At approximately 8:20 a.m. on Thursday, September 9, 1971, 5 Company lined up for roll-call. Hearing rumors that one of their companions was to remain in his cell after being isolated for an incident involving an assault on a prison officer, a small group of 5 Company inmates protested that they too would be locked up and began walking back towards their cells. The remainder of 5 Company continued towards breakfast. As the protesting group walked past the isolated inmate, they freed him from his cell. They then rejoined the rest of 5 Company and proceeded on their way to breakfast. A short time later, when the command staff discovered what had occurred, they changed the usual scheduling of the prisoners, but did not tell the correctional officer in charge of leading 5 Company to the yard. Instead of going to the yard after breakfast as they usually did, the prisoners were lead there to find a locked door, puzzling them and the correctional officer. Complaints led to anger when more correctional officers arrived to lead the prisoners back to their cells. An officer was assaulted and the riot began.
The inmates quickly gained control of sections, D-yard, two tunnels, and the central control room, referred to as "Times Square". Inmates took 42 officers and civilians hostage, and produced a list of grievances demanding their conditions be met before their surrender.
Throughout the negotiations, there was leadership and organization among the prisoners. Frank "Big Black" Smith was appointed as head of security, and he also kept the hostages and the observers safe. Additionally, an ardent orator, 21-year-old Elliott James "L.D." Barkley, was a strong force during the negotiations, speaking with great articulation to the inmates, the camera crews, and outsiders at home. Barkley, just days away from his scheduled release at the time of the riot, was killed during the recapturing of the prison. Assemblyman Arthur Eve testified that Barkley was alive after the prisoners had surrendered and the state regained control; another inmate stated that the officers searched him out, yelling for Barkley, and shot him in the back.
As speakers like Barkley raised morale, the rebels' negotiating team of prisoners proposed their requests to the commissioner. The Attica Liberation Faction Manifesto Of Demands is a compilation of complaints written by the Attica prisoners, which speak directly to the "sincere people of society". It includes 27 demands, such as better medical treatment, fair visitation rights, and an end to physical brutality. The prisoners also requested better sanitation, improved food quality, and one set of rules for the state among numerous other demands. The manifesto specifically assigns the power to negotiate to five inmates: Donald Noble, Peter Butler, Frank Lott, Carl Jones-El, and Herbert Blyden X. Additionally, the document specifically lists out "vile and vicious slave masters" who oppressed the prisoners such as the New York governor, New York Corrections, and even the United States Courts.
The prisoners continued to unsuccessfully negotiate with Correctional Services Commissioner Russell G. Oswald, and then later with a team of observers that included Tom Wicker, an editor of the New York Times, James Ingram of the Michigan Chronicle, state senator John Dunne, state representative Arthur Eve, civil rights lawyer William Kunstler, and others. Prisoners requested the presence of Minister Louis Farrakhan, National Representative of the Nation of Islam, but he declined.
The situation may have been further complicated by Governor Rockefeller's refusal to come to the scene of the riot and meet with the inmates, although some later evaluations of the incident would postulate that his absence from the scene actually prevented the situation from deteriorating. Negotiations broke down, and Oswald was unable to make further concessions to the inmates. However, he did not tell them that negotiations had ended and he would take the prison back by force. He even said: "I want to want to continue negotiations with you." Oswald later called Governor Rockefeller and again begged him to come to the prison to calm the riot. After the governor's refusal, Oswald stated that he would order the State Police to retake the facility by force. Rockefeller agreed with Oswald's decision. This agreement was later criticized by a commission created by Rockefeller to study the riot and its aftermath.
As the demands were not met, negotiations broke down, and the mood among the inmates deteriorated. It appeared as though Gov. Rockefeller remained opposed to the inmates' demands, and they became restless. Defensive trenches had been dug, metal gates had been electrified, crude battlements were fashioned out of metal tables and dirt, gasoline was put in position to be lit in the event of conflict, and the "Times Square" prison command center was fortified. The inmates brought four corrections officers to the top of the command center and threatened to slit their throats. Reporters in helicopters circling the prison reported that the hostages in D yard were also being prepared for killing. Gov. Rockefeller had ordered that the prison be retaken that day if negotiations failed. Situation commander Oswald, seeing the danger to the hostages, ordered that the prison be retaken by force. Of the decision, he later said "On a much smaller scale, I think I have some feeling now of how Truman must have felt when he decided to drop the A-bomb."
At 9:46 a.m. on Monday, September 13, 1971, tear gas was dropped into the yard and New York State Police troopers opened fire non-stop for two minutes into the smoke. Among the weapons used by the troopers were shotguns, which led to the wounding and killing of hostages and inmates who were not resisting. Former prison officers were allowed to participate, a decision later called "inexcusable" by the commission established by Rockefeller to study the riot and the aftermath. By the time the facility was retaken, nine hostages and 29 inmates had been killed. A tenth hostage died on October 9, 1972, of gunshot wounds received during the assault.
The final death toll from the riot also includes the officer fatally injured at the start of the riot and four inmates who were subjected to vigilante killings. Nine hostages died from gunfire by state troopers and soldiers. The New York State Special Commission on Attica wrote, "With the exception of Indian massacres in the late 19th century, the State Police assault which ended the four-day prison uprising was the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War."
Media reports claimed that inmate hostage-takers slit the throats of many of their hostages, reports that contradicted official medical evidence. Newspaper headlines made statements such as "I Saw Slit Throats", implying that prisoners had cut the hostages' throats when the armed raid occurred. These reports set the stage for reprisals by troopers and prison officers. Inmates were made to strip and crawl through the mud and then some were made to run naked between lines of enraged officers, who beat the inmates. Several days after the riot's end, prison doctors reported evidence of more beatings. The Special Commission found that state officials failed to quickly refute those rumors and false reports.
At 7:30 p.m. on September 17, Weatherman launched a retaliatory attack on the New York Department of Corrections, exploding a bomb near Oswald's office. "The communique accompanying the attack called the prison system an example of 'how a society run by white racists maintains its control,' with white supremacy being the 'main question white people have to face'" and said that the Attica riots are blamed on Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.
Within four years of the riot, 62 inmates had been charged in 42 indictments with 1,289 separate counts. One state trooper was indicted for reckless endangerment.
Inmates and families of inmates killed in the prison retaking sued the State of New York for civil rights violations by law enforcement officers during and after the retaking of Attica. After years in the courts, in 2000, the State of New York agreed to pay $8 million ($12 million minus legal fees) to settle the case. The State of New York also recognized the families of the slain prison employees in 2005 with a $12 million financial settlement.
The Forgotten Victims of Attica have also asked the State of New York to release state records of the uprising to the public. In 2013, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said he would seek the release of the entire 570-page Meyer Report, the state's review of the uprising. The report was prepared by former State Supreme Court justice Bernard S. Meyer and submitted in 1975. One volume was made public, but a State Supreme Court justice ordered in 1981 that the other two be sealed permanently. In May 2015, 46 pages of the report were released. The released pages contain accounts from witnesses and inmates describing torture, burning, and sexual abuse of inmates by prison authorities.
At the time of the riots, black empowerment was increasing and many black prisoners had transferred to Attica, increasing population from its designed 1200 prisoners to 2243. 54% of these were Black American, 9% Puerto Rican, and 37% white; however, most of the 383 correctional officers were white. Some corrections officers were openly racist and assaulted the prisoners with their batons, which they dubbed "nigger sticks." Additionally, George Jackson, a member of the Black Panther Party, had died at the hands of white prison officers under disputed circumstances two weeks before the riot in the San Quentin State Prison in California.
It was believed that a group of Muslims were responsible for the uprising and the harm of the hostages, when in fact the group of Muslims was protecting the hostages from other inmates. The leader of the Muslims even told the other inmates that if any of the inmates tried to hurt the hostages, that they would "kill [the inmates involved] or die protecting the hostages." The court in Al Jundi v. Mancusi, 113 F.Supp.2d 441 wrote:
A number of former Muslim inmates testified that they had been singled out for "special" brutal treatment by troopers and prison officers because they had played an active role in protecting the hostages during the four days before the retaking. Because a number of militant inmates were prepared to do harm to the hostages, Frank "Big Black" Smith, in conjunction with the Muslim leadership, implemented a plan to secure the safety of the hostages during negotiations.
This view was corroborated by Michael Smith, age 51, a former corrections officer who was a hostage up to September 13, 1971. He testified that he was taken hostage on September 9, 1971 by a group of inmates who were out of control. He described them as a "wave of human emotion". He was in charge of the sheet metal shop and developed a good rapport with the inmates who worked under him and they protected him from the militant group. But eventually he came under the control of the take-over group and found himself in the center of D-Yard with other hostages. One of the inmates, Don Noble, whom he had befriended and who worked in the sheet metal shop, and Carl Reighn (originally referred to in previous interviews as Carl Rain) protected him on September 9, 1971, trying desperately to come up with ways to hide or save him and protect him; and would later save his life on September 13, 1971. Carl Reighn was present from the moment they broke the metal shop doors down.
Smith was interviewed by the media while being held hostage along with Corrections Officer Cunningham. He conveyed that the inmates' demands were for improved conditions and reported that he was not being harmed. He was blindfolded most of the time. Upon receiving news of Corrections Officer Quinn's death, the negotiation process broke down.
On Sunday night, September 12, 1971, the feeling was "somber". He got a pen and wrote a goodbye note to his wife and family on dollar bills which were in his wallet. He testified that the hostages sat in a circle and leaned up against each other for support.
On Monday, September 13, 1971, he was selected along with a few other hostages to be taken up on the A-Yard catwalk and a hostage execution was arranged. He was taken to the top of the catwalk by three inmates and sat on a chair blindfolded. Inmate Don Noble was on his left and held a knife to his throat. As the Army helicopter hovered over them and dropped tear gas, the shooting started and the inmate on his right was shot twice and blown over the railing of the catwalk. Don Noble pulled him to his left and the inmate immediately behind him received a fatal volley of gunfire. Noble was shot and Smith was shot four times in the stomach and once in the arm. The chair on which he had been sitting disintegrated from gunshots. Smith said in court, "I don't know how long the shooting went on. You could hear people crying, people dying and people screaming." He never lost consciousness as he lay on the catwalk until a trooper stood over him pointing a shotgun at his head. A prison officer saw what was going on and yelled to the trooper, "He is one of us", who then focused his attention on Noble, at which point Smith told the trooper, "He saved my life".
He was eventually taken by National Guard medics to St. Jerome's Hospital in Batavia for an extensive period of treatment involving multiple surgeries. He was eventually released from service as a corrections officer because of his physical inability to perform his duties. He commented on the inaccuracy of the McKay Report which claimed that he had been merely knocked unconscious—no mention of his extensive gunshot wounds nor how they were obtained. He openly stated that his life was saved while he was held hostage because of the dedicated efforts of the Muslim group at Attica. "In fact, I can recall hearing one of the Muslim leaders instructing one of their men that if anyone tries to break through their Muslim perimeter to kill them or die protecting the hostages."
The first historical account of the Attica Prison Riot (A Time to Die, 1975) was written by Tom Wicker, a N.Y. Times editor, who was present at the prison as an observer. A more detailed historical account of the riot was published by historian Heather Ann Thompson in 2016. The book, entitled Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, draws on interviews with former inmates, hostages, families of victims, law enforcement, lawyers, and state officials, as well as significant archives of previously unreleased materials. Malcolm Bell's historical account The Turkey Shoot: Tracking the Attica Cover-up had already been written and Bell was involved with the original New York (State) Special Commission on Attica.
Direct coverage of the Attica Prison riot:ScreenSlate describes Cindy Firestone's documentary, titled Attica (1974), as follows:
Firestone's 1974 film, restored in 2007, culls together primary footage from surveillance and news cameras along with prisoner, family, and guard interviews to create an account of the massacre that has been described as temperate, but undeniably damning with respect to the state's actions. As The New Yorker's 1974 review describes it, "Cinda Firestone’s quiet picture uses horrifying film footage: shots taken through state troopers' telescopic rifle lenses; musings by inmates which sometimes sputter into anger against a world that finds descriptions of Attica incredible; riot quellers insensibly proud of their skill with weapons, showing off their prowess before the commission of inquiry. …If Attica disturbed our slumber for a mere month or two, one of the qualities of this trumpet call of a film is that it makes the disturbance enduring."At least three fictionalized TV movies of the riot have been produced: Attica (1980), with George Grizzard and Morgan Freeman, John Frankenheimer's Against The Wall (1994), with Samuel L. Jackson, Kyle MacLachlan, and Clarence Williams III; and The Killing Yard (2001), directed by Euzhan Palcy, with Alan Alda and Morris Chestnut.
As part of a 40th anniversary commemoration, filmmakers Chris Christopher and David Marshall, in association with Blue Sky Project, produced a 60-minute, Emmy-nominated documentary called Criminal Injustice: Death and Politics at Attica, first aired on PBS in 2012, which brings together a range of previously unavailable interviewees who deconstruct and expose many myths and misconceptions about the Attica Prison riot, its causes, and its coverup.
Criminal Injustice: Death and Politics at Attica brings this historical event to life in completely new and startling ways. Based on scores of interviews of eyewitnesses who just now are telling their stories, as well as filmmaker access to newly discovered documents, Criminal Injustice brings genuinely new evidence to light regarding what exactly happened at Attica between September 9–13, 1971 and the role played there by local, state, and even federal officials. Indeed this film raises important new questions about the deaths caused at Attica, about the involvement by individuals in the White House at Attica, and the influence of Nelson Rockefeller's political aspirations on decision made before, during, and long after the controversial and deadly retaking of that prison. Forty years after this cataclysmic and highly charged event, filmmakers Marshall and Christopher found that many are willing to speak with new candor that adds depth, and in some cases alters, the historic record. The film includes the final interview regarding Attica given by NYT reporter Tom Wicker (who was an observer/negotiator on the scene and author of A Time to Die about his experiences at Attica), Malcolm Bell, the special prosecutor turned whistle blower, Dr. Heather Thompson who is the nation's leading academic authority on the Attica prison uprising—as well as inmates, former hostages, law enforcement officers and others.
Several other films reference the uprising:In the film Dog Day Afternoon, (1975), Al Pacino's character, Sonny, who is holding eight bank employees hostage, starts the chant, "Attica! Attica!", at the massed police outside, evoking the excessive police force used in response to the Attica riot. The chant "Attica! Attica!" has since been parodied or used for comedic effect in everything from children's cartoons to crime procedurals. In the film Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult, (1994), Leslie Nielsen's character, Frank Drebin, shouts "Attica! Attica!" when he goes undercover in prison.
In the film Saturday Night Fever (1977), John Travolta's character, Tony Manero, wakes up after a night out at the disco and, while looking at himself in the mirror and seeing a poster of Al Pacino in Serpico (1973), debates whether he resembles Al Pacino. Becoming enamored of the idea, he yells "Al Pacino!" and then opens his bedroom door, walks into the hallway, and chants "Attica! Attica!", wearing only his underwear while his grandmother covers her eyes with her apron. This scene's reference to Pacino and his two characters (Serpico and Sonny) invites the audience to contrast them to Travolta and his character Tony, setting them up both as ideal models and as foils for Tony.
In the film Half Nelson (2006), One of Dunne's students tells the history of Attica with a brief monologue a half hour into the movie.
The incident is directly referenced in several songs:The song "Attica" by English band Spear of Destiny.
The song "Rubber Bullets" by English band 10cc.
John Lennon's "Attica State" on his Some Time In New York City album.
Tom Paxton's "The Hostage", which was included by Judy Collins on her 1973 album True Stories and Other Dreams (1973).
In the Gil Scott-Heron song, "We Beg Your Pardon", Scott-Heron is critical of Governor Rockefeller's handling of the riot, stating that "brother Richard X of Buffalo New York faces 1365 years... behind bars for participating in Attica, and Rockefeller faces being the Vice President of this country".
Paul Simon's "Virgil", on his album Songs from The Capeman (1997).
The Attica riot also inspired the Charles Mingus composition "Remember Rockefeller at Attica", and jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp's composition "Attica Blues" (1972) from his album of the same name.
Rapper Nas mentioned Attica in his collaboration song with Lauryn Hill, "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)". Nas raps "I'd open every cell in Attica, send 'em to Africa".
In the song "C.I.A. (Criminals in Action)", by KRS-One, Zack De La Rocha, and The Last Emperor: "I flip the shit like Pacino and it's your Dog Day Afternoon/Attica, Attica, drug agents you bring your static-a."
Black Moon's "Powaful Impak!" on the album Enta da Stage the riot is mentioned in the lyric "I'm bustin' niggas open, Attica style".
Frederic Rzewski wrote "Coming together/Attica based on Sam Melville's letters from Attica.
The Descendants of Mike and Phoebe, a jazz group featuring bassist Bill Lee, included a song entitled "Attica" on their 1974 Strata East release A Spirit Speaks.
The Wu Tang Clan's Raekwon mentions the Attica riots on "The Hilton" from Ghostface Killah's 2001 Bulletproof Wallets in the lyric "Giants from Attica Riots/Halls is Quiet/CO's with babies on their arms look tight".
Boxer Muhammad Ali recited a poem during an interview on RTÉ on a visit to Ireland in July 1972, imagining what Attica's prisoners would have said before their death.
In 1972, avant-garde composer and pianist Frederic Rzewski wrote two pieces connected to the Attica riot, both for percussion ensemble and speaker. "Coming Together" sets text by Sam Melville, a leader of the uprising and one of the people who lost their lives as a result of it, from a letter he wrote in 1971. The second and shorter piece, "Attica", is set to the statement made by inmate Richard X. Clark when he was released from the prison: "Attica is in front of me now." The two pieces was recorded in 1973 for the Opus One label by the Blackearth Percussion Group, with Steven ben Israel of the Living Theater as the speaker.
The poem "Hadda Be Playing on the Jukebox" by American poet Allen Ginsberg makes a reference to the Attica prison riot. This poem was also subsequently performed as a song by political rock band Rage Against The Machine.
The Attica Prison riot served as a source of inspiration for the Bell Riots from the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Past Tense".
In the episode "A Date with the Booty Warrior" of the animated series The Boondocks, the episode's titular character takes Tom hostage with a shank, inciting a prison riot. After the convicts had taken the guards hostage, they were deciding what to do next. The other convicts were disgruntled to learn that the Booty Warrior's only demands were "to get some booty". One of the other convicts (voiced by Clifton Powell) remarked "I thought this was supposed to be some Attica-type shit!".
In the 25th episode of the 2003 TV series, TMNT, titled "The Search for Splinter: Part 1", Casey Jones says the phrase "Attica, Attica" while distracting the guards of TCRI; meanwhile April disables the building's alarms.
In the season 1 finale of the HBO series Oz, Attica is referenced by unit manager Tim McManus as his hometown and the riot as his original impetus for his wanting to set up Emerald City.
In the episode "Charlie Goes America All Over Everybody's Ass" of the FX series It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, in a form of protesting the bar's "No rules" stance, Charlie scares bystanders away from Dee's street performance by swinging a broom and screaming, "Attica! Attica, man!" repeatedly.
During the January 26, 1998 episode of WCW Monday Nitro, pro wrestler Kevin Nash is "arrested" after using his banned jackknife maneuver. As he is being handcuffed and being led away by security, he yells "Attica!"
In season 7, episode 18 of Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, Sabrina encases her talking cat, Salem, in a metal box. Salem yells "Cattica, Cattica!" in reference to the riot.
In season 3, episode 4 (entitled "Lines in the Sand") of the TV show House, House protests Cuddy's refusal to return a recently removed hemo-stained carpet to his office with cries of "Attica".
In season 3, episode 7 of The King of Queens, Arthur chants "Attica! Attica!" at a passing police officer on the street.
In season 6, episode 5 of Gilmore Girls, Paris tells about yelling "Attica! Attica!" in the bank.
In season 4, episode 13 of Orange Is the New Black, the prisoners riot and chant "Attica! Attica!".
Duckman: Private Dick/Family Man. "Aged Heat 2: Women in Heat" (1997). They chant "sciatica" in the prison as a reference to the chant "Attica".