Saturday, September 17, 2011

Rockefeller on Attica


Hours after 1,000 New York State troopers, sheriff’s deputies and correction officers stormed Attica prison to crush a four-day inmate revolt in 1971, Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller telephoned President Richard M. Nixon to claim victory unambiguously.

At the time, it appeared that State Police sharpshooters who had fired on the prison yard had killed mostly inmates, not some of the prison guards who had been held hostage inside. And because the inmates were black and the guards white, the governor and the president seemed to suggest, the American public would undoubtedly endorse the state’s assault on Attica.

“They did a fabulous job,” Rockefeller told Nixon. “It really was a beautiful operation.”

In a follow-up conversation the next day, as grimmer details began to emerge about the assault, in which 29 inmates and 10 hostages were killed, a more subdued Rockefeller acknowledged that his initial boast about the sharpshooters’ precision was premature.

“Well you know, this is one of those things,” Rockefeller said. “You can’t have sharpshooters picking off the prisoners when the hostages are there with them, at a distance with tear gas, without maybe having a few accidents.”

“Well, you saved a lot of guards,” Nixon replied. “That was worth it.”

Recordings of the conversations, which are being published in full for the first time, provide insights into the nation’s bloodiest prison uprising, which remained an indelible blot on Rockefeller’s 15-year record as governor, and ended 40 years ago Tuesday. In the recordings, the governor speaks with seeming candor about some unexplained elements of the episode, including his decision not to go in person to the prison, in western New York, to broker a peaceful resolution, as the inmates and their negotiators had asked. Rockefeller is also heard striking an ingratiating tone with the president, predicting to Nixon, who was preparing his re-election campaign, “You’re going to have a great year.”

The revolt began on Sept. 9, 1971, precipitated by unaddressed inmate complaints about grievance procedures, educational opportunities and other issues, investigations concluded. Though an agreement appeared near on many of the inmates’ demands, Rockefeller approved the assault when negotiations over amnesty had stalled and it appeared that the hostages’ lives were in danger. (Inmates were found to have killed one guard and three fellow inmates during the uprising.)

“Nixon’s strategy for dealing with the Attica massacre was to minimize press coverage, to spin the story in favor of the government, and to assail members of the press,” said Theresa C. Lynch, an adjunct professor of history at the University of New Hampshire at Manchester who is writing a book about Attica and discovered the tapes at the National Archives in Washington. “I think the tapes reveal that.

“He also began a campaign to convince the American public that Rockefeller had acted correctly in not going to Attica to quell the uprising and in retaking the prison by storm. This campaign was based on racism and lack of concern and callous disregard for the lives of prisoners.”

Rockefeller reveals in the tapes that he proceeded with the assault even as state officials had figured that an armed assault might cost the lives of all the 39 hostages and hundreds of inmates. And he discusses his refusal to consider granting amnesty or going to the scene — a gesture recommended by his own correction commissioner — suggesting that he did not want to capitulate to the inmates and set a precedent. “This separated the sheep from the goats,” Rockefeller declared.

Sixty-two inmates and one guard were charged with crimes stemming from the revolt, and eight inmates were convicted. Charges against the guard were dismissed. A state commission criticized the governor for not going to Attica, while acknowledging that his presence might not have prevented the violence. The commission found that the riot was driven by black inmates unwilling to bow to the “petty humiliations and racism that characterize prison life” and that guards inflicted brutal reprisals after the prison was retaken.

In 1976, Gov. Hugh L. Carey pardoned seven former Attica inmates, commuted the sentence of an eighth and said no disciplinary action would be taken against 20 state troopers and guards involved in the assault. Inmates who were beaten sued the state, which settled in 2000 for $8 million. Five years later, the state settled for $12 million with surviving guards and the families of slain hostages...

Rockefeller on the Attica Raid, From Boastful to Subdued
September 12, 2011

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