By Tom Robbins
Jan. 3 2011
As this paper's late great photographer, Fred McDarrah, used to say
when cornered by readers angry over something they disliked in its
pages, "The Voice is many voices." This is why Clark Whelton's
article blaming leftists for the bloodiest prison siege in American
history -- "Attica: The Death of '60s Radicalism" -- ran in its
September 16, 1971 issue three days after troopers stormed the
prison, and presumably why it was reprinted Friday on the Voice's Web page.
But as a New Yorker who still gets a twinge of rage when the name
"Attica" surfaces, it's worth mentioning that there were other voices
in that week's paper, and many others in the months and years
following, trying to understand the riot, and the spasm of death that
followed Governor Nelson Rockefeller's order to retake the prison.
One of those voices, on the front page of the same September 16
issue, was that of David Rothenberg, theater producer and founder of
the prisoners' aid group, the Fortune Society, who was present inside
Attica as one of those liberal negotiators condemned in Whelton's
piece. Thanks to the miracle of Google, you can read Rothenberg's
account -- which was written before 39 prisoners and guards were
killed in the withering blast of gas and bullets as Rockefeller's
army opened fire on the morning of September 13.
Here are a few tastes:
"The scene which rose before me provoked ambivalent and deep
feelings. Twelve hundred men had set up a desperation camp. Through
the darkness you could see an army of orderly inmates, sitting and
standing in small groups. Fear hung heavily in the air. The unknown
was in control...The men in the yard had not eaten, slept, or had
water for 48 hours. The yard was at tension peak, and fear was in
every man's throat and heart."
The outside negotiators were asked by inmates to tell the crowd why
they were there. In addition to Whelton's main target, radical lawyer
William Kunstler, these included an assemblyman from nearby Buffalo,
a congressman from the Bronx, Timesman Tom Wicker (who later wrote a
fine book about it, "A Time to Die"), and the publisher of the
Amsterdam News. Rothenberg explains:
"Others spoke before me -- giving estimations of their own reasons
for responding to the inmates. They varied from the very personal to
the very polemic but seemed to resolve little other than that we were
in the midst of people who could arouse an angry crowd. In two
sentences, I stated that I was there because I was asked and because I cared."
One of the reasons he cared, Rothenberg explains, is because of the
account he'd been given by a recently released Attica inmate who said
"the Attica riot was inevitable because of the total lack of
communication between the administrators and the inmates."
"He told me that the guards carry long, wooden sticks they refer to
as 'nigger sticks.' He told me that most communication between the
guard and the inmate is with stick. 'If he wants you to move, he'll
tap his stick on the wall. A second tapping of the stick would mean
to stop.' The inmate population at Attica is 80 percent black and
Puerto Rican--with not one black guard or administrator...Inmates are
permitted one shower per week."
Attica: the death of '60s radicalism
September 16, 1971
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