The winners of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize were announced today — on the 170th birthday of Joseph Pulitzer — and though there were some surprises, the majority of the honors were bestowed on some of the year’s most talked about pieces of writing. For example, Colson Whitehead won for his ground-breaking work of fiction, The Underground Railroad. And C.J. Chivers of the New York Times snagged a Pulitzer for his heart-breaking portrayal of a soldier grappling with his life stateside in “The Fighter.”
At The Morning News, J. Oliver Conroy reports on the aftermath of the Attica Prison riot and how the state doggedly covered up the truth: a grisly state-initiated mass murder in the name of justice and order. Of the 43 dead, 29 were inmates — many of them shot in the back or executed at close range as the state attempted to regain control of the prison.
Shortly before 9:45 a.m. on Sept. 13, 1971, the fifth morning of the Attica prison uprising, hundreds of prisoners milled in the yard, waiting with increasing dread for news of any developments in their ongoing negotiations with New York state authorities. At 9:46, they got their answer. A helicopter thundered overhead and began blanketing the yard in billowing clouds of tear gas. In fact the tear gas was partly a powder: C.S., a weaponized orthochlorobenzylidene compound then popular a world away in Vietnam, where the US military used it to flush Viet Cong out of the jungle and into the sights of waiting gunships. In footage of the Attica retaking, you can see a domino wave of people crumpling as the cloud of C.S. rolls over them.
The powder hung in the air like a dense fog, clinging to the prisoners’ clothes and working itself into their skin and lungs and further obscuring the vision of the gas-masked state troopers waiting for the signal to begin their assault. As the prisoners collapsed, choking and retching, the police opened fire. Over the next several minutes, officers poured hundreds of rounds of gunfire into the yard, including, a judge later estimated, between 2,349 and 3,132 pellets of buckshot. The prison yard was transformed into a charnel house. The prisoners, who had no firearms, were sitting ducks, as were the hostages that the police had ostensibly come to save. As hundreds of police and corrections officers stormed the prison, they sometimes paused to shoot inmates who were already on the ground or wounded. “Surrender peacefully. You will not be harmed,” a megaphone announced as unarmed prisoners were mowed down.
After the shooting ended and the gas cleared, National Guardsmen came through, collecting bodies and dumping them in rows on the muddy ground. The final death toll of the Attica riot and retaking was 43 people, including one corrections officer fatally wounded during the initial uprising, three prisoners killed by other prisoners, and 39 people killed by authorities, including 10 hostages—captive corrections officers and civilian prison staff killed by the troopers’ indiscriminate shooting.
The bloody outcome, it becomes clear…was the result, to a great extent, of conscious political choices by the state.
Mike Smith is someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about Attica. Smith, then 23 years old and recently married, had just started as a rookie corrections officer at Attica when the riot broke out and he was seized as a hostage…
Then the helicopter rose above the prison walls, showering everyone in C.S., and shooting started from every direction, and “all hell broke loose.” Smith was shot four times across the abdomen—by someone firing, he believes emphatically, a fully automatic AR-15—incidentally a rifle then issued to servicemen in Vietnam—and his arm was hit by a ricocheted pistol bullet. Noble, also wounded, pulled him to the ground. As Smith lay bleeding he watched prisoners and hostages shot to pieces around him.
On the morning of September 13, 1971, shortly after state police launched an armed assault to retake Attica prison from its rebelling inmates, a trooper emptied his .357 magnum pistol into a prisoner named Kenneth B. Malloy. As Heather Ann Thompson recounts in her wrenching and minutely detailed recounting of that day, Malloy’s death was one of the most hideous on a morning of hideous deeds, one that saw 39 people killed by police, another 89 wounded. Malloy, an autopsy later showed, was shot twelve times at close range by at least two guns. He was hit with so many bullets, Thompson reports, “that his eye sockets were shredded by the shards of his own bones.”
Not far away, an inmate named James Robinson was fatally wounded with a .270 caliber bullet fired by a police rifle. As he lay dying, another trooper stepped up and finished him off, firing a load of buckshot into Robinson’s neck. Afterward, a police sergeant snapped a photo of Robinson, who, like many inmates, had donned a football helmet in feeble hope of warding off the baton blows they imagined were the worst they might suffer in the retaking. His body lay splayed on its side, a state police tag looped around his empty right hand. A second photo, taken moments later, shows Robinson in precisely the same position, except that a curved sword has now appeared beside him. The trooper who shot him later insisted he did so because the inmate had charged him with such a weapon.
The name Attica still registers dread and sorrow in Americans old enough to recall that drizzly and blood-flecked week at the upstate New York prison. No matter who you blamed for the carnage, the slaughter that gray September morning in a tiny rural hamlet thirty-five miles east of Buffalo, a place few had ever heard of, evoked anguish and fury. Photos and film clips of raincoat-clad troopers stepping through the mud amidst tangles of dead and wounded men, of long snaking lines of inmates stripped naked, their hands atop their heads, settled deep into the marrow of those who saw them. Charles Mingus and John Lennon set music to the tragedy. Muhammad Ali composed a fierce bit of doggerel that he read on TV: “Better than of this prison rot / If there’s any chance I’ve got / Kill me here on this spot.”
Even those innocent of any knowledge of the riot and the rage it inspired, can still recognize its incantatory power in Sidney Lumet’s 1975 “Dog Day Afternoon,” as Al Pacino riles up a crowd outside the Brooklyn bank he is robbing by crying out, “Attica! Attica!” Read more…