the times of the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, George Jackson [the author of Soledad Brother, who was imprisoned at San Quentin], and some of the other people who were standing up to authority and inequality. They were very popular in the prison. When George Jackson died, the prisoners held a hunger strike for a day or two. All of the prisoners were in solidarity with that — the black, white, and Latino prisoners. And that was something new. There was general unrest, but there wasn’t a real plan for taking over the prison.
Why did you want to tell the story of America’s largest prison uprising now?
In many ways, it just turned out that we told the story today. It could have been told probably ten or twenty years ago — it probably could be told ten or twenty years in the future. It’s a story that will always resonate and always have importance. In some ways, it is just fortuitous that it came out now, because there’s so much that’s happening with prisons all over the country. I’m from New York, and right now, Rikers Island is in the headlines in New York every day.
It’s a time where people are looking at prisons, and law enforcement especially, in a different way. It’s like the window has been cracked a little bit, so that people who might never have thought to doubt law enforcement are doubting law enforcement now, and they’re thinking about their cruelty and racism in a way they might not have thought about it five years ago. The way the public accepts the film has changed in the last few years.
One of the things we do in the film is tell the story of this all-white town. Residents of Attica, many of their relatives were hostages. It was a prison town, so many people there were employed by the prison. It was a place where the only jobs were dairy farming and prison guards. They weren’t trained in any way. It was a very volatile situation, with all-white prison guards and probably 85 percent black and brown prisoners who were listening to Malcolm X, George Jackson, the Black Panthers, the Young Lords.
How did the black and brown prisoners interact with the white inmates during the uprising?
Before the rebellion, everybody was in their own racial groups. That’s how you hung, that’s how prisons are segregated. The guards contributed to that. They gave white prisoners certain privileges. Black and brown prisoners weren’t given the same things. So, naturally, there was animosity.
But when the prisoners rebelled in the yard, they understood that they had to unite, and that they also had to get organized. One of the things that’s so extraordinary in the film that the prisoners talk about is how they united in the yard and elected leaders, block by block, and the security force they had to keep order was made up of black, brown, and white prisoners.
Before you started making Attica, did you have major unanswered questions about what had transpired?
One of the major questions I had, just as a normal person who knew something about Attica but not a lot, was, “What really caused this?” We really didn’t understand what caused the prisoners to rebel. And what caused law enforcement to go in so viciously, with guns blazing, and how that happened. What we do in the film, it’s laid out step-by-step, what happened — what led to the rebellion and what happened to end the rebellion.
Did you find anything out in making the documentary that was previously hidden or unknown to the public?
So much of the things we found were unknown. One of the things that’s made clear in the film is the association of Governor Nelson Rockefeller and President Richard Nixon — that it was more than just a phone call that Nixon made to Rockefeller at the end, congratulating him on the killings and the retaking of the prison. For the vast, vast majority of people, it wasn’t known that they were talking on the phone before that and that they were in constant phone contact. And Nixon was urging Rockefeller not to go up to Attica to make his presence and concern known. The people on the “observer committee” felt that all he needed to do, in many ways, was just let the prisoners who’d rebelled and were holding the prison know that he was concerned.
In many ways, the prisoners had demands that were doable. They weren’t crazy. They were small. They were saying: “Look at us — we are human. We want to be regarded as men.” And a lot would have gone to doing this if Rockefeller had just gone up — they weren’t asking him to go inside. They were asking him to just go up, stand outside the walls, and show his concern. Show that he sees the prisoners. But Rockefeller refused to do that — and partially, he refused to do that because Nixon was in his ears saying, “No, don’t do that.”
The Vietnam War was still taking place in 1971. Do you see a connection between the imperialist aggression in Indochina and the overkill assault on Attica prison?
It’s hard for people who weren’t alive then to understand that everything was colored by Vietnam — everything, everything. In Attica, the Vietnam vets showed them how to build the latrine and hooches in the prison yard. In many ways, the “law and order” being preached by Nixon was a response to the massive protests against the war in Vietnam. Nobody was neutral on Vietnam. You were being drafted, and your brothers or sons or nephews or cousins or you, yourself, were being forced to go to the front lines of battle. So you couldn’t be neutral, you couldn’t not have any opinions, like we could today, because the wars we fight are very different.
It seems that the response of Tricky Dick and Rocky was the ruling class saying: “This is how we are going to brutally treat the oppressed when they rise up.”
Yeah, in many ways, Attica could be seen as the end of the ’60s. In 1971, the United States was standing for a different thing: law and order. Nixon, in his campaign ads and speeches, talked over and over again about law and order, law and order. In a way, it was the end of the ’60s, and these things were going to be handled in a very different way by the United States.
Who were the men who invaded the prison on behalf of the state?
The men who invaded were an unruly mob. They were state troopers, the guys who stop you on the highway and give you tickets. They are not trained in any way to defuse a situation like Attica. The prison guards themselves were there, who were incensed that their brothers — sometimes their real brothers and relatives — and townspeople went into Attica. There was a force of people who were not trained. People from the town went in with their own guns, hunting rifles and things. It was a law enforcement riot inside the prison.
A lynch mob.
Yeah, and there was no plan. It wasn’t like there was a plan, and it broke down. The plan, as far as could be told, was to shoot some gas that would incapacitate the prisoners and then start shooting. And they were up on walls, shooting down into the yard. They were like sitting ducks. It should be noted that the prisoners had no guns at all — they had none. And the assault force knew they didn’t have any guns, but they still fired on them.
They had loudspeakers from the helicopters, which were hovering really low and firing gas on the prisoners. And they were saying, over and over again: “Surrender to the nearest officer, you will not be harmed. You will not be harmed, surrender to the nearest officer.” And they said it over and over again, while over three thousand rounds of ammunition were fired into the prison. It was just a horrible, haunting scene. Also, the CO2 pepper gas they fired created a smoke screen, so they couldn’t even see what they were shooting at. They were just firing down into the yard the prisoners occupied.
Even when the shooting ended, and the bodies were lying there, dying, injured, and bleeding, the helicopter was still hovering over them, saying: “Surrender, and you will not be harmed.”
Wasn’t a National Guard unit activated to take part in the invasion?
They were mostly medical help. They were activated to carry the dead and wounded out of the prison. They were activated on the last day. They were very different. And we have two National Guard members who are in the film. They were not there the whole five days, like the other law enforcement who were, and they were getting madder and madder. The other law enforcement was basically from that area. The National Guard were from all over. They were really just activated as medical help. In many ways, as you can see in the film, the two guardsmen we interviewed were just horrified with what they saw. They just couldn’t believe it — but they couldn’t stop it. One guy, you see, his eyes are all red because he’s almost crying as he’s remembering it. They were witnesses to the violence — it was torture — that went on after the killing. But they were powerless to stop it.
Your film consists largely of original interviews and contemporaneous footage shot at the time. What type of people were interviewed for your documentary?
We interviewed about ten prisoners who were in Attica at the time. Many of them were shot, and many of them were subjected to the torture afterward. We interviewed a number of townspeople whose relatives were held hostage during Attica, and some of them ended up being murdered by law enforcement when they took Attica back. I interviewed a number of people who were on what was called the “observers’ committee,” who were high-profile people and lawyers, like William Kunstler and New York state senator John Dunne, who the prisoners asked to come and negotiate a peaceful settlement.
Why aren’t any former prison guards interviewed in Attica?
We asked a number of prison guards to be in the film, and they first said yes. Then I think they looked me up on the internet and said, “Oh, well, if Stanley Nelson’s involved, we know what kind of film he’s going to make.” And they all pulled out.
Some of the footage and photos you obtained are truly jaw-dropping. Tell us about the 1971 sources of these moving and still images.
There’s incredible footage from New York State law enforcement, who were surveilling the whole situation. They had an early video camera, and they were filming the whole thing. They were actually videotaping the assault when law enforcement retook the prison. You actually see them firing and killing people. Afterward, they just kept on filming, and they filmed people crawling through the latrines and being tortured and made to crawl around the yard.
Someone took these incredible pictures as the prisoners were stripped nude and made to sit and stand with their hands on their heads. In some ways, with all the shocking footage of firing round after round into the yard, probably the most haunting thing in the film is of the guys who were made to sit and stand with their hands on their heads, in abject surrender. As Senator John Dunne says in the film, it can’t help but remind you of pictures of African Americans getting onto slave ships.
Some of the luminaries of the New Left were involved with the Attica negotiations. Tell us about the role of Black Panther Party chairman Bobby Seale at Attica.
The prisoners asked for Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton of the Panthers to be on the observers’ committee. Bobby Seale, coming from California, got there when they were already a couple days into the negotiation. Really, what the negotiators wanted Bobby to do was to help solve the last stumbling blocks to a settlement. The prisoners wanted amnesty for what happened during the rebellion. For whatever reason, and nobody’s exactly clear on why and what happened, Bobby flew in, gave a short speech, and left. It really was not effective in reaching a settlement.
Do you suspect that he was there so briefly due to parole issues regarding the Chicago 8 case?
That’s one of the stories I’ve heard; I’m not sure. He was threatened that if he incited the prisoners in any way, his parole was going to be revoked or they were going to make it harder on him. I’m not sure.
Attorney William Kunstler comes across, in your film, as truly admirable. His comment after a night of lengthy negotiations is among the film’s most tragic, that he’s “too tired to be optimistic or pessimistic. I’m freaked out.”
As Attica went on for five days, one of the things we show in the film is that it went from a feeling of exuberance and chaos in the yard to a feeling of positivity and organization, and then, as it went on, when Bill Quinn — a guard who was beaten very badly on the first day — died, the whole mood changed. Now, somebody had been murdered, and it became harder to reach a settlement, especially a settlement that involved amnesty, which the prisoners insisted on. What you hear when Kunstler says he’s “freaked out” is frustration because neither side will budge, and both sides are talking at cross-purposes.
Another comment I found to be very troubling, made by several inmates, is that although they were convicted criminals, in their wildest imaginations, they could never foresee the brutality and atrocities they’d be subjected to.
Nobody understood or could foresee what the state would inflict on the prisoners. Maybe the observers’ committee, who could see both sides. But the prisoners were trapped inside the prison and really weren’t privy to the mood outside the prison walls.
Traci Curry said that Attica is “not a fossilized artifact of history.” How does your film reflect today’s ongoing racial reckoning and prison industrial complex?
What you see, over and over again in the film, is what I call the “casual racism” that exists in this country. From the all-white guards calling the prisoners “animals” and beating them with impunity, to, after the assault, law enforcement yelling, “White power! White power!” to President Richard Nixon’s first words being: “Is it the blacks? Were all the people killed black?” The film not only reflects on prisons and prison reform but on racism in this country — also the power of the state to treat people as not human. The film is about so many things. It’s also about the hostage families, the prison guards, who were murdered in the same way as the black and brown prisoners when law enforcement went in.
The first days, what was reported was that eight or nine hostages had their throats slit by the prisoners. After the medical examination, one of the medical examiners said nobody’s throat was slit — they were all killed by bullets. That meant they were all [prisoners and hostages alike] killed by law enforcement.