Attica at 50: Repression, Resistance, Resilience
Fifty years ago, the men incarcerated at the Attica Correctional Facility in Western New York pushed back against the inhumane conditions they were experiencing. During the uprising, 43 people were killed at Attica between September 9–13, 1971, and scores of others were wounded.
Several days after, New York State’s highest court announced the formation of the New York State Special Commission on Attica to investigate the events leading up to the uprising. The Commission, headed by Robert McKay, then-Dean of the NYU Law school, chose as its general counsel Arthur Liman ’57, who oversaw the investigation and the drafting of the report. Those hundreds of pages, published in 1972, garnered national attention then and in the decades thereafter.
To probe the impact of Attica and understand the contemporary challenges of people in detention, the Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law at Yale Law School convened a panel discussion, “Then and Now: Fifty Years after Attica,” hosted virtually on September 14, 2021.
Joining were Heather Ann Thompson, whose 2016 book Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy detailed the uprising, New York State’s cover-up of its own violent response, and the prisoners’ subsequent fight for justice; Elizabeth Hinton, Associate Professor of History and African American Studies at Yale and Professor of Law at Yale Law School, whose 2021 book America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s explored a myriad of clashes with state law enforcement; Reginald Dwayne Betts ’16, the author of Felon: Poems, who through his creation of Freedom Reads, aims to provide incarcerated people with ready access to a wealth of literature; Doug Liman, a filmmaker whose movies include The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and Fair Game, and who is now working on a project to tell the story of Attica; and Judith Resnik, Arthur Liman Professor of Law, who has joined in a collaborative multiyear effort (Time-in-Cell) to document the tens of thousands of people held in solitary confinement, efforts to limit its use, and what ending that practice would entail.
The panel aimed “to explore what ‘Attica’ means as a shorthand for the prisoners’ rights movements,” Resnik said, echoing Arthur Liman’s writing in the 1972 report on the uprising that “Attica is every prison, and every prison is Attica.”
Resnik provided context for the discussion by sketching the conditions in prisons before 1970 and the pioneering efforts by people detained around the country, who insisted that U.S. constitutional law had to recognize that they had rights and entitlements to legal protection. She described examples of state violence such as Arkansas’s use of whipping to “discipline” prisoners, and government arguments that prisoners had no rights whatsoever to be in court. Nevertheless, prisoners in Arkansas, Alabama, California, and elsewhere pressed for equal treatment under the law and fought against cruel and unusual punishment.
According to Resnik, these many individuals in detention fashioned what should be understood as a political theory imposing new limits on the sovereign state power to punish. In the late 1960s, the courts began to agree.
Thompson focused on the events at Attica and their aftermath. “The Attica uprising is fundamentally about … individual incarcerated folks who were shouting out from the beginning that if you live in this country, the Constitution should apply to you, even if you are behind bars,” she said.
Those at Attica demanded basic human rights, according to Thompson. “The incarcerated [at Attica] were at the forefront of advocating on their own behalf,” she said. “At Attica, they did so in a way that startled the nation. They acted collectively, brought in the media, elected men to speak for them, began historic deliberations with officials, protected state employees they had taken hostages.”
Thompson drew a link between the response to George Floyd’s death in 2020 and the Attica rebellion of decades earlier. The video of Floyd’s murder, coupled with social and political protests around the country, have been central in propelling reform movements in criminal legal systems, she said.
Thompson also emphasized the persistence and impact of volunteer lawyers and law students who worked for decades to get the state to take responsibility for its violence. Thompson’s own persistence in her research uncovered what had been hidden from the 1970s inquiry: scores of documents demonstrating state culpability for the violence at Attica.
Hinton agreed that social movements are central to framing and understanding the violent encounters of the period. “Attica was occurring at this crucial moment in the U.S.,” she said. “A lot of protests of Black power and Black rebellion were happening across the country.”
Hinton disputed the conventional narrative that community members in prisons or in the streets precipitated these violent incidents. “But what’s key here ... it’s state-sanctioned forces that are precipitating the violence,” Hinton said. “A cycle of police violence and Black rebellion.”
Filmmaker Doug Liman is now focused on how to tell the story of Attica. He is working with scriptwriters to bring to audiences an understanding of what he called the “state authorized mob” that stormed the prison and that murdered and beat people.
Betts, a lawyer, writer, poet, and the Founding Director of Freedom Reads, which aims to bring hundreds of books into prisons across the country, asked, “Who was there to tell the story when it happened? How do we remember the people who were there who couldn’t tell the story?”
Betts noted how often poets are “at the center of things.” He recalled that soon after the uprising at Attica, Celes Tisdale ran a poetry workshop there. Participants’ poems were published in the 1974 anthology Betcha Ain’t: Poems from Attica. Tisdale’s own collection of poems, When the Smoke Clears: Attica Prison Poems, will soon be published.
Arthur Liman’s 50-year-old analysis in the 1972 report on Attica still rings true today: “The process of criminal justice will never fulfill either its promises or its obligations until the entire judicial system is purged of racism and is restructured to eliminate the strained and dishonest scenes now played out daily in our courtrooms.”
Attica remains a part of the cultural lexicon. “The fact that we’re still talking about Attica today, 50 years later, is crucial,” said Doug Liman. “When we look for the happy ‘Hollywood ending,’” with Attica, it’s hard to find. “But it’s a moment when people stood up for themselves and effected change — and got the world to pay attention.”