This week, a shameful chapter in New York State history may have come to a close. On September 13, 1971, Governor Nelson Rockefeller sent state troopers and the National Guard into the Attica Correctional Facility to end a 4-day prisoner rebellion. Inmates took over the maximum security prison as a protest against the human rights violations and wretched living conditions they faced. The subsequent raid and retaking of the facility was the bloodiest act of prison brutality in U.S. history, with police bullets taking the lives of 32 prisoners and 11 correction officers, and injuring more than 80 others. [includes rush transcript]
This past Tuesday, prisoners who were beaten and tortured by law enforcement officers during and after the retaking of Attica were awarded $8 million in a compensation settlement. Judge Michael Telesca of the U.S. District Court in Rochester, New York announced the settlement, which also includes $4 million to lawyers representing the former prisoners. Meanwhile, the state has not admitted wrongdoing or liability.
- Frank “Big Black” Smith, a former Attica prisoner who emerged as one of the leaders of the 1971 rebellion. Smith was forced to lie on a table while officers beat and burned him. He was also threatened with castration and death.
- Danny Meyers, one of the attorneys for the Attica plaintiffs.
AMY GOODMAN: This week, a shameful chapter in New York State history may have come to a close. On September 13, 1971, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller sent state troopers and the National Guard into the Attica prison, ended a four-day prisoner rebellion. Prisoners had taken over the prison as a protest against human rights violations. The subsequent raid and retaking of the facility was the bloodiest act of prison brutality in U.S. history, with police bullets taking the lives of thirty-two prisoners and eleven correction officers and injuring more than eighty more.
Well, this past Tuesday, prisoners who were beaten and tortured by law enforcement officers during and after the retaking of Attica were awarded $8 million in a compensation settlement. Judge Michael Telesca of the U.S. District Court in Rochester, New York announced the settlement, which also will include $4 million to lawyers representing the former prisoners.
Meanwhile, New York State has not admitted wrongdoing or liability.
We’re joined right now by one of the recipients of the settlement, but more significantly one of those who were abused and tortured in 1971. He was a prisoner at the time. He is a free man now, sixty-six years old: Frank “Big Black” Smith. Welcome to Democracy Now!
FRANK ”BIG BLACK” SMITH: Thank you very much.
AMY GOODMAN: So, your reaction to this settlement, one of the longest lawsuits in New York state history.
FRANK ”BIG BLACK” SMITH: You know, first I want to really, really thank you folks for really being in there all these years and also to so many people that has been, you know, aware and in there hanging with us, too. And I’m glad, and I feel really, really — I feel more relaxed this morning, as I look back and think it took twenty-eight years in order to get a person such as Judge Telesca in a positive mind frame to bring Attica at a closure voluntarily. And that’s good. And I’m really feeling better, hopefully, that we got a lesson and we learned how to do things different and how to do things more humanely, when we are dealing in like 2000, where we sit right now.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Frank, you had over all these long years a group of lawyers that never gave up and stuck with you and continued the battle. We have one of them here in the studio today, a person I’ve known for many years, because he was once a lawyer of mine, Danny Meyers, and I’d like to ask Danny what your reaction is after all of these years. When did you initially file the suit?
DANNY MEYERS: Well, I can take credit at least for one moment in this history. On September 13, 1974, five minutes before the statute of limitations would have run — and we never would be here today talking about this — I delivered to the clerk in the federal courthouse in Manhattan the original complaint, which was entitled Akil Al-Jundi — a dear brother, Akil, who we sadly miss. Part of the tragedy of this lawsuit’s taking so long to be resolved is that Brother Akil is not with us. It was Akil Al-Jundi, on behalf of himself and others similarly situated, against Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, individually, and as Governor of the State of New York, etc., et al. And that was the caption of the lawsuit. Our number one defendant, as a matter of law and as a matter of fact, is Nelson A. Rockefeller, and part of the history that still has to be told is the culpability of Rockefeller. And at some point, I’d like to comment on it.
