SLAVE REVOLT AT ATTICA
-- Big Man
In September 1971, before I was able to leave New England
and return to the warmth of California, I got a call that
Chairman Bobby Seale was headed to upstate New York and that
I was to accompany him. We were going to Attica State
Prison. It had been broadcast on the radio that a riot had
broken out and part of the prison was under the control of
The inmates had a list of demands that they presented to the
prison authorities and they requested civilian observers.
They wanted representatives of the government, several
newspapers, the Young Lords, Black Muslims, the Black
Panther Party and some other social and professional groups.
Bobby, his driver - Van Taylor - me and a couple of other
Panthers hit the highway for Attica, 40 miles east of
Buffalo, New York. After we had driven a while and were
close to the prison, we stopped and asked a state trooper
for directions. He recognized bobby Seale right away.
Bobby explained that we had been asked to come as part of
the negotiating team at Attica. The state trooper told us
to follow him and he escorted us right up to the prison.
When we pulled up to the prison, the front was full of state
and local police, national guardsmen, emergency medical
personnel and lost of news media personnel and equipment.
Once we were recognized as Panthers, the news people and
reporters were all over us with questions and requests for
interviews. Bobby told them that we had just arrived and
had nothing to say at that point.
Word got inside that we were there. Attorney Bill Kunstler
came out and told us he would let Commissioner Russell
Oswald know that we were there and make arrangements to let
us in the prison. Oswald came out and directed his armed
guards to let us pass through. Inside, there were members
of the press; New York Times, Daily News, Washington Post,
Muhammad Speaks, and of course, The Black Panther News
I remember Dr. Benjamin Spock, David Dellinger, Bill
Kunstler, members of the Young Lords and the Black Muslims.
We were briefed on the inmate’s demands and the hostage
situation. There were at least 30 guards and civilian
employees taken as hostages.
I forgot to mention that outside with all the police and
medical personnel were the families of the prison guards
being held hostage. There were wives and children crying
and asking us to do all we can to help settle the situation
so their loved ones would be released unharmed. That part
of it I'll never forget because their pleas went out to
Governor Rockefeller and fell on deaf ears.
On Sept. 9, 1971, approximately 1,000 of the 2,254 inmates
(85% of whom were Black) took control of the southeast
portion of the prison compound. The inmates issued a list
of demands for; higher wages, religious and political
freedom, dietary, medical and recreational improvements, and
total amnesty and freedom from reprisals upon the
surrendering of the hostages. Negotiations between the
inmates and Commissioner Oswald began.
The civilian observer committee, including us, the BPP, were
admitted into the prison and served as a liaison between
Oswald and the inmates during 4 days of tense negotiations.
Oswald offered a list of twenty-eight reforms that he was
willing to grant. He acceded to nearly all the inmates'
major demands, except the ouster of Attica Superintendent
Vincent R. Mancusi and total amnesty.
The Warden's office areas were alive with telephones ringing
off the hook with news people calling out reports and
officials talking to the Governor's office.
Runners were coming and going to the yard; taking and
bringing messages between the commissioner and the inmate
Governor Nelson Rockefeller rejected the amnesty request and
despite requests by the observer committee, refused to
travel to Attica to participate or show any king of
understanding of the negotiations.
At dusk, as it was getting dark, the inmates agreed to let
members of the BPP and some members of the media into the
restricted area of Cellblock "D" which let out into the yard
where the inmates' command center was and where the hostages
were held. To get to the yard we had to walk down a long
semi-dark corridor that was about 100 feet long and maybe 10
feet wide. There was one overhead light in the corridor.
There were cellblocks on the left and a wall on our right.
Some cell doors had mattresses standing up against them.
Water was standing in places on the floor.
Way down at the end of the corridor was a cell gate guarded
by three or four inmates with their faces covered so as not
to be identified. Verbal signals were yelled out that the
Panthers were coming in.
If ever there was a place that looked and smelled of death,
this was it. It was just hours away. I remember a bible
scripture that came into my mind and for some reason, while
walking, I said it to myself, "Yea though I Walk through the
valley and shadow of death I will fear no evil, for thine
art with me, thy rod and thy shaft they comfort me in the
presence of my enemy, and I will dwell in the house of the
Anyway, we got to the end of the corridor and were let into
the yard. The yard was crowded. There were fires going at
various locations around the yard. There were employees of
the prison, hostages if you will, sitting around the fires.
Most were dressed in prison clothes. You could tell they
were hostages because most of them were white, dirty and
looked very sad, but unharmed. You could tell that they
were clinging to hope that it would soon be over and that
they would be alive.
The revolt leaders or committee had a command post set up in
the yard. They had a table with seats behind it, lights and
a P.A. system. When it was announced that Bobby Seale and a
delegation of the BPP was there, the whole yard erupted with
applause and yells of acknowledgment. On our way to our
seats, I shook hands with many, many inmates who said, "Hey
Big Man, All Power to the People." I had no idea these guys
knew me or who I was. Then, on the other hand, I had made
the papers up and down the east coast during the New Haven
and New York trials.
With the BPP and the press present, the inmate leaders
stated their demands. Bobby Seale told them that he had to
consult with Huey P. Newton, the Minister of Defense of the
BPP before he made a statement but we stood in support of
their demands. Bobby went to find a phone to contact Huey.
Huey agreed that although very little could be done at that
point, the Black Panther Party would stand in solidarity
with the inmates in whatever way possible.
On Sunday morning, Sept. 11, 1971, the assembled forces of
211 state troopers and correction officers retook Attica
using shotguns, rifles and tear gas. After the shooting was
over, 10 hostages and 29 inmates lay dead or dying. Four
hundred rounds of ammunition had been fired. Four hostages
and 85 inmates suffered gunshot wounds. It was initially
reported that several hostages died at the hands of knife-
wielding inmates. Pathology reports later revealed that
hostages and inmates all died from gunshot wounds. No guns
were found in the possession of inmates.
Frank "Big Black" Smith, Attica survivor, reported: "It was
very, very barbaric; you know, very, very cruel. They
ripped our clothes off. They made us crawl on the ground
like we were animals. And they snatched me. And they lay
me on a table and beat me in my testicles. And they burned
me with cigarettes and dropped hot shells on me and put a
football up under my throat and they kept telling me that if
it dropped, they were going to kill me. And I really felt,
after seeing so many people shot for no apparent reason that
they really were going to do this. They set up a gauntlet
in the hallway and they broke glass up in the middle of the
hallway and they made people run through the gauntlet.
They had police on each side with the clubs they call nigger
sticks and they were hitting people. It just hurt. You see
one human being treating another human being this way and
they really hurt me. I never thought it would happen. I
never thought so many would be treated like animals. And
the way they treated me, the way they beat me and after they
took me off the table, they ran me through the gauntlet.
And the way they broke my wrist, over my head. They took me
to the hospital and dumped me on the floor, playing with me
with shotguns, pointing it in my face and putting the barrel
of the shotgun over my eyes and telling me - Nigger we're
going to kill you."
After all these years, the question still goes unanswered,
what was the hurry. The inmates and hostages were inside a
thirty-foot wall. They were not going anywhere. Nobody
knows what the hurry was. "There's always time to die."