-- 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.

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 Service -us.

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 revolt leadership.

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 lord forever."

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."

Big Man