AMY GOODMAN: There’s a picture today in the New York Post of you, Frank “Big Black” Smith, today and in 1971. There you’re laying on a kind of gurney, you’re tortured and abused. You’re on a stretcher after state troopers had stormed the Attica facility. What had they done to you there?
FRANK ”BIG BLACK” SMITH: That’s the torture process there, you know, where they had just beat me — four or five officers — in the doorway to HBZ, as they was taking me upstairs. And I’m laying on the stretcher now after this, where I just came out of the room where they played shotgun Russian roulette with me.
What I really, really, you know, feel really good about this morning — I’m jumping around — I want to just move to the next picture where you see me as yesterday and what’s going through my mind and what I’m thinking about. I’m thinking about what effect it has on me and on the world and on people, as we look back, and what we have learned from Attica in 1971, as we deal in 2000. And there’s some things that’s really troubling me, that really bothers me, that relates to what happened twenty-eight years ago. And I’m wondering how much insight that we need to put on it. And we need to go to an imaginary level.
And one area that I really would like to just focus on right now, is the parole system, you know, what is happening in 2000 and how we should be looking at that, instead of getting hooked up in some political arena about it, and get down to some real dealing with it to ensure with the crowdedness and all the things that’s happening in prisons that relate to twenty-eight years ago. I think we can resolve it better with people like my buddy Danny that’s talking. We need lawyers to really do actions in reference to the parole board, so the politicians can’t keep using that to do a double whammy on crime and punishment, because that’s what happens with the parole board. You’ve got punishment, you’ve got sentence. The judge is saying you got a ten-year minimum and a fifteen-year match, but when you go to the parole board, the parole board’s saying, “I’m gonna do what I want to do,” and ain’t nothing going to change around that unless we take charge out in our communities, like we said in 1971 that the people in the community has gotta be a part of whatever the problems are and also part of whatever the solutions are. So we gotta do something out here about it, because once you get to state prison, there ain’t too much you can do about it.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And, of course, there is the continuing problem that in the mass media, which of course has proliferated even more venues for mass media, there’s less and less coverage of what is going on within the prison system of America. Danny, you noted interestingly that the New York Post reporter who wrote the big story on the settlement, Maggie Haberman, is the daughter of Clyde Haberman, who was the reporter back in 1971 at the New York Post who spread the story that the inmates had cut the throats of all of the guards.
DANNY MEYERS: Yeah, and Clyde Haberman, who was a person that requires special thanks, is very committed to telling the truth about Attica, because he swallowed the big lie. He wrote the press release for the New York State Police, which said that Frank “Big Black” Smith and other prisoners killed all the hostages by slitting their throats, castrating them and shoving their genitalia in their throats. So Clyde Haverman wrote that as a fact for the New York Post. The New York Times wrote that as a fact, and now it’s all very interesting that when Clyde Haberman, almost thirty years ago, wrote the story in the New York Post, his daughter wrote a very fine profile. Talking about thanks in some of the history —
AMY GOODMAN: In fact, what —
DANNY MEYERS: I’m sorry.
AMY GOODMAN: We only have about thirty seconds to go, but in fact what did happen to the guards who died?
DANNY MEYERS: Yes. Everybody who was killed on September 13, 1971, was the victim of the Attica massacre, the armed assault ordered by Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, in which a period of minutes, thirty-nine people were slain, 140 people were shot, and it is the carnage of that event has been recorded. History has recorded the atrocities, the brutalities, the murders of Attica. That’s one of the things about Attica that is so outstanding.
Usually when things happen in prison, they are never revealed. We fortunately found film. We’ve got those pictures that are now in today’s newspaper. We have to thank those who had the courage to come forward at our trials, such as National Guards people who came forward and testified, Correction Officer Michael Smith and others who testified. I know we’re running out of time. This requires a lot more discussion.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, Danny Meyers, one of the longtime attorneys for the Attica plaintiffs, and Frank “Big Black” Smith, one of the torture victims in 1971, who will receive part of the settlement that was reached this week, $8 million. Brutal Attica chapter finally ending or coming near its end